In an age where we are constantly fed an unlimited scrolling of information every minute of every day, we resort to an easy and flat deduction of our perspectives on the news items and the people that crowd our feeds. There are good and bad piles. And recently, the Dalai Lama has been pit into the burning of countless bad piles as evidenced by the comments left on news pages and facebook articles about him. Tibetan voices are not usually represented at all in well known Asian spheres, let alone the mainstream. The two primary concerns are his comments on the need for refugees to return to their home countries and his knowing of sexual abuse within the Tibetan Buddhist institution since the 1990’s.
I. Firstly it is important to mention that The Dalai Lama has NOT been silent on the issue of sexual misconduct that he knew of since the 1990’s. In 1993 a group of western Buddhist practitioners sat down and had conversations with HHDL regarding various topics, one of them being sexual misconduct by Buddhist teachers and leaders. This was discussed in depth and Kundun denounced the reports of abuse. When prompted on the situation by a practitioner concerned by the issue in his own community, Kundun said the following:
“Through every effort, we must stop this kind of situation. The claim if you have the experience of the Buddha mind, anything goes is as far as I’m concerned – these are indication of the persons not having really properly understood the implications of emptiness, rather that the persons’ view of emptiness is incorrect. This is partly result of lack of proper understanding of the dharma, both on the part of the teacher and also on part of the students. I think one good thing is recently, I also received some letter about sexual, ethical issues. Usually I encourage these kinds of letters. Come out! Criticize! Openly! That is the only way, the individual name is worthwhile to mention in some newspaper. Make clear. Then other people will know. And that person also, now in a way they, the person doing wrong things, any way they regard buddha’s own message. We cannot appeal in such cases. In such cases where people are engaging in such unethical conducts, in a way they are totally disregarding Buddha’s teachings and message, therefore we don’t have any other recourse other than publicizing what they’ve done and make them regret or embarrassed because of their undoings. As a Buddhist according to our own experience, Buddha’s message is something that’s a good thing. When we mention and publicize these things we should make clear – these are not Buddhist teachings or Buddhist teachers. In order to teach other people or help other people in spiritual way, first they themselves they must improve… These individuals’ behavior is totally against Buddhist teaching. “
In addition to this instance there have been various teachings when Kundun has brought up this issue, including two occasions in Ladakh on August 2009 and July 2014 and in August 2017 when Kundun spoke out about Sogyal Rinpoche‘s disgraced status. There has been a consistent history of Kundun condemning sexual misconduct and those who abuse their position in the Sangha.
This entire debacle also begs to ask the question, why are we surprised when Buddhists are violent? This shock is one that is not directed at the act and the harm inflicted but at the idealized image of Buddhist monks and a Buddhist institution enacting them. When people express shock that a Buddhist could do wrong, it implies that there is a higher bar or even saint like expectation to stay peaceful and kind regardless of the situation. Most religions emphasize and advocate for peace but Buddhism is singled out as especially peaceful, so much so that the caricature of a saintly peaceful monk who cannot do wrong has developed in the psyche of many. Buddhist monks killing the Rohingya Muslims are not associated with the general Buddhist population, a privilege that is not afforded to Muslims when considering the likes of terrorists that claim to represent Islam.
We as TFC understand that misogyny and sexual abuse are not separate from what it means for us to be Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhists for that matter. We know this to be inherent because we are human beings who like most other human beings have grown up in patriarchal, misogynist societies. Within our own families, and communities, and religious institutions, sexual assault and abuse are regular occurrences that we do not address properly. We often fall prey to victim blaming that tells survivors of abuse that it is not safe for them to speak about their experiences. When Tibetan survivors have spoken up, community members have at the same time tried to hide and stifle the survivor’s voice. TFC is one platform that has given space to many survivors who wanted to share their accounts of sexual abuse so that they could be heard and for our community to recognize that sexual abuse is a reality that we have to confront.
II. Returning to the Homeland
As we explored the complexities underlying the reactions that people resort to, how do we approach the context to where people are speaking from? There have been recent outcries about the Dalai Lama’s comments on refugees at a conference in Sweden. People are outraged that a refugee himself, the Dalai would say that “Europe belongs to Europeans” and that refugees should return back to where they fled from. Commenters have labelled him “trash” and “problematic” and used the word “cancelled” after consuming news articles with these two overpowering statements.
Nowhere in all of the media covering his speech, however, is an attempt to understand why a refugee of all people, who has continually advocated for countries to take in and assist refugees, is making such statements. In a later public talk in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the Dalai Lama reiterated, “The aim is that [refugees] should eventually be able to return to rebuild their own countries. That has been my view right from the beginning.” And he references a general Tibetan want to return back to the homeland, to Tibet. As Tibetans, most of us grow up with a strong sense of wanting to return to Tibet. As children, even if we do not understand the complex political nature of occupation, borders, and refugeedom, we are sure of a fervent passion that something was stolen from who we are and that we will one day return to where we really belong, back to Bhod.
