What On Earth Is Wrong With The Dalai Lama? – Part 1

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

12 minutes

More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
Robert Whittinton (1520)1

But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.
Robert Caro (2012)2

In April 2023, the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s public carressing of a young Indian boy became the subject of heated disputes on social media. An unforced error for which he apologised in writing, got the Dalai Lama publicity in international media that was more adversarial than is commonly seen. Public denouncements provoked the ire of Tibetans loyal to the Dalai Lama as well as non-Tibetan advocates. They flatly equate rejections of the Dalai Lama’s personal conduct with catering to the Chinese propaganda that undermines the Tibetan struggle for freedom. They funnel their charges against critics of the Dalai Lama’s allegedly ‘playful’ and ‘joking’ behaviour through a religiopolitical framework. Any such defence forces every discussant into a demagogue-like role while fighting in an ideological battle in the Tibetan theatre of war with the Chinese. To go beyond presenting peoples’ positions as crude caricatures of the issue at hand, this series of essays develops fresh perspectives on five possible motives that figure prominently in this most consequential gaffe by the Dalai Lama.

‘A Man for All Seasons’

This is the first part of a four-part series of essays focusing on the way the Dalai Lama got himself talked about after a video of his troubling interaction with a young Indian boy went viral on social media and news outlets everywhere.

This series makes use of numeric endnotes that open on hover and take you to the endnote at the bottom of the page on click. Clicking the blue thumbnail at the end of the listed endnotes takes you back to where it was inserted into the text.

The Dalai Lama is perhaps the world’s longest-reigning religiopolitical authority. His doings are not above suspicion or criticism, even among Tibetans. Nor do Tibetans and their advocates have a monopoly on explaining this troubling incident more fully. This series aims to provide access to well-documented precedents and pertinent analyses that help get a handle on the (de-)deification of religious leaders like the Dalai Lama, who seem to walk-on-water but ironically stand to benefit most from being seen as ordinary mortals instead.3

The widely divergent responses to his troubling interaction with the Indian child underline how morally hazardous the situation that the Dalai Lama brought about really was. His swift apology corroborates this.4 These essays will argue that the Dalai Lama’s unusual background and religious training—like those of other religious hierarchs from all denominations—likely left him ill-equipped to cope with the risk of physical boundary breaches in the emotionally charged grey area between affection, intimacy, and sexuality—especially with children.

Like Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) before him, the Dalai Lama is commonly evoked as if he were ‘A Man for all Seasons’—an extraordinary mortal who reposes in an imaginary realm outside space and time.5 His moral stature and disarming presence have become such a permanent fixture of his public profile, that the very thought that the Dalai Lama is an ordinary priest wielding power, whose personal involvement makes him accountable for all his actions, has become well-nigh unthinkable.6

Having that dubious privilege is usually enough to cast doubt on whoever’s character and stature, but the vehement disputes about the Dalai Lama’s conduct that marked the backlash against a disturbing scene during a public appearance just outside his residence, took his followers by complete surprise. Numerous international media, both in print and on television, radio, and online, reported on the unaccustomed, intimate encounter between the Dalai Lama and a prepubescent Indian boy.7

Peddling Tropes

After his disturbing interaction with the child stirred up a media storm, the Dalai Lama’s staunchest supporters played on public sentiments by peddling downright Orientalist, ethnocentric, essentialist, and propagandist tropes—or inverse reproductions of these ascribed motifs—to exploit the intrinsic weaknesses in any and all rash denunciations of his supposedly ‘paedophiliac’ or ‘perverted’ acts by social media buffs.

The rhetoric of would-be surrogates who felt it is incumbent on them to act as the Dalai Lama’s character witness by reframing his conduct as ‘typical Tibetan,’ strikes me as substantively, legally, and morally vacuous. These discursive patterns actually serve as intellectual clamps that stifle discussants’ attempts at breaking out of simplistic modes of reasoning. They shortcut and undermine rather than encourage a meaningful conversation about the most problematic aspects of the Dalai Lama’s behaviour.8

I see no room for ‘Tibetansplaining’ any well-documented breach of a minor’s physical boundaries. For even if goading an underage stranger into kissing a religious authority on the mouth and licking or sucking his tongue were integral to the Dalai Lama’s ‘Tibetanness,’ and even if his people did support this unique practice en masse—and those are big ifs—such a finding still does not justify or excuse boundary breaches.9 Societies and cultures stand in line to abandon ancient practices all the time—and Tibetans have joined that queue before.

