Last week the Tibetan community was rocked by accusations against his Holiness XIV Dalai Lama of inappropriate behaviour. The allegations relate to an interaction between His Holiness and a young boy at a recent public event. The Dalai Lama kissed the boy, who then asked for a hug. “You can suck my tongue”, joked His Holiness. The encounter was filmed, spliced and widely shared.
The expression “che le sa” is familiar to most Tibetan people. It means “eat my tongue”, and it is a quip used by adults when a child has depleted them of all other resources. When a child has asked for this and for that, or has been wilfully indulged, an adult might laugh that they have nothing left – unless you want to eat my tongue?
The Dalai Lama has been previously quoted as saying that he only started to learn English at the age of 48, and that “broken English helps me communicate better and creates laughter when I make mistakes”. If only his recent slip had been better understood.
Mouths, tongues – in Tibet there are more uses for these organs that you might expect. Sticking out one’s tongue was a sign of respect or agreement in traditional Tibetan society, and in some parts of the region it remains a standard greeting.
Tibetan elders commonly feed their little ones mouth to mouth. When our kids were little Yeshi would often pop something between his teeth and “kiss-feed” them in this way. Sometimes he would chew through coarse food for them as well, before offering it up. Back in Tibet, his parents never had the luxury of blenders or the many other machines that we’ve come to rely on when weening. And solids tend to be introduced earlier: mothers are busy, so there is a practical need. Tibetans say that like breastfeeding, mouth-to-mouth feeding can help to boost a baby’s immune system.
In the West we’ve moved so far from this kind of primitive behaviour – actions that would once have been familiar to us all – that we’ve come to view it as unpleasant at best or perverse at the other extreme.
The Dalai Lama’s imperfect English and uniquely Tibetan gestures have unfortunately collided with the worst of the Internet. The result is his complete defamation in some circles. This is the last thing that Tibetans need in their struggle.
If this post has helped you to understand what happened, please do share it – thanks so much.
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