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The Dalai Lama's 'kiss' controversy

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
April 25, 2023

Despite global outrage after a controversial video of the Dalai Lama kissing a young boy went viral, the Tibetan spiritual leader's standing among loyal followers appears to remain intact.

The Dalai Lama with supporters
Some supporters of the Dalai Lama feel that his behaviour has been misinterpreted and taken out of contextImage: Ashwini Bhatia/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Tibetan Buddhist leader has once again faced widespread criticism after a video circulated online showing him kissing a young boy and saying "suck my tongue."

The incident took place on February 28 in Dharamshala in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama has been residing since 1959 following his escape into exile.

The 87-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner was interacting with around 100 students who had completed a skills training program.

The Dalai Lama's office has since expressed regret.

"A video clip has been circulating that shows a recent meeting when a young boy asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama if he could give him a hug. His Holiness wishes to apologize to the boy and his family, as well as his many friends across the world, for the hurt his words may have caused," his office said in a statement.

"His Holiness often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way, even in public and before cameras. He regrets the incident."

Tibetans, Buddhists pledge support

Gonpo Dhondup, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), says the reactions to the video have "hurt" the Tibetan community.

"This uproar is certainly disconcerting…It has hurt the sentiments of millions of Tibetans, Buddhist followers, and admirers of the Dalai Lama around the world," Dhondup told DW.

Following the surfacing of the video, the towns of Leh and Kargil in Ladakh union territory saw thousands of protesters from the Ladakh Buddhist Association coming out to show their support for the Dalai Lama.

Some felt that his behavior was misinterpreted, and that it was an issue of cultural miscommunication.

"In Tibet, sticking out your tongue has been a traditional way of saying hello. It is also a sign of respect. It has also been used as a greeting in Tibetan culture," Tensin Dawa, a Tibetan, told DW.

The RAHI Foundation, a New Delhi-based organization for women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse, also issued a statement.

"At no instant did we believe it was sexually motivated. For some of us, it went out of line. Others felt it was so much in character with the way the Dalai Lama is — playful, loving, and caring," it said.

"This particular playful tradition is apparently very common in the Amdo region in Tibet where the Dalai Lama is from."

Jack Kornfield, an American Buddhist teacher and writer who has known the Dalai Lama for decades, sent out a message.

"Many spiritual leaders have abused their power and this is an issue which I have addressed in my work and books. The Dalai Lama is not one of them. Unfortunately, there has been a media storm of misunderstanding about a playful Tibetan style of interaction between the Dalai Lama and the Indian boy," Kornfield said in a social media post.

"This gotcha clip was definitely taken out of context," he added.

Tibetans worry about post-Dalai Lama world

Three times under scrutiny

It is not the first time the Dalai Lama has prompted controversy for his actions and statements.

In an interview in 2015, the Dalai Lama said that his successor, or the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, "can be a woman, but she must be very attractive," or she would be of "not much use." His office later issued a statement offering an apology for the remarks.

Three years later, the spiritual leader said India and Pakistan would have stayed united after the end of British colonial rule if not for the "self-centered attitude" of the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

"Jawaharlal Nehru's self-centered attitude was the reason why Muhammad Ali Jinnah could not be appointed the prime minister of India," he said. His office apologized again.

The Dalai Lama has also voiced critical views on immigration in Europe, saying that the continent should educate and train immigrants with the intention of them returning home.

"Can the whole Europe eventually become a Muslim country? Impossible. Or African country. Also impossible... Keep Europe for Europeans," he said in 2016, adding "Europe, and for example Germany, cannot become an Arab country." The Dalai Lama himself had fled from Tibet — an autonomous region of China — to Dharamshala, India,  seeking refuge.

Beijing accused of waging defamation campaign

Despite widespread international condemnation, the incident has also rallied many of the Dalai Lama's followers. Many see it as a "conspiracy" to defame and discredit the spiritual leader, with some pointing their fingers at Beijing. "This is a maliciously edited and tampered video on His Holiness' interaction with the Indian boy…[it] was circulated across China and Tibet by the Chinese cyber army, the netizens and the Chinese Communist Party stooges," Lobsang Yeshi, a former parliament member of Tibetan exile government, told DW.

Chinese authorities have insisted they only recognize Buddhist leaders who the country's own government-approved appointees have chosen.

Last week, Tibet's government-in-exile accused China of scheming to "vilify" them and the Dalai Lama.

Its chief, Penpa Tsering, claimed that "pro-Chinese sources" were making the Dalai Lama's video go viral on social media and said "the political angle of this incident cannot be ignored."

Flight of the Dalai Lama to India

BBC Monitoring, which conducted a probe into the allegation, said it "did not find signs of inauthentic online activity, indicating that the criticism comes from genuine sources," adding that it also found the criticism "came from diverse sources."

The Dalai Lama went out in public last week and attended a two-day Global Buddhist Summit in Delhi where he called on people to display compassion and wisdom and to meditate — acts central to Buddhist philosophy and values.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11