In fact, to claim that the Dalai Lama can exercise an inviolable right to treat a random Indian child just as he pleases because it is a Tibetan custom only makes matters worse. For it demonstrates a complete disregard of the voluminous literature, hard-won expertise, media reports, and judicial decisions gained by long-term, in-depth investigations of child abuse by religious practitioners.10 Worse still, it offends the sensibilities of victims and survivors of such abuses, both in India and abroad.

Apparently, the child’s presence during the meeting was not entirely coincidental: the boy is a scion of one of the wealthiest Indian families, and a grandson of the founder of the ‘fastest growing real-estate developer in the country.’11 And most apologists conveniently ignore that the child does not share the Dalai Lama’s ethnic, religious, and cultural background at all.

Similarly damaging are advocates who argue that the Dalai Lama is just too enlightened to cause harm—intentionally or not. Even the most inconspicuous invocation of this blanket statement employs the hidden assumption that the Dalai Lama is good—hence harmless—by definition. But if he is good by definition, hindsight judgments on the harmlessness of the Dalai Lama’s conduct by those who believe this are empty slogans. They are truisms—professions of faith, really—disguised as factual judgments.12 Such defences only cast aspersions on the Dalai Lama’s bona fides—what does his apology actually mean if he is incapable of doing harm?13 They do not advance his case either, for they assume that he is above suspicion and the law—something he himself denies.14

Thorough Inquiry

To help end this intellectually barren spell and reboot the substantive discussion of the Dalai Lama’s recent actions, I should like to prompt professional observers—journalists, academics, politicians, criminologists, sexologists—to join me in a thorough inquiry into five interconnected, well-documented motives that govern the way the Dalai Lama conducts himself in public: the all-embracing reach of his office; the coercive force of his uninhibited manners; his professed ignorance of evolving cultural sensibilities; the affective neglect during his formative years; and the enabling conduct of his entourage and following. They will be dealt with summarily and successively under these headings in the next parts of this series, but let me introduce them here by way of first-pass overview.

The Dalai Lama’s youthful investiture and assumption of power were interpreted by him later in life as four principal commitments.15 By pursuing this fourfold purpose—promoting human values, cultivating religious harmony, preserving Tibetan religion and culture, and reviving the awareness of ancient Indian knowledge among young Indians—the Dalai Lama put himself on a steep learning curve. First, my preliminary examination will show that because he compartmentalises rather than resolves the substantive incongruities his self-conceived mission entails, the Dalai Lama is prone to compromising the integrity of the office he is holding.

Over time, the Dalai Lama’s playful and daring conduct, especially in cross-cultural settings, has become more provocative, dominant, and transgressive. While spontaneous gestures devolved into standard gimmicks, the conditioned reverence and awe his presence solicits, tend to disrupt common feedback mechanisms that might give him pause. Second then, I will explore the ways in which the Dalai Lama wields the ‘soft power’ of laughter and touch to command stages or rooms—and how his disarming techniques misfire.

As a matter of course, especially after the Nobel Peace Prize raised his profile, the Dalai Lama found himself facing expectant secular crowds, religious devotees, well-established academics, and curious reporters across all continents. To manage the competing demands his principal commitments entail while establishing rapport with highly diverse audiences, the Dalai Lama has various public and on-air personas at his disposal: from clownish and eccentric to sombre and inspired to strict and exacting. And so, third, I will be looking for this one constant: although the Dalai Lama is quick to admit his ignorance of any subject, he is slow to acquire and retain knowledge that deviates from his fundamental beliefs or does not suit his religiopolitical objectives.

