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Suck My Tongue, Crush My Balls

The controversy surrounding a recent video of the Dalai Lama greeting a seven-year-old boy was not merely a classic case of “lost in translation.” It also speaks to the deep, ineradicable abyss that can separate cultures, and invites reflection on the confusion surrounding intentions and desires that can occur within cultures.

LJUBLJANA – In a recent viral video, the Dalai Lama can be seen asking a seven-year-old boy, at a widely attended public ceremony, to give him a hug and then, “Suck my tongue.” The immediate reaction from many in the West was to condemn the Dalai Lama for behaving inappropriately, with many speculating that he is senile, a pedophile, or both. Others, more charitably, noted that sticking out one’s tongue is a traditional practice in Tibetan culture – a sign of benevolence (demonstrating that one’s tongue is not dark, which indicates evil). Still, asking someone to suck it has no place in the tradition.

In fact, the correct Tibetan phrase is “Che le sa,” which translates roughly to “Eat my tongue.” Grandparents often use it lovingly to tease a grandchild, as if to say: “I’ve given you everything, so the only thing left is for you to eat my tongue.” Needless to say, the meaning was lost in translation. (Although English is the Dalai Lama’s second language, he does not possess native-level mastery.)

To be sure, the fact that something is part of a tradition does not necessarily preclude it from scrutiny or criticism. To take an extreme example, clitoridectomy is also a part of a tradition, and ancient Tibet, too, was full of what we consider today humiliating practices intended to enforce strict hierarchy. And even sticking out one’s tongue has undergone a strange evolution in the last half-century. As Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakya write in The Struggle for Tibet: