Podcast explores the "Dalai Lama Spectacle"

Today a new subscriber-only Patreon bonus episode of Conspirituality Podcast dropped—this one takes a deep dive into what host Derek Beres calls "The Dalai Lama Spectacle." You will remember that in April, footage circulated of the Dalai Lama at an event in northern India kissing a young boy on the lips and saying to him "suck my tongue." Many people were outraged, some at the Dalai Lama, and others at news coverage of the event. Shortly after the video circulate, the Dalai Lama issued an apology.

In the latest Conspirituality Podcast episode, The Dalai Lama Spectacle Derek Beres addresses the incident itself, how it went viral, how people with varied perspectives interpreted the incident, and more. Beres describes the episode on Conspirituality Podcast's Patreon page:

What the hell happened between the Dalai Lama and that Indian boy? The internet served up a raft of painfully inflammatory takes, so I took a month to talk with Tibetologists and review the literature on sexual abuse in Tibetan Buddhist contexts. This is a deep, tangled dive. Content warnings apply.


1. Why Cover This, and Why Now?

2. Summary

3. The Clip

4. Virality

5. Two Orientalisms

6. Outrages and Pilled Mindset

7. What do Tibetans and their allies say?

8. Kazi Adi Shakti, Thi Nguyen, Becca Williams

For folks without a subscription, I transcribed part of segment 3, "Summary," where Derek Beres lays out his main arguments. This is about 12 minutes into the hour-and-twenty-minute episode:

Now, when these cultural contexts [Tibetan cultural norms that folks were using to explain the tongue gesture] were first mentioned, they provoked a strong outcry that cultural norms do not excuse child sexual abuse. And that's an understandable point. But, it's important to note that not all Tibetans agree on those cultural norms—those meanings of the tongue gesture. For one thing, they are regional, and at least one scholar of Tibetan history expressed frustration that in the explanations of the phrase, some defenders of the Dalai Lama have tied to an event an essentialized and homogenous Tibet, in which every grandpa is running around saying "eat my tongue," which is not the case. Now that same scholar pointed out that even if the saying WAS common in the rural eastern province of Amdo where the Dalai Lama was born, he would have enculturated into a much more modest and exacting etiquette when he was brought to the court at Lhasa at the age of five.

But what there IS consensus around is that none of the meanings of the gesture are sexual. And that it would be extremely unlikely for the Dalai Lama to be making a prurient as opposed to a childish joke. This helps to explain why the entire livestream was innocently uploaded by the Tibetan media, oblivious to the controversy that would erupt 45 days later. 

So, what happened? I believe that eruption created a fracture in the discourse between private and public meanings. It exposed the stress involved in not being able to sort out the event into two distinct components, the first being the exchange between two individuals, and the second being the greater culture war backdrop against which that exchange played out. So here's how I sort it out personally, as an outsider witness with some familiarity with Tibetan culture:

My basic point is that two things can be true at the same time. First, the Dalai Lama's interaction with the boy can be overbearing and intrusive but not sexual, within its private terms. He is acting out of a heritage that hinges on the acceptance of elders encroaching on the physical space of children, with implied consent. In my opinion, this isn't a good thing in any culture, whether it's elders demanding hugs or grinning their teeth and pinching babies' cheeks, or inviting toddlers onto their laps so that they can ambush them with tickling.

In response to the Dalai Lama's intrusion, the boy seemed to be disarmed with nervousness and awe. But the second thing that can be true and I say this as a media and culture critic, is that I can also see how the optics of the power dynamics in that moment, enhanced by propagandists, can be like salt rubbed into the psychic wounds of clerical sexual abuse of adults and children in both non-Tibetan and Tibetan religious contexts. Moreover, the majority Tibetan response to the outcry, which did not clearly acknowledge this landscape, and which heavily relied on idealizations of the Dalai Lama and the assertion that he could NEVER POSSIBLY be guilty of anything negative—they backfired.

Because that's just not true. In the field of protecting Tibetan and non-Tibetan students of Tibetan Buddhism from clerical sexual abuse, the Dalai Lama HAS something to answer for. Tongue gate is a moment between two individuals that fell on multiple cultural fault-lines in which private and public meanings swirled into a Rorschach fire bomb.

If you can wait a few weeks to hear the rest, the Patreon episodes often end up being released to the regular, free, feed.