The Internet is buzzing with an excerpt from a BBC interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In it, he repeats a joke he made in 2015 that a future female Dalai Lama “must be very attractive, otherwise not much use.” As a Tibetan born to refugees in India who weren’t formally educated past high school and as a transgender person familiar with the violence of misogyny and gender stereotypes , I want to share what went through my mind as I watched him make this joke.
Ever since I started learning to read and write in English, I have been watchful of the Dalai Lama’s remarks. He’s the same age as my grandmother, and when I look at him I don’t see a Nobel Peace Prize laureate or a celebrity. I see someone who, as an adolescent, was given the responsibility to lead his people through foreign invasion and decades of ongoing colonialism. Someone who is denied entry into countries such as South Africa, Thailand, and South Korea, because they want to avoid offending one of the most powerful nations in the world (China). I see someone with a deep spiritual understanding who does not accept compensation for any of his talks or appearances. Someone with limited fluency in English and its nuances, who is a permanent guest in a foreign land (India). I see a refugee and an elder, with everyday imperfections.
As a Tibetan familiar with the format of jokes in my community and how different they sound in English, I immediately knew what the Dalai Lama was saying in his 2015 interview. I could see him struggle through an improper delivery, in which he is trying to make himself the butt of a joke about being ugly. Self-deprecatingly pointing to his face, he unsuccessfully tries to convey how any female Dalai Lama would be, “must be” attractive in comparison.
First, it is not appropriate for anyone to be discussing the appearance of a woman or any person as a barometer of performance. The mention of make-up shows how ignorant and unaware the Dalai Lama is of the social pressures on women. The Dalai Lama should clarify his remarks and apologize for their problematic nature. [Update: The Dalai Lama’s office issued this statement of clarification on July 2. I highly recommend viewing it.]
Next, I could see him misunderstand why the journalist brought it up. He thinks he’s being asked to repeat the joke, to engage in something lighthearted. But no, she is asking him to reconsider his words. That doesn’t get across. He looks slightly mystified and like he doesn’t quite follow the beats of the conversation. This is where it’s helpful to keep in mind that not only is the Dalai Lama a non-native English speaker, he is a refugee. Since his youth, he has learned the welfare of his people rely on the good graces of others. He does everything with genuine sincerity and compassion, and he also (in my opinion) embodies that trait common to all refugees — he tries to please his host, to set others at ease. A refugee’s welcome can be revoked at any time. Every refugee knows this, and the Dalai Lama is no different.
It is a common refrain among Tibetan parents to cultivate a compassionate heart, to not be jealous or speak ill of others, to engage in right conduct and intention, and that even with all of this, the inner goodness won’t be seen if you don’t tend to your presentation. Be as clean as you can in your attire, adopt a good mood and easy manner so that others will feel happy in your presence. These are age-old Tibetan sayings, and I can see his mind switch to a philosophical mode when BBC interviewer Rajini Vaidyanathan asks, “Isn’t what’s inside more important?” When he answers “both,” he isn’t taking a moral position on character versus looks, but is rather thinking about how the onus is, at a practical level, always on the individual (or oppressed group) to make a case for themselves. He is a Tibetan, after all. If what’s on the inside is what was most important, Tibet would have genuine autonomy instead of a security checkpoint network imposed over several hundred thousand square miles. Tibetan refugees in Nepal would not be denied identity documents over the last two decades. Tibetan would not at risk of becoming an endangered language in its own land. No, unfortunately, the material world matters.
Regarding his most recent statements on the current refugee crisis, the Dalai Lama will likely issue remarks clarifying his opinion. But he will probably not think to explain what is obvious to me, though perhaps not to others who cycle through headlines and don’t know (and perhaps don’t even care) about the reality this 84 year old refugee comes from.
It would be a game-changing event if the Dalai Lama was able to safely return to Tibet. Diaspora Tibetans call ourselves “in exile,” because the vast majority of us are unable to actually get a visa to return. We cannot get in, and many of our brethren inside Tibet cannot leave. So when the Dalai Lama says refugees should receive training and education and “go back,” his words reflect the landscape of his most hopeful imagination — one where Tibetans have the option to return home, reunite with their relatives and neighbors, and help improve conditions in their communities they have dwelled painful decades away from. (His statement at 4:32–5:42 in the interview about not anxiously waiting to return reflects a polite consideration for the feelings of his host, the Indian government. By saying he will go wherever he is most useful, he can avoid entanglement in the political maneuverings between India and China.)
When I first heard his comments on Europe accepting refugees and that everyone cannot stay because Europe cannot become Muslim or African, I was very pained. On paper, the sound bite is identical to racist verbiage by far right nationalists who barely feel the need to hide their sense of white supremacy these days. But I would ask you to consider his intention and actions of record. The Dalai Lama has repeated time and again that refugees ought to be welcomed and that Islam is a peaceful religion. His visitors and audiences span the range of the world. He harbors no ill will when countries refuse his visa requests. Nor does he try to shame or condemn the many formerly colonized nations that avoid standing up for Tibet at the United Nations and other arenas. He knows these nations’ leaders are being practical, and that they don’t want to risk problems with China. On the global stage Tibet is an underdog among underdogs, without anything of obvious value to offer these countries that have regained their independence. But he doesn’t mind, because he has a compassionate, open outlook on the world and its many priorities and possibilities. Wherever he is allowed he speaks a few simple words for Tibet and peace, and doesn’t say anything negative if someone doesn’t want to be an ally to Tibetans.
Related: His Holiness: A Life
Homeland is a sacred idea to him, and it is this priority that drives much of his language, to the point where it sounds like he is against migration. I read him as trying to offer a suggestion that meets multiple needs — allay discomfort of Europeans who are clearly making a swing rightward, and promote free education and other resources for refugees.
Pragmatism is common to Tibetan character, and similarly part and parcel of who the Dalai Lama is (though non-Tibetans are usually only familiar with his compassion, spirituality, optimism, and ethics). He knows firsthand that refugees don’t leave their homes as a lark, and are only driven to it from dire circumstances. At the same time, he knows support from neighboring countries is never guaranteed. Thousands of Tibetans died in refugee camps and walking across the Himalayas when first escaping Tibet, including my paternal grandmother. He understands the desperation, and this is what makes him be the first to suggest compromise in order to secure something, anything for a people in need.
In conclusion, I would like to be the first to acknowledge what most of the world was perhaps unaware of before this week. Yes, the Dalai Lama is human. He makes mistakes. He is no stranger to pain and suffering, and he will regret having caused pain and confusion to people taken aback by his words. And I also want to note something I think the world too easily forgets. The Dalai Lama is not just human. Like every person, he comes from somewhere. He speaks a language that is a mother-tongue. Tibet rarely makes the news anymore, much less Twitter or meme culture. It is a source of anguish for many of my fellow Tibetans. It is also in my opinion a small moral failing on the part of the world that the media and public seem more interested in a clickbait headline but hardly stop to consider how fluency in English is a prerequisite to understanding what is going on in today’s world, as well as to being understood.
I hope this incident can be an educative one, for the Dalai Lama and for this rapidly more connected world. I’d like to end with a quote from the Dalai Lama that reminds me of some advice my parents gave me as I was growing up.
A truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion…the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.
—From The Compassionate Life by the Dalai Lama
This article originally appeared on Medium under the title “An opportunity to reflect: The Dalai Lama and the world”.
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