The Video Clip of the Dalai Lama and the Small Child. A Buddhist Critique

I first met the Dalai Lama, aged 36, in 1972 when he came to pay respect to Ajahn Buddhadasa of Thailand, a Buddhist monk-teacher with a radical vision, who lived in the forest in southern Thailand.

Two long standing Buddhist traditions, Tibetan Mahayana and Theravada, met together in the form of these two Dharma teachers.

The Ajahn invited the Dalai Lama to give a teaching. much to the delight of us forest monks. I remember the Dalai Lama started the talk with questions along the lines of “Who is the Dalai Lama? Is the man the Dalai Lama? No. Are the robes the Dalai Lama? No. Is the voice the Dalai Lama? No. The Dalai Lama is not to be found.”

Dalai Lama appears through a social agreement, a social construct. His reflection serves as an important meditation on the emptiness of self-grasping, of clinging to identity as more than a product and agreement of minds.

A decade or two later, USA government, media and followers had elevated the leader of the Tibetans into a religious superstar in the propaganda war against Communist China.

I invited the Dalai Lama twice to give a 60-minute teaching during my insight meditation retreat in 1985 and 1986 in the Royal Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya, India, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. He kindly came and spoke to 100 or more meditators from around the world. We have met since at the occasional conference in India and the West.

Memory of this 1972 talk came to mind after I watched on YouTube the incident of the Dalai Lama and the young boy asking for a hug. The Dalai Lama points to the boy’s cheek, saying “first here.” He points to his own lips and asks for another kiss, then says, “and suck my tongue” and leans forward.

I squirmed, seeing and hearing this short clip.

Strip away the social construct of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, you watch on YouTube an elderly person telling a child to suck his tongue.

When Minds Fixate

I heard laughter from those present. That did not shock me. When minds fixate in worship of another, the persons cannot see what is happening in front of their eyes. People were in thrall of having an audience with the Dalai Lama.

Plenty of us in the Buddhist tradition do not have such devotion and adulation of another in our DNA. Why should I, who am subject to birth, ageing, pain and death, become devoted to another subjected to birth, ageing, pain and death? That principle applies equally to being in the spell of anyone, including a religious/spiritual figure, a pop star or charismatic individual.

I can say with complete confidence that if the Dalai Lama had said such words to any of my grandchildren, or a child in our school in Bodh Gaya, or any other child, I would have stopped that line of words right in its tracks. Many others would have responded in the same way.

Western culture takes the view that poking our tongue at another show rudeness while Tibetan culture shows poking out the tongue as a sign of friendship. Dalai Lama appears to have gone further than that, not once but twice, not seeing the potential harm to a child. Most children are very vulnerable to adult behaviour, while a small number seem remarkably resilient with a natural understanding that adults can behave in ways that can harm them.

What on Earth was going on in the Dalai Lama’s mind? I wondered whether there is a diminishing of his neurological faculties from time to time that he, himself, then became rather childlike and thus behaving in a silly way. It is the sort of thing a child, who has watched a romantic scene in a film (movie), might say playfully to another child. Childlike responses to children are common among the very elderly. Would he have said the same thing when he was 50?

If his faculties show mental wellbeing, then it is to his credit that he apologised. He took responsibility rather than justify his behaviour in the name of culture or playfulness. At the time, unknowingly, he might have asked himself if he let the child down, the parents of the boy sitting there, the Buddhist tradition and himself. It only takes a minute for that to happen. Tibetan cultural norms may not always cross over into non-Tibetan cultural norms. Did the Dalai Lama forget this?

Haven’t we all said things we regret and apologised for any hurt we caused?

It might be worthwhile to find a Tibetan view of the situation including a longer YouTube clip of the audience with the Dalai Lama. You can read the sympathetic responses in the Comments to him in contrast to what viewers wrote in the Comment section on Twitter and Reddit.

Could it be a language/translation issue in the communication with the child? Was the clip doctored or taken out of context?

Priority of Children

I take the view that children take priority over all other considerations. We need to be very mindful with children, even when there is not a trace of a wish to take advantage of their innocence. Children suffer enough already. Harm to children comes in many forms – slapping, shouting, screaming, ignoring, threats, unwelcome touch, manipulation, getting children to submit, bullying, ridicule and punishment. We abhor child pornography and child labour. There is the murder of children, mass murder of schoolchildren and the bombing of children.

