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Buddhistdoor View: Unraveling the Global Spectacle of the Dalai Lama Controversy

Tibetan protesters hold posters and signs that read: “Media, Stop Defaming Dalai Lama. Stop Misrepresentation.” From

The Dalai Lama is a man with a thousand faces—not because of his own duplicity or misdeeds, but because of the many ways in which people around the world view and understand him. For Tibetans, particularly those who follow his Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, he is an embodiment of goodness, a bodhisattva who has vowed to work tirelessly, through endless lives, to save all beings from our own ignorance. For non-Gelug Tibetans, he remains a symbol of hope for the preservation of their culture, which is under constant threat.

For much of the Western world, he is largely a curiosity, a canvas for projections of idealization and demonization—the two polarized sides of the coin of orientalism. For some in China, the Dalai Lama is viewed as a divisive force in a society that prizes harmony. All of these faces are projected onto the Dalai Lama, who has lived as a Tibetan monk since his youth, fled his homeland to live in exile, and won a Nobel Peace Prize “for advocating peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.” (Nobel Prize)

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has been largely adored around the world. Nonetheless, controversies have arisen, such as when he said that “Europe belongs to the Europeans,” and that refugees from other nations should return to their homes to rebuild them. (France 24) Eyebrows were also raised when he said: “If a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive.” (NBC News)

In both cases, the initial shock and outrage died down as scholars and journalists dug in and explained the cultural and societal context that gave rise to the statements. In the case of the immigration comment, the Dalai Lama could just as well have been speaking of himself and fellow Tibetans who yearn to return to their homeland, leaving India to the Indians. And the second comment could be attributed to his own self-deprecating humor, given that he immediately laughed and twisted his own face, saying that he thinks people don’t prefer to see that face.

Unfortunately, for those trying to inject context to diffuse moral outrage, as Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it. . . .” (Fountainhead Press)

Another unfortunate fact has been that those adding context often overlook or dismiss the concerns of those who were upset in the first place. Much of Europe faced waves of racism, nationalism, and Islamophobia just ahead of the Dalai Lama’s statement about Europe being for Europeans. Women around the world have faced relentless misogyny, ranging from the subtle “you’re pretty, you should smile more,” to overt legal restrictions, violence, and murder. So while context about the Dalai Lama’s sense of humor and cultural background is helpful, those offering it might do well to recognize the often deeply oppressive realities of those who have been offended.

All of this brings us to the most recent uproar concerning the video of the Dalai Lama kissing a young Indian boy and asking him to “suck my tongue.” Once again, the reaction was quick, especially on social media, where many of the most damning accusations were hurled at the Dalai Lama. The allegations seemed to catch everyone offguard, with some claiming that the clip might be a “deep fake” and others pointing to pro-CCP media accounts promoting a highly edited clip of the interaction. The Dalai Lama’s office seems even to have been surprised, hastily issuing an apology for “the hurt that his words may have caused,” without acknowledging the actions that went along with them or offering a much-needed explanation for the highly culturally specific joke.

As news sources around the world began to pick up the video and apology, it was clear that the situation was far from resolved. It was also clear that the vast majority of the most visceral reactions were attributable to the highly edited clips circulating on social media. Some mainstream media outlets, such as the UK’s Independent newspaper, show a video that is edited to depict the Dalai Lama twice asking the boy to suck his tongue, yet lacking any of the surrounding context of their interaction

Countless other mainstream media organizations shared similarly edited videos. Many on the political right used the video to tarnish the reputation of a man beloved by many on the left. Some on the left wrote or spoke disparagingly of the Dalai Lama, tying him to other religious men in power. Audra Heinrichs, writing for the news and commentary website Jezebel, notes the Dalai Lama’s appearance with now-disgraced members of the predatory religious group NXIVM, before adding: “It shouldn’t be a tall ask for some substantive accountability here. Sadly though, I was raised Catholic, therefore I know better.” (Jezebel)

The full video of the interaction is over two minutes long and offers the necessary immediate context, including the Dalai Lama playfully pushing the boy away, patting him on the shoulder, and laughing after the boy leaned forward and stuck out his own tongue. This, and other aspects of the interaction made clear to those present and most who have seen them that the exchange, while superficially odd, was not tantamount to pedophilia or child abuse.

