Teaching Christianity to Tibetan Buddhists, as a Non-Christian

Today, I used Hozier’s song ‘Take me to Church’ as part of an English listening exercise with some Tibetan students. I chose the song strategically: it is loaded with Christian and sexual themes but also reframes these in surprising, perhaps even blasphemous ways. I figured that the song could provide a good lesson in how important cultural background can be for language comprehension and offer a nice parallel with things the students were more familiar with as Tibetan Buddhists: in this case, the much celebrated if somewhat scandalous poetry of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, who in the early 18th century bucking the bonds of his royal, monastic education, returned his vows of celibacy and wrote erotic poems laden with tantric Buddhist religious imagery.

It proved to be a very strange experience having to give the students a crash course in Christian theology. A few of the monks had knowingly been taking English lessons from young Christian missionaries in town, in part to learn English, and in part to learn more about Christianity, despite having zero desire to convert. To the students’ credit (!) they appeared to know very little about Jesus and Christianity. To provide background to the song’s themes of sacrifice, sin, and salvation I explained how early Christians thought of Jesus’ sacrifice as superceding and rendering unnecessary all future blood sacrifices. How the first man and woman had eaten from a tree that introduced them to dualistic thinking, to good and bad, to high and low, and how this primal transgression, often popularly connected with sexual desire, was the cause of their losing their original non-dual, heavenly condition. Although explaining Christian theology half in English and Tibetan and drawing pictures of trees, gardens, snakes, and confession boxes was a pretty alienating experience, I was initially surprised at how much Christianity sounded like – or how much I had managed to make it sound like – Buddhism, where tantric Buddhism likewise terminates animal sacrifice through ritual substitution, and a lapse into dualistic thinking fueled by desire-attachment is also responsible for a present condition of suffering.

Then I had to explain Original Sin, and I realized just how different the idea of being ‘born sick’ and being unable to heal oneself save through another’s external act of sacrifice and grace was to the idea of all beings possessing innate Buddha nature or the truism that a Buddha can only point the way to salvation. The idea of being condemned by default as a sinner, of having no innate capacity for healing one’s own fallen condition struck a jarring note for students who in their own language shorthand their adherence to Buddhism with the term ‘insider’, something which aside from its more obvious connotations of belonging versus being a heathen ‘outsider’, is often explained as meaning that to be a Buddhist is to be someone who at every turn looks inside, to one’s own mind, for the source of all experience and to find recourse and healing.

Explaining to a majority monk crowd how the line ‘give me that deathless death’ could be seen as referring to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and its promise of eternal life OR to the ‘little death’ of orgasm was interesting too, if nonetheless a little more intelligible. We will still discuss the song tomorrow, and I’m curious to hear more from the students. Still, after having to explain taken-for-granted Christian ideas to a group of bemused young Vajrayana Buddhists I almost felt some sympathy for those missionaries. Almost.

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