Adults can rob children of play, of time playing outdoors and indoors. Parents, guardians and others place immense pressure on children to achieve in school and demand they spend their evenings doing homework. We think this oppression is good for them. We push them into the money-making, star-making world of success and failure – education, sport, entertainment, fashion and advertising.

Adults in social media work throughout the year to increase children’s viewing time (addiction) on their platforms, such as Instagram and Ticktock. Parents and guardians feed their children’s addiction to gadgets on the mobile phone and notepads through neglect, lack of love and and absence of creative inter-action with their children. Abuse of children is widespread while denying them a voice.

Children suffer obesity, anxiety attacks, bedwetting, fear, self-blame, depression and get made into sex objects. This is going on daily in public and private life. You will find unacceptable treatment of schoolchildren and you will find it in Buddhist monasteries in the treatment of novices.

Some children will copy the behaviour of the parents or peers and abuse other children.

We can condemn, persecute and prosecute certain individuals and increase levels of punishment. The mental health problem of adults towards children needs attention.

The pressure and ill-treatment of children continue year by year.

Does love of children take second place to the desire to force children into being how we want them to be? Children need love, guidance and wise counsel so they feel they matter as children.

I recently launched our next Mindfulness Teachers Training Course. Googling statements and application of reflection, I dug out thoughtful responses on important points to help safeguard adults and children from harm.

Safeguards include not showing a child’s face in photographs or clips that might bring embarrassment or shame to the child and the family.

We need conversations, discourse and meetings, social and political, written and spoken, on our relationship with children.

Onslaught of Anger on Reddit and Twitter

In a statement, the office for the Dalai Lama said the Dalai Lama “often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way.” From my rare moments of seeing him, that’s true. In my view of that video clip, he goes a step further than ‘innocent and playful’ – unknown to him.

Millions look upon the Dalai Lama with ’kindly eyes, the eyes of affection.’ The Buddha used these words, which we can experience daily. I feel for my Buddhist friends worldwide, who share much reverence for the Tibetan leader for decades. The clip may well have sewn seeds of doubt in their hearts and minds.

In a healthy society, this clip had the potential to spark an intense public debate worldwide on the vulnerability of children to adult behaviour, whatever the circumstances. That is unlikely to happen.

I looked at comments on the video clip on Twitter and Reddit. I read an onslaught of personal attacks, one after the other, screen after screen, on the Dalai Lama. Such attacks make no contribution to resolving the problem of behaviour towards children. I read claims online of ‘rumours’ about the Dalai Lama but not a single detail of a family, a statement or a time and place of questionable behaviour.

Angry people burn up inside because of their aversion to another, who they condemn. The same mind will need a break from their daily anger about others, which will attract the same mind to pleasure. A shadow of the anger may lurk in the pleasure. Others will suffer. Those who live in glass houses should take care of trying to stone another.

Yes, speak up, but for heaven’s sake look deeper than hurling a one liner at an old man. If you feel a deep concern for the wellbeing of children, then address the sick society we live in and take steps to love and support children.

The current issue is not a matter of innocence or guilt. Was it appropriate to make such suggestion to a child? The Dalai Lama apologised. That is an act of kindness, itself.  In my view, that brings the issue to an end.

Final Word

Dalai Lama has given his life to public service. He has been a wonderful ambassador for the Buddhist tradition. He has said regularly “my religion is kindness.” He has brought much kindness into the world. I trust the Dalai Lama’s mental faculties enable him to reflect and meditate on this incident. He will be 88 in early July. The Buddhist tradition provides the tools and practices to dissolve many problematic states of mind or problematic differences in cultural views, if that is the issue. We can then act wisely according to the situation.

I doubt if we will see the Dalai Lama again in the West, and perhaps not even outside Dharamsala in north India, where he lives. In my observation, far too many people who pour scorn on another, are unforgiving, even if a person has apologised and undergone a  change of view. He may prefer a quiet retirement to his room while offering regular audiences where he lives.

I love the Dalai Lama but he is not beyond criticism. I sincerely wish him the very best in his remaining time on this Earth.

May all beings, adults and children live in peace
May all adults and children live in harmony
May all adults and children live in peace and harmony.


12 thoughts on “The Video Clip of the Dalai Lama and the Small Child. A Buddhist Critique”

  1. Mary Williams

    Here, on Jack Kornfield’s website, are videos from Jack, Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, and Daniel Goleman, speaking on this issue.

