A controversial video of the Dalai Lama kissing a small boy and asking him to suck his tongue touched off a media firestorm last month. Critics in the mainstream media and commentators on social media, jumping to the worst imaginable conclusion, condemned the incident as an act of child abuse. A few observers, including those familiar with the Dalai Lama’s impeccable record, suggested waiting for context before rushing to judgment.
But in what contextual framing might such an incongruous act possibly be rendered comprehensible?
As someone who grew up in two countries, three cultures, and four languages, I believe there were certain factors missing from the conversation that might have helped illuminate what happened and, more importantly, rule out what did not happen.
For those of us familiar with the Dalai Lama’s penchant for impish humor, it was clear that this was a joke gone catastrophically wrong. Though he sits at the pinnacle of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is famous for his cheeky jokes and childish pranks. Pulling a beard here, slapping a bald head there, he is always trying to squeeze a laugh out of an audience.
In the eighties and nineties, his joyful embrace of irreverent humor and innocent mischief — the willingness to disrupt norms of formality in order to establish a genuine connection with people — fueled some of his unique appeal to many in the West who were breaking away from the more restrictive strictures of their own traditions.
But times have changed, and so have the boundaries of acceptable humor — boundaries that are, by and large, set by the West and accepted by the rest. The Dalai Lama, who has lived in the seclusion of retirement since 2011 and missed the epoch-making cultural events of the last decade, still in some ways operates under the ground rules and normative frameworks of the last century.
The failure to adapt to changing global norms, though, only goes halfway in helping us understand the controversial incident. A kiss between a child and a non-family adult, even when innocent, would raise eyebrows in most places these days. As a world leader, it is only reasonable that people expect him to know better.
However, the Dalai Lama is 87 years old. While he is healthier than many of his peers, there is no denying that his is an age of vulnerability where the gradual decline of one’s faculties is the norm rather than the exception. Not only is he hard of hearing, I have learned from reliable sources that his aversion to wearing a hearing aid compounds the problem. In meetings or at public events, he often mishears what a fellow panelist or an audience member is asking, and his assistants can be seen repeating the question to him.
Equally relevant is the sharp decline in his English language competence. When he is in English-speaking settings, he often seems disoriented, struggling to recall simple words that used to be at his fingertips just a few years ago.
In fact, when the boy in the video asked the Dalai Lama, “Can I give you a hug?” it was clear that the latter did not understand the English word “hug.” He seemed confused even after his interpreters repeated the question in Tibetan. Given his deteriorating English and poor hearing, it is highly likely that the spiritual leader, who never says no to people, misheard or misunderstood the boy as asking for a kiss. Which would explain why he pointed at his cheek and said, “First here.”
How accurate my reading of the situation is, only the Dalai Lama would know. But as an aging senior who has lived his entire life in the public eye without giving anyone a single reason to second-guess his moral conduct, doesn’t he deserve some benefit of the doubt in this tragedy of errors?
As someone who grew up in one of the refugee schools run by the Dalai Lama’s sisters, I have seen him in action up close and from afar. After a lifetime of studying his work and observing his interactions, in addition to having lived in a cultural milieu where the tongue is only ever associated with food and speech, it could not be more clear that there was no sexual or malign intent in his exchange.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the most celebrated figure is that of the Bodhisattva, defined as a selfless being who unfailingly gives himself to the service of others. The central virtue of the Bodhisattva is his boundless, almost reckless, generosity. Legend has it that the third century Indian Buddhist saint Aryadeva, while en route to a scheduled debate with a Hindu scholar, was waylaid by an old woman who asked him for an eye. Without a moment of hesitation, Aryadeva removed one of his own eyes and gave it away.
Among advanced practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, which follows the Mahayana tradition, this story is held up as a shining example of altruistic behavior to which one should aspire. The Dalai Lama is someone who upholds the Bodhisattva vow, under which he is forbidden to withhold anything he has the power to give when asked. This is a vow he renews daily during his morning meditation routine, as he recommits himself to the oath of indiscriminate generosity. If a Bodhisattva sincerely believed someone is asking them for a limb, let alone a kiss, they very well might try to oblige.
Even so, I understand why many critics and influencers were outraged by the scandalous clip — which first emerged, interestingly, on the Chinese internet. We live today in a world of impressions where digital screens have crowded out physical reality and social context, where intentions don’t count, outcomes hardly matter, and optics is everything.
Furthermore, for a whole generation sensitized to the very real problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic church and other institutions, it is easy to misread a puzzling gesture of affection as a certain act of predation, not least because it is statistically safer to err on the side of caution. Our cognitive biases and cultural frames determine what we see. Like in a Rorschach test, people saw what they believed.
If those who rushed to condemn the Dalai Lama had watched ten minutes of the authentic footage rather than the ten-second spliced version, if they had listened to what the boy and his mother had to say in a post-event interview from the same day, if they had considered the possibility that the tongue might not be a sexualized organ in some cultures outside the West, they might have understood what transpired in that event was the farthest thing from an act of abuse.
But alas this kind of sensitivity to context seems too much to ask of netizens in the decontextualized world of social media and clickbait journalism, where ten-second memes and outrage algorithms defeat truth and complexity on a daily basis.