Exiled and Misunderstood

Keeping in mind the tradition and practices of different communities, one has to understand the culture better before forming any broad assumptions about an individual or a particular congregation’s action.
Dalai Lama, Buddhist, Culture, Traditions, Tibetan, Society, Customs, Controversy, Diversity, Edited
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India is a diverse country and Tibetans came to India following H.H. the Dalai Lama in the year 1959. Along with them, the Tibetans brought their unique and ancient culture which has been part of this diversity since 1959. After decades of living in exile, there is still scope for the Tibetan culture and people to be better understood. One such misunderstanding took place recently when an edited video of H.H. the Dalai Lama giving a peck on the lips of a young Indian boy and asking him to suck his tongue during a public event on 28th February 2023 started going viral on social media and other media platforms alike. This out-of-context edited video has caused a sensation and received intense backlash from people across the world and from different walks of life.

Tibetans have lived in peace and harmony for decades in their host country and this harmony is shaking today. Currently, there are over 1,28,014 Tibetans living worldwide, most of whom are of the third generation of Tibetans in exile. This third and fourth generation of Tibetans understand, and at times have also been heavily influenced by, Western thoughts and ideas but this cannot be said of the older generation of Tibetans. The Western world’s woke culture and today’s political correctness are not the first things that are in the mind of the older generation. Most have not even heard about such ideologies.

H.H. the Dalai Lama being 87 years old belongs to this older generation. So, watching an edited video and jumping to conclusions, and expecting ‘woke’ political correctness from a spiritually elderly soul might not be the best move. The video can, however, be very well explained within the parameters of Tibetan culture. This is not a stand-alone incident where the spiritual leader has stuck out his tongue while greeting another person. The term ‘woke’ as derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) means to be “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination”. This can further be understood as being alert and aware of all kinds of social inequalities. Hence the term ‘Woke”, signifies one who is awake. The current controversy surrounding H.H. Dalai Lama can very well be identified as a ‘woke’ movement where viewers who saw the clip chose to express their feelings and thoughts on it. But one must also consider that being ‘woke’ also includes being alert and aware of other cultures and customs before jumping to any conclusions.

There are different greeting gestures around the world such as joining hands together in “Namaste” or pressing ones’ nose against the other in the Maori tradition of New Zealand. Tibetans also have their greetings. One could simply join hands in “Tashi Delek”, or press one’s forehead against the other (meaning to pass on one’s own good fortune to the other). A greeting is also done by sticking one’s tongue out as was seen in the viral video. The tradition of greeting by sticking out their tongue first came into being in 9th century Tibet to show the person being greeted that they are indeed Buddhist and not Bon-po which is a pre-Buddhism religion of Tibet. Bon-po’s were considered to be people who have a black tongue. Over the years, this greeting turned into a polite way of showing respect. Sticking out the tongue is also considered a playful gesture in many other cultures including some of the Indian cultures.

Moreover, in the said viral video, H.H. is seen saying “Then suck my tongue” which again is deep-rooted in Tibetan culture and very classic of elderly Tibetans to say to a young child. The original phrase used by the elderly in the Tibetan language is “Che le sa” which literally translates to “eat my tongue”. This is used when the grandparents give sweets and snacks to young children and when they are left with nothing more to offer, they stick their tongues out and say “Eat my tongue” in a playful manner. In hindsight, “suck my tongue” and “eat my tongue” have very different connotations. To a non-Tibetan “eat my tongue” may paint a very negative interpretation but not so to Tibetans. “Suck my tongue” conveys that same message in a much more sensual light. In the past too, H.H. Dalai Lama has at certain times, not been too accurate in the usage of the English language. At times, faux pas have been committed. Whenever such incidents happened during his teachings, such mistakes were received with giggles and laughter from the crowd and H.H. would also join in the mirth. It must be understood that H.H. Dalai Lama thinks in Tibetan and then tries to translate that Tibetan into the English language while speaking to an audience. As English isn’t his strongest suit, one must understand that what was said, was no more than a simple vocabulary mistranslation.

It’s crucial to comprehend the culture of a people, before commenting on the same with our own interpretations which may be quite inaccurate. Let us consider the custom of ‘Famadihana’, more commonly known as ‘turning of the dead’. This is followed in the Hauts Plateaux of Madagascar where in the months of July and September, the remains of deceased relatives are exhumed and the bones are re-wrapped in fresh cloth. Or, let us consider the “ban of the bathroom” for three days after their marriage for newly married couples of the Tidong community in Indonesia. In a similar manner, when visiting a Tibetan house of Kham origin from the eastern region of Tibet, one might want to keep in mind that the guest is expected to leave some food on his plate as a sign that he is no longer hungry. This may be taken amiss in some other communities who may presume by this gesture that the guest does not find the food good enough to eat.

Keeping in mind the tradition and practices of different communities, one has to understand the culture better before forming any broad assumptions about an individual or a particular congregation’s action. The words used by HH the Dalai Lama must hence be seen and understood in the light of Tibetan traditions and customs and not through the prism of what we presume to be the norms in our own society.

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Ngawang Gamtso Hardy

Ngawang Gamtso Hardy is Research Fellow at India Foundation

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