Reflecting about God with our Tibetan friends – Part 2

Originally, I called this series Delivering God’s Biblical message to the Tibetan people, but from the very beginning I meant that it shall not serve as a one way road. The idea was that our Tibetan friends who are not living in Europe might ask us about our beliefs and as believers in the Bible, we are confronted with explaining them the Biblical message. So “deliver” should not be mistaken as enforce someone’s religion as an exclusivist thought, rather it shall be understood as a way of exchange or conversation with those who are generally interested in getting to know religions practiced in the West. (So when someone is curious and asks us “What are your beliefs?”, we will be able to answer in a way that our dialogue partner is able to grasp it, even if he never heard of the Bible.) As we are talking of an exchange here, this also means that we want to learn from the Tibetans, their costumes, thoughts, etc. Nonetheless, I think that the original headtitle sounded too Eurocentric after all, as if we were missionaries to them, which is and was not the purpose! Also the second part of the headtitle ‘to the Tibetan people’ sounded, as if we had to teach them something and that they were in need of that teaching, which was not intended. Therefore, I renamed the series to Reflecting about God with our Tibetan friends on 9 January 2023, because this mirrors the purpose in a better way: It emphasizes on the mutual learning, and that not one way teaches the other, but that we reflect together. In this context, an important point is tolerance, to which I want to dedicate this article. I want to compare stances on tolerance in Judaism, Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism.

We will start with Judaism. It is the traditional folk religion of the Israelites who came into existence due to a split from the Canaanites. The latter worshipped several gods and it was very important for the very early Israelites to distinguish themselves from them, as the Israelites only worshipped one single God. As Jonathan Ziring points out: “A central belief to most modern people, including observant Jews, is that of religious freedom and toleration. Yet a perusal of Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, or Midrash (not to mention Maccabees or Josephus) will uncover laws and narratives that make it clear that the Torah did not encourage ‘tolerating’ idolatrous religions, especially in the Land of Israel” [Jonathan Ziring: Is religious tolerance a Jewish Idea?. The Lehrhaus, 16 August 2018., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. Indeed, it is pointed out in the Scripture that the Jewish nation should destroy the temples of the indigenous people when they enter the land assigned to them, as well as avoiding treaties with idolatries [ibid.]. This might be an interesting starting point, the view of the Scripture. But this does not mean automatically that Judaism really turned out to be intolerant in practice: “It was Rabbi Samuel Wolk – in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia of 1941 – who thought of tolerance as an essential identity marker for Judaism. ‘The dictum that history is the history of liberty, when shorn of its Hegelian vagaries, finds a concrete verification in the story of the Jew and his religion. For Judaism is so broadly tolerant that it has permitted the widest divergences of opinion within its fold.’” [Walter Homolka: Judaism: Freedom of Religion and Tolerance in Europe. Keynote speech held at the Biennial Conference der European Union for Progressive Judaism, 15-18 March 2012, in Amsterdam. ICCJ, 1 July 2012]. We find a lot of Jewish schools tied to different variables today. Some schools have ethnic variations, such as among Ashkenazi and Sephardi adherents, others are identified by their grade of strictness in observance, and others by their position to the modern State of Israel. But there is a point which is even more convincing: “Judaism may be the only religion that teaches that there is nothing wrong with not being a member. Judaism is not an ‘upgrade’” [Maurice M. Mizrahi: The Jewish view of tolerance and its limits. Congregation Adat Reyim, Discussion for Tish’a b’Av.  21 July 2018]. And here is the point: Judaism is not a religion doing missionary work, though one can voluntarily and by the conviction of one’s heart convert into Judaism. As Maurice Mizrahi points out, the reason why Judaism proselytized over 2,000 years ago is “because the rest of the world was idolatrous” [ibid.] In other words: Judaism was a tiny minority and so they had to establish themselves through proselytization of their people. The Mishna says “Do not disparage any man, and do not shun any thing, for there is no man that does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place” [Pirkei Avot 4:3, cited after ibid.]. And the Tosefta says: “The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come” [Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:1; Sanhedrin 105a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4, cited after ibid.]. As a result, we can say that it is not important which denomination one follows, but that one is righteous. Every righteous individual, independently from one’s religion, will have a share in heaven. Of course, there might also be individual exclusivists in Judaism who believe that God made Israel the chosen nation, and therefore, as the only ones who will find favor, but they must be extremely rare, because generally speaking Jewish people do not think that they are superior to others, and therefore, everyone can become a member of the Jewish people, such as Ruth did in the Book of Ruth: she was a foreigner who converted to Judaism and became a well-respected woman, even the mother of a dynastic lineage. Thus, I don’t know any denominational example of a strict exclusivism, even the very conservative schools rather share inclusivist tendencies and many Jews today are even pluralist. Nonetheless, “Europe as we currently know it is the result of a long history of pluralisation that began with the Reformation” [Homolka, 2012]. So we should take a look at Christianity next.

