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Dalai Lama’s Statements about Women and Refugees Lead to Outcry and an Apology

The Dalai Lama. From
The Dalai Lama. From

Last week the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, Rajini Vaidyanathan, spoke with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharmasala, India. Vaidyanathan asked about topics that had been asked previously by other interviewers, including the religious leader’s views on the US president and his thoughts about a possible return to Tibet from his life in exile. Two questions, however, elicited responses that have caused a gread deal of upset and discussion around the world.

In one response, the Dalai Lama, described as “the world’s most famous refugee,” offered what for many was a surprising take on immigration: “European countries should take these refugees and give them education and training, and the aim is return to their own land with certain skills,” he said. “A limited number is OK, but the whole of Europe [will] eventually become Muslim country, African country—impossible.” (BBC)

The views are not new, however, and follow his statement last year at a conference in Malmo, Sweden, that, “Europe belongs to Europeans.” His Holiness clarified that countries hosting refugees should “receive them, help them, educate them . . . but ultimately [the refugees] should develop their own country.” (The Independent)

The second topic that sparked widespread discussion concerned the Dalai Lama’s next incarnation. His Holiness has said before that he might not be reincarnated at all, or that his incarnation might be a woman. In one previous interview, the Dalai Lama said that a female successor must be attractive. Vaidyanathan took up the opportunity to address this answer, asking the Dalai Lama: “Can you see why that comment upset a lot of women?” (BBC)

In response, the Dalai Lama defended his remarks, suggesting that women who had been offended did nontheless wear makeup. Pressed yet further, he said that both inner and outer beauty are important; “Real beauty is inner beauty, that is true. But [for] we human beings, I think the appearance is also important.” (YouTube)

Responses from around the world were quick and mostly negative. In an article titled “The Dalai Lama Wants A Woman To Succeed Him Only If She Is Hot,” author Nancy Vu features quotes from a feminist author “canceling” the Dalai Lama and a Twitter user calling the Dalai Lama a racist for his comments about refugees. (Buzzfeed News)

Numerous other news outlets picked up the Dalai Lama’s brief comments and the widespread criticism they were recieving, most focusing on his words about female beauty. Others sought to defend the Dalai Lama, with some calling into question the “cancel culture” of the liberal West: “Get it together, people. Just because the Dalai Lama made a dumb, sexist comment, that doesn’t mean we have swear him off altogether. At best, your complaints are useless whining. At worst, your attempt to impose ‘woke’ Western values on an Eastern spiritual leader is a form of cultural imperialism.” (Washington Examiner)

The most extreme responses were directed not at the Dalai Lama himself, however, but rather at groups criticising him. The Tibetan Feminist Collective (TFC), a platform comprised of an editorial board of Tibetan women, offered constructive criticism only to follow soon after by saying: “Due to feedback, requests, and threats of gendered violence, we have taken the post down. Discussion is integral in feminist discourse, however emotions ran so high on TFC platforms that we received some truly disturbing messages. Suggesting that HHDL rephrase comments so his words would not be consistently misconstrued and vilified by the media was out of love for HHDL and not wanting to see his image tarnished over and over.” (Facebook)

The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded yesterday by saying that, “His Holiness genuinely meant no offence. He is deeply sorry that people have been hurt by what he said and offers his sincere apologies.” (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

They go on to note that, “the original context of his referring to the physical appearance of a female successor was a conversation with the then Paris editor of Vogue magazine, who had invited His Holiness in 1992 to guest-edit the next edition. She asked if a future Dalai Lama could be a woman. His Holiness replied, ‘Certainly, if that would be more helpful,’ adding, as a joke, that she should be attractive. He was at least partially responding to the unfamiliar ambience of working with a team whose prime focus was the world of high fashion.” However, they recognize that, “it sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humor in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

They similarly contextualize the Dalai Lama’s remarks as coming from a refugee who is sensitive to both his own welfare and that of fellow Tibetans as well as the feelings of their host nation of India and the gratitude owed to the Indian people.

The note of clarification concludes: “His Holiness regularly cautions against allowing the divisive idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to flourish. He suggests that a solution to many of the problems we face in the world today is to remind ourselves that as human beings we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one human family, and that together we can take action to address the global challenges that confront us.” (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

See more

The Dalai Lama on Trump, women and going home (BBC)
Dalai Lama says ‘Europe belongs to the Europeans’ and suggests refugees return to native countries (The Independent)
Dalai Lama’s Hot Take On Hot Women, The Young Turks (Youtube)
The Dalai Lama Wants A Woman To Succeed Him Only If She Is Hot (Buzzfeed News)
Don’t Cancel the Dalai Lama (Washington Examiner)
Tibetan Feminist Collective Status Update (Facebook)
Clarification and Context of Remarks Made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a Recent BBC Interview (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

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Wendy S. King
Wendy S. King
1 year ago

I think it might be helpful to remember that His Holiness is also a great scholar, familiar with all the Buddhist sutras and their doctrines. The Buddhist sutras have lists of the qualities and duties that help a person to be effective in life, for an ordinary person, a child, a wife, a husband, a leader, and a “king”. One of those qualities is to conform to the popular standards of good looks and pleasant mannerisms, whatever they are for that culture and time. It’s true that handsome people are pleasant to look at. That is why businesses always put pretty women at their front desks! So His Holiness was only stating the teaching of the sutras on that question. It was an offhand remark made in jest, and should not be misconstrued. The sutras are right. My sister is pretty and had guys lined up! I’m very plain and nary a one in sight! So let’s be truthful and realistic. People are people! Everywhere. You can bet on it!

Last edited 1 year ago by Wendy S. King