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In Siliguri, a city in north-eastern India, people are taking to the streets in solidarity with the Dalai Lama. The photo is from AFP photographer Diptendu Dutta.

  • 24 Apr, 2023
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Tibetans protest misrepresentations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

                                                        English Translation  By Dhardon Sharling 


This is an English translation of an article published this morning in DERSTANDARD (The Standard), a widely-read German-language newspaper based in Vienna with over 3-4 million unique visitors every month. I strongly believe that this story holds great significance and should be shared with a wider, global audience beyond the German-speaking world. 

DERSTANDARD Original link

English translation


Tibetans protest after tongue video against "misrepresentation" of the Dalai Lama "Suck my tongue," says the Dalai Lama in a video to a boy. This caused a stir. Supporters stand behind him - the scene has been falsely interpreted and deliberately misrepresented.

Anna Sawerthal April 22, 2023, 09:00

In recent days, Tibetans and supporters of the Dalai Lama around the world have stood behind the Buddhist monk. The scenes shown in a controversial video are said to have been taken out of context. Signs at rallies in the Indian Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, in Dharamsala, as well as in the United States and European cities like Vienna read "We stand with His Holiness the Dalai Lama" and "Misleading the public is a disgrace".

"Stop the misrepresentation" is one of the most common demands. People see a scene captured on video between the 87-year-old and an Indian boy as misunderstood. In the video, the Dalai Lama is seen speaking to a child in English saying "Suck my tongue" at an event in Dharamsala, India. The setting in late February was a teaching session with several students from New Delhi, invited by the M3M Foundation. The boy in question is the son of supporters of the organization.

About a month and a half later, after the clip had gone viral on the internet and caused a stir, the office of the Dalai Lama released a statement in which he apologized for his words. The statement also said that the Dalai Lama often interacts with his conversational partners in an "innocent and playful manner".

"Eat my tongue"

Many in the expressions of solidarity now explain that the Dalai Lama never had to apologize. At the center of the explanations of many Tibetans as to why the scene should be understood playfully is the Tibetan expression "Che le sa", which means something like "Eat my tongue". It is typically used when children, for example, annoy their grandparents to give them sweets. When everything has been given, but the child continues to ask, the expression is used that one can now only give the tongue, meaning "eat my tongue." Some Tibetans believe that this expression is not familiar in all regions of Tibet.

If you look at the entire event, you can see that it was the child who asked for a hug not only once, but several times. In the controversial scene, the Dalai Lama finally asks the boy to kiss him on the cheek, first on the left, then on the right, and then comes the controversial tongue moment.

Not a sexualized object

However, the tongue is not a sexualized object among Tibetans, explains a Tibetan woman who has been living in Vienna for many years. In Tibet, parents often feed their children through the mouth. On the Danube Island, for example, you can see naked people in the nudist area, which is strange to her, but it is not meant to be sexual either, the Tibetan woman compares.

In addition, the boy's mother was present, the meeting took place in public, and the around ten-year-old boy himself said on camera afterwards how great the experience was for him.

Asked about the boundary-crossing moment shown in the video, on the one hand, it is said that the Dalai Lama is known for crossing boundaries in his encounters with others. Or simply put, as the Viennese Tibetan expresses it: There is no such boundary for us.

Some see the video as boundary-crossing or as "power imbalances and structures in Buddhism that can lead to abuse," as one observer told the US medium "The Daily Beast". For others, however, the incident is a painful turning point.

Beyond comprehension

"It has broken the hearts of Tibetans," says feminist researcher Dhardon Sharling from the University of Massachusetts. For most, all of this is "beyond comprehension". "We were not prepared for this. This is partly because the Dalai Lama is a Buddha for us and we see him as immune to attacks."

Many also suspect a targeted, China-controlled campaign. The president of the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamsala, Penpa Tsering, suspects that "pro-Chinese sources" have tried to discredit the image of the Dalai Lama. In recent days, there have also been increased anti-Tibet activities on Twitter, Tiktok, and other platforms, such as the China-controlled debate on "slavery" in old Tibet.

Due to the controversy, Tibetans in Chinese-ruled Tibet have been able to see images of the Dalai Lama in recent days. Beijing calls him a separatist and his image is actually banned in Tibet. But despite decades of bans, belief in the Dalai Lama remains unbroken in Tibet.

And even in exile, he is the one who has been holding together the difficult realities of the diaspora for decades. Thus, criticism from the Tibetan side is scarce. In a long text, Bhutanese scholar Karma Phuntsho mentioned on Facebook that his advisers might have done a better job by "addressing international taboos and sensitivities"."

Not beyond attacks

 "We recognize that the Dalai Lama is vulnerable and not beyond attacks," explains Sharling. "Now is the time when we must protect him." Sharling hopes that the incident can be a learning moment about feminist discourses, gender, and sexuality: In the Tibetan language, there is a lack of vocabulary to address these discourses. But it is necessary to be able to denounce, if necessary, and to defend oneself when someone is attacked - "as in this case," she adds.

The Indian NGO Tibet Rights Collective stated in a statement that the "edited video" had given Tibetans "a new sense of purpose and determination in their struggle for freedom".


Tenzin Dhardon Sharling is a second-generation Tibetan who was born in exile after her grandparents were forced to flee Tibet following its illegal occupation by China in 1959. She was the youngest member of the Tibetan Parliament in exile from 2011-2016, and served as Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration from 2016-2019.  As a Ph.D. scholar and graduate instructor of record in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), also specializing in feminist studies, she has over 12 years of leadership experience in public advocacy and intersectional social justice issues.  


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