News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: The Dalai Lama you never knew

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By Tashi Rabgey

Until recent weeks, the thought of having to defend the moral character of the Dalai Lama would have seemed absurd. Ever since he led the Tibetan people as a 24 year old through the shattering crisis of China’s invasion of Tibet, he has been one of the world’s most enduring symbols of moral leadership. He has lived his entire life in the public eye as a hardworking global champion of peace and nonviolence. Even now in his twilight years, he continues to spread his message of compassion and kindness every passing day.

Yet recently, along with Tibetans around the world, I felt an urgent need to speak up on the Dalai Lama’s behalf as the global media rushed to publish sensational headlines suggesting indecent behavior. With little heed to due diligence, media organizations pounced on an opportunity to cast an incriminating spotlight on an awkward public encounter with a young boy in India.[1] The televised event took place on stage in Dharmasala on February 28th. A month and a half later, a selectively edited video surfaced online accompanied by salacious text that created the impression of sexual impropriety.[2] Overnight, defamatory headlines appeared in respected publications world-wide and public slander exploded online with allegations of sexual abuse.

The viral video was in fact a short clip from a much longer interaction that was extraordinary for very different reasons. With his mother and grandfather seated on stage beside the Dalai Lama, the young boy first receives an affectionate bump on the forehead for formally presenting gifts on behalf of the honorary guests assembled. The Dalai Lama then looks up and reflects out loud that this exchange brings to mind his early childhood with his late brother Lobsang Samten — his one designated friend and playmate during an otherwise isolated childhood as a spiritual leader-in-training that began at the age of four. He proceeds to demonstrate how he and his brother once tussled with their heads.

Later in the program, the young boy approaches the microphone once more and requests a hug from the Dalai Lama. While the mother feigns exasperation and the audience is amused, the Dalai Lama acquiesces with a warm embrace. Then the 87-year old awkwardly makes an attempt at a jocular display of affection. He first requests a peck on the lips and then — to the shock of the world — he blithely sticks out his tongue and says in his halting English, “suck my tongue.”

Seen through the norms of our hypersexualized global culture, the video of the interaction is uncomfortable to watch. Even though the boy and his mother have both given media interviews expressing joy in having had this encounter with the Dalai Lama,[3] the viral video depicts an imbalance in power that leads viewers to associations with the well-known history of child abuse in many religious contexts.[4] There is also a slow-motion uncertainty as both the Dalai Lama and the boy seem not to know how to conclude this awkward performance of affection. Then by sticking out his tongue, the Dalai Lama reaches back to a gesture of play from his Tibetan traditional culture that can only be seen as bizarre for the rest of the world.

But for Tibetans from the Dalai Lama’s generation — those like my parents who had spent their formative years in an isolated Tibet — the episode was utterly free of any suspicion of abuse. In a traditional culture that does not sexualize the tongue, they could not discern what the world found offensive in this video. It was bewildering for them to learn that this innocuous encounter had turned the world’s opinion against the Dalai Lama. Many of the Tibetan elders who were asked to watch the video — from New York to Ladakh — did not hear a lewd request, but rather an innocent tease to a young boy. He was being asked to “chele sa” (eat my tongue) as was the way grandparents expressed to small children, “That’s it — all I have left to give you is my tongue.”

Taken out of both cultural and situational context, this tragic collision of norms points to a vast cultural gap. What looks disturbing through one cultural lens is seen as entirely innocent through another. Together with the information economy of the digital media and the herd mentality that comes with our short modern attention span, this presented a perfect storm for discrediting the symbol of the Tibetan movement.

The point of the viral video clip, it goes without saying, was to damage the image of someone China’s leaders have long publicly reviled and quietly feared. Since the Tibetan government was declared to continue in exile in India in 1959, an ongoing campaign has been conducted to malign the Dalai Lama as a respected public figure and the symbolic leader of Tibet.

This time, the attack on the Dalai Lama struck a chord. Within ten days of the public uproar, the BBC ran a breathless story on the Dalai Lama incident reigniting “Tibet’s ‘slave’ controversy.” While the term ‘slave’ appears in the sensational headline, the author buries inside the article an oblique acknowledgement of common knowledge that slavery did not exist in Tibet. Rather, Tibet’s society was comprised of people working on “estates owned by nobles, monasteries or the state” to whom taxes were paid. This desultory revelation, along with historian Tsering Shakya’s commentary on the absence of enslavement in Tibetan society, comes after a BBC shout-out to the Chinese government for recently creating ‘Tibetan Serf Emancipation Day.’ Chinese nationalist propaganda has now been dignified in mainstream media as “a long-running controversy over Tibetan history.”[6]

The startling uptick in anti-Tibet political sentiment converges with an underlying bias in the global public discourse that has contributed to the traction of the recent controversy surrounding the viral video. With the issue of Tibet stereotyped as a politically correct and hackneyed cause célèbre of global celebrities, and the Dalai Lama himself typecast as a globe-trotting religious figure carrying a message many see as naïve and underwhelming against the hard-nosed political challenge of the rising superpower of China, the real moral and political stakes of the question of Tibet have long been eviscerated by the chattering classes.

