by Chavis Riggs and Risk Rebstock
There are approximately 1.5 million Tibetans which are divided into 129 people groups. Many of the Tibetan peoples are nomadic which is one of the reasons why their lives are so challenging. They may live at an altitude where the valleys are 10,000 feet above sea level and the mountain peaks reach above 15,000 feet. The climate is cold and often harsh. Pockets of people are isolated throughout the mountain ranges. One group of people in this land often cannot understand the language of those who live over a nearby mountain.
Not only do the Tibetans face harsh climate conditions, but they also face political oppression from the Chinese government. In 1949 the Chinese military took over Tibet, and many people were killed. This invasion forced many Tibetans into exile, including the Dalai Lama himself. Tibetans fled primarily to northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Today, over 94,000 Tibetans live in India, 13,000 in Nepal, and 1,000 in Bhutan.
The Tibetan life and culture are still being threatened by Chinese political oppression. Although relatively few Tibetans are being killed by the Red Army today, they still face other forms of injustice. For example, they are forced to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, in essence, requiring their own languages to take a secondary place. Land distribution by the Chinese government has heavily favored the ethnic Han Chinese, often leaving the Tibetans with few resources.
In the midst of the challenges of a harsh climate and fierce political oppression, you find a people dedicated to Buddhism. But the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet is uniquely different from other forms of Buddhism in the world. Tibetan Buddhists believe that one can attain “nirvana” in one lifetime. This form of Buddhism often demands an intense devotion that must be accompanied by radical religious practices.
Tibetan Buddhism is also mixed with many of the local religious practices where it is imperative to make sacrifices to appease the gods. Bon is an ancient Tibetan religion that has a strong influence on the people’s daily lives. It was mixed with Buddhism around the 8th century AD, and it separates the Tibetan form of Buddhism from all other forms of this religion. Bon incorporates occult practices, demon worship, and aspects of shamanism. The mixture of Bon and Buddhism in Tibet has produced a religious system based on pleasing very dark spirit beings. The fear of their gods is entrenched in their religion, and this fear can be overwhelming. Some experience horrible nightmares or what they call “terrors in the night,” being awakened by intense fear in their sleep.
However, even in the midst of this darkness in Tibetan Buddhism, the common people and monks are diligently seeking to find God. The Tibetans are people of great faith and prayer. In fact their lives revolve around prayer! This culture of prayer is embraced by the monks and also by the common lay people. They use many different methods and tools in their forms of prayer. You can see how God has placed devotion to prayer as something which could be redeemed and directed to the true and living God.
One of the ways the Tibetan peoples practice prayer is by using prayer flags. A visitor to the country will notice that these flags are hanging throughout the Himalayan mountain ranges. The people believe that these flags will bring blessings and prosperity. When the wind blows upon them, they believe that these blessings will flow down the mountains into the valleys and touch the lives of the people.
Prayer wheels are also an essential part of Tibetan life. These prayer wheels can be rather small and hand held or as large as an adult. The prayers of the people are written on the wheels. When the people spin the wheels, they believe that their prayers are being uttered. Whether they are praying in the monasteries or taking a bus ride, you can see the Tibetans being faithful to bring their burdens and their desires to god using their prayer wheels.
Along with the prayer wheels Tibetan Buddhists also carry with them prayer beads. They use these beads to count how many times they are praying their mantras. A mantra is simply a prayer that they pray over and over again. There are typically 21, 28 or 108 beads that they carry. While counting their mantras using the prayer beads that number 21 or 28 they often lie down prostrate. When they use 108 prayer beads, they are repenting of all of the sins that are written in Buddhist doctrine. Tibetans meditate on what they are praying for until it is ingrained into the fabric of their beings. This practice takes much discipline and focus.
Buddhists believe that power and enlightenment come through fasting; therefore, fasting plays a major role in their spirituality. The Tibetans believe that in fasting they are denying themselves food as a sacrifice in order to bless others. Therefore, when they fast, they give food to the poor. There are many different types of fasts. One type consists of no food; other types of fasts limit the kinds of food they eat. Many Buddhists have endured long fasts drinking only water. It is common for monks to fast every day from noon until the following morning. According to tradition, Gautama Buddha advised the monks to fast in this way. Buddhists will tell you that Gautama Buddha himself fasted very intensely for six years.
Though there is much darkness among these people, there are some things in their lives that fill our hearts with hope. Earlier in the article we pointed out that the majority of Tibetans are nomadic in some way. Tibetan nomads rarely settle anywhere for an extended period of time. They often go in and out of the harsh climate of the Tibetan region of the Himalayas. Sometimes they travel through Nepal and northern India. This gives them an opportunity to hear the gospel while temporarily being away from China’s oppressive communist government. Thus the Tibetan nomads may not only be able to hear the gospel, but they could spread it wherever they go. There are also some qualities in the Tibetan Buddhist practices that could cause us to have hope that they may be open to the gospel of Jesus Christ if they have a chance to hear about the Lord. These people are committed to prayer and fasting. God’s plan for them could be that they will become intercessors for His Kingdom of light. Remember, before the foundation of the world God chose the Tibetan people to be in Christ and in love with Him. He gave them the desire and discipline to bow down and humble themselves and pray. When the Tibetans receive a revelation of Jesus Christ, they will become some of the most powerful and effective prayer warriors in the Buddhist world.
• Pray for God to send laborers to Tibetan nomads. It will take believers who can withstand harsh climates, much travel, and a radically different world view than we have in the West.
• Pray for peace for the Tibetans amidst the oppression from the Chinese government. Pray that reconciliation will occur between Tibetans and Chinese.
• Pray that the spirit of fear will be broken among the Tibetan peoples. Pray that they will soon know the love of God that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).
• Pray that God will open their eyes to Christ and use their devotion, prayers and fasting for His honor and glory.
• Pray for a revelation of Christ to be released to the Tibetan peoples (Ephesians 1:17-19).
• Pray that God will raise up and send many laborers to reach all Tibetan peoples with His love that is found only in Christ.
by Keith Carey, editor, GPD
Dear Praying Friends,
In this issue you will learn about the Tibetan Buddhist people groups and also about the ways in which they pray and worship. Each day will focus not only on a specific people, but also on its religious practices.
As I edited this current issue, my wife called my attention to an article written in the April, 2014 edition of Christian Leader that involved the testimony of a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had put his faith in Christ. It took him several years to completely understand Christian theology; for some time he tried to straddle both Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity. But there were a couple of comments he made that should affect how we pray. He pointed out that Christ’s ambassadors were instrumental in leading him to the Savior. He heard that the Dalai Lama, after speaking at a church in the U.S., had given a good report about the trustworthiness and character of believers. This opened the monk’s heart to believers and the message that they brought. It was the sacrificial love of Christ’s followers that encouraged him further in his new faith. Tibetan Buddhists have tremendous admiration for those who practice sacrificial love. Then finally he read Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27 “…Love your enemies.…” That settled the issue once and for all.
Though we will be praying for Tibetan Buddhists in the context of their religious practices, we must remember this month to pray that Christ’s ambassadors will demonstrate the kind of sacrificial love that only comes from the Holy Spirit.