What does Tibetan Culture say about the Dalai Lama Incident?

A n optim­ist­ic indi­vidu­al like the Dalai lama would say the glob­al­ised era cre­ates an equal har­mo­ni­ous space for all cul­tures regard­less of their power dynam­ics. How­ever, the recent vir­al (edited) video of him flaunted Edward Said’s Oth­er­ness (west is nor­mal and rest is Oth­er) men­tal­ity is still deeply engrained in the minds of people from lar­ger coun­tries with colo­ni­al links.  To foster a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents who can appre­ci­ate oth­er cul­tures, uni­ver­sit­ies offer a wide range of cul­tur­al cur­ricula.  Two con­cepts in cul­tur­al stud­ies are taught more rig­or­ously than the oth­ers: sub­jectiv­ity and pos­i­tion­al­ity.  This is to accen­tu­ate that people with dif­fer­ent sub­jectiv­it­ies and asso­ci­ated with dif­fer­ent pos­i­tion­ings com­pre­hend things dif­fer­ently. The Dalai Lama being an embod­i­ment of Tibetan cul­ture, one should at least offer him the com­mon cour­tesy of view­ing the non-edited video through the lens of Tibetan culture.

Up until the Chinese inva­sion in 1950, Tibet was a largely closed coun­try behind the Him­alay­as with many unique cul­tur­al stand­ards, some of which under­stand­ably look pecu­li­ar to people from oth­er coun­tries. That does not, how­ever, prove them wrong or inap­pro­pri­ate. The Tibetan cul­ture involving the tongue has a long his­tory. Tibetan folk­lore recounts that when the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo (127 BC), came to Yarlung, the cradle of Tibetan civil­iz­a­tion, from Kongpo in the south, he met twelve yak her­ders. Since their region­al ver­nacu­lar was a bar­ri­er to com­mu­nic­a­tion Nyatri stuck out his tongue and touched his nose with it. The twelve her­ders said he must be spe­cial because being able to touch one’s nose with one’s own tongue is one of the thirty-two excel­lent signs of a Buddha. Con­sequently, they made him the first king of Tibet.

Per­haps since this very incid­ent and, in any case, since time imme­mori­al, stick­ing one’s tongue out is, in Tibetan cul­ture, a sign of greet­ing, respect, admit­ting mis­takes, and agree­ment. Gen­er­ally, when Tibetans meet, they quickly extend their tongues to show respect. This usu­ally hap­pens when a stu­dent meets a teach­er, or a com­mon­er meets a com­munity lead­er. Anoth­er legend speaks of how this is to show that they are not rein­carn­a­tions of the 42nd emper­or of Tibet called Lang Darma, who was reputed to have had a black tongue – like an ox — and was known for his cruelty towards Buddhists.

In gen­er­al, Tibetans do not view the tongue either as unhygien­ic or as an ero­gen­ous zone. Indeed, it is con­sidered extremely impol­ite to leave one’s bowl unlicked after a meal. For this reas­on, chil­dren are taught how to lick their bowls as an act of good man­ners when invited to meals by oth­er fam­il­ies. Sim­il­arly, pre­mas­tic­a­tion is still the stand­ard way of wean­ing babies in Tibet. Moth­er and grand­moth­er are the most com­mon people to wean the baby with their tongue, passing food dir­ectly from mouth to mouth, but it is not exclus­ive to them as one can see fath­er, uncle, grand­fath­er, and oth­er fam­ily mem­bers also doing the job. Sim­il­arly, it is com­mon to share a half-fin­ished candy from one’s mouth with grand­chil­dren. Grand­par­ents often being the treas­ury of can­dies, chil­dren habitu­ally gath­er around them, beg­ging for sweets. Some­times they get a new one, wrapped in fresh paper. Oth­er times they will get a half-eaten candy from their grand­par­ents’ mouth. Either way, it is invari­ably a most joy­ful gift. In poor, rur­al, Tibetan house­holds, such as the one I grew up in, sweets are almost as rare as gold itself.

There are occa­sions when chil­dren, greedy for more, are scared off by their grand­par­ents when they ask for more. This is done by the adult show­ing their tongue and say­ing da gni je leb zoe (ད་ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ཟོས།) ‘now eat my tongue’ – this in the sense of ‘I’ve got noth­ing left: if you want more, you’ll have to eat my tongue.’ As such, it is a com­mon phrase used to reject chil­dren ask­ing for gifts  twice. The Dalai Lama, an 87-year-old Tibetan, just mis­takenly trans­lated this cen­tur­ies old Tibetan phrase into Eng­lish and said “now suck my tongue”.  Any­one not fully bilin­gual will have exper­i­ence of mak­ing com­mon mis­takes like this, let alone an 87-year-old, who nev­er learned Eng­lish form­ally.  The most unfor­tu­nate mis­un­der­stand­ing was that the boy, being an Indi­an, did not have a clue about that the Dalai Lama was, in effect, telling him not to be greedy. Hence, he approaches to touch Dalai Lama’s tongue, but the Dalai Lama gives him a small nudge with laughter. You can see this if you watch the  non-edited video. The actu­al tongue touch­ing does not hap­pen and, in fact, Tibetans don’t suck each other’s tongues at all.  “Now eat my tongue” is simply a phrase we use to tease extra needy chil­dren as a way to tell them to ‘clear off, you’ve had enough already’.

Finally, it is import­ant for one to know how the phrase “suck my tongue” trans­lates into a Tibetan mind. The Tibetan phrase is either ngi je leb jip (ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་འཇིབ) or ngi je leb nu (ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ནུ།). Not only do neither of these phrases have any sexu­al con­nota­tions, but also, they are not com­monly used phrases.  Da gni je leb zoe (ད་ངའི་ལྕེ་ལེབ་ཟོས།) (now eat my tongue), on the oth­er hand, is a com­mon phrase, but no one takes it lit­er­ally like the Indi­an boy did. An equi­val­ent phrase one can find in Amer­ic­an Eng­lish is “eat my shorts”. 

Ju Tenzin Choephel

Ju Tenzin Choephel 


Ten­zin is a MPhil gradu­ate in Tibetan and Him­alay­an Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford. He is also the founder of Loplao and co-founder of Tib Shelf. He has authored a Tibetan lan­guage text­book called The Manu­al of Authen­t­ic Tibetan. He is cur­rently study­ing geo­graphy at the Uni­vesity of Edinburgh.