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Discipleship from Karma to Atonement

A New Resource on ResearchShare.

After serving in the Tibetan Buddhist world and connecting with others serving among these peoples for many years, it became clear that seeing people from a Tibetan Buddhist background make a true and lasting devotion to Jesus was rare. Although there had been some breakthroughs in recent years, the work was still arduous and filled with those who would commit their lives to Jesus only to turn back to Buddhism a short time after. The inevitable question came, “What are we doing wrong?” Certainly, this has been a question asked by centuries of God’s servants who have ventured into the “Land of Snows.”

As I continued to grow in my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and its effects on the people Father had called me to, the more my attention was turned to the issue of karma. I noted that while it was not often talked about in everyday life, its influence could be found in the rhythms of their lives in myriad expressions. For the lay Tibetan Buddhist, karma is the engine of their lives, always humming in the background, pushing their lives forward. Karma, however, is a cruel and unfeeling task master. It cares little for the sacrifices of time, money, and devotion of its servants. It offers only one guarantee, all you do will be repaid to you, eventually, and you will likely never do enough good to outweigh the bad.

The lessons of karma begin in a Tibetan Buddhist’s life from almost the very beginning. As an infant they are carried on the mother’s back as she does “kora” (an act of merit making by walking in circles around sacred sites), turns big prayer wheels at the temple, and makes offerings of incense, food, or money before the Buddha. Some of the first words a child may hear are those of their grandparents chanting the “Om Mani,” an act of merit making. As they grow older, they may hear stories that teach the tenets of merit and demerit. As they grow older and ask why a beggar whom they encounter is born blind or without legs, they likely receive an explanation that relates to a person’s karma. There are religious pictures called “thangkas” that teach about karma as well. A teenager or young adult may take part in hanging strings of “prayer flags” from tree to tree in high places, again an act of Merit Making. Through all these ways and more, this undercurrent of belief in karma is formed in a person at the deepest levels, a tacit level of belief.

I began to wonder then if part of the cause of apostasy among Tibetan Buddhist background believers could be related to a lack of effectual discipleship in the area of karma? Surely the causes of apostasy must be multi-faceted, but could this be one of those facets? What, then would be the antithesis in Christianity to the belief in karma? My conclusion is that the atonement of Jesus is the answer to karma. Therefore, the goal must be to disciple a Tibetan Buddhist background believer from karma to an experiential understanding of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. And thus, the idea for my thesis was born.

As my master’s studies were in Christian Formation and Discipleship, I had been exposed to much literature concerning the value and effects of rhythmic, formational practices in the lives of believers. A good portion of my research pours over this literature and identifies the benefits of formational practices for transforming tacitly held belief systems. This research sparked a conversation in the research around which practices already exist in the church today and historically that may be employed for this specific area of discipleship; from karma to atonement.

For any of this research to be of consequence, I first needed to confirm or not confirm that this was indeed an issue in the lives of Tibetan Buddhist background believers. And so, my research included interviews with such believers to measure to what degree, if any, was a tacitly held belief in karma still active in their worldview. The findings were astonishing, but you will have to read the paper to see why.

My hopes for this research are that it will spark a conversation among cross-cultural workers that will then spread to the indigenous believers among Tibetan communities themselves. Ultimately deciding if and how to implement the conclusions of this research will be a conversation that the local believers themselves will need to discern. However, I believe that as cross-cultural workers we may be able to catalyze the conversation in meaningful ways.

To read Jessica’s thesis go to Rhythms of Spiritual Praxis as Discipleship from Karma to Atonement.

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Image courtesy of Gaylan Yeung.
Jessica McFalls

Jessica McFalls

Jessica “Mama J” McFalls has served in full-time ministry since 2004. She has served with several ministries in multiple countries in Africa, South Asia, and East Asia. She has been with All Nations since 2011 when she did her Church Planting eXperience (CPx) training at the Cape Town hub in …View Full Bio

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