The Dalai Lama's kissing controversy: Aftermath of a cross cultural misunderstanding

by Kooi F Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 18 April 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The recent Dalai Lama kissing incident has sparked a wave of virulent attacks on His Holiness (HH), a figure who has been long portrayed as a beacon of compassion and peace.

While his office issued an immediate apology, his supporters were torn between either being extremely defensive or attempting to reason out his behavior, including offering probable explanations such as senility, playfulness, and lack of English proficiency. Some of the more aggressive supporters of the Dalai Lama even went so far as to attack critics by calling them agents of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and anti-Buddhist agents.

The question now is whether these counter-attacks reflect the values espoused by His Holiness. Would a rational explanation such as "che le sa" be more helpful? Why didn't HH's office implore Tibetans everywhere to respond in line with the values held by him? In short, did the virulent responses aggravate the situation?

For those first time hearing of "che le sa", it is a Tibetan phrase for a game that elders play with children. In this game, grandparents give a pop kiss to small children and also give them a small candy or piece of food directly mouth to mouth.

After this, the elder says "Ok, now 'eat my tongue" (not 'suck,' as His Holiness misspoke due to his less than proficient English). "Che le sa" translates to "I've given you all my love and the candy, so that’s it—all that’s left to do is eat my tongue." The children are aware that this is a playful custom. Apparently the game is not commonly practiced in the capital of Lhasa, but it is more common in the Amdo region, where the Dalai Lama was born. This may be the reason why many Tibetans originally commenting on the matter did not recognize the game.

One pertinent question raised was why this highly held, esteemed religious figure suddenly received mass revulsion, with some even calling him indulging in pedophilic tendencies? Could this be due to the woke culture that is prevalent in western societies? Could it be the aversion to highly sexualized tendencies prevalent in some segments of society? Could it be the negative perception held by many of religious leaders hiding behind their garbs while indulging in pedophilia acts, such as those exposed Catholic priests? Or could it be just ingrained westernized social perceptions of what is acceptable or non acceptable behavior?

It is clear that the quick fire blaze that burnt out of control from a small, flickering flint caught everyone unprepared in the handling of its aftermath. The incident was a classic case of "cross cultural misunderstanding" abetted with some unintentionally misspoken words.

The lessons to be learned here are to take stock and not lose our heads, and to stay true to the spiritual values espoused by the Dalai Lama. He has said many times, conquer hatred with love, echoing that of Buddha. By not doing this, we do a disservice to the Dalai Lama's and Buddha's teachings. It would be well worth the effort of staying calm and investigating the real motivations behind HH's actions. The "che le sa" explanations, which are gaining traction now, seem reasonable.

It also behooves us - which include yours truly here - to be aware of the tendencies to instinctively jump based on our own personal conceptions. It does no harm to stay calm and investigate for some reason to come to light before jumping to conclusions. It does great to our own personal integrity if we use our own lessons in mindfulness and apply them in practice, to see the situation from all possible angles before coming to a decision to respond.

In conclusion, it is not helpful to have knee-jerk reactions based on personal perceptions of a particular harmless action from someone who has consistently demonstrated admirable behavior and who is publicly revered. Let us all strive to reflect upon the teachings of His Holiness, who has spent his entire life promoting love, compassion, and peace.
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