A Little Insight on The Dalai Lama’s “Kiss” from Traditional Tibetan Context

By Tenzin Bhagen

Tibetan spiritual leader with the Indian family in Dharamsala, 28th February 2023

Last few days the tide of media focus turned to a video footage in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama reportedly touches his lips to a boy’s lips on stage and then teases him if he wants to “suck” his tongue. Looking at the edited-out footage through the lens of the modern world, I can see why it is disturbing for many people at the time when the world is in trauma from sexual-misconduct by religious clergy. At the same time, looking at it from my Tibetan brain, the footage reminded me of the nonrelative elders in my village who knew children considered the older people dirty would tease us to do things, such as to eat food from their bowls, or put their old hats on our heads, or even to kiss on their faces. It was both to tease us and to test our personalities.

The question here is not just about whether the Dalai Lama would do an inappropriate act in public, but what kissing means in his view, in Tibetan traditional cultural view. It seems both the critics of this incident and supporters of the Dalai Lama are making their arguments based on the same assumption that kissing is universally a sexual behavior. So, I hope to illuminate what fundamentally is missing in these discussions.

I grew up in a remote part of Tibet where traditional Tibetan culture remained untainted by the outside world. I sometimes feel that I came from 7th century Tibet. Even though Tibet was already under Chinese occupation when I was born and much physical destruction was done, people’s view of the world, their mindset, their values and their cultural and psychological behaviors had little changed. This is the culture the 87-year-old our spiritual leader belongs to. Yes, the Dalai Lama is aware of many modern issues and he has traveled and met all types of people. However, as a genuine Buddhist monk, there are things he was not exposed to nor had the opportunity to learn about. 

In this traditional Tibetan culture, kissing only had two purposes when I was growing up. For parents to show their affection for their young children and feeding babies. It had zero functionality for the reproductive activities of men and women until young people started going to China to study about a decade later. A mother would chew food, such as meat, or moisten dry tsampa (roasted barley flour) in her mouth and then push it into her baby’s mouth using her tongue. Western -influenced modern people take this for granted today, but kissing for romance is exclusively cultural one that traditional Tibetan culture doesn’t share. However,using lips and tongues to nurture offspring is an innate and instinct act for many living beings. Tibetan mothers also suck out snot from their children’s nose. In our traditional culture, even women’s breasts had no association with sexuality, let alone lips and tongues. 

If I had seen the reaction of the world of the recent interaction between the Dalai Lama and the boy when I first came out of Tibet, I would be completely clueless about why people were so upset. This would be due to my ignorance of modern culture. Here now, you must also  not judge this out of complete ignorance of our traditional culture.  

I once had a dream that made me very happy. In this dream, I was with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and as he blessed me, he used his tongue to clean my upper lip very thoroughly. My natural interpretation both in the dream and when I awoke was that he removed the defilement and obstacles from me and gave me blessings for speech and literature. In our spiritual tradition the representation of tongue is poetry, speech and literature. Sarasvati, the goddess of arts and literature, is referred to in Tibetan poems as the “giver of a tongue.” 

So, in traditional Tibetan culture, the representation of the tongue was almost sacred. It never had any association with sexuality. I would be very surprised if anyone ever told His Holiness that westerners and modern people, including the younger generation of Tibetans, associate their tongues with that purpose. I am certain that the only experience with kissing he might have had was from his parents when he was a little boy in his village before becoming the Dalai Lama. Needless to say, the monastic education doesn’t include modern sex education, and Tibetans who have direct access to him and work for him most likely never dared to engage in any conversation with him that involves sexuality. While I understand that it’s hard for many people not to be disturbed by this video, making assumptions of the Dalai Lama’s motivation based on their own habits is not the right thing to do. If you read about other cultures around the world, you will find that it is not just Tibetan culture that doesn’t associate kissing with romance.

Author: Tsering Passang (Tsamtruk)

NGO Professional | Activist | Author | Founder and Chairman, Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities (GATPM)

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