For Tibetans everywhere, this episode has felt like a collective near-death experience. Never before had it been so clear how little the Dalai Lama was understood. Over decades in exile as the world’s most famous refugee, he has often been depicted as a caricature: so much was projected onto him and so often his name was invoked and used for the interests of others — vast and small, institutional and geopolitical. And at the end of his astonishing life, the world seemed ready to abandon him without a second glance.

For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama was never the two-dimensional figure who appeared on magazine covers or who smiled back from billboards. We all grew accustomed to his buoyant manner of speech as he spoke to thousands in packed arenas in his lurching, disconnected English sentences, often punctuated by his laughter at his own linguistic limitations.

But in the world of his native Tibetan language, the Dalai Lama appeared as an entirely different person. In Tibet, he was legendary by his early 20s. No one could remember a rising intellectual star who shone so brightly and at the same time possessed the ineffable qualities to carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders. From my youth, I remember how he spoke with transcendent grace at lightning speed, in thrilling glass-cut paragraphs, with the kind of precise, incisive clarity that left no doubt that his was the sharpest mind in the room. Even today, when he speaks in Tibetan, the Dalai Lama’s voice drops several registers and his personality transforms. His lighthearted demeanor is gone. In its place is a gravitas and unyielding focus that shows us that the suffering of others is fiercely present in his heart. All through his lifetime, he has commanded authority not only because of his political and spiritual inheritance but also because of his ability to convince a tired and beleaguered people to join him on his personal moral journey.

It has been in the Tibetan language that the Dalai Lama has transmitted a set of instructions on finding a pathway through an indifferent world as a dispossessed people. Even under brutal and paralyzing oppression, he modeled a vision of forgiveness as a form of empowerment. It was a lesson that both defined the Tibetan movement and touched the struggles of dispossessed people in every forgotten corner of the world.

I have seen this in my fieldwork as a researcher of territorial autonomy and self-governance. I saw it in the eyes of the Kurdish community organizer I met in a tiny nonprofit office just over an hour away from Mosul, Iraq, during the height of the suicide bombings. He had been working in obscurity painstakingly translating the Dalai Lama’s works into the Kurdish language. “This,” he said, “is what our people need to know.” He proudly showed me his manuscript.

I also saw it in the Karen spiritual leader I met deep inside the war-torn Karen state, in what had been the world’s longest-running insurgency in modern times before a ceasefire was established in their armed conflict against the Myanmar government. After a day of sitting in meditation alongside a thousand meditators, he called me in so he could recount the importance of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause for his own reimagining the Karen fight for self-determination.

And I felt this in the intensity of the Sahrawi law student I met in the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara. He had been missing classes and was on track to drop out because he spent all of his time at bloody protests that went unnoticed by the world. As he pressed a book about the Sahrawi people into my hands, he said that knowing how the Dalai Lama had made the Tibetan struggle visible to the world gave him a reason to continue to fight for his people — through law instead of violence on the streets. He now felt less alone.

In other words, what the Dalai Lama passed on to Tibetans has spawned a movement of movements, teaching the dispossessed everywhere to see themselves not as victims, but as empowered by their own intrinsic seeds of potential in an interdependent reality that is in a constant state of motion and change. His model has shown a vision of how to inhabit this imperfect world, how to transcend the staggering injustices of global politics and the arbitrariness of history, and how to honor and remain committed to goals that cannot be completed in a lifetime.

Nowhere has this wisdom spread so far or flourished so deeply as in Tibet itself. In the three decades that I have been working inside Tibet, I have witnessed the bright faith of Tibetans grow only more self-assured and more determined. For every self-immolator who perishes calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama, there are countless other Tibetans who grow even more determined to choose a life-affirming path for remaking the Tibetan world.

They teach the Tibetan language at night when they are barred from teaching during the day. They travel as far as needed to provide decent healthcare to all remote Tibetan communities when the state apparatus has long called it quits. They convince their communities to join them in protecting the land and the wildlife even when it requires putting their lives on the line. Tibetans inside Tibet, in other words, are doing the hard work of preparing themselves to become the best stewards of their homeland when no one else seems to believe in their capacity to self-rule.

This Tibetan determination has been fueled by a resolute faith in the vision of the Dalai Lama. It was not surprising when Tibetans in Tibet reacted with joy when the decades-old ban on the Dalai Lama’s image was suddenly lifted so that the viral video and the international condemnation could circulate in the Chinese cybersphere.[7] Overnight, the viral video garnered over 180 million views inside the PRC. But for Tibetans in Tibet, the storm of global moral censure simply underlined how little the Dalai Lama was understood, even internationally.

