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 went 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?
Priority of Children
I take the view that children take priority over all other considerations. 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. www.mindfulnesstrainingcourse.org/safeguards
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. 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 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 undergone a deep change. 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.
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