In a land where Buddhism is enshrined, is there a place for Jesus Christ?
WELCOME TO THE LAST SHANGRI-LA
East of the Himalayas, nestled in between India and China, stands the majestic Kingdom of Bhutan.
It is one of the least modernized countries in the world, and also one of the least evangelized. Bhutan ranks 33rd in Open Doors’ World Watch List, a rundown of the Top 50 countries hostile to the message of Christ.
Bhutan has only opened up to other countries in 1974, introduced television in 1999, and transitioned to democracy in 2008. For centuries, it has kept its identity untarnished by globalization, and until now it remains the world’s only Vajirayana Buddhist kingdom.
VAJIRAYANA BUDDHISM IS A BRANCH OF MAHAYANA BUDDHISM THAT BELIEVES IN TANTRIC MEDITATION AND THE WORSHIP OF SEVERAL DEITIES.
It was brought to Bhutan in the 8th century by Guru Rinpoche, who, according to Bhutanese lore, rode on the back of a tigress to meditate in a cave and gain the ability to subdue a demon.
The monastery built around this cave has become the popular pilgrimage site, Tiger’s Nest. Standing at 10,024 feet above Paro Valley, it is said that every Bhutanese must hike this sacred temple at least once in his life.
TO LOCALS, BHUTAN IS KNOWN AS DRUK YUL, OR THE LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON
In their national flag, the Dragon is seen resting in yellow and orange cloth, holding jewels to signify wealth. Yellow represents devotion to the monarchy while orange signifies the country’s longstanding Buddhist belief. The Dragon sprawls across both colors evenly, emphasizing how the Kingdom and Buddhism are intertwined.
BHUTAN’S GOVERNMENT ENCOURAGES AND SUBSIDIZES MOST BUDDHIST ACTIVITIES.
In fact, government and monastic affairs are held in the same place for every district, called dzongs.
The word “dzong” literally translates to “fortress.” During Bhutan’s unification, dzongs were used as watchtowers and central hubs of defense.
Now, dzongs take on a different role as administrative offices, venues of religious and cultural festivals, and training grounds for young monks.
CRUCIAL TO MAHAYANA BUDDHISM IS THE BELIEF IN DEITIES
Deities are subdued demons commanded by their captors to take care of the well-being of a province or district.
Major Bhutanese deities are the Four Guardian Kings, or the deities of the North, South, East, and West, whose faces are commonly painted in the entrances of dzongs.
Pictured below is the deity of the North, who is known as the God of Wealth.
THE GOVERNMENT OFTEN INITIATES BUDDHIST PRAYER GATHERINGS AND FESTIVALS
Below is a Buddhist mass in Paro, held for ten days to encourage donations. Tenzin*, our local tour guide, tells us that this is where devotees generously give. “Families save a lot of money just to have a huge amount to offer in festivals or masses like this. Some donate a year’s worth of salary. You get better karma if you offer more.”
Due to the locals’ desire to appease the deities, Buddhist art and symbols are everywhere in Bhutan. Mini stupas, prayer wheels, and wind flags abound, all to drive away evil spirits and communicate with the gods.
A SPACE FOR THE GOSPEL
Because the Bhutanese are so in tune with the mystical, individual spiritual encounters are a key element to Bhutanese conversions. Like most followers of Christ in in the country, our tour guide, Tenzin, tells us he converted through a vision.
“I gave my wife a really hard time for being a Christian before I dedicated my life to Jesus.”
“She was always inviting me to church but I badmouthed her constantly. I kept on insisting she was wrong. I was totally against her faith, but when I got sick, I saw a white angel in front of me assuring me that I’ll get well. I learned then that my wife has been praying for me, and I gave my life to the Lord.”
CHRISTIANITY IN THE KINGDOM
According to History Makers, Bhutan was closed to all sorts of Christian witness until 1965. Now, of the country’s 774,000 locals, 75% are Buddhist, 23% are Hindu, and less than the remaining 2% identified as “Others” believe in Jesus Christ.
Christians in Bhutan are prohibited from preaching the Gospel and building churches, so they meet privately in their own homes. Aside from Sunday services, some underground church networks hold regular cottage meetings, changing houses every week to avoid detection.
Though persecution in Bhutan isn’t violent in nature, choosing to follow Christ has insidious consequences. Christians were thrown in jail; believers who admit their faith and actively preach the Gospel are looked down on, denied citizenship IDs, or fired from their jobs.
TSHERING*, A HOUSE CHURCH PASTOR, WAS FIRED.
“I was working in a fireplace company when I became a Christian, and I was so excited about my new faith that I naturally shared Jesus to my co-workers. The boss didn’t like what I was doing so he threatened that he would cut me from the company if I didn’t stop.”
“I kept on sharing what was in my heart, and the company fired me after a while. I am still a fireplace-maker, but I’m with another company. I also shepherd a house church. We have around 15 members.”
THOUGH BHUTAN REMAINS DEEPLY ROOTED IN BUDDHISM, AND SPREADING THE GOSPEL HERE IS TOUGH, THE LORD IS WORKING IN THIS COUNTRY UNTIL THE DAY OF JESUS CHRIST.
In the book of Mark, we read: “The Gospel must first be preached to all the nations… You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (Mark 13:10 and 13, NASB)
- Discipleship training
- Literature distribution
- Literacy classes
- Emergency relief
*names changed for security reasons
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