The Dalai Lama and his joking tongue

In the interest of children, while we must not normalize ‘sucking the tongue’, we must not also commit the crime of penalizing the innocent and normalizing contextual ignorance. 

By Shelly Bhoil

Involuntarily exiled from their homeland, living on borrowed land, interacting in borrowed tongues, Tibetans are a translated community who have incurred many losses.

Not only have they lost their de facto independent nation despite their legal right to self-determination but also several cultural practices once integral to their lives in Tibet but no longer doable in host countries. 

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Image: His Holiness the Dalai Lama taking part in a group photo with participants of the 25th Shoton Festival and Middle Way Approach Conference at the conclusion of their meeting in the courtyard of the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, HP, India on April 7, 2022. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor) / Source: Dalai Lama – Facebook

One such instance of loss and grave mistranslation, with epic proportions for the emotional well-being of both Tibetans and a little Indian boy, is a video clip of an innocent interaction between the boy and 87-year-old Dalai Lama, lifted out of context to frame him as a paedophile.

The tailored video crops out the boy’s mother, who is qualified enough to protect her child, seated close to the Dalai Lama. The manipulated video also omits the Dalai Lama’s struggle with comprehension of the English word ‘hug’ when the boy asks him for one; the Dalai Lama’s long pause searching for the English equivalent of the Tibetan word ‘eat’ before he mistranslates it as ‘suck’; and the boy’s sticking out his tongue following which the Dalai Lama immediately pulls back his own tongue and gestures the boy to not take him seriously by playfully tapping on his shoulder because sucking the tongue was never the Dalai Lama’s intention.

The footage sinisterly pulled out from a month-old telecast of a public event on the Dalai Lama’s official social media itself, intentionally leaves out the entire context of the event and the boy’s interview byte expressing the interaction as an ‘overall positive experience’.

The sinister intention behind truncating the video becomes more evident from the fact that it was first posted on a series of new (apparently fake) social media accounts: Robert Reed on Youtube Channel, Yin Sun@NiSiv4 on Twitter, and ‘Deter Influencers from Child Abuse’ (now unavailable) on Facebook.

As reported by Lobsang Yeshi, a former member of the Tibetan Parliament, Yin Sun revealed his dark purpose by boasting on his Twitter account “I ruined his reputation forever” and “I am the First one to have Exposed Dalai Lama as Pedophile in English” on the 9th and 13th April 2023 respectively. 

In no time, news channels across the world replicated and amplified the footage without fact-checking, further maligning the Dalai Lama’s reputation and inviting the masses’ kneejerk reactions with clickbait headlines such as ‘the Dalai Lama caught on video kissing boy’.

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The public outcry and accusations on the Dalai Lama have made the Tibetan community, what Lhadon Tethong calls, ‘heart sick’, for the Dalai Lama is their fulcrum, a symbol of their identity given to them through history.

The news channels have also failed the little boy not only by using the video without his consent but traumatizing his future memory with the imposition of their pornographic sensibility on what he would have cherished as a blissful interaction unless, of course, the boy remembers the Dalai Lama’s words to him before their last embrace: “you should look [at] those human beings who create peace, happiness. [You] should not follow those human beings who always kill others.” 

Image: Protest by Tibetans (Source: Supplied)

Being a scholar in Tibet Studies from India, a victim of pedophilia about which I have spoken here, a mother of a little boy whom I tell about good and bad touch and an immigrant in Brazil who has made embarrassing mistakes of announcing ‘padrinho’ (godfather) as ‘padre’ (father) and asking the waiter for ‘pau’ (penis) instead of ‘pão’ (bread), I can understand where the Dalai Lama controversy is coming from and where it is going, and I think it is my responsibility to stand up and give my two cents’ worth.

In the olden days, we had child marriages. Now we have child trafficking by people in powerful political and religious positions, which explains why the maliciously clipped viral video doesn’t look innocent and triggers anxiety in many of us who are far removed from the context, have no knowledge of Tibetan culture and old traditions, and in whose worlds ‘tongue’ and ‘suck’ are overwhelmingly associated with vulgarity.

In the interest of children, while we must not normalize ‘sucking the tongue’, we must not also commit the crime of penalizing the innocent and normalizing contextual ignorance. 

For those of us who are not yet cognizant of the Tibetan perspective, sticking out the tongue, as explained by Jigme Ugen in this video, is a Tibetan way of greeting, kissing on children’s lips normal among Tibetans, and grandparents asking the kids to ‘eat (suck) the tongue’ in lieu of candy or after the candy is over a playful gesture.

Source: Whatsapp Group (Supplied)

The Dalai Lama, who had no familiarity with the Western pornographic vocabulary because of his strict monastic life since his childhood, issued an apology as soon as he was made aware of the sexual connotation of his words. The press has again misconstrued his apology for his admission of guilt. On the contrary, the Dalai Lama’s apology is his confession about his ignorance of sexualized vocabulary in non-Tibetan cultures and his humility, respect, and compassion towards the world—something we must learn from.  

Source: Dalai Lama – Facebook.

The cultural gap between the Orient and Occident has historically acted as the ideological battleground dividing the world. However, the Tibetan cultural context behind the Dalai Lama’s controversial social gesture has escaped Asians too, mostly young Asians.

The continued domination of Westernized cultural norms and vocabulary, fanned by social media, in our day-to-day lives, has eclipsed to us our indigenous cultural gestures where the tongue and suck have many meanings.

For example, in my Indian culture, we have a common gesture called ‘jeebh chidhana/dikhana’, i.e., teasing or annoying the other with your tongue out. In olden days, parents used pre-mastication methods for weaning babies before blenders came in. Noticeably, our elderly generation who like the Dalai Lama are not familiar with sexual vocabulary in English, have not reacted to the video as others have. Indeed, there is also at play in the public outcry the snobbery of the glamorous English language and the unpardonable meaning of ‘suck’. The innocent-sounding phrase in Tibetan ‘che le sa’ thus became vulgar ‘eat my tongue’ when translated into English just like some quotidian swear words in English sound disproportionately rude in Panjabi. 

Our sensibilities are indeed fragile to quickly judge and condemn a suspicious act involving a child except that the interaction between the Dalai Lama and the boy was not an act of child abuse until the media made it look so.

The mischief-makers have now targeted a woman, floating a video of the Dalai Lama tickling Lady Gaga’s leg for our uncritical consumption. How come they do not juxtapose it with images of the Dalai Lama tickling Desmond Tutu’s chin or pulling the beard of Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev!

Believe it or not, but if there is a laughing Buddha living among us today, spreading cheer and joy, he is the Dalai Lama – always playful with kids, women, men, and animals alike.

As a prescription for us, we who were sickened by the visual violence of the manipulated video clip and who want to protect our children, we could read ‘The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World’ by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. 

Contributing Author: Shelly Bhoil is an Indian poet and scholar on Tibet. She has co-edited the reference book Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage and edited New Narratives of Exile Tibet for Lexington Books besides an anthology of Tibetan Poetry in Brazilian-Portuguese for the University of São Paulo. 

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