    For those who have doubts about the Dalai Lama’s intentions, please go to this page, and read what is written, and watch the videos, which are short and to the point.

    Tara Brach said, “The DL is a remarkable leader who has dedicated his life to spreading a global message of kindness and compassion. Recent news coverage has focused on a video clip taken out of context, and it is a deliberate attempt to sow seeds of mistrust. While this has caused much distress, the truth is much different than what has been presented. I hope you will take some moments to watch this video for a more informed understanding.”

    Daniel Goleman said, “A cunning edit of an innocent interaction the Dalai Lama had with a young boy made it seem the Lama was a predator – and in this day and age too many people are ready to leap to such conclusions. That’s the ‘seeming’ here.

    But a full look at their entire encounter reveals that the Dalai Lama was giving the young boy heartfelt advice on how to lead a good life. Indeed, the boy and his parents felt the boy received a blessing from the lama, and apologized for the bad press the edited video brought.

    Turns out the edited version was intentionally malign. One possibility: that video was part of an ongoing propaganda effort by the Chinese Communists, who for decades have tried to discredit the Dalai Lama.

    And apparently there is a cross-cultural misunderstanding here, too. Much was made of the Dalai Lama sticking out his tongue at the boy, a ‘seeming’ unseemly gesture. What that interpretation does not understand is that in Tibetan culture showing one’s tongue is a gesture of respect – and a grandparent might do the same playfully with a grandchild, after giving the child gifts, as though to say, ‘That’s not enough? So do you want to eat my tongue?”

    I’m shocked by the whole affair. I’ve known the Dalai Lama for years, and wrote a book about his vision for the world – A Force for Good – which encourages putting lovingkindness into action. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him do anything like that ‘seeming’ video portrayed.

    The ‘real’ here: the Dalai Lama for decades has been a spokesperson for the value of compassion, for the harmony of religions, and for social justice. And he exemplifies the utmost in personal integrity.”

    1. Kerstin Felleiter

      Thank you for posting the full version of the video and the responses.

      It does help to see the full video.

      I also think that this incident should not overshadow all the great things the Dalai Lama has said and done. His countless words and acts of wisdom should still be seen, shared and honoured.

      However, I still have not yet found a satisfactory explanation for him asking the boy to suck his tongue. Even when assuming that it was with an innocent intention, watching it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling. The boy himself does not seem at ease with the situation. It is – at best – a very strange thing to say to a child.

      Do I still believe the Dalai Lama is a compassionate,wise,loving man after this incidence? Yes.

      Do I believe that his behaviour in this particular instance was appropriate? No.

      Those two statements can co-exist in my opinion.

  2. Ursula Strombini

    You wrote “I doubt if we will see the Dalai Lama again in the West, and perhaps not even outside Dharamsala in north India, where he lives.” yet he just recently left Dharamsala to come to New Delhi to attend the First Global Buddhist Summit where he gave an address earlier today. The address can be watched at Robert Thurman, who was one of the very first Western students of the Dalai Lama, and a respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism released this video on his observations at where he clarifies a lot of the confusion on this issue.

  3. cristiana ciampa tsomo

    HHDL decided years ago of not travelling in the West anymore for health reasons. We would be super-happy to be still able to let Him visit Italy or other western countries, the recent media manipulation would not discourage us. There is nothing to “forgive”, or – yes – there is the poisonus manipulation to be forgiven. Sorry prof. Titmuss if your…profecy will not succeed.

    1. Lobsang Rapgay

      I tried to post a more objective response to the incident involving HH Dalai Lama and the Indian boy. However, I don’t see it posted on your side.

      Please let me know how I can post it since it may give your readers a more balanced perspective on the incident.

      Lobsang Rapgay, PhD

  4. The problem under this problem is that we will not have a calm investigation of why this happened. Devotion and denial at work. I also commend the DL’s apology. All humans make mistakes. Didn’t someone say “To err is human, to forgive divine”?

  5. Kerstin Felleiter

    The Dalai Lama has always been to me a wonderful example of non-violence and compassion. However,my affection for him has suffered since hearing of this instance.

    I regularly work with children. I have tried to think about reasons that could make what he did understandable, including the cultural gap you mentioned, a misunderstood sense of humour etc. and maybe there is a way to better understand his behaviour. However, I think whatever the reasons were for him doing this, it must be absolutely clear that there is no way to justify it. There simply isn’t a justification for an adult approaching a child in this way. It’s an abuse of power. The Dalai Lama has said and done great things, but this doesn’t change the fact that his behaviour in this instance was extremely disappointing and unethical. To display this kind of behaviour as somebody in his position is especially dangerous, since so many see him as an example. If nothing else it can serve as a reminder to not put any other human being on a podest.

