The Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most influential religious figures and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is at the center of controversy for his recent interaction with a young boy.
A viral video in which the holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism is seen kissing a boy on the lips and telling him to “suck my tongue” during a February event has sparked outrage among viewers. The Dalai Lama’s office issued an apology for the incident on Monday, suggesting the exchange was just a playful misunderstanding.
This incident is the latest in a string of controversies involving the 14th Dalai Lama—named Tenzin Gyatso—over the last eight years. Here’s what you need to know about the video and some of his incendiary statements.
What Happened in the Viral Dalai Lama Video?
A clip of the Dalai Lama’s appearance for an event at the Tsuglagkhang Temple complex in Dharamshala, India has spread across social media in recent days.
It shows a young boy approaching the Dalai Lama and asking to hug him. The 87-year-old monk invites the boy on stage, motioning to his cheek for a kiss. The boy obliges and gives him a hug, before the Dalai Lama points to his lips and pulls the boy closer for a kiss on the mouth. After a few seconds, he says “and suck my tongue,” leaning toward the boy’s face with his tongue sticking out.
According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies, sticking out one’s tongue is a sign of respect or agreement in Tibetan culture and can be used as a greeting. According to folklore, a cruel Tibetan king in the ninth century had a black tongue, so people perform the gesture to show they are not his reincarnation.
However, some commenters have called the exchange “disgusting” and “abusive,” noting the boy’s apparent uneasiness, according to NPR. Many right-wing influencers in the U.S. have shared the video as an example of what they claim is rampant pedophilia.
The HAQ: Center for Child Rights based in Delhi told CNN the video “is certainly not about any cultural expression and even if it is, such cultural expressions are not acceptable.”
How Did the Dalai Lama Respond to the Video?
The Dalai Lama’s office released a statement saying, “His Holiness wishes to apologize to the boy and his family, as well as his many friends across the world, for the hurt his words may have caused.” It goes on to say the Dalai Lama often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way.
The boy’s identity is not known. According to NPR, the event was held for more than 120 students who completed a skills training course hosted by the M3M Foundation—the charity arm of a prominent Indian real estate group.
What Are the Dalai Lama's Other Controversies?
The Dalai Lama has been in the news frequently for making controversial statements about women and world politics.
The Dalai Lama’s age has led to growing speculation about who, if anyone, may succeed him and whether a woman could assume the role. In a 2015 interview with the BBC, he made remarks that many considered sexist, saying that a woman could be the Dalai Lama, but needed to be “very attractive” or else she would be of “not much use.”
During another BBC interview in June 2019, reporter Rajini Vaidyanathan asked the Dalai Lama if he understood how his comments could have angered women. He similarly stated that a female Dalai Lama “should be more attractive,” or else people would “prefer not see her … that face.”
A week later, the Dalai Lama’s office released a statement saying he meant no harm, but was “deeply sorry” that his comments hurt people.
In 2016, the Dalai Lama gave an unflattering impression of then-U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain, making fun of his hairstyle and small mouth.
Then, in the same 2019 BBC interview in which he commented on a possible female Dalai Lama, His Holiness criticized President Trump’s “America First” motto and said he lacked moral principle. He also said Trump’s emotions were “a bit too complicated.”
Lastly, while speaking at a conference in Malmo, Sweden, in 2018, the Dalai Lama said European refuges should return to their home countries and assist in developing them—bluntly stating that “Europe belongs to the Europeans.”
The Dalai Lama is, notably, a refugee himself. He fled to India in 1959 amid the Tibetan uprising and was granted political asylum.
Tyler Piccotti joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had worked almost eight years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor. He is a graduate of Syracuse University, an avid sports fan, a frequent moviegoer, and trivia buff.