According to Arnold Angenendt, the parable of wheat in the Gospel of Matthew massively promoted tolerance [Christof Haverkamp: Toleranz im Christentum – Überblick eines Kirchengeschichtlers. Kirche+Leben, 19 January 2019., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. But this was not always the case: For a long time, the Catholic Church strongly persecuted what it perceived as its enemies. Indeed, as Homolka pointed out rightfully, the Reformation led to a pluralization in Europe. Nonetheless, until today there are different views on tolerance persistent in different Christian denominations. Some are completely exclusivist and deny the resurrection of Non-Christians; this is mostly present in evangelical circles. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church states in Article 2 of Nostra aetate that through every religion, there shine rays of truth [Anja Wonner: Toleranz – auch eine christliche Tugend?. Deutsche Welle, 12 November 2020., retrieved on 2 January 2022]. However, same as the Eastern Orthodox Church, they claim that there is no salvation beyond the one true church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) and therefore, they have to be regarded as exclusivist. However, within the Catholic churches, there are quite a few theologians and institutions which have inclusivist views. One example on Chinese soil is the Catholic Church in Taiwan, and the Department of Religious Studies at Furen Catholic University in Taiwan even acknowledges pluralist views [see Pan Ju-Ta: Pure Land and the Kingdom of God: Toward a Contextual Christian Dialogue with ‘Humanistic Buddhism’ in Taiwan. Submitted in the Fulfillment of the Requirement for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Edinburgh School of Divinity, New College, 2005, p. 128 f.].

The World Council of Churches writes: “Today Christians in almost all parts of the world live in religiously plural societies. Persistent plurality and its impact on their daily lives are forcing them to seek new and adequate ways of understanding and relating to peoples of other religious traditions. The rise of religious extremism and militancy in many situations has accentuated the importance of inter-religious relations” [WCC: Religious plurality and Christian self-understanding. 14 February 2006., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. Therefore, only by accepting that other people around oneself share different views and adhere to different religions, we can live peacefully together. It is important to point out how important tolerance is. Nonetheless, the best way of treating religion is pluralism which means “that there is virtue in every religion, just as all religions are good and are of equal value” [George C. Asadu; Benjamin C. Diara; Nicholas Asogwa: Religious pluralism and its implications for church development. Herv. teol. stud. 76 (3), 2020, pp. 1-9]. The German Lutheran churches are quite heterogenous, but I think they can rather be described as inclusivist with pluralist tendencies and many adherents are even pluralist. Anyways, while the Catholic Church is governed by the Pope and therefore top-down structured, the German Protestant churches are rather hold by the members and therefore bottom-up-structured, which is why it is so difficult to speak of one common view.

Both Judaism and Christianity are present in China. When we talk of China here, it includes the Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. I want to start with the situation in Taiwan. Pan points out that “Taiwanese Christian Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have been reluctant to enter into the Taiwanese culture of religious plurality. Coming relatively late to Taiwan – in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively – they have traditionally shown a courteous neglect towards the other religions in Taiwan, though this attitude has begun changing since the 1970s. Generally speaking, […] the Christian Churches in Taiwan continue to bear the heritage of an exclusivist understanding of the gospel, and therefore resist the Taiwanese cultural tendencies towards pragmatic pluralism” [Pan, 2005: 22]. Nonetheless, Christianity does not even make up 4 % of Taiwan’s population. Major religions are Buddhism and Daoism. A fully exclusivist view therefore would only isolate the Christian communities from the main stream society and brought societal discourses. The island also inherits a small Jewish community. In Hong Kong, we find Buddhism and Daoism as major religions as well, Christianity makes up less than 15 %; in Macau we find the same image, Christianity only makes up 7 %. Unlike Hong Kong, Macau’s population is more religious. Within Mainland China, we can find a traditional Jewish community in Kaifeng. According to Joshua Project, 9 % of the population in Mainland China are Christians. Within the Tibet Autonomous Region, at about 80 % are Buddhists and between 10 and 15 % are Bön adherents (i.e. Tibetan Shamanism). There are almost no Christians, however, we find a Tibetan Catholic minority at the Yunnan-Sichuan border, which came to rise under French missionary André Soulié who was killed by Buddhist extremists in 1905. In 1949, Tibetan monks killed Maurice Tornay in Sichuan Province in odium fidei. So how about religious tolerance in Tibetan Buddhism?