In our own news report on 11 April, we covered both the outrage that had arisen and the most common response by Tibetans, sympathizers, and the Office of the Dalai Lama itself—that he was merely making a joke. We also ensured that a full, unedited video of the interaction was included.*

At that time, the question, “What kind of joke is this?” went unanswered. It was only later, on 12 April, that an image explaining the Tibetan phrase “Che le sa” or “eat my tongue” was posted and shared widely. The same day, the Voice of Tibet website tweeted a video featuring interviews of the boy expressing his gratitude for the experience, as well as his mother, who was an organizer of the event.

Soon after, more videos appeared providing evidence that the Dalai Lama and the boy had interacted several times in the lead-up to that encounter, as well as the explanation about a game grandparents play with grandchildren, in which “eat my tongue” is a joking suggestion that a child has already taken so much from the elder that he may as well take their tongue. This week, BDG published a broad summary of the many Buddhist leaders and communities who came out in defense of the Dalai Lama and protesting media misrepresentations.**

Dibyesh Anand, professor of Tibetology at Westminster University, offers further analysis of the media and social media representation of the story:

But by this point, much of the damage had already been done to the Tibetan community and others who so deeply admire the Dalai Lama. At the same time, appeals to Tibetan culture and the humor of the Dalai Lama have largely fallen flat for child’s rights advocates and victims of sexual abuse.

In recent years, a number of well-known, respected, and trusted religious figures have been accused of sexual misconduct. One of the most recent and revered among these is the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.*** Before him, the renowned Nyingma teacher Sogyal Rinpoche was found to have subjected some of his students to “serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” while other senior members of his organization “were aware of at least some of these issues and failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”**** Additionally, accusations of misconduct and abuse of power have fallen on Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and other teachers within the Shambhala Buddhist tradition.

For victims and others familiar with the history of abuse within religious communities, many of the defenses of the Dalai Lama this month have seemed like echoes from these past incidents. As Matthew Remski, co-host of the Conspirituality Podcast and co-author of the forthcoming book Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat (PublicAffairs June 2023) told BDG:

To me this event is a spectacle, in which private and public meanings swirl into a Rorschach firebomb.

The DL’s interaction with Kayan Kanodia can be innocent within its dyadic terms: the DL is reaching clumsily into a gestural heritage that hinges on elders encroaching on the physical space of children, and the boy is disarmed with awe and delight. As an outsider human witness with some familiarity with Tibetan culture and what those events with the DL feel like, this is what I personally see.

But I’m also a media and culture critic, and can see that the optics of the power dynamics in that moment, enhanced by propagandists, can be like salt rubbed into the psychic wounds of clerical sexual abuse of adults and children in both non-Tibetan and Tibetan religious contexts. A moment between two individuals falls on multiple cultural fault lines

Understanding these varied cultural fault lines is beyond the scope of most scholars, let alone media organizations, or the public at large. Yet here we are once again, seeking to balance understanding and respect for a revered religious figure and the embattled Tibetan people alongside widespread and very real concern about abuse and historic power imbalances.

If we come away from this with anything, hopefully it is a reminder of the deep complexity of the world around us and of the need for humility. That humility means listening to victims of abuse as well as members of a community feeling under attack, and hopefully not allowing one group to drown out the voices and experiences of the other. Life is rarely black and white, and even if one has been harmed by a Catholic priest or Tibetan lama, we must also realize that these harms do not negate the goodness of countless other Catholics or Tibetans. Finally, we might reflect on our own roles: as scholars, journalists, Westerners, Tibetans, asking how we can best respond with sensitivity, care, and openness, knowing that our initial reaction might be wrong, or at least only part of a complex picture.

Dalai Lama Apologizes for Inappropriate Conduct with Young Boy (BDG)

** Buddhist Leaders and Communities Around the World Protest Misrepresentations of the Dalai Lama (BDG)      

*** Healing Our Sanghas: New Website Seeks Discussion of Karmapa Abuse Allegations (BDG)

**** Rigpa Publishes Result of Independent Investigation into Alleged Misconduct by Sogyal Rinpoche (BDG)

See more

Grandma Burst into Tears Defending His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (YouTube)
Dalai Lama: The significance of ‘tongue greetings’ in Tibetan culture (Independent)
The 14th Dalai Lama (Nobel Prize)
Dalai Lama says ‘Europe belongs to Europeans’ (France 24)
Dalai Lama sorry for saying a female successor would have to be ‘attractive’ (NBC News)
Jonathan Swift “The Art of Political Lying” (Fountainhead Press)
Dalai Lama Apologizes for Asking Boy to ‘Suck My Tongue’ (Jezebel)
Conspirituality: Dismantling New Age cults, wellness grifters, and conspiracy-mad yogis

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