Practiced mostly among Tibetan and Mongolian people groups, Tibetan Buddhism is probably best known for its spiritual leader and representative, the Dalai Lama, as well as the Free Tibet campaign.

Yet with 20 million adherents worldwide, the religion is practiced not only in Tibet but in Mongolia, northern Nepal, eastern Russia, northeast China, and Bhutan. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, is one of the three main schools of Buddhism, combining basic Mahayana Buddhism philosophy with practices such as chanting mantras, meditating on mandalas, and yoga to accelerate the process of enlightenment. The religion is also mixed with Tibetan shamanism, known as Bon.

Chris Gabriel, who has worked in Asia for more than 25 years enabling and equipping Christians in creative access areas, shared with CT about Tibetan Buddhism, challenges to ministry to Tibetan Buddhists, and the need for discipleship. (CT changed Gabriel’s name due to his work in sensitive areas.) The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

When we think about Christianity, we often describe it by its theology. Is it similar for Buddhism?

In Buddhism, the fundamental thinking is that all roads can lead you to enlightenment. That means Buddha’s message is very accepting. Even though you have different schools, they aren’t always confrontational and don’t have strong distinctions from each other.

Take away all Christian connotations of “theology.” Most Buddhists never think about theology. Most of them are just following what their parents did, so it becomes their culture. When I talk to Buddhists, they have no clue why they do prostrations, why they make some of these merits [gaining good karma through good deeds], and sometimes what is even considered a merit.

So then why do they go to the temple? Well, for them it’s never been a question. They’ll say, “It’s just what we do. If we are Thai, if we are Tibetans, we go to the temple. We do the kora [walk around a sacred object], we spin the prayer wheels, and it’s helpful. And if we don’t do it, then there will be accidents or bad karma.” It doesn’t need to be much deeper theology than that.

What happens when Tibetan Buddhists become Christians and stop these practices?

A lot of times the Christians are blamed for droughts and landslides and other accidents because they were the ones who disrupted these practices and made the gods angry.

They often feel a lot of shame. They feel like they don’t belong anymore, like they are the guilty ones. They can even be blamed for their mom’s cancer because they have not treated the gods well. Christians face a lot of pressure from their family and the society.

The young believer may think, Maybe God forgot me, maybe he has given up on me or he’s not as strong anymore. This leads them to lose their faith. If the church is not stepping up, if the church is weak, then who do they turn to?

Then their parents are calling and asking them to come back. At least you can work in the field here. We will help you and provide you with food. And then they are back, cleaning the altar, praying, and following their parents to the temple. The pressure is enormous, so we often see backsliding among the Christians.

What do Tibetan Buddhists think of Christianity?

Some Tibetan Buddhists, in areas where they can speak more openly like Nepal, blame Christians for worshiping a “hungry” God. A lot of Buddhists would say, “Why can’t you do a little bit for our gods too? Why do you need to be so strict that all your worship is only going to one God?”

On the philosophical side, Christianity is very hard for Tibetan Buddhists to understand, because if you look at reincarnation and the Wheel of Life [which depicts the cycle of rebirth], in your next life, you could become a god or a demigod or a devil. Buddhists wonder, What makes your God different from our gods? Also, for Buddhists, living is suffering, so who would want to live for eternity? Nirvana is nothingness, so what is heaven?

It’s very hard for them to understand that we worship an almighty Creator God. But when they do understand that fact, it’s one of the strongest testimonies. If they’re not met by a healing, a dream, or a vision, then understanding God as Creator is probably the most common way Tibetan Buddhists come to Christ.

Why is the idea of God as Creator so powerful to Tibetan Buddhists?

In my study of theology, I was always taught that if you think of God as Creator, you think of his transcendence as something far away that’s too big for his creation. But when I discussed God as Father and Creator with Tibetans, they responded, “If God made the world, then of course he would like a relationship with me.” Suddenly, it becomes relational because he made them. They find a purpose because he made them. This is different from the Wheel of Life, where there’s never a purpose—just get away from suffering, get away from desires.