For Tibetans in exile as well as the peoples across the Himalayas, this global controversy has brought them closer not only to the Dalai Lama but also to each other as a struggle. For the first time, mass rallies and demonstrations in support of the Dalai Lama have spontaneously broken out from Ladakh to Sikkim to the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. The global condemnation may have caused a collective near-death experience for many Tibetans. But it also created a new sense of time and space across all Tibetan and Himalayan communities — inside and outside Tibet — that is giving rise to a regeneration of the Tibetan political movement.

The question that remains is what the symbol of the Dalai Lama and his ideas will mean for the rest of the world. One of the tragedies of his defamation is that it grows out of a caricature that was manufactured by those who never understood him or had any sense of the true measure of his life. Will the Dalai Lama be seen through their cynical eyes and be projected as a declining global celebrity open for ridicule as media clickbait? Or will the world find the decency to rise above its worst impulses and honor a life that has been given entirely to the task of growing the best of ourselves as living beings on this planet?

After all, this global moral crisis in truth illuminates less about the character of the Dalai Lama than it does about ourselves and the kind of human community we are choosing to become.

(Views expressed are her own)

The author is a Research Professor of International Affairs, George Washington University

Foot notes:

[1] Media organizations reacted instantaneously to a statement made by the Private Office of the Dalai Lama expressing regret for the incident. The apology was not an admission of wrongdoing but a regret that the meeting might have caused any hurt. This aligns with the Tibetan cultural practice of putting the needs and interests of others first and taking on the burden of negative sentiment, regardless of the circumstances.

[2] The edited video clip was uploaded with salacious text to the Twitter account YinSun@NiSiv4 on April 8th, 2023. The clip itself had first appeared days earlier on YouTube and on in a petition created by, among others, “Joseph R. Biden.” Within days, bots propelled the video clip to 7 millions views.

[3] The boy’s mother, Dr. Payal Kanodia, Trustee of the M3M Foundation, was a convener of the event

[4] For survivors of child sexual abuse, it is understandable that the optics of the viral video could trigger traumatic responses. However, many civic organizations have now condemned the allegations against the Dalai Lama of any such abusive intent, including from the RAHI Foundation, a nationally prominent and pioneering organization in India for survivors of child sexual abuse. Their statement on 22nd April states that there is no indication of sexual abuse, in intent or impact, in the encounter between the Dalai Lama and the boy on stage. See also Joshua Brallier Shelton, ‘Opinion: We need to think about the Dalai Lama’s actions very carefully,’ Tricycle, April 17, 2023.

[5] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Suck my tongue, crush my balls,’ Project Syndicate, April 20, 2023

[6] Tessa Wong, ‘China: Dalai Lama furore reignites Tibet ‘slave’ controversy,’ BBC, April 20, 2023


3 Responses

  1. Thank you Tashi Rabgey la for expressing this so well, the differences between what HH means for the Tibetans, including the rest of the Himalayan people, as truly, ‘wish fulfilling gem’ and to the rest of the world which is more superficial. Also great to know, the inspiration of HH and our cause, are drawn to other long suffering people and their causes.

    One positive aspect from this incident is it reaffirms our faith in HH and our unity all across the Tibetan diaspora world and more importantly in Tibet, became stronger which is so important during this difficult phase in our history.

  2. While most opinionators so far have only regurgitated piteous defences, this is the first one to make hard-nosed pragmatic points that we must not ignore. It won’t take a minute for global media to do a flip on the goodwill earned by HH for the Tibetan cause, especially as geopolitical interests shift and recalibrate. But good riddance I say to all that hyper-publicity, none of it is of any use to us except for Western media weaponising Tibet for their own purpose. I’m sure many of us are often irked by how HH has been reduced to an affable guru spouting trite ‘love and compassion’ slogans instead of the Hercules who has shouldered our collective political destiny. And make no mistake it’s not just his high office but his innate character that makes the Great 14th what he is (just imagine if we were led instead by self-aggrandising sectarian lamas, of which we have a fair few, some who in the very prime of their career now harbour appalling skeletons in closet that are beginning to rear out their bony fingers, some who don’t have the unflinching moral stamina to undergo the long trials that HH has silently undergone, like the virtual house arrest from 1959 to his first visit abroad in 1967 that HH lived through without one word of complaint).

    More immediately, HH’s audiences need to be calibrated. Why the non-stop audiences, he is 87 years old, such a hectic social schedule would tire out a 30 year old. Also in that same event the boy’s grandfather placed a hat on HH’s head while standing over him. Even as an atheist, certain boundaries are hallow and beyond question. We are forbidden from even patting a novice 5-year-old monk’s head and highest lamas offer up hats to the HH from below his pedestal, this lackadaisical attitude to HH’s public interactions, especially with a pandemic on, is concerning.

  3. Cultural misappropriation, misunderstandings and rewriting of history is not uncommon in propaganda. Just look at how the Swastika has been used.
    Was it not tradition in Tibet to stick out a tongue in sign of greeting? Perhaps even Henrich Harrer wrote about it?

    And a tongue is used as a means of communication? No?

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