Toronto’s Tibetan community says nothing ‘abnormal’ about controversial Dalai Lama video

Members of Toronto's Tibetan community say they have been suffering for weeks since a video circulated showing the Dalai Lama kissing a young boy on the lips and asking him to "suck my tongue."

Members of Tibetan diaspora call for greater cultural sensitivity from the media

The Dalai Lama is shown waving to the camera.

Members of Toronto's Tibetan community say they have been suffering for weeks since a video circulated showing the Dalai Lama kissing a young boy on the lips and asking him to "suck my tongue."

Nyila Tsedon, a Tibetan in exile who has lived in Toronto since 2004, says she's been deeply impacted by the criticism that has been levied at the spiritual leader.

She said it pains her that the world has misunderstood what she believes is an innocent interaction.

"I am so sad. I feel like crying and I'm real shocked," Tsedon told CBC Toronto. "I hate that video. Dalai Lama is very innocent, playful, very compassionate."

At a public event in India on Feb. 28, a young boy approached the Dalai Lama, 87, and asked for a hug.

That's when the controversial interaction took place. At the time, video of the entire event was published online. But in early April, a clip containing only the interaction began circulating. That was followed by a social media firestorm condemning the exchange as inappropriate, which was widely reported on in the media, including by CBC News.

The Dalai Lama later issued an apology on his website "to the boy and his family, as well as his many friends across the world." The statement said the spiritual leader regretted the incident, but "often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way."

Video taken out of context, say some

Many Tibetans who spoke to CBC News say the controversy is the result of a cultural misunderstanding and that mainstream media need to do better when reporting on topics of cultural sensitivity.

Local community organizer Sonam Chokey also underscored the Dalai Lama's innocence..

"His Holiness was showing his warmth towards this young boy," she said, explaining that in Tibetan culture, interactions like this are a form of good-natured teasing and common between elders and children.

Chokey also explained that the phrase "eat my tongue" is often used in these interactions and said the Dalai Lama likely mistranslated the phrase due to his broken English.

"I really do understand why the world first reacted the way they did," she added. "Child abuse, especially coming from powerful people, powerful institutions, people from religious institutions — we know there's decades of abuse that have been recorded."

But she maintained this interaction was not an example of abuse.

Chemi Lhamo, another Toronto-based community organizer of Tibetan descent, told CBC Toronto when the interaction took place, no one in the Tibetan community questioned it.

"Nothing was abnormal," she said "In fact, I saw a lot of YouTube comments of the actual video that was posted in February where folks were like, 'This young boy is so lucky. How much good karma would this boy have accumulated to be able to have this type of interaction with His Holiness?'"

The boy and his mother later later said in an interview that the interaction was a blessing to them, Lhamo added.

After Tibet was annexed by communist China in 1949, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, forming a government in exile. He has since become an international figure known for his teachings on love, compassion and goodness. He is revered by the Tibetan diaspora as well as those still living in Tibet, which was occupied by China in 1951.

"This is like our family member, our grandfather, you know, our father being attacked," Chokey said.

'Not everything is just black and white'

Sonam Wangyal, with local Tibetan cultural group, Dhokham Chishigangdruk Canada, told CBC Toronto, the biggest problem is that most mainstream media outlets aired the short video without any situational or cultural context.

"When the Western media and Western folks looked at that video, that's where the miscommunication and misunderstanding occurred," he said.

He's asking for media outlets to do better and to ensure that in the future reports like this one about the Dalai Lama include the perspectives of community members.

Some members of the Tibetan community say they've faced discrimination since the video was circulated. Youngdoung Tenzin, of the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, told CBC Toronto that some school children have been bullied over the incident.

In addition, some Tibetans are say the media should do a better job of covering issues of importance to the diaspora.

"If you really want to spread and talk about meaningful journalism, right now we are talking about 1,000,000 Tibetan kids who are going to residential programs," Wangyal said, referring to children as young as four being forced to attend Chinese-run boarding schools in Tibet.

Wangyal said with the media often not covering the long history of Tibetan oppression, it's unfair they chose to run a seconds-long video of their cultural leader that he believes has been sensationalized.

Lhamo agrees.

"Not everything is just black and white," she said. "There's so many complexities and nuances that needs to be taken into context and understanding to be able to make sense of the situation."


Tyler Cheese reports for CBC Toronto. You can contact him at or @TylerRCheese on Twitter.

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