Present-day Missionary Activity in Tibet

Recently I introduced briefly the topic of Christian missionaries in Tibet on this blog. The papers by Bray and Engelhardt I recommended in that post deal mainly with the history of missionaries in Tibet before the PRC’s violent take over of Tibet. Based on the recommendation by a scientist I got aware of an article by Prof. Robert Barnett from Columbia University about present-day missionary activity in Tibet. Robbie Barnett kindly gave permission to post now for a broader public his article:

This article gives a good feeling how evangelical missionaries perceive Tibet, how they think about Tibetan Buddhism and themselves, and it shows how a very narrowed angle of thinking colours everything such a mind perceives. It also shows that many of the negative images of Tibet are based on such a type of thinking. Here some examples:

“a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism, called Lamaism, a nation in desperate need of sharing the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ …”. In its literature it describes sky burials and the use of “rancid smelling yak butter” as examples of how “Satan has enslaved the people”.

Illustration from Tibetan Catechism by Edward Amundsen, Christian Tract and Book Society, Calcutta 1906. p.2.

While the Tibetans welcomed Jesus Christ as a Bodhisattva, missionaries were also faced with the fact, that although Tibetans embraced Jesus as a Bodhisattva, they weren’t really willing to give up all the other Bodhisattvas in order to exclusively embrace Jesus as the only Bodhisattva. Barnett writes:

As a result, evangelists in the past often reported that it was easy to persuade Tibetans to accept Jesus as a spiritual master, but difficult to get them to renounce all the other Bodhisattvas. Even The Sowers Ministry appears to have anticipated this problem, and their leaflet notes with concern that to Tibetan Buddhists, “Jesus is seen as an incarnate principle of enlightenment rather than [as] the unique Son of God.”

There is also an extended background note by Barnett available as a PDF, Evangelicals in Central Tibet: Background Notes, in which you can find more interesting details:

The group expresses sympathy for the deaths of thousands of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese, and the resulting exodus of many Tibetans in 1959. It comments on this, “In the midst of all this terror one wonders if the Tibetans question the ability of the Dalai Lama to save them.” It also criticises the Dalai Lama for his ecumenical approach to religion and for saying “belief in God does not matter so much”.

I hope you find this information useful.

The following two newspaper articles from 2013 about present-day missionaries in Tibet are also based on the expertise of Barnett. Robbie Barnett is a frequently quoted Tibet expert at the Columbia University in New York who worked in the past as a researcher and journalist based in the United Kingdom, specializing in Tibetan issues for the BBC, the South China Morning Post, VOA, and other media outlets. In the 1980s he founded and ran an independent London-based research organization covering events in Tibet.