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When you talk about God loving them, even if they don’t understand it, a lot of them do understand the feeling of I don’t need to be alone. If I don’t have work, if I get sick, then I have a God who actually cares for me. That speaks powerfully to both non-believers as well as believers. Seeing that Christians actually care for people and their God cares for them is a very strong testimony.

How common are dreams and miracles in leading Tibetan Buddhists to Christ?

It’s quite common. Miracles also happen in the Tibetan Buddhist world with non-Christians. For them, their whole spiritual world is full of it.

These miracles are a testimony that our God is active, that he cares for them, and he is more powerful than the other gods. Sometimes in a dream, Jesus or an angel speaks to them and points them to where they should go and who they should talk to. One Tibetan Buddhist woman said that in her dreams, she sometimes saw a light, while other times someone spoke to her. It took quite a few visions before she really started accepting.

After a miracle occurs, how do Tibetan Buddhists usually respond?

They think, This is good. Why would I say no to Jesus? Why do I need to understand more about what Jesus has done? For Westerners, we want to see a confession, we want certain steps done. But they are responding to God: You have done everything for me already, why would I say no?

I was shocked the first time someone said, “I went to church and I believed in Jesus because my dad believed.” “Did you know who Jesus was?” “No, I have no clue who he was. But my dad has always made good decisions. If he says he’s a believer and he follows Jesus, then I do too.” And that was her journey. Today she’s leading a church with her husband.

If you see your faith more as a relationship than a dogmatic theology, it becomes different. How well do I need to know you before I say I’m your friend? Or how much do I need to know a person before I like them? A lot of it is intuitive feeling and reading between the lines. They think, I can see Jesus is something good and I want to join that.

I think that is also why backsliding is very common with Tibetan Buddhists when their conversion is not rooted in understanding. When their relationship with God is weakened or forgotten or distractions come, then they give up because their faith is not built on a strong foundation.

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How do you build a stronger foundation for these new believers?

Discipleship is very important. What mission workers can’t figure out is how to do that discipleship.

First of all, it’s so easy for them to say, “I learned a method or I got some knowledge so I can teach someone else.” The problem I see is the whole education system in Asia, where students just repeat what their teacher or what their pastor told them. They can answer a lot of these questions, but they don’t know what it means to them.

We want to make it practical. Instead of focusing on head knowledge, we are trying to make it more about the process. It’s easy to say God loves you, but what does it look like? How do I know it? It needs to be tangible. We talk about sin while still not understanding what sin is. If I talk about a broken relationship, everyone understands that. Those are some areas for us to work on.

We also work on getting Christians, both pastors and laypeople, to read the Scriptures more. When leaders don’t read the Bible consistently, it results in sermons that are random rather than systematic. It means they speak from their experience or from a verse they read that morning and preach about that. They don’t connect it to anything else.

I heard one pastor say, “We need to stop preparing our sermons during the worship service. We need to be part of the worship.” Most of them are preparing the sermon during the service, believing that God will give them something to say. They’re not planning on how to mature believers.

How can leaders help new believers who face pressures from their families?

It’s important to teach them the Bible and provide them with a basic understanding of who God is and how he loves them. We need to teach that even if they are facing challenges, it’s not all punishment. This is a very easy belief to slip into if you’re from a Buddhist background.

Even Christians think, I didn’t read the Bible enough, I didn’t pray enough so God is punishing me. So we ask, “Would you do that if you’re a good father? Of course he wants to spend time with you, but he doesn’t punish you because you’re not correct all the time.”

We also need to think a bit more about how we can encourage sharing in the church, including discussing life problems. How do we pray for each other, how do we listen to your doubts and catch them before they become too serious? It’s difficult because people feel shame for being weak in their faith. They think they shouldn’t tell anyone or else people will start pointing the finger and asking if they had this accident because they were being too cocky or because they sinned.

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We need to get real with each other and say, “We all need help, we are on the journey together.” But that means changing attitudes and how we look at each other.

What is most encouraging to you about this Christian community?

I love to see the passion. Many of them are very good at sharing the gospel and thinking creatively about how to get into different areas. Tibetan culture is very exclusive as they don’t like outsiders. Still, so many of these believers are very keen on sharing the gospel and even going into these closed communities.