We see and feel these sentiments of returning even from those who have been born in exile and in the diaspora. A symbolic theme of “return” is heavily present in the art and content that Tibetans in India, Nepal, America, and Europe are producing. “Bhod la do” meaning “Let’s go to Tibet” is a popular song known and sung by Tibetans wherever our communities have settled. Shapaley, arguably the most well known rapper among Tibetans in the diaspora, has a song entitled “Made in Tibet.” It is a song that parallels many other music productions by Tibetans in the diaspora where the thematic elements are very emotional and sentimental views of returning to Bhod. The hook that encapsulates “Made in Tibet” is this repeating line, “We haven’t forgotten where we came from, we remember that Tibet is our homeland.”
This incredibly prevalent and romanticized notion of “returning” is overwhelming in the Tibetan refugee experience. With a plethora of pain and nostalgia involved, who wouldn’t have a strong sense of “returning” after being displaced and stateless? It’s valid to feel that way. That is where the disconnect happens, for the Dalai Lama returning is the best possible aspiration for a refugee.
In his later public talk, the Dalai Lama also mentioned that “it’s better for people to live in their own country.” His comments echo a common Tibetan sentiment that Tibet should belong to Tibetans along with his own statement that he is willing to live under Chinese rule as long as Tibet has autonomy. His declaration that “Europe belongs to Europeans,” when understood in this context, can make a bit more sense coming from a refugee who has dealt with foreign invasion and occupation.
It is fair to say that the Dalai Lama should not be placing a popular Tibetan perspective of “return” onto other refugees and their respective situations. And it would also be great if he was aware of the racial and far-right connotations of his statements. For an 83-year old man, however, who has largely only focused on the complexities of Buddhist texts, and that too in Tibetan, it is unlikely that he will understand the scope of institutional racism and xenophobia and how they function. Some of us as Tibetan Americans would love to engage with him in discourse on how we navigate our Asian American bodies and why we condemn police brutality, anti-blackness and the prison industrial complex. But we know that most likely, he doesn’t have the modern day framework of social justice to talk about this nor would we be able to communicate because he is unable to speak in English at length about complex issues and we are unable to explain sentiments beyond “What is for dinner” in Tibetan.
People are free to agree or disagree on any sentiments that the Dalai Lama shares, but, before judgement, there has to be an understanding that the Dalai Lama speaks as a person, a fallible individual, who can be compelled by a deep, gut-wrenching emotion of longing for his homeland to make blanketing statements. See him and every one of us as people who are capable of faults, not to excuse us, but to give us the human quality of failing and wrongdoing.
We live in a culture where we are quick to “cancel” people, organizations and perspectives as “problematic” as quickly as a heated one minute rage in the comments section. Commenters have latched onto the Dalai Lama’s supposed “inaction” in addressing the reports of sexual abuse promptly. However, these very commenters don’t care to give weight to his public condemning of Tibetan religious figures misusing their influence and his meeting with the survivors of sexual abuse where he listened to the points in a petition they made to continue tackling abuses in the Sangha. He denounced the misconduct and reiterated that misconduct is unacceptable. He has asked victims to come out (which isn’t always possible when considering the trauma of survivors) and told victims in the Netherlands that, by going public, “You have given me ammunition.”
Contextualizing the Dalai Lama’s actions and history of statements is important. In 2016 Fox News’ Bret Baier interviewed the HHDL and prompted him with issues regarding US immigration and Islamic radicalization, all which the Dalai Lama shut down immediately – reminding Baier that terrorism and Islam were not the same and that all white Americans were immigrants at one point. There have been many times he has spoken out for justice, including being one of the first figures to repeatedly call on Aung San Suu Kyi to end the genocidal campaign against the Muslim Minority Rohingya.
His actions and his words should be taken as a whole and in context to his story and his identity, not by piecemeal as it is churned by the media. He can be a problematic individual just as we are all problematic people who have grown up being nurtured by a problematic society. There has been progression in the Sangha regarding misconduct (such as Sogyal Rinpoche’s exit) and there may very well continue to be if we (as Tibetan Buddhists) demand for accountability and provide unwavering support for victims. That would entail that we deconstruct rape culture, misogyny, gender roles in Tibetan and Buddhist societies – neither of them being small or easy tasks. We unfortunately, are in the very beginning stages of that.
Lastly, it is important for us to understand for ourselves why remarks made by and against the Dalai Lama shake the cores of the Tibetan community in exile so forcefully. Our attachments to him go beyond his role as a prominent spiritual figure. Tied to him is a sense of who we are and an apprehension about what will happen to us and who will we become after his eventual passing.
It is understandable why we would rush to his defense at every turn. But, it is also important for us to build a critical approach that looks internally into ourselves about who we are and the potential for who we as Tibetans can be. Here, we turned our focus on how the Dalai Lama is perceived and analyzed his sentiments as we often do. It is in part because there is relatively a dearth of news in English about Tibetans and what they are doing in the diaspora. We take the disaggregated and essentializing coverage of the Dalai Lama in large part to prod into how we as Tibetans are often captured by the outsider and also to delve into issues of how our communities function and what we need to address about our own issues.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wP4rsM7AZQ “Dalai Lama speaks out about Sogyal Rinpoche”
- https://youtu.be/Jat4YgIUOWQ – “Bhod la do”
- https://youtu.be/bDwahj8_hhg – “Made in Tibet”