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Thoughts on the Dalai Lama’s “Tongue-Sucking” Remarks, the Media and Faith in What Is Good

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Thoughts on the Dalai Lama’s “Tongue-Sucking” Remarks, the Media and Faith in What Is Good

Guest Commentary by Ven. Thubten Chonyi

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A verse from a 14th Century Tibetan text by the bodhisattva Togme Sangpo reads,

Even if someone broadcasts all kinds of unpleasant remarks
About you throughout the three thousand worlds,
In return, with a loving mind,
Speak of his good qualities —
This is the practice of bodhisattvas.

Bodhisattva Togme Sangpo

This is how His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would advise his followers to respond to the furor over a selectively-edited video of his playful interaction with a young Indian boy. He, himself, is doing the same.

The two-minute video hit social media on April 10, and a further edited 20-second clip immediately went viral. Taken out of context and spliced to tell a particular version of the story, the video triggered reports on major media platforms worldwide. As far as I can tell so far, no journalist checked the source or veracity of the original video, and no major news outlet has done a follow-up.

I have shaken my head again and again as waves of disinformation wash through America’s political discourse. Now, I and millions of students and supporters of the 14th Dalai Lama find our spiritual mentor and guide the object of such a campaign. I admit, I have grown more sympathetic to the cry of “fake news.”

Digging Deeper

What really happened? With a little research, it’s easy to piece together a full story from multiple videos posted by heartbroken Tibetans intent on exonerating their culture and defending the Dalai Lama.

In February 2023, His Holiness addressed about 100 graduates of a special skills training program who were visiting Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration. Toward the end of the proceedings, a young boy with a front row seat raised his hand and asked the Dalai Lama, “Can I hug you?” The boy’s mother and grandfather sat close by. Once he understood the request, His Holiness waved the boy up to his seat.

The Tibetans are a demonstrative, loving people, and His Holiness is well known and well-loved for his affectionate playfulness. He greets everyone he meets as a friend, a member of his own family, because for the Dalai Lama, every human being is a dear relative, a member of the same human family that shares life on this planet.

And so he gave the boy a hug, and then continued with a four-step affectionate exchange that elderly Tibetans share with children. First comes a kiss on the cheek, then a peck on the lips, perhaps a passing of candy. Finally, the elder sticks out the tongue and says, “Che le sa.” It’s a Tibetan colloquialism with no English equivalent. It translates as “I’ve given you all my love and some candy. There’s nothing left but for you to eat my tongue.”

The Scandal

But His Holiness, who is not fluent in English, used the word “suck” instead of “eat.” For Tibetans, the meaning was clear. And the boy, his mother and the audience took no offense. In fact, when the brief exchange ended, the audience chuckled and applauded. The international scandal erupted nearly two months later when the edited video hit the internet.

Headlines proclaimed that the Dalai Lama had asked the boy to suck his tongue. It’s important to note, there was no tongue touching of any sort in the incident. “Suck” is a loaded word in American English. In our sexualized society, along with numerous revelations of past and present child sexual abuse in religious and educational environments, people were alarmed, disappointed, horrified.

It’s possible that’s the exact reaction the editors of the video wanted to evoke, and the damage is done. Strong evidence points to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) having a role in the massive online disinformation attack. They have vilified the Dalai Lama for more than 60 years for their own political ends as they continue to occupy Tibet and terrorize its people. For Tibetans, hearing the hatred now generated toward His Holiness is like “demonizing the Tibetan culture of affection,” as Sravasti Abbey’s resident Tibetan teacher noted.

That well-respected news sources like The New York Times and National Public Radio ran with this story without checking the source is astonishing. Most people, watching the full, unedited record of the episode would see it for what it was — yet another, frequently enacted exchange of affection between the Dalai Lama and another human being.

When Cultures Collide

In general, it seems the dominant culture in North America struggles to understand that the world contains a huge range of social and religious customs. Without realizing it, we are steeped in our own, mostly European, behaviors and societal views, and we judge others accordingly.

One woman wrote to us, “When an 87-year-old man asks a little boy to suck his tongue, it’s disgusting and unacceptable in any civilized society regardless of culture variances.” But the Tibetan people don’t see it that way at all. Neither did the Indian audience that attended that day. And is that actually what the Dalai Lama asked?

