By Sang Mota (Sangmo)
From the beginning, I could not understand what the big deal was. When I saw the short, edited video clip of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with his tongue stuck out at a boy circulating on Instagram and Facebook, my initial reaction was surprise at the frenzied online reaction. This behavior is very normal in my Tibetan culture, especially in the Amdo region from which H. H. the Dalai Lama and I both come. I tried not to react to toxic social media reaction. However, after a week or so, I realized that the online attacks would not end there, so I could not remain silent. This manipulated video clip has painted our Tibetan spiritual leader as a pedophile through a monolithic western perspective of our Tibetan traditional customs. This needs to be explained and clarified by Tibetan people.
I have worked professionally as a social worker and domestic violence counselor at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, Victim Services Unit in Brooklyn. I primarily focused on the Eastern Asian population, but also helped in the Human Trafficking, Sex Crimes Division, Homicide, and Crimes Against Children Division. I offered not only language and cultural competency, but also created a safe space for vulnerable, voiceless, and traumatized domestic violence and sexually assaulted victims/survivors. During almost a decade of working in the field, I never heard of a pedophile showing their true face publicly, especially in front of a camera. The research clearly indicates that child abuse occurs behind closed doors.
Was I surprised when a few major TV networks around the world, such as BBC, CNN, and Fox News, used this manipulated short video clip to create clickbait headlines in order to get people’s attention to aim for higher ratings? Not at all. But what saddened me the most was they did not do their basic journalistic homework. Instead, they took the easy route of social media cutting and pasting for their purposes: to grab the audience. Like television, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and others, the news outlets all kept endlessly recycling the same manipulated video clip. The motivation behind this information seems to be political in nature as well. What is lacking here from the beginning is a complete version of the video, which would have provided clarity. This young Indian boy was not only with his mother and his grandfather but also with a group of over one hundred Indian school students who received a private audience with H. H. the Dalai Lama. Moreover, the young boy asked a few times for affectionate interaction from H. H. the Dalai Lama by saying, “Can I hug you?”
In today’s high technology world, we are more connected than ever but it does not mean that we all know each other’s culture and customs. A perfect example of this was the misunderstanding of the phrase, “Suck my tongue,” which in Western culture sounds hypersexualized. But in Tibetan culture, it is a customary, intergenerational play. Since Tibet is also the size of western Europe, there are variations in customs across the broad region. As such, certain forms of play may not be familiar to all regions in Tibet. H.H. the Dalai Lama’s playful interaction is predominantly practiced in the Amdo region where I come from. ‘Suck my tongue’ or ‘bite my tongue,’ or ‘eat my tongue’ are commonly used phrases when we play with children. Specifically, when children persistently want more snacks, and adults have nothing left to give them, then adults would playfully offer their tongue. I myself even played with my nephews and nieces by using the phrases mentioned above in my early 20s in Tibet. The cultural misconception here is that these phrases are not to be taken literally; children obviously do not suck or bite the tongues of adults.
Traditionally, especially in rural areas across the Tibetan Plateau, most children did not grow up with many toys around them. Intergenerational play was a way our adults showed affection towards children with playful behaviors such as tickling and making strange facial expressions to make children smile and giggle. Now, we have an abundance of toys for children to choose from and play with, and Tibetans no longer need to continue certain cultural practices of intergenerational play. Additionally, these older playful customs are not known by some newer generations of Tibetans because some intergenerational playful customs have diminished with the advent of more toys and electronics. Many younger Tibetans do not even know about many aspects of traditional intergenerational play. I wish we had more cultural anthropology research to look back on to show the Tibetan customs and subtleties.
