Lost and Wandering

People in the West have a very romantic view of Tibetan Buddhism. And why not? Brightly colored prayer flags on a hillside, crimson-robed monks chanting, and shining monasteries nestled in the mountains give off the impression of a vibrant, spiritual culture.

Before being properly exposed to Tibetan culture, this was my feeling as well. Mere days after landing in my new city, this perspective shifted. The monks that I saw walking around town had obviously never missed a meal. On their feet were shiny new Air Jordans. And in their hands was the newest model iPhone, released only weeks before. New to the culture, I thought that these might be isolated incidents.

But soon, I began to see and learn other troubling things about living in the monasteries. I heard about monasteries giving the “blessing” of a monetary loan to locals, charging exorbitant interest rates. I saw monks driving expensive, imported trucks, paid for by the alms of poor families. I stayed with a Tibetan family over Losar, their lunar new year. This family’s six-year-old son, now a monk at the local monastery, was home visiting, and he showed thinly veiled disdain for his family’s “dirty” home and meager meals. The more I learned about monastic life, the more my heart grew cold towards anyone wearing red robes.

My perspective began to change once more, however, as I experienced the daily life of the Tibetan people. Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism is shown by spinning prayer wheels, placing prayer flags, thumbing beads, offering sacrifices, and walking circuits around holy sites. In one town that I visited, thousands of locals and pilgrims would begin their day by walking koras around the Mani Stone Piles. These piles have been formed by hundreds of years of pilgrims placing stones inscribed with the mantra “om mani padme hum”. It was then that I saw these people as they were — lost. All of these solemn faces working so hard every day to balance out their karma, not knowing which way the scales might tip when they die. I remembered how Jesus felt in Matthew:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36–38)



Tibetan Endorsements for 2016

The best political conversation that I have had this year did not come from an American. It came from a Tibetan. He raised some interesting points that confirmed something that many people forget these days – the world watches America.

My friend, Dorje*, grew up in northwestern China with his nomadic family. They travelled with their herds of yak and sheep from summer grasslands to winter grasslands. Now, Dorje runs his own trekking company, taking Chinese and foreign travelers on trips around the Tibetan Plateau.

Dorje and other Tibetans have been following this election very closely for several reasons. First, many more Tibetans have access to the internet on their mobile phones than ever before. There are also more and more news articles being translated into Tibetan. Second, like many people, the Tibetans are concerned about the growing Islamic State and their expansion into other areas. Dorje said that he fears the Islamic State will continue to grow even into Tibet unless someone stops them.

This last point is why most of the Tibetans are supportive of Donald Trump. They have seen that Obama has not shown military strength during his presidency, and they are afraid that if Hillary Clinton is elected there will be more of the same. Donald Trump speaks with strength and purpose, especially in regard to defeating the Islamic State, and the Tibetans appreciate this. These Tibetans are only a few generations removed from clans led by pillaging warlords, so it’s understandable that strength in leadership is attractive to them.

We discussed some of the other issues in this election, mostly along the conservative/liberal divide. These talking points didn’t interest him that much, but the hearings and investigations into Secretary Clinton’s private emails did. Dorje commented that it was amazing to him and his friends that someone as high as the US Secretary of State could be put under investigation and possibly face charges under the law. This along with Donald Trump’s inability to “buy” the presidency with all his money showed the Tibetans what American democracy was truly about. In China, they see a government that has to have anti-corruption programs, and if you have money, any position or opportunity is available to you. So while most Americans lament the politics of 2016, the Tibetans see democracy at work.

As I said, this was the best conversation that I have had about the 2016 elections. And it reminded me that the world is watching America. This convinced me even more of the need for character in leadership. It also made me think about what a strong influence the American church can have if believers would unite under the things which matter most to God.

Defending the unborn.

Welcoming refugees.

Combating racial hostilities.

If the church shows genuine strength and a clear message in these matters, will other nations see an example to follow? If Tibetan nomads care about how America presents itself, shouldn’t we?

*name has been changed