The leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile defended the Dalai Lama on Thursday, telling reporters that video footage of the Tibetan Buddhist leader kissing a boy and asking him to “suck my tongue” was likely promoted online by pro-Chinese sources.
“It needs no explanation as to who would gain from maligning the image, the reputation and the legacy of His Holiness,” said Penpa Tsering, the head of the India-based Central Tibetan Administration. “Considering the scale and extent of the orchestrated smear campaign, the political angle of this incident cannot be ignored.”
Video of a Feb. 28 public event near the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India, has sparked online criticism over the last week. It prompted a statement of apology from him on Monday.
The clip shows the boy at first asking the 87-year-old for a hug during a ceremony in which the Dalai Lama blessed more than 120 students who had just completed a skills training course.
He then points to his cheek and says to the boy “first here.” The boy kisses the cheek and gives him a hug. Then the Dalai Lama motions to his lips and says “here also,” and kisses the boy briefly on the lips.
He then sticks out his tongue and says “and suck my tongue.” With laughter in the background, the video shows the boy sticking his tongue out before withdrawing it, and the Dalai Lama did the same.
In Tibetan culture sticking out one’s tongue is sometimes used as a traditional greeting, and can be seen as a sign of respect or agreement.
The boy, Kiyan Kanodia, was interviewed by Radio Free Asia just after the event. Asked how he felt after meeting the Dalai Lama, he said he felt blessed with “positive energy.”
“I just can’t express how good it feels. It was a really good experience meeting him,” he said. “You feel very positive energy and there’s a lot of positive energy in you when you get blessed by him.”
Kanodia’s grandfather, Basant Bansal, made similar remarks to RFA. Bansal is the chairman of the M3M Group, a real estate company in India whose philanthropic arm sponsored the skills training course.
Antics, pranks and joviality
Tibetan officials have found that the initial instigators for making the video go viral on social media were pro-Chinese, Tsering told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia in New Delhi.
Tsering listed the many ways the Dalai Lama has been physically affectionate with people he meets – including political leaders.
Cuddling, holding someone’s nose, playing pranks and otherwise engaging in jovial interactions have all been all part of the Dalai Lama’s public repertoire, Tsering said. That includes touching foreheads, which he did with the boy at the February event.
“That’s the highest honor, from a Buddhist perspective,” he said. “All of these are part of His Holiness’ antics.”
The remark about the tongue “was meant to be for the amusement of others” in the room, Tsering said.
“The personal integrity of His Holiness has never been in question in 87 years, so how can people pass judgment on one incident?” he asked. “We know how grandfatherly affection can be. But this went a little beyond.”
NGO wants an investigation
Tsering pointed out that the boy’s mother was seated nearby during the event and didn’t have any complaints. Neither did any of the students, he said.
Still, the executive director of a Delhi-based child rights group, Haq: Center for Child Rights, said that “no custom or traditional or religious practice that results in violation of children’s rights is acceptable.”
Bharti Ali told RFA in an email that she is worried about the boy’s safety, especially now that the video has received so much attention. The incident “requires necessary investigation and action,” she added.
“We cannot on the one hand teach safe and unsafe touch to children and on the other allow inappropriate actions to be passed off as playfulness,” she said.
Tsering asked that anyone who is disturbed by the circulated footage watch video of the entire event to understand the tone of the event.
“We are sure you’ll be able to differentiate between lust and love,” he said.