The recent controversy surrounding His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been a sharp reminder to Tibetans of the precarity and powerlessness of the life of a refugee. It’s not a lesson we needed. Ours is the inheritance of loss and dispossession. As a people, we know what it’s like to lose our land, our home, and our inheritance, to be robbed of our language, our culture, and our future. Stripped thus of any protective cover, we are completely exposed to human nature, vulnerable to the kindnesses and cruelties of the people around us. In our host nations, this vulnerability puts intense pressure on us to be the perfect refugees. Tibetans have risen to this challenge: we have been the great refugee success story. The Dalai Lama has not only been one of the greatest moral leaders that the world has ever seen, he has made the world a genuinely better place with his teachings and his presence. In other words, he has been the perfect refugee. Until last week.  

At a public event in February at Tsuglagkhang Temple in Dharamsala, a young Indian boy approached the Dalai Lama onstage. The boy asked for a hug. It seems to me that this was probably in the program and scripted. What happened next was not. The Dalai Lama did not know what the boy meant. English, which he started learning in his twenties, in exile in India, has been failing him in his older age, as our stranger languages do. His aides explained the boy’s request to him but it wasn’t enough. Then the Dalai Lama’s secretary, his nephew Tenzin Taklha, tells him that the boy is asking if he can give the Dalai Lama a “hug.” Tenzin Taklha says the word “hug” to His Holiness in English. Traditionally Tibetans didn’t use the hug as a loving social gesture; we touched our foreheads together in a forehead kiss or forehead bump. 

The Dalai Lama gives his assent and says, “First here” pointing to his cheek. The boy gives him a kiss on his cheek. Then the Dalai Lama says, “Here” pointing to his lips. The Dalai Lama gives the boy a kiss (a peck) on his lips. People clap. The Dalai Lama laughs, and others laugh as well. The Dalai Lama then tells the boy, “Suck my tongue.” I know how it sounds but he clearly didn’t mean it literally; he’s being playful and familial. Both smiling, young boy and old monk, they touch foreheads. It is a genuine moment of connection, of love and compassion. 

This innocent interaction has now been perverted beyond belief with the help of Chinese whispers, clickbait charlatans, and well-meaning furious first responders of the internet blinded by moral panic. This last group, the only one acting in good faith, has applied their hypersexualized lens to an innocent exchange, criminalizing a social gesture as sexual and manufacturing a crime where there was none. I’ll be honest. I watched the maliciously edited video first, and even though I understood in my bones that the Dalai Lama meant nothing sexual, that anything approaching violence and abuse would be anathema to this icon of peace, I felt uncomfortable. But later I watched the original longer clip and all I felt was grief. The original video has a quality of innocence that is entirely missing from the manipulated video that’s being shown, with the boy’s face blurred out in a performance of protection.  

For that’s what this blurred-out video is doing, performing protection rather than enacting it. And it is this very performance that heightens the impression of wrongness, because of course the blurred face invites a tautology; this child’s face is blurred, so he must be a victim, and therefore there was a crime. It also obscures what actually happened; the Dalai Lama and the boy both stick out their tongues, but there is no tongue action, only a simple forehead touch. This manufacturing of crime, this false allegation—of child sexual abuse, just about the most horrifying accusation there is—has been an unforgivable smear and slander against the Dalai Lama; an unthinkable violence to the boy and his mother, who are being told that contrary to their experience, he was violated and abused; and a new trauma to the Tibetan people.

This was a public event for both Tibetans and Indians, and there were plenty of people on stage, including the boy’s mother and his grandfather. Each and every one of those people on stage and in the audience are being told that they did not experience their reality in the right way. That the furious first responders of social media, who were not there, who saw only the out-of-context clips maliciously edited to manipulate and incite outrage, know what happened. But what they know is a gross misreading of what actually happened. We have created a sort of palimpsest of our own basest instincts, out of the very real acts of sexual violence that we have suffered and the sexual exposures that we have seen, and misconstrued and misread a completely social gesture as sexual. And the accusation has become a judgment. 

Some have even wondered what might have gone on over the years behind closed doors. There’s been nothing. For two and a half years in my twenties, I worked as special assistant to the Dalai Lama’s representative to the Americas at the Office of Tibet, US. I worked all US visits during that time and was part of his staff entourage on the East Coast. It’s one of the great blessings of my life. Once I traveled with him cross-country for almost a month and I got to know his other staff very well. They had worked for the Dalai Lama for years, in some cases twenty or forty years. They knew him intimately, behind closed doors, away from the cameras, and they loved and revered him. No one, unless they are profoundly pure, can inspire and sustain that kind of devotion for decades. And for all that the Dalai Lama has been scrutinized for by the international press since the ‘70s, for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has been the focal point of our worship, and our watch, for over eighty years. 

He has also been the focal point of an endless Chinese watch, of course. Remember that time it came out that the Dalai Lama’s office was being hacked, almost certainly by the Chinese, for months and for years? A Private Office staff told me that they could literally see the files being copied and sent across the ether. That the Chinese were spying on the Dalai Lama in his office and his residence, and clearly had access to everything. If there were any skeletons in the Dalai Lama’s closet, the Chinese government would have celebrated Halloween every day. 

In fact, they have been sharing this maliciously edited video all over Tibet. But in an unexpected turn, Tibetans on the plateau are rejoicing over this video, because they are finally able to see their spiritual leader whose image has been banned for the last half-century. This underscores how little the Chinese government knows Tibetans, and also the fact that many cultures do not share the same sexual vocabulary. When I was growing up in Dharamsala, young men and young women held hands not with each other but with their friends. There was nothing sexual or romantic about it. And any sort of sexual or romantic kiss in public was verboten in the traditional Tibetan culture—it was simply unthinkable. The problem with the Dalai Lama is that after a lifetime of adapting so much to exile, he has still not adapted himself completely to the tyranny of Western norms.

This was the Dalai Lama’s mistake. But after all, the refugee can never be perfect. His very state is a state of being in the wrong. Throughout history, the refugee, the exile, has often been a scapegoat. 

In particular, the burden of perfection is a problem that has bedeviled Tibet from the beginning. Our problem was not being an independent nation in the right way, or not being invaded in the right way, or not engaging in nonviolent protest in the right way. What I slowly learn is that these issues are only raised in cases where there’s no will to act, only the faintest half-hearted impulse toward justice that’s quickly squashed because it’s more convenient. 

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about the “good enough mother,” the mother who fails her child in manageable ways so that the child can learn. The perfect mother, after all, is an impossible illusion. So I ask, why can’t the Dalai Lama be a good enough refugee? Why can’t he fail us in manageable ways? After all, we fail him often enough, and this latest failure is one of epic proportions. Can we relieve the pressure on each other to be the perfect refugee, the perfect exile, the perfect immigrant, the perfect person? Can we just fail each other in manageable ways, and can we forgive each other for being human?

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