As India hosted a two-day Global Buddhist Summit, several eminent Buddhist monks, scholars and delegates from various countries. The list also included Tibet’s Buddhist leader Dalai Lama who on April 21 graced the event. As the world is going through turbulent times, India through Buddhism promoted the message of compassion and wisdom.
In this light it becomes imperative to discuss how some section of the world’s insecurity is bringing out the worst in them. Their anxiety is growing, they feel threatened from the importance of Buddhism and its proponents who refuse to be intimidated by their cheap gimmicks and pressure.
The recent orchestrated controversy stirred up heated debate over a video that got viral on the internet showing Dalai Lama in bad optics. The video was of an event which took place on February 28, 2023. It was reported that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual Father of Tibetans, received around 120 students who had completed a skills training program organised by M3M Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Indian real estate company M3M Group.
His Holiness received the students at the courtyard of the Tsuglagkhang complex, where what is often referred to as the “Dalai Lama’s Temple” lies, in Mcleod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala city, in the Kangra district, or the “winter capital” of the state of Himachal Pradesh, India.
After more than forty days from the event, news started to publish that The Dalai Lama kissed “a young boy on the lips at a Buddhist event,” asking him to “suck my tongue.” The Times of India, introduced the unspeakable word: “For some, this is akin to pedophilia.” The issue went viral on social media, footage appeared all over the world, accusations and indictments filled the international press. The worldwide anti-Dalai-Lama campaign that started on April 8, 2023, prompted His Holiness to offer an apology to the child and his family on April 10, 2023.
The event was part of a longer meeting. Chinese media and authorities quite conveniently cherry picked their favourite part and commenced their toolkit to malign Dalai Lama’s image.
Episode appears to be more complex and different from the edited footage that circulated. The incident in itself was a marginal moment of the whole event. It happened openly, it was filmed by cameras, and it was broadcasted by microphones in front of an audience of more than 120, which included the mother of boy. No one in the audience rose in disdain or abandoned the meeting.
For forty days, no one talked about the incident. The interaction between His Holiness and the boy was longer than the few incriminated images and footage. Watched in its fullness, it reveals nothing scandalous or obscene.
The boy and her mother were interviewed on that very same April 28, 2023, by “Voice of Tibet,” a media network based in Dharamsala. The woman appeared in many videos, longer or shorter. All agreed that she is the mother of the boy. In the Voice of Tibet interview, she presented herself as Dr. Payal Kanodia, Trustee of M3M Foundation. She was the person who led the delegation of students to meet His Holiness.
No one wondered why a younger boy attended a meeting for students of a different age. The name of the boy has not been mentioned so far. In the Voice of Tibet interview, both the boy and his mother sincerely thanked the Dalai Lama for the highly meaningful meeting. The interview has been ignored by the International media.
Chinese authorities leave no opportunity to decontextualise and spread hatred for the Tibetan spiritual leader, which is also the result of an ignorance about Tibetan culture.
Misinterpreting Tibetan Cultural context by International community
In Tibetan culture, it is common for heterosexual people of the same sex to kiss each other on the lips or do similar gestures. In Tibetan culture, it is traditional to greet someone by outing one’s tongue. It has been noted by the BBC, among others. In April 2014, it published a curious and interesting piece of news, presenting it as a guide to unusual greetings from around the world. No. 1 in the list is Tibet, where sticking out one’s tongue is a way of greeting. “It has been a tradition since the 9th century.”
Darma Udumtsen, nicknamed Langdarma, probably reigned from 838 to 841 CE. He was an assassin and a persecutor of Buddhists. He was said to be the incarnation of Gośīrṣa, the bull-head guardian of hell, hence is nickname, literally, “Darma, the bull.” He was said to have had “a black tongue.” Tibetans stick out their tongues to demonstrate theirs are not black and they are not evil-doers. The BBC concludes, this “traditional greeting is now a form of respect.”
So, in Tibetan cultural terms, when the Dalai Lama sticked his tongue to the boy on February 28, 2023, he was paying him respect, exorcising evil spirits.
Everyone knows, and repeated it for decades before the February 28, 2023, episode-turned-incident, that His Holiness likes to make jokes and tease people. The substance of his gesture remains evident, though. There is nothing pedophile in it.
If not pedophile, nonetheless, some in our Western world, which is both hyper-sexualised and dominated by extreme interpretations of political correctness, where values are confused and even lost, found the act both disgusting and inappropriate. But in a Tibetan cultural context it was not so.
The two opposite errors of cultural relativism and neo-colonialism are to be fought together. Objective standards do exist in moral behavior. Thus, all should be free to act according to their cultural and religious customs, which others may find strange, unless they violate positive or natural law. And everyone should acknowledge that harassment, torture, violence and killings are always immoral and have no excuse.
However, CCP’s indulgence in insidious political and cultural opportunism is highly appalling. People should be free to dislike aspects of Tibetan culture, and Tibetans should be free to act according to it until and unless both critics and performers violate positive or natural law.
Moral standards must be respected by all, but not all behaviors that look strange to those living in a different culture are violations of universal ethical laws. Thus, one should refrain from making sweeping comments on issues where they don’t have enough ground knowledge, this insults the sentiments and exacerbate the situation.