Like in Judaism and Christianity, we also find the three stances of exclusivity, inclusivity and pluralism in Tibetan Buddhism. First, let’s go to Buddhism in general. Jayatillake states: “Religious intolerance has its roots in exclusivity – believing that only one religion can offer salvation and that the only alternative to salvation is hell. The exclusivist can only see other religions as evil i.e. leading to hell, and thus intolerable. While the Buddha clearly taught that Nirvana can be realised only by practising the Noble Eightfold Path, he did not believe that the only alternative to this goal was hell. One can take rebirth in any of the six realms of existence” [K.N. Jayatillake: The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions. 1991. Cited after:, retrieved on 2 January 2023]. It is sometimes said that Buddhists never persecuted other religions and that it is a wholly peaceful religion. This statement can be refuted very easily. At first, we can find the persecution of Christians in Tibet and Sichuan in the early 20th century by Tibetan Buddhists as mentioned above. More recently, we can name the anti-Muslim uprising in Lhasa in 2008 [see Timo Schmitz: Faszinierende Orte im Reich der Mitte, Teil 30: Die Große Moschee von Lhasa (31. Januar 2019). In: Timo Schmitz: Ausgewählte Artikel in deutscher Sprache, 2019-2020. Berlin: epubli, 2021], which was later stylized by Western media as an uprising against the Chinese government, but which is not true in my point of view, as the main target were Muslims (Kaqê and other Hui) in the Muslim quarter, and not Han-Chinese. As the L.A. Times wrote: “Among China’s dozens of minorities, few get along as badly as Tibetans and Muslims. Animosities have played a major — and largely unreported — role in the clashes that have taken place since mid-March. During the March 14 riots in the Tibetan region’s capital, Lhasa, many of the shops and restaurants attacked were Muslim-owned. A mob tried to storm the city’s main mosque and succeeded in setting fire to the front gate. Shops and restaurants in the Muslim quarter were destroyed” [Barbara Demick: Tibetan-Muslim tensions roil China. Los Angeles Times, 23 June 2008., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. So I think it was completely wrong to stylize the riots as “anti-Chinese protest”. Furthermore, we find Buddhist violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar (a country which inherits mainly Theravada-Buddhism) which is even a more recent event. “How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist? While history suggests it is naïve to be surprised that Buddhists are as capable of inhuman cruelty as anyone else, such astonishment is nevertheless widespread — a fact that partly reflects the distinctive history of modern Buddhism” [Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner: Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?. New York Times, 5 March 2018., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. This Modern Buddhism as practiced in the West, which is often classified as Western Buddhism or Secular Buddhism (which also includes Atheist Buddhism), strongly differs from actual Buddhism as it is practiced in the Buddhist homelands [also cp. ibid.].

As a result, we can clearly state that there are exclusivist Buddhists, which are clashing with other religions, both in Myanmar and in China. That there are also Buddhist clergy disencouraging inter-religious dialogue can be seen in Pan’s work on Taiwan: “In interviews, at least six Christian and two Buddhist clergy mentioned that they would not let the lay people attend dialogues because it might cause doubt in their own faiths” [Pan, 2005: 135]. I think, we can clearly say that Buddhist exclusivism is an existing reality. The New World Encyclopedia thus explains correctly: “Exclusivism is not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. Although both Hinduism and Buddhism are less prone to it, examples can be found in these traditions as well. […] Buddhist religious exclusivism may be seen in the implication that those who do not accept the teachings of the Buddha, such as the Eightfold Path, are destined to repeat the cycle of suffering through endless reincarnations; while those who practice the true way can reach enlightenment” [New World Encyclopedia contributors: Religious exclusivism. New World Encyclopedia, 29 July 2022., retrieved on 2 January 2023]. We can say that the goal of Buddhism is compassion towards every sentient-being and the goals of Buddhism are very noble. Yet, like in every religion, there are hardliners who practice an exclusivist stance.