Both the global media, predominantly from a western perspective, and a few Tibetans reacted negatively to H.H. the Dalai Lama’s behavior with the Indian child and stated his behavior was not acceptable. After almost 30 years residing in the United States, I can contextualize their reaction because in western culture, the “tongue” is hypersexualized. However, I was deeply shocked and disappointed with the truly unprofessional statement from SNAP, a U. S, based organization (The Survivors Network of Those Abuse by Priests). SNAP was quick to project their own interpretation and allege child abuse by H.H. the Dalai Lama. It is clear they had done no research on H.H. the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture. I pity them for their cultural blindness, despite being a professional organization. First and foremost, professionally, it did not even occur to them to consider asking about the cultural turn of phrase and its meaning within Tibetan culture. As an advocate holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, Master’s Degree in Social Work, and trained as a social worker in the United States, I know a thorough assessment should be taken first when we determine a situation or meet a client in crisis. We are strictly instructed not to project our values or cultural bias onto others.
After the incident, His Holiness apologized for any harm caused by his action because he regretted causing misunderstandings, not because he is guilty of ill-intent. Historically, widespread allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests against children have occurred, and oftentimes victims were silenced. Sexual misconduct happens not only in the West but is also a problem within Tibetan communities. I know this personally through a lifetime of commitment to combatting gender-based violence and sexual assaulted victims /survivors both in Tibet and outside Tibet. I see that slowly, brave Tibetan victims/survivors come out and share their stories, but the majority of Tibetan communities remain quiet about it. Only a small number of individuals and advocates publicly support their cause.
As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, H. H. the Dalai Lama commands my respect. Many of you may not know there are many forms of Tibetan Buddhism sects and H. H the Dalai Lama was trained in the Gelugpa Sect, which is also known as the “Yellow Hat” sect. Although H.H. the Dalai Lama is the Gelugpa Sect leader, he is also considered a nonsectarian spiritual leader for all Tibetans, similar to the way the Pope is a spiritual leader to a diversity of Catholics and other Christians.
The H.H. the Dalai Lama’s playful personality and sense of humor may not be widely understood sometimes and may be out of cultural context, but he does not deserve to be compared to those religious leaders who actually abuse children sexually. He does not deserve to be immediately shoved under the rug by detractors. Have you ever heard any accusations against H.H. the Dalai Lama of child sexual abuse? To those who do not know who H.H. the Dalai Lama is, for decades, His Holiness has tirelessly worked to promote and spread love, nonviolence, and compassion for the future of humankind. He always emphasizes that our world now requires us to accept the oneness of humanity because we share the universe. H.H. the Dalai Lama always emphasizes we are brothers and sisters from the same human family. He treats people from all walks of life equally without bias. A few years ago, in an interview with the New York Times, His Holiness himself stated that he sees himself as a feminist and thinks the world would be a better place with women leading the way. Women, in his view, are innately compassionate and intelligent. H.H the Dalai Lama is not only a beacon of hope, compassion, and peace to the world, but also a champion and ally of the underprivileged, women, and children.
Ethical journalism should not use unverified sources in the interest of gaining viewers and readers. Unethical practices of journalism only care about promoting their own interests, like the major TV networks, BBC, CNN, Fox News, and other social media which were so quick to trash H.H. the Dalai Lama’s credibility and integrity. By using their platforms, the media put Tibetans in a vulnerable position. The media’s unprofessional, irresponsible, and purposeful undermining of Tibetan culture caused unprecedented emotional distress to all Tibetans, young and old around the world. A perfect example of this is the young Tibetan student from Belgium (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxZ_MORQclo) who suffered during the discussion in her religion class. She shared that her religion is Buddhism and said her spiritual leader is H.H. the Dalai Lama. Her teacher mocked her, saying that H.H. the Dalai Lama is a pedophile and showed the manipulated video clip to the class to humiliate her. This is one of the ripple effects to which the major TV networks and mass social media have contributed. Shameful! The negligent media owes an apology to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people.
(Views expressed are her own)
The author has worked as a social worker in the Victim Services Unit of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. She specializes in domestic violence in the Eastern Asian population. She has her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Hunter College. Currently, she works as a Real Estate salesperson at Douglas Elliman in New York. She lives in Manhattan with her husband.