Many cultural practices once deemed innocent, have of late been reviewed to reflect current realities
In the first week of April this year, an incident came to light, circulating widely in the social media and creating controversy in India and globally.
A video recording of His Holiness the Dalai Lama was released publicly, highlighting an interaction between a young boy and His Holiness. At a meeting in February 2023, His Holiness exchanged words with a young boy in the front row. The young boy then asked if he could hug His Holiness. The boy went up to the Dalai Lama, who asked him for a kiss on his cheek first. They boy obliged, and they hugged. Then, the Dalai Lama asked for a kiss on the mouth and, sticking his tongue out, indicated the boy do the same, saying: “Suck my tongue”.
This act drew sharp criticism from child rights advocates and others who felt it was inappropriate behaviour. Some called it child abuse. Some in the Tibetan and non-Tibetan community protested vehemently, saying it was a customary practice among Tibetans, as a gesture of love and playfulness on the part of elders towards children.
The Dalai Lama, on April 10, apologised if his words had caused harm to the child and the family.
“Tongue meeting” could be a common cultural practice among Tibetans. However, many cultural practices once deemed innocent, have of late been reviewed to reflect current realities. Increasing instances of child abuse by religious leaders, once kept in the dark or hushed, are now out in the open. People are speaking out about incidents of physical and emotional abuse of children and young people.
In 2016, the #MeToo movement in the United States gained visibility globally as a movement against sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture. People spoke out about their experiences. The women and child rights movements have highlighted not just the abuse but how to deal with it. From laws to consciousness raising and the Internet and the
media, there is greater awareness. And sometimes, it is sensationalised.
The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and a Nobel Peace laureate, is a well-known and respected global leader. His charismatic personality and infectious sense of humour and laughter have been captured on and off stage. People from far and near seek an audience with him in his hometown and headquarters in Dharamsala.
I have not met the Dalai Lama personally. I have read his works, heard his speeches and read articles about him. I admire his commitment to non-violence, despite criticism from parts of the Tibetan community calling for an independent Tibet by any means.
His Holiness is aging and will be 88 this July. It is possible he has and will continue to say and do things that will be inappropriate, as people of his age often do.
In 2016, in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he said there were “too many refugees” in Europe. “For example, Germany, cannot become an Arab country.”
In 2018, at a conference in Malmo, Sweden, home to a large immigrant population, he said: “Receive them, help them, educate them… but, they should develop their own country. Europe belongs to the Europeans.”
In 2019, in a BBC interview, he said, laughing: “If a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive.” Reading this, I thought, how true. Most people respond better to attractive women, leaders or not. However, it was a politically incorrect thing to say.
His Holiness’s office issued a statement apologising for any offence caused by these comments and put it down to misunderstood jokes. “It sometimes happens that off-the-cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.”
Misinterpreted or not, there’s an expectation someone of His Holiness’ standing would say and behave in ways that are considered “appropriate”. But maybe that’s too much to expect. He is human and prone to error. He could be forgiven for these comments and acts.
In response to the outcry on the recently released videotape on the social media, His Holiness’ supporters in India have demonstrated peacefully asking the media to apologise for calling out his actions. They claim it has been blown out of proportion and that His Holiness meant no harm.
However, today, what was and are known as “acceptable” gestures of love and affection, especially towards children, are being called into question, with good reason. The issue of body integrity requires consent before an act of affection or love, no matter how innocent it is, is offered. Adults assume that it’s okay to caress, hug and kiss children, as a sign of
affection. Children often cannot refuse these gestures as they don’t have the emotional maturity or confidence to resist.
The incident calls for forgiveness as His Holiness deserves it. His overwhelming goodness and contribution to the world necessitates this.
On forgiveness, the Dalai Lama has said: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false mask on reality. It means seeing the reality of the situation as it is. Forgiveness allows us to let go of old grievances and free ourselves from their burden.”
English poet Alexander Pope in 1711, in the last two lines of a poem, wrote: “to err is human; to forgive divine”. We can forgive His Holiness for what he thought was an innocent gesture. But as His Holiness himself said: the reality of the situation means being mindful of the need to evaluate traditions and their relevance to the present times. We cannot and must not defend them.