Christian Missionaries in Tibet: Between Tolerance and Dogmatism

Recently I stumbled upon a discussion about Christian missionaries in Tibet. The person was very insistent that Tibetans were extremely intolerant to Christian missionaries, that Tibetans had killed and expelled Christian missionaries, and that the missionaries only found with China a good ally for their work.

I wondered how this can be, because what I read so far showed rather benevolence and also a remarkable tolerance of Tibetans for Christians and Muslims or people of other faiths. So I asked the person what sources he has. He recommended Tom Grunfeld, quoting “the clergy began to assert itself, demonstrating a growing overt resentment to the few Christian missionaries in Lhasa (their movement were restricted) and to the handful of converts, who were subject to arrest and flogging.” Source: The Making of Modern Tibet, p. 45, and he recommended Charles Bell. But whatever I read from Charles Bell so far showed rather generosity and tolerance at the side of Tibetans for others’ religion. Bell remarked in his Portrait of the XIIIth Dalai Lama, that the Tibetans were happy about any person having a religion because they were convinced this makes human beings better persons. According to Bell, Tibetans were rather suspicious to non-religious people.

The person who insisted on the intolerance of Tibetans towards other religions quoted Bell from Tibet Past and Present, p. 264: “Tibetans are opposed to Christian missionaries preaching religion in Tibet. This opposition, which is determined and of long standing, has been further intensified by recent events in eastern Tibet.” and added “It was the Chinese who protected the missionaries, read the next paragraph, without this protection the missionaries would have been harassed and even killed.”

Ok, maybe I was wrong but I doubted the man because he was so utter hostile against Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. To use Tom Grunfeld as a reliable source, I learned already, one should be careful. I observed myself that Grunfeld is often quoted by people like Colin Goldner who have an anti-religious, anti-Dalai Lama, and a pro-China agenda. (see also  A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet by Joshua Michael Schrei). The Wikipedia “Serfdom in Tibet controversy” states about Grunfeld:

A. Tom Grunfeld, who based his writings on the work of British explorers of the region, in particular Sir Charles Bell. It has been argued that his book is not supported by traditional Tibetan, Chinese, or Indian histories, that it contains inaccuracies and distortions,[20][27] and that Grunfeld’s extracts from Bell were taken out of context to mislead readers.[29] Grunfeld is a polarizing figure for the Chinese, who praise his work, his scholarship, and his integrity; and the Tibetans, who match this praise with condemnation,[30] calling him a “sinologist” who lacks authority on Tibetan history due to his inability to read Tibetan and his not having been to Tibet before writing his book.[17]

To improve – and if needed to correct – my understanding about Tibetans’ tolerance for other religions – which I also observed by so many great lamas, some who even inspired to put Jesus, God, and Maria etc. in the Buddhist visualized ‘merit field’, I tried to find accepted academic research. So I asked some researchers by email what sources I could read or use. I got some papers and read them.

As so often, the issue is by far more complex than narrow-minded critics with an agenda suggest. Indeed, the Tibetans were incredible tolerant – compared with the Christian missionaries but also compared to the standards of their time; indeed, some missionaries had been killed – but rather in the unrest border regions where they were sometimes involved in border quarrels and other political issues or where they became the victims of robbers; indeed, at the end Tibet closed more or less their doors for Christian missionaries; but all of the events are also quite different from what the person who made me initially aware of this topic suggested.

If you are interested, I can recommend two academic papers that are online since today. One of them gives a good external background of the Christian missionary work in Tibet, published in 2011:

The other paper I can recommend seems to be the only academic paper that uses also extensively Tibetan sources instead of relying mainly on the missionaries’ sources – which are much coloured by the Christian missionaries’ own bias and believes. The paper by Isrun Engelhardt shows how Tibetans were thinking about and treating the missionaries. It quotes the Tibetans’ own records and thoughts about the Christian missionaries. Engelhardt gives a very vivid picture of the social-cultural and the political dynamics that changed the mind of the Tibetans with respect to the Christian missionaries, whom them initially allowed to even to celebrate mass within Sera monastery. This paper focuses on the Italian Capuchin Missionaries in Lhasa, 1707-1745:

Last and least, the account of the French missionary Evariste Régis Huc puts a bit the claim that only “Chinese … protected the missionaries” into perspective. Evariste Régis Huc’s Travel report is a first hand account, coloured by his own beliefs and prejudices, yet, it is pleasant to read and very interesting:

Update: 21st Century Christian Missionaries in Tibet

  Last edited by tenpel on May 29, 2013 at 11:15 am