It is also noteworthy that Judaism and Buddhism are very similar and thus compatible to each other. The only major difference is that Judaism insists on one God, which is the ancestral God of the Israelites, while in Buddhism atheist, monotheist and polytheist branches exist. I even went so far to say that “Judaism and Buddhism are so easy to combine, because they are just two different sides of one coin – one teaching” [Timo Schmitz: The interaction of Judaism and Buddhism into Judeo-Buddhism (20 November 2019). In: Timo Schmitz: A Divinely Way to Philosophy, Vol. 2. Trier & Vachendorf: Graf Berthold Verlag, 2022]. “Both, Judaism and Buddhism emphasize strongly on compassion. […] In both religions, there is advise for meditation, and both have a certain kind of enlightenment as goal, where nirvana can actually be grasped as unity with ein sof – the nullification of the ‘ego’. Here at this point, we can see, they are just two paths leading to the same direction” [ibid.].

So what will we tell Tibetans about our beliefs in the West? From a Jewish perspective: Jewish people believe in one God. He is the ancestral God of the Israelites, but he embraces everyone, because all human-beings are connected to Adam and Eve, the first human-beings on Earth. When man wanted to become more and more powerful and tried to build a tower which reaches the sky, God scattered the people all around the world (Genesis 11:1-9). God embraces everyone and one can convert to Judaism from one’s own heart (Book of Ruth), but there is no force to do so. In fact, every believer of any religion can have a share in heaven, so we are all one family. From a Christian perspective: There is one God who is our Father who sent down His son to Earth to take away our sins. Therefore, He was crucified as an innocent and pure person and He shed His blood for us. Therefore, Christians consider Him as our savior. Each human-being can convert to Christianity through baptization to follow His path, but there is no need to do so, because we are all created by God, and so we will all find salvation. Anyways, there are Christian denominations which believe that those who do not convert will be damned.

In return, what will be most struggling for us Westerners is the folk religion of the Tibetans: Bön. It is a shamanic tradition and therefore no book religion [for the six forms of religion, see Timo Schmitz: The Different Forms of Religion (16 March 2017). In: Timo Schmitz: A Divinely Way to Philosophy, Vol. 1. Trier & Vachendorf: Graf Berthold Verlag, 2022]. Some forms of Bön also include animistic and magical elements. Its mythological founder is Tonpa Shenrab who predates the Buddha Shakyamuni and therefore, Bön adherents believe that the Buddha Shakyamuni was a student of Buddha Shenrab.

Finally, Christianity and Buddhism share that there is no spiritual leader who is generally accepted. While Catholics venerate the Pope as their leader and Eastern Orthodox the Patriarch of Constantinople, most Protestant churches do not have a central leader. The same goes to Buddhism: Most Buddhist schools are decentralized and there is no common authority, despite the transcendental Buddhas. In contrast, however, Tibetan Buddhism is strongly hierarchical and each denomination has its leader, though there is not a common leader of all Tibetan schools. The Gandain Chiba is the spiritual leader of the Gelug school, the Karmapa Lama of Karma Kagyü, the Badgyod Rinpoche of Barom-Kagyü, the Drigung Chetshang Rinpoche and Drigung Chuntshang Rinpoche of Drigung-Kagyü, the Gyalwang Drukpa of the Drukpa-Kagyü, the Sakya Thridzin of the Sakya school, the Nyingma and Jonang do not have leaders. I am not sure about Bodong, but one of the highest positions there is the Samding Dorje Phagmo, who is famous for being the highest female incarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. Other notable people are the current 11th Panchen Lama Gyaincain Norbu and the 11th Pagbalha Hutuktu Geleg Namgyai, both are strong allies to the Communist Party of China and positive role models for the Tibetan people living in China.

Food for thought in conversation: If your dialogue partner is a devout Buddhist or Bön adherent (both options are very likely), you may ask him about his ideas on God and cosmology. Do you think there are many things in common with your own thought? In which way is Buddha Shakyamuni comparable to Jesus and what are the differences? Your dialogue partner might be interested in knowing more about your holidays, such as Chanukkah or Christmas, you might also ask about their religious holidays? Which role does religion play for them and how does it affect them in daily life? How could we make the world more tolerant and respect each other better and why is exclusivism rather drawing borders instead of integrity?

Further inspiration: How could the Communist Party of China stronger encourage the peaceful coexistence of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in the Tibetan areas.

Timo Schmitz, 3 January 2023 – The headtitle and introduction was changed on 9 January 2023


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: