The Dalai Lama receiving a khata, a ceremonial white scarf, in Dharamsala, India on May 25, 2009. He says the Tibetan way of life faces "something like a death sentence" under China's leadership.  (Shiho Fukada/The New York Times)

Yes, the Dalai Lama Is Still A Feminist

Note: Today is ལྷག་དཀར་ Lhakar, which means “White Wednesday” in Tibetan. Wednesday is considered a traditional day for Tibetans to express devotion to their spiritual leader and pray for his long life.

His Holiness  the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet has come under fire for a recent BBC interview in which he addressed the current refugee crisis and urged European nations to overcome their Islamophobic attitudes.

Never one to spare an opportunity to generate inflammatory and attention-grabbing headlines, the Gawker-owned outlet Jezebel quickly seized on a clickbait-worthy story painting the Nobel Prize-winning icon of global peace and compassion as a homophobic anti-feminist with “unexpectedly fucked-up opinions.”

Because of the critical influence of His Holiness on Buddhism in the west and human rights around the world, a Tibetan (note: intersectional) feminist critique is imperative to clarify and contextualize his remarks. We hope the following will provide for a more nuanced understanding and discussion of a deeply complex issue:

  1. Having watched the entire interview and the similar clips referenced, His Holiness was trying to explain how unattractive he believes himself to be. Known for his self-deprecating brand of humor, His Holiness was making a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own physical appearance and attempting to make the joke that any potential cis female reincarnation of a future Dalai Lama should be the opposite of him — essentially, “very attractive” by western beauty standards. A regular part of His Holiness’ teachings is the importance of inner beauty over external beauty, in keeping with Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
  2. While the irony here was clearly missed, bear in mind that His Holiness is not fluent in English and requires a translator for all his public speaking engagements. You can plainly see from the clip that the interviewer is quick to assume he’s being serious and makes a half-hearted attempt to confirm his sentiments — then abruptly cuts him off as he visibly struggles to explain his joke by referencing his own physical features:

    His Holiness: “Some people… my face–“

    Interviewer: “You’re joking.”

    His Holiness: [Confused expression] True.

  3. It’s important to recognize that the entire point of the interview was about how Muslims are fleeing persecution and should not be denied refuge because of their faith. His Holiness never fails to emphasize interfaith cooperation and is known for his global leadership in championing tolerance and compassion. Not only is he making a bold and un-precedented move in allowing the possibility of a cis female reincarnation, he also has tirelessly advocated for a greater leadership role for women across the world.
  4. His Holiness has come out in favor of same-sex marriage. In an interview on Larry King Live, His Holiness notes: “If two people – a couple – really feel that way is more practical, more sort of satisfaction, both sides fully agree, then OK.” The Jezebel article’s criticism of his views on LGBTQ issues is, thus, inaccurate. Despite the fact that Buddhist teachings don’t address the issue of same-sex marriage (obviously because marriage is a social institution), homosexuality is not explicitly condemned nor endorsed. Thus, His Holiness coming out in favor of marriage equality is a monumental decision in itself. In addition, His Holiness has spoken out strongly against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
  5. Mainstream feminist outlets are often criticized for their lack of inclusion of women of color and faith backgrounds. In order for a truly transnational feminist movement that encourages solidarity with women across the world, an intersectional feminist approach is critically needed. As a people in exile, with an ongoing political crisis in our ancestral homeland, we hope our allies in the feminist community and larger social justice movement will take note of a Tibetan feminist perspective.

Comments 3

  1. Thank you for your analysis!
    I think there is yet another perspective to it. In Mahayana Buddhism there is the explanation of the seven features of a higher (human) rebirth that are required in order to be effective in helping other sentient beings. One of these features is an attractive form because it attracts people and they easier listen to you. This is also proved by science that beautiful people get more attention. However, the same is also true for a male physical form, it should be also beautiful. That’s why, the First Karmapa, about whom is said that he looked very ugly (his physical appearance was compared with that of a monkey) vowed to have from his second incarnation onward only beautiful forms.

    Science btw, also shows that not only beautiful forms are more attractive but also that a deep voice (baritone) is more attractive and wins more trust from people than if the voice is not deep. The ideal politician, a research found out, is a male person, 50 years old with a baritone. »the preference for leaders with lower-pitched voices correlates with the perception that speakers with lower voices are stronger, more competent, and older, but the influence of perception of age on vote choice is the weakest of the three.« http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0133779

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I am so frustrated at how quickly people jump to point figures at H.H. the Dalai Lama, when he is the most compassionate being alive.

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