Defend Truth


What the Dalai Lama did to a child appals and deserves our condemnation


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

The bigger conversation here is the inconsistent application of the standard of morality and sanction based on a person’s status. For a proponent of nonviolence, the Dalai Lama certainly and quite clearly violated that young child.

The case of “His Holiness” the Dalai Lama kissing a young boy on the lips and then asking him to suck his tongue is one of the most perplexing — not a word I use liberally — and disappointing incidents to happen this year.

I use the word disappointing because, invariably, those who are elevated beyond mere mortal status and let it go to their heads are doomed to come crashing down on the mean streets of mortality.

The Dalai Lama is revered the world over and has been elevated to divine status. This affords him great influence and immense power, which one would think would be wielded responsibly. He is hallowed for being a spiritual leader and, above all, a champion for peace and nonviolence, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his tireless efforts in this regard.

Personally, I have issues with anyone being made a god and seen as a superhuman of sorts, because it often creates a damaging inequality divide and tempts people to think they are accountable to no one and can do as they please.

The response to the incident has been mixed, with many people being reluctant to engage. It seems to me that the reason people seem ill at ease with calling out the behaviour unequivocally is because of the Dalai Lama’s divine status and the belief that he is beyond reproach. The truth is he is not. No one is, and this incident has shown that. What he did is wrong and we need to sanction it in the same way we would anyone else who is not considered divine. This is not so much to punish him but for the protection of that little boy and other little boys and girls who may find themselves in similar positions.

It frightens me to think that we would defend the reprehensible actions of an adult, instead of prioritising and trying to repair the feelings of betrayal, embarrassment and trauma of the child. All the child asked for was a hug before a kiss was imposed on him without consent, and then was asked to “suck my tongue”.

The bigger conversation here is the inconsistent application of the standard of morality and sanction based on a person’s status. For a proponent of nonviolence, the Dalai Lama certainly and quite clearly violated that young child, using the unequal power dynamic that he holds over not only the child, but also those who revere him. This was also evidenced by those in attendance not jumping to the child’s defence but merely laughing and looking on.

The feeble apology offered by the Dalai Lama stated that he would like to apologise to the child and his family and regrets the hurt his words may have caused. It also said: “His Holiness often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way, even in public and before cameras.”

The apology is irrelevant. What is relevant is why he did it or thought it was appropriate to do that to a young, impressionable child in a room full of adults and media. We can only be grateful that the incident happened in a public forum and forced an admittance of wrongdoing.

This moment offers an opportunity to look at our prejudices and re-evaluate our positions on who we choose to protect and why. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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  • Antoine van Gelder says:

    Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, sometimes nuance gets lost in the process.

    “Eat My Tongue”

    The Tibetan Phrase “Che Le Sa”


    In Tibetan culture, it is common to see the old grandparents not only give a pop kiss to the small children, but also give a small candy or piece of food to children from their mouths – directly mouth to mouth.

    This may not be the norm of your culture, but this is commonly done. After the elder gives a pop kiss and a candy, since there is nothing left in their mouth, nothing left to give, they will say the phrase “Ok, now ‘eat my tongue’ (not ‘suck,’ as His Holiness misspoke due to his less proficient English). The Tibetan phrase is “Che le sa”. They say that as in “I’ve given you all my love and the candy so that’s it–all that’s left to do is eat my tongue.” And it is a playful thing that the children know. This is not really done in the Lhasa region (capital of Tibet) so much, but it is more common in the Amdo region (where HH is from). However, it is definitely a Tibetan custom.

    If we are honest with ourselves, we know that when we form an opinion on any topic without considering many aspects of context in any given situation, we are choosing to keep a significant degree of ignorance in our reasoning.

    Source: www dot vice dot com/en/article/jg5854/tibetans-explain-what-suck-my-tongue-means-dalai-lama-viral-video

    • Caroline de Braganza says:

      Thank you for clarifying this Tibetan custom.

    • Ian Callender-Easby says:

      Oh my G.d! Really?

    • Penelope Meyer says:

      Thank you so much for this explanation, it really clarifies things. I think that we all are too quick to react hysterically and impose our own cultural biases on others, for example the hysteria in the US that followed pictures of David and Victoria Beckham kissing their children on the mouth. I always kissed my parents on the mouth and it was a shock for me to see Americans sexualise a very innocent gesture of affection. To me this reveals a rather prudish and prurient tendency to project your own issues onto others. I had a feeling that there would be a cultural explanation.

  • Easy Does It says:

    It depends on whether you see the glass half full or half empty. I very much doubt that this revered “man”would deliberately do something disgusting with international cameras all over him. A simple man was being playful and in all probability may have been insensitive to those who would look at the glass half empty. Lots of them too. It would be no fault of the author of this piece to be elevated to “divine status “ and given a soapbox to stand on. The crime I if you choose to stand on it and chirp righteousness. The Dalia Lama has never stood on the soap box, is a humble man and should be afforded the opportunity to be human and to err. I have learned to accept an apology with the glass half full.

  • Shirley Cowling says:

    Is the author 100% sure that the Dalai Lama’s action is not in any way a cultural behaviour?

  • Indira Govender says:

    We need to stop using “tradition” and “culture” as excuses to violate children’s boundaries or to cover up when adults cross the line. Whether it was intentional or not, the Dalai Lama, an international figure with a following of millions, should have known better.

    • Helen Lachenicht says:

      In SA we have our own traditions, among many there is the annual teenage initiation for young black men, during which some die! I would suggest we sort out the log in our eyes before the mere splinters of others!

  • Sandra McEwen says:

    The Dalai Lama is very clear about his status as a simple monk and not some deity. I think this writer should do some more research on this great human being.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    This may reflect virtue signalling without the necessary insight. All too common in the world of the woke.

  • Oliver Vergo says:

    It saddens me that Daily Maverick allowed this unbalanced and ill-informed opinion piece to be published on their website. The author stated at the end of their insupportable diatribe ‘What is relevant is why he did it or thought it was appropriate to do that…’ without considering, it seems, to do their own research to understand context and culture. Good journalism investigates the issue at hand by exploring the many possible angles and explanations without bias, prejudice or jumping to assumptions. This particular journalist failed on all counts. It wouldn’t have taken long to learn about some of the cultural nuances outlined in Antoine van Gelder‘a post, and then to provide a more balanced and insightful report of what happened and why. As a DM subscriber and supporter of quality journalism, I am disappointed by this article and with the DM team.

  • Pam Henderson says:

    Suggest that your writer Picoli does a minimal research into Buddhist traditions before she copies a libelous article

  • Ian Callender-Easby says:

    “The Dalai Lama is revered the world over and has been elevated to divine status” Ha, ha, ha… how naive are humans? 🤷🏼‍♂️

  • chris butters says:

    Pikoli rightly receives a thrashing from knowledgeable readers. Yes, disappointing that she is a DM journalist. Having worked for 10 years in the Himalayas, I have to groan at the ignorance. Tibetans also often stick out their tongues as a greeting. Would she feel insulted and go into a self-righteous rant? On the other hand, the Dalai Lama, a wonderful human not a god, does realise that some of their cultural practices can come into conflict with some other peoples’. Like burping to show one enjoyed the food, or making images of Mohammed. He’ll no doubt be more careful in future, with a touch of sadness that people can be so petty. Saddest of all, maybe, is how excessive political correctness kills one of his main gifts to us: the laughing, the mischievousness, the openness of spirit.

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