There is great diversity in Tibetan Buddhist practices: a Prime Minister performing religious rituals on a holy mountain, a priest making an evil spirit manifest itself in front of him, believers cutting themselves as a sacrifice to the gods, wearing amulets to keep the spirits at bay, and using flags that produce prayers automatically. These practices may not be part of Buddha’s original teaching, but they are common in Tibetan Buddhism. Over two thousand years ago Buddhism divided into two schools: the Hinayana school, which is mainly found in Southeast Asia and follows closely the teachings of Buddha, and the Mahayana school, which is found in China, Korea and Japan. As Mahayana Buddhism came into contact with people who practised shamanism to control the spirit world, it absorbed many shamanistic practices. This developed into the religion known as Tibetan Buddhism which is practised predominantly in Tibet and Mongolia but also in other nearby areas. What are the key features of the Tibetan Buddhism?
Making merit as a means of reaching nirvana is central to Buddhism. The Buddha taught that merit can be made by giving gifts (especially to monks), moral conduct, and meditation. The Buddhist scripture expanded this to include helping others, and teaching or listening to Buddhist teaching, among other things. Tibetan Buddhists seek to make merit mainly through religious deeds. These include spinning prayer wheels, fingering rosaries, walking round pagodas or shrines, or even sighting a temple or prayer flag. Going on a pilgrimage and prostrating oneself for the entire journey is a good way of making merit, especially if you die doing so. A particularly effective way of making merit is to recite mantras (sacred chants) which can gain merit equivalent to thousands of lifetimes of normal merit-making.
Travelling in Mongolia, I asked one Buddhist priest I met what he thought would happen after he died. He thought that he would either be reborn as a human or an animal, but he was not sure. Buddhist teaching actually has five or six categories of rebirth, varying from hell-beings at one extreme, to gods at the other. Apart from reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhists are concerned how to find release from sickness, help with their animals’ welfare, and to live in prosperity.
What matters is less the detailed teaching and more the question: ‘does it work?’ If it takes tens of thousands of repeated mantras to achieve one’s goal, so be it. A worshipper may spin the prayer wheels or fly prayer flags without knowing the content of the prayers they have released. What matters is that the prayers work. In Tibetan Buddhism what is important is doing the rituals in the right way.
Entering Gandan Monastery, the spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, the spirit world seems very near. Tibetan Buddhist monks encourage their followers to be possessed by spirits as a means to reach enlightenment, and will even suggest that people become shamans. Under the influence of their shamanistic background, monks may seek to enter the spirit realm in order to control the spirits and death. Although Tibetan Buddhism refers to a powerful high god in its teachings, people find him remote and distant from their daily lives. Rather than drawing close to worship him, they focus on appeasing the spirits of the underworld whom they fear deeply. Tibetan Buddhists will often wear amulets and practise divination and spells in an attempt to control the spirit world and to find physical healing. Coming to faith from such a background, new Christians need a profound change in worldview. Belief in Christ is not a means of engaging in the spiritual world to meet the believer’s needs, but to come to the knowledge of a loving God who has a purpose for his creation and desires that they give their lives in service of him.
Roger ministered in East Asia with OMF for 33 years including eight years in the Tibetan Buddhist context of Mongolia where he was principal of the Union Bible Theological College.