Although the Dalai Lama has apologized for the hurt his words may have caused, he will not further defend himself; he will not sue anyone for defamation. In a 2017 interview, John Oliver asked him how he handles the venomous CCP slander.

“Whatever they want to say, that’s their freedom,” he replied. “I have no negative feeling. I just feel a love. Like that. I practice, you see, taking others’ anger, suspicion, distrust, and extending patience, tolerance, and compassion to them.”  He will use the incident to cultivate greater love, and his students are advised to do the same.

Of course, people can speak out to defend him. Several articulate spokespeople, Tibetan and non-Tibetan, have posted videos explaining their culture, revealing larger parts of the story, putting the incident in cultural context and demanding an apology from the media.

There are also interviews with the boy and his mother sharing the happy wonder of their experience with the Dalai Lama after the program ended. Tibetan news sources say the boy’s parents have written to the Office of the Dalai Lama “assuring that their faith and respect for His Holiness remain intact.”

The Damage Done

It’s all too easy to swallow the hook that is presented by a short, out of context, and cleverly edited clickbait video. If, however, people are willing to look more deeply, you will see the holes in the story portrayed by the edited video.

If you’re not so interested, or holding tightly to your own view and don’t want to look further, then you’ll have the negative impression for a long time, which is the intent of the person or government that manipulated and posted the video.

The saddest part for me is that in cancelling His Holiness, millions of people will lose access to his deep wisdom and compassion when it is so deeply needed in today’s fractious world. Millions who admired him but did not know him well enough to investigate the details of this incident could lose faith in the qualities of goodwill and kindness altogether. And that is a tragic loss.

Meanwhile, His Holiness will continue to pray for and care for all his detractors and critics as fervently as he does for his followers and the Tibetan people. Daily, he recites and contemplates this favorite prayer:

For as long as space endures
And for as long as suffering beings remain,
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

May the good people of Tibet especially find solace in their Buddhist faith and transform this incident for the benefit of all.

Ven. Thubten Chonyi
Ven. Thubten Chonyi
Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She received novice ordination at the Abbey in 2008 and full ordination in 2011 in Taiwan. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and other local locations.

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Lauri Marder
Lauri Marder
1 year ago

Since these headlines came out, it has been heartbreaking to realize that there will be no apology from the media for carelessly promoting this story, so harmful to Tibetans, so discouraging for all of us, so disrespectful to His Holiness. Every day, checking for a correction or at least a followup to the story, there is nothing. No, the major news media simply accepted the version they received from the Associated Press, and ran it, without checking, thereby needlessly amplifying a fabrication. This is harmful to everyone because there are people whose true dedication to the welfare of the world is truly beyond reproach- and this should be known and honored. To do so gives hope to our world which is in turmoil, to all its people whose trust has been betrayed again and again. It calms the rough waters to know there are such people as His Holiness. However this edited video was created and disseminated, it had a bad intent, was false, and should never have become so widespread, legitimized by the major news sources. How could a world leader be slandered this way, without any verification or real reporting? How could, weeks later, there not be follow-up and retractions? 

Julie Banks
Julie Banks
1 year ago

It is so sad that our society is quick to judge and condemn, without considering the context. It is evidenced every day, every minute in our news cycle. As a critically thinking human, I believe it my responsibility to observe situations and events before jumping to quick judgement. Especially when there are cultural differences that can be easily misconstrued. I wonder why we Americans are so incurious about others and insist that our evaluations, our worldview, is the only correct perception of the world? Could it be we are addicted to our own failed strategies to dominate and oppress? Otherwise, we may have to admit that we share the common needs of joy, love, and safety as all our fellow humans on earth. Why else do we insist on denying our own history and demonize anyone with an alternative point of view?

Viviana Cifuentes
Viviana Cifuentes
1 year ago

You are an enabler of the continuous misconduct in our society and the abuse and disrespect toward children from influential individuals. What a shame!! It is shameful to continue to defend the abuse of power! No matter who it is, stand by the innocent children that are being abused and corrupted under the hands of any men/women! People: Our children are our future, and we adults have to protect them from the mistreatment, abuse, and psychological effects, but instead, all I see here is, once again, the protection of powerful men! It is disgusting!!

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