The world has been shocked by a video of the Dalai Lama asking a boy to “suck” his tongue, which has gone viral. The video shows the Dalai Lama hugging a boy and asking him to kiss him on his cheek, after which he points to his lips and says, “here also.” He then kisses the boy on the lips and says, “suck my tongue,” while sticking out his tongue. The crowd laughs, and the Dalai Lama hugs the child again.
Having spent some time in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, I have observed the culture of affection that exists amongst monks and towards their congregation. This display of warmth might be misinterpreted by some in the West more salaciously. When I met with the Dalai Lama, I also noticed his mischievous and affectionate manner.
A famous example was when Desmond Tutu, the renowned Christian spiritual leader, visited the Dalai Lama in India, they embraced and exchanged a friendly kiss, reminiscent of the playful affection shared between innocent children. Some regarded this display of warmth as a beautiful expression of love, but some also viewed it with suspicion interpreting sexual undertones.
Of course displays of affection like this towards a minor has more serious implications when interpreted with suspicion. The Dalai Lama’s subsequent apology shows that he acknowledges that his actions were inappropriate. Especially as he will be aware that there has been concerns expressed in the past about the culture that exists within the monasteries and the behaviour of certain monks.
In 2012, the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, acknowledged that some monks within his administration had engaged in sexual misconduct, including with minors. Known as the Karmapa, he is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, and Ogyen Trinley Dorje is seen as one of the most influential and charismatic of the Tibetan lamas.
The Karmapa’s acknowledgement of the misconduct came after rumours had circulated for several years that some members of his staff were involved in inappropriate sexual behaviour. The Karmapa issued a statement acknowledging that some of the monks in his administration had engaged in sexual misconduct and apologizing for the harm that had been caused.
The Karmapa also announced a number of measures aimed at addressing the problem of sexual misconduct within his administration, including the establishment of a new code of conduct for all staff members, the creation of an ethics committee to investigate complaints of misconduct, and the appointment of an independent investigator to look into the allegations of abuse.
Worryingly in cases relating to minors, there has been no handing over of perpetrators to the appropriate authorities where they can receive fitting punishment for these grievous crimes.
Another case was brought to light in 2017, when a letter was written by several former students alleged physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. Sogyal was known for his book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” The letter accused him of a pattern of abusive behaviour towards students, including hitting and punching them, sexually abusing female students, and humiliating them in public.
A report from Buddhist Project Sunshine, which was released in February 2018, detailed allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by several Buddhist teachers. Including Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala community. The report also named other prominent Buddhist teachers such as Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Eido Shimano Roshi, and Genpo Merzel Roshi, who had been previously accused of sexual misconduct.
The accusations against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche included claims of unwanted sexual advances, groping, and sexual assault. In response to the allegations, the Shambhala community commissioned an independent investigation, which found that there was credible evidence of sexual misconduct by the Sakyong.
In response to the 2018 report on sexual misconduct and abuse in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama acknowledged his sadness and concern over the allegations. The Dalai Lama’s response also acknowledged the need for change and reform within Tibetan Buddhism. He emphasized the importance of education and training for both teachers and students in ethical conduct and boundaries.
The Dalai Lama obviously did not consider the importance of boundaries in relation to his recent behaviour with the young boy. So the question remains whether we have just seen the tip of the iceberg regarding the culture of abuse within the Tibetan monastic community.
Disturbingly he expressed that he had known about some of the allegations for several years but was unable to take action due to the hierarchical structure of Tibetan Buddhism. In many cases, senior lamas or teachers are considered above reproach, making it difficult for allegations of misconduct to be addressed. Additionally, the Dalai Lama has acknowledged that there has been a culture of silence and secrecy around such issues in the Tibetan Buddhist community, which has made it difficult to address them openly.
In light of the numerous cases of sexual misconduct and the Dalai Lama’s prior remarks on the issue, it makes it very difficult for the Dalai Lama to plead innocence and naivety regarding his behaviour towards the young boy.