Dalai Lama tongue controversy: playful joke or ‘abusive’?

Video of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism asking a child to ‘suck my tongue’ has gone viral

Dalai Lama
The exiled Dalai Lama at a prayer ceremony last week in McLeod Ganj in Dharamshala, northern India
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Viral footage showing the Dalai Lama kissing a boy on the lips and asking him to “suck my tongue” has triggered a war of words between outraged critics and the Tibetan spiritual leader’s supporters.

The Dalai Lama apologised on Monday to the child and his family “for the hurt his words may have caused”. The 87-year-old Buddhist priest “often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way”, said a statement from his office, but he “regrets the incident”.

Critics condemned his actions as “scandalous”, “disgusting” and “abusive” after a video of the encounter “spread quickly on social media”, said Washington D.C.-based National Public Radio (NPR).

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A ‘Tibetan way of expression’

Supporters of the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism have argued that critics have overblown or misinterpreted the incident, which occurred at a public gathering in February at the Tsuglagkhang temple complex in the Indian city of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama resides.

Dawa Tsering, a member of the Tibetan Parliament In Exile, told reporters that a child had asked to hug and kiss the Dalai Lama, who then jokingly said that “you can suck my tongue”.

“So that was a part of a joke or just a play with the kid, so we should not go more than that,” said Tsering.

Exiled Tibetan activist Namdol Lhagyari tweeted that “expression of emotions and manners today has been melted together and become vividly westernised”. Defending the Dalai Lama, he continued: “Bringing in narrative of other cultures, customs and social influence on gender and sexuality to interpret Tibetan way of expression is heinous.”

The Independent reported that “sticking out your tongue is traditionally a sign of respect or agreement and has also been used as a greeting in Tibetan culture”. But there is no “broader traditional greeting of sucking the tongue”, the paper added.

‘Classic non-apology’

The tongue controversy is being “weaponised” by sympathisers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who accuse the Dalai Lama of being a “CIA puppet” and a separatist, according to Timothy Grose, an associate professor of China studies at the Indiana-based Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Tibetan human rights groups have documented a series of online campaigns allegedly aimed at discrediting the spiritual leader, who has “frequently clarified that it’s autonomy, and not separation, that he seeks from China”, said Vice.

China is trying to undermine the Dalai Lama and paint occupied Tibet as a “contented and idyllic Chinese province” in order to “fit [its] claim of liberating” the region, Grose told the news site.

The Dalai Lama “has tried to promote the virtues of compassion, kindness, fortitude and tolerance while speaking out against China’s totalitarian regime”, said The Times’s Alice Thomson, who has interviewed him several times. His behaviour with the boy was “misguided”, she wrote, but “unlike some other interviewees over the past 30 years, he never came across as sleazy or cynical”.

“If anything, the Dalai Lama could appear naive and otherworldly,” Thomson added.

Such explanations don’t quite cut it, argued Marina Hyde in The Guardian. His statement this week was a “classic non-apology apology gesture towards any hurt ‘his words may have caused’”.

But it was not “his words” that caused offence, said Hyde, but rather “the spectacle of an 87-year-old man sitting expectantly with his tongue out as a child squirms in front of him”.

Child rights activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu insisted that the Dalai Lama’s behaviour should not be normalised. “This is not playful banter & so inappropriate to use ‘affectionately plants kiss’ alongside ‘suck my tongue’,” she wrote on Twitter. “Hugs are fine not this.”

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