The importance of context

When NDTV showed the edited video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama interacting with a small boy it disturbed me as it distorted the facts and context in which it happened. I could not understand how someone can defame such an important figure without investigating it and contextualising the incident. I thought people do not deserve HH and that he should limit his public interactions.

In traditional Tibetan society, ordinary people would have very little contact with HH the Dalai Lama, except on special religious occasions or during festivals. Even among the aristocracy and religious leaders, access to HH the Dalai Lama was limited, and only a few were allowed to meet with him on a regular basis. This was partly due to HH the Dalai Lama’s busy schedule and the need to prioritise his time. I have heard stories about how people used to wait for several days, sitting around Potala Palace in Lhasa, to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the Dalai Lama. There are other stories of people who would just catch a glimpse of the window of the Dalai Lama’s room and return home satisfied.

The present Dalai Lama is different in this way. He makes sure to bless everyone. I expressed my opinion that the Dalai Lama should limit his public interactions, especially with people of other faiths, to a friend, who is an atheist. The friend disagreed and said that the Dalai Lama has so much more to offer beyond Buddhist religious teachings. This is true. The Dalai Lama is revered by people around the world irrespective of their faith including all Ladakhi communities including Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. In fact, the Ladakhi Sunni Muslim community had the Jama Masjid in Leh inaugurated by the Dalai Lama when he visited Leh.

In fact, when HH the Dalai Lama is in Ladakh he makes it a point to visit all places of worship during his stay. If Ladakh has religious harmony, then HH the Dalai Lama is one of the big reasons for it. When I was a student in Jammu, we would often wait at Jammu Airport whenever we got news that the Dalai Lama was flying out as Jammu is the nearest airport from his official residence in Dharamsala. I remember one incident when he was to fly out from Jammu and many students had gathered at the airport. Among us was a Sikh youth who was studying at Jammu University. HH the Dalai Lama has this habit of teasing and being playful with people. He has a great sense of humour, which also makes him very popular. He is known to play with the moustache and beard of a Muslim or kiss a man of his age. This has never seemed vulgar to me. Anyway, returning to the incident I was recounting, he spotted the Sikh boy, caught hold of him and said, “Hey, I have seen you somewhere.” He was already in tears when HH the Dalai Lama held him with his hand and managed to reply that he was seeing HH the Dalai Lama for the first time. HH, the Dalai Lama replied in jest, “Oh, in a previous life perhaps!” The Sikh boy was in tears and felt blessed. A common friend told me that he didn’t wash his hands for week after he had been touched by HH the Dalai Lama.

I have also noticed that HH the Dalai Lama always has a relevant response to every question. There was an inter-religious meeting in Ladakh when a non-Buddhist person complained that the Buddhists of Leh did not allow the sale of meat on days that are regarded as holy according to their calendar. HH the Dalai Lama had a very practical response to this. He suggested that they buy a large refrigerator and stock it with as much meat as possible the day before these days. Though this was a practical response, HH the Dalai Lama is not one to ever impose his religion or religious views on anyone else. In this case, laughter followed his comment. As it died down, HH the Dalai Lama added that one should respect the religious views of others in society.

During the Kalachakra event in 2014 in Leh, I was working at Sonam Norboo Memorial, Leh. I remember prior to the actual event, we would discuss how we would attend the sermons. The Kalachakra event probably marked one of the biggest congregations in the history of Leh with more than 100,000 visitors. And yet, I remember work at the hospital going off very smoothly. I remember a surgeon friend commenting that they witnessed very few road accidents in that period. In fact, very few people actually visited the hospital for emergencies. I don’t have a reasonable explanation for this sudden dip. However, it is possible that people were driving more cautiously. Perhaps people were very careful and considerate to others on the road. I don’t remember any traffic issues in Leh at the time. In fact, the town seemed that peaceful. People would give lifts in the car to strangers. Many small families would pool their cars and travel together. Others would dine together after the sermon for 15 long days. There was a sense of peace and brotherhood in the air at the time.

A similar view was expressed by a Ladakhi Muslim during the protest at Polo ground recently. The peaceful protest was held out of respect for HH the Dalai Lama and to protest the manner in which the issue was being discussed in the mainstream media in India. It also reminds me of the incident in Lingshed in 2013. The whole village was in tears when HH the Dalai Lama’s tour to the village was cancelled. The next year, HH the Dalai Lama stayed in the village. I still remember the evening, which had a unique sense. The people did not seem inclined to return to their homes and lingered around his residence in a strange silence. Everyone would keep looking at the room where he was and say, “He is in that room. We are so lucky!”

With regard to the recent incident, there are some people who argue that HH the Dalai Lama's actions were inappropriate. There were others who seem to have malice and seem intent to destroy or defame him. There are still others who have used this incident to try and gain some publicity and attention on social media. Tibetans and religious scholars have viewed the incident as a plain and simple playful interaction. I really think it all depends on how you look at it and how you contextualise the interaction. Would one ever do something that one regards as wrong, in full public view, in front of cameras and an audience? The playfulness of HH the Dalai Lama with his audience cannot be equated or judged by Western culture that has often been understandably traumatised by powerful leaders taking advantage in private of their public stature. Thus, their responses ranged from sensationalist hype to ones that interpreted the incident in its cultural context and HH the Dalai Lama’s pure and jovial nature.

It may be said that non-Buddhists may find it hard to accept that HH the Dalai Lama has transcended worldly sensibilities. A person of his level of realisation dwells in absolute compassion towards all beings, has universal love towards all sentient beings, expresses appreciative joy towards all the goodness around and has unwavering equanimity of mind. His mind cannot be disturbed by lust, greed or aversion. As I look back, I find it rather alarming that media houses such as NDTV are not diligent and careful in their coverage, especially when they are dealing with a sensitive issue that can hurt people’s sentiments. They should have investigated the issue more thoroughly before airing it. I am not concerned about what some celebrities have said on social media as there is a constant barrage of mindless chatter on such platforms. However, when these views are broadcast on national television, then it is concerning. They should remember that it was a playful act with a specific cultural history by an 87-year-old in front of a 100-strong audience, including cameras, and not a secretive act in private meant to harm anyone.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh.

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