The Dalai Lama’s biography has been recapitulated in print and on screen so often and so slavishly that it took on a life on its own. His unflagging self-confidence and boundless compassion, in particular, became self-replicating anecdotes—memes—which seem so self-evident that few observers bother to actually think through his formative years and religious training. Therefore, fourth, I will demonstrate why it stands to reason that the Dalai Lama’s affective, emotional, and sexual development were stunted and arrested in ways that remind us of the difficulties that members of the Roman-Catholic clergy exhibited while dealing with intimacy or the lack thereof—especially around children.

Fifth, and last, I will look into the enabling behaviour of the company the Dalai Lama keeps—large communities and small entourages, professional observers and casual followers, sceptical scientists and religious fanatics. As his constant observers, their continuous involvement and responses, whether explicit or implicit, imbue all the Dalai Lama’s public doings. Subtly evoking a sense of purpose and direction—right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, failure or success—they coax the Dalai Lama to be who they would like him to be, even if that is not in his best interest. The shrieking laughter of staff members that accompanied his ill-fated overtures to the Indian boy is a testament to that.

The only prerequisite for the type of inquiry I propose, is to see the Dalai Lama as he professes to see himself: as a simple monk, not a special being outside space and time.16 Or, as Marvin O’Connell said about Thomas More, as ‘a man of one season’—not all.17

This article is the first in a four-part series.

Postscript: This article was slightly expanded and edited for clarity. References were added to the endnotes as they became available.