  6. Lobsang Rapgay

    While many Tibetans and supporters have responded to the worldwide vitriol against what they saw in the video involving His Holiness and the Indian schoolboy, the importance of addressing the central issue of kissing on the lips, sticking out his tongue, and asking the boy to suck it head-on is critical.

    First, the kiss on the lips. Since there are two types of kisses – affectionate and romantic/sexual, we need to look at the video objectively to determine if the kiss was sexual.

    Affectionate kissing expresses love and caring characterized by the following features.

    1. They are very brief, and the kisser instantly withdraws their lips, unlike in the sexual kind, where the initial brief touching of lips is followed by deep, intense kissing, often with an open mouth covering the lips of the other and in the West with sucking the tongue of the other sex.
    2. In an affectionate kiss, no facial or body language associated with a sexual kiss is present – such as attempting to prolong the kiss, open-mouth kissing, pulling the other closer, etc. Most of us can tell the difference between the kissing of gay couples and that of a parent or grandparent kissing their children or grandchildren.
    3. An affectionate kiss does not involve any coercion by one party or the other. Such as forcing or pressuring the other to respond, as often happens when an adult is sexually abusing a child or a woman.
    4. An affectionate kiss does not involve manipulation, such as the adult telling the child or woman that theirs is a special relationship. Therefore, they are blessed when a priest or teacher justifies the abuse.

    For many cultures, kissing on the lips is the most endearing and intimate way to express your love for someone you feel close towards. Some researchers consider it evolutionary – others consider it a learned behavior. The lips contain multiple sensory and other types of nerves that activate two main types of neurotransmitters in the brain. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is activated to foster closeness, attachment, and bonding, such as during an affectionate kiss. Dopamine activates craving and desire for more of the experience, such as during a sexual kiss.

    Parents kissing their children and the same sexes kissing each other on the lips is found in many cultures, particularly in parts of Europe, mid-East, Africa, and South American countries. Even in the US, many parents kiss their young and adult children on the lips. The affectionate kiss is brief, with the lips closed or slightly open, distinct from the romantic and sexual kind.

    Certain cultures, such as the Hindu parents in India, never kiss their children though certain minority groups, such as Indian Christians, do. Though Tibetan society is conservative compared to Western societies regarding intimacy between the opposite sex, it is much more liberal in their expressions of love and affection among parents and children. While many Tibetans may not kiss their older children on the lips, they do not chastise or frown upon those parents who do. You only need to view videos of Tibetan parents living in India and Nepal kissing their adult children when they are visiting from abroad. They recognize that it is an expression of love.

    In viewing the video carefully, none of the four criteria associated with a sexual kiss are present.

    The second issue is HH sticking out his tongue and asking the boy to suck it. The first point is that in Tibetan and other Eastern cultures, the tongue is not regarded as an erogenous area as it is in the West. In these cultures, many erogenous body zones are never stimulated for sexual gratification as in the West. Like many in Asia, Tibetans do not suck tongues for sexual pleasure doing so because they find it repulsive. In Indian and other Asian movies, kissing and other suggestive sexual behavior are shown but rarely the sucking of the tongues because doing so would be culturally offensive.

    Many Tibetan parents often use their tongues to stick their tongues out to their children, knowing they would turn away in disgust. I remember seeing several Tibetan parents in India do so to their children. Even adult Indian women tease their male siblings and cousins by sticking out their tongues at them.

    His Holiness said he was being playful, which accords with many Tibetan parents playfully sticking out their tongues to their children. Viewing the video carefully shows no sign of His Holiness, like other Tibetan parents, ever making the child suck their tongue. Someone with sexual intent would have found a way to make a child carry out the act.

    It is vital for older-generation Tibetan lamas, teachers, and others, particularly international figures, to be aware of the cultural sensitivities and norms of others in this time and age. HH must be commended for recognizing this and instantly acting, apologizing to the boy, his family, and all the people who believe in and trust him.

  7. Ah great synopsis of an unfortunate event Chris. The most thoughtful I’ve read on this subject . Good one

  8. Thank you for this voice snd position.
    May all children be well and their play space respected and kept safe.

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