Lost in Translation: The Real Meaning of the Expression ‘Suck My Tongue’ That Tarnished Image of the Dalai Lama
- The visceral reactions, particularly in the West, reflect both the ignorance of cultural differences and a reluctance to give the benefit of the doubt to alien traditions.
Now that the global consternation over the Dalai Lama’s “suck my tongue” controversy has blown over to make room for other outrages, it may be a good time to examine if something was lost in translation in the Buddhist spiritual leader’s encounter with a young boy.
First, what exactly had happened — in an edited video clip that went viral last weekend (the actual event took place on Feb. 28), a boy is seen asking the Dalai Lama for a hug, following which the leader blesses him, and asks him to kiss him and sticks out his tongue saying, “suck my tongue.”
The “scandalous” video and the outrage spread like a forest fire. Some clips recorded 5 million views. Angry responses followed — “scandalous,” “disgusting,” “abusive,” and “sick old man.”
Even though the seemingly bizarre encounter took place in front of hundreds of devotees at a temple in Dharamshala, no one seems to have paused to wonder why the Dalai Lama would kiss a child on the lips and say such an outrageous thing. Even a seasoned pervert wouldn’t be so brazen.
Social media lit up with accusations fast and loose. A Twitter user declared, “The Dalai Lama is a pedophile. The child was assaulted. No sane person is okay with what he did to that child and the worst part is this happens to so many kids cuz y’all normalize predatory behavior in close family members.”
Rapper Cardi B chimed in saying, “This world is full of predators. They prey on the innocent. The ones who are most unknowing, our children. Predators could be our neighbors, our school teachers, even people with money, power & our churches. Constantly talk with your kids about boundaries and what they shouldn’t allow people to do to them.”
The 87-year-old Buddhist priest quickly became a butt of the joke in the late-night shows. From Bill Maher and Steven Colbert to Chelsea Handler, every comedian was on to it.
Even an apology from the Dalai Lama’s representative saying, “His Holiness often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way, even in public and before cameras. He regrets the incident,” only added fuel to fire. A Newsweek columnist wrote that the apology, “seemed odd at best, abusive at worst.”
“While it’s great that His Holiness ‘regrets’ asking a child to ‘suck my tongue,’ this ‘apology’ is not only insufficient and offensive but feels more like the Dalai Lama is gaslighting rather than apologizing,” the columnist added.
Journalist Raneem Bou Khzam tweeted, “Teasing??? This has nothing to do with teasing!!! This is a highly questionable behavior jeopardizing the little boy’s mental health, and it falls under the abuse of childhood innocence!”
a South African geologist responded, “Why did you even have such a filthy and revolting thought? You are truly disgusting. You are a menace to children.”
What is obvious in the visceral reactions, particularly in the West, is both the ignorance of cultural differences and a reluctance to give the benefit of the doubt to alien traditions. Perhaps, that is why the responses of Western Buddhist devotees who have followed and known the Dalai Lama for a long time were more reasoned.
When asked about how she saw the controversy, an American Buddhist in Oakland, California, who visited Dharamshala many a time, explained to American Kahani in these terms: “I have no idea what the Dalai Lama meant when he said that, since I was not there and am not familiar with any of the context. I think though, that it is absolutely ridiculous that people are jumping all over this expression, because of what it would mean if a man here, in the West, would utter it. Sometimes languages translate in weird ways … The Dalai Lama is an old man, one with probably the highest levels of integrity a human being can achieve on this planet. Give him the benefit of the doubt.”
She attributed the misunderstanding to “our hyper-sensitized culture.”
“Awkward? Yes,” she concluded.
The most illuminating explanation for the controversy came from the Vice report which cited a second-generation Tibetan refugee, Jiggle Ugen’s YouTube video, in which he explains how such a display of affection was born out of a game played between elderly Tibetans and children.
The report quotes Ugen as saying, “Kids who go up to their grandfather, for instance, are asked to kiss their grandfather’s forehead, touch their noses and kiss them. Then [the grandfather] says that I’ve given you everything so the only thing left is for you to eat my tongue … The child probably never gets the candy or money but gets a beautiful lesson about life, love and family.”
Vice also cites a Tibetan feminist educator in India, who says “suck my tongue” in Tibetan is also a game for the elders to deter cheeky kids from pestering them. “The word ‘suck’ in the Tibetan language is ‘jhip’, and this is not a word that is sexualized in our culture,” she says.