  1. White, Beatrice. (Ed.). (1932). The Vulgaria of John Stonbridge and the Vulgaria of Robert Whittinton. London: Early English Text Society, pp. xxviii.
  2. Caro, Robert A. (2012). The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Kindle Version). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. The full quote runs as: ‘But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power; if men recognized the traits or realized the aims, they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.’
  3. Raine, Susan & Stephen A. Kent, S. A. (2019). ‘The grooming of children for sexual abuse in religious settings: Unique characteristics and select case studies’. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 48, 180-189. Raine and Kent quote Bratcher, Edward B. (1984). The walk-on-water syndrome. Waco, TX: Word Books and Shupe, Anson. (2007). Spoils of the kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  4. Author unknown. (2023). ‘Statement’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  5. O’Connell, Marvin. (2002). ‘A Man for all Seasons: an Historian’s Demur’. Catholic Dossier, 8 (2), pp. 16-19. Thomas Bolt immortalised Thomas More in his play A Man for All Seasons: ‘Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigour, and could no more be budged than a cliff.’ Bolt, Robert. (2013). A Man for All Seasons: A Play of Sir Thomas More (Kindle Edition). London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
  6. Hridayartha suggests on his blog that the Dalai Lama has become ‘too big to fail.’ Hridayartha. (2023). Too big to fail? Retrieved May 1, 2023.
  7. The incident took place during a public meeting on February 28, 2023, in the debating courtyard of Namgyal Monastery, right opposite the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India. The meeting was live streamed by VOA Tibetan, a state-owned news network and international radio broadcaster of the United States of America. VOA Tibetan’s Kunleng Show reported on the meeting on March 1, 2023, but omitted footage of the contested interaction. So far, I have been unable to locate the original live stream on VOA Tibetan’s YouTube channel. Numerous news networks, websites, and social media show a video clip (originally 2.05 minutes long) of the interaction, often shortened and blurred. The origin and authenticity of the original video are uncontested. On April 29, 2023, a Google search using the terms Dalai+suck+tongue+boy yielded more than 1.47 million results.
  8. Prime example of such defences are found on the dedicated website #IStandWithDalaiLama, in particular the videos by or with Jigme Ugen, the president of the Tibetan National Congress, who is based in the United States of America. Ugen, Jigme. (2023). Part 1: Stop Sensationalizing the Dalai Lama’s Innocent Interactions: A Tibetan’s Perspective. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Ugen, Jigme. (2023). Part 2: Stop Sensationalizing the Dalai Lama’s Innocent Interactions: A Tibetan’s Perspective. Retrieved May 1, 2023; Ugen, Jigme. Y’all Owe The Dalai Lama An Apology! Retrieved May 4, 2023. See also: Gawdat, Mo. Jigme Ugen: Dalai Lama – The Opinion and the Other Opinion. Retrieved April 29, 2023; See also: Sangay, Losang. (2023). Former Tibetan President Dr. Losang Sangay on His Holiness Dalai Lama. Retrieved May 1, 2023; Thurman, Robert. (2023). HH Dalai Lama Archetype of Radical Innocence with Robert Thurman: On The Recent Viral Video. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Anand, Dibyesh. (2023). Going Beyond the Headlines: The Dalai Lama story With Professor Dibyesh Anand, Westminster University. Retrieved May 1, 2023; Author unknown. (2023). Academic scholars of Tibetan Studies call on the media for “careful investigation” over the Dalai Lama Incident – Statement. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Dickie, Tenzin. (2023). Opinion: Can We Allow the Dalai Lama to Be a Good Enough Refugee? Retrieved May 2, 2023.
  9. For extensive discussions of this argument, see: Dutt, Barkha. (2023). ‘Dalai Lama’s ‘Suck My Tongue’ Video Creates Global Outrage: Apology Sufficient?’ Retrieved April 29, 2023; Richards, Laura. (2023). ‘Dalai Lama: Apology Denied’. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Goradia, Nina. (2023). ‘Attune to the Body Cues of the Boy in the Dalai Lama Incident + Open Offer for Counseling to the Boy’. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Clohessy, David. (2023). ‘The Dalai Lama ‘Incident’: How Not To Respond To A Troubling Sexual Situation With A Child’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  10. See, for instance: Raine, Susan & Stephen A. Kent. (2019). The grooming of children for sexual abuse in religious settings: Unique characteristics and select case studies. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 48, pp. 180-189; McMaster, Geoff. (2020). Researchers reveal patterns of sexual abuse in religious settings. Retrieved May 2, 2023.
  11. Hridayartha. ‘The builder of the 4 Indian Trump Towers and the Dalai-Lama’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  12. Rory Cockshaw paraphrases British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s argument to this effect as: ‘Describing God as Good implies perhaps that God is Good by definition, in which case it is meaningless to say that whatever God does is Good.’ Cockshaw, Rory. (2021). ‘The Logical Paradox of a Good God’. Retrieved April 29, 2023. See also: Russell, Bertrand. (1927). Why I Am Not a Christian. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  13. Author unknown. (2023). ‘Statement’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  14. The Dalai Lama’s then distrust of the formal instatement of (re)incarnated lamas led his government to distance itself from this tradition by not including blanket exceptional provisions for (re)incarnations in the first Constitution of Tibet (1963) and Charter of the Tibetans in Exile (1991). Legally speaking, (re)incarnated lamas, the Dalai Lama himself included, are ordinary citizens, subject to trial in a court of law in the lands they live in. While speaking about abuse, the Dalai Lama told Ursula Richard: ‘In India there is also a spiritual teacher who has really brought shame upon himself. He now came to court and was sentenced to prison. That is right. If the Dalai Lama does something bad, you should arrest me.’ [My translation from the German.] Richard, Ursula. (2017). ‘Dalai Lama in Deutschland: Mahnende Worte zum Thema Missbrauch’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  15. Author unknown. (2018). ‘Principal Commitments’. Retrieved April 29, 2023; Author unknown. (2020). ‘Principal commitments of His Holiness the Dalai Lama more relevant than ever’. Retrieved April 29, 2023.
  16. For similar approaches, see Hogendoorn, Rob M. (2014). ‘Caveat Emptor: The Dalai Lama’s Proviso and the Burden of (Scientific) Proof’. Religions, 5 (3), pp. 522-559; Lachs, Stuart & Rob Hogendoorn, R. (2021). ‘Not The Tibetan Way’: The Dalai Lama’s Realpolitik Concerning Abusive Teachers. Retrieved April 19, 2021.
  17. O’Connell, Marvin. (2002). ‘A Man for all Seasons: an Historian’s Demur’. Catholic Dossier, 8 (2), pp. 16-19.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.