This Restorative Justice Life

Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Context and Restorative Justice in the Dalai Lama Incident w/ Sujatha Baliga

May 30, 2023 David Ryan Castro-Harris
This Restorative Justice Life
Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Context and Restorative Justice in the Dalai Lama Incident w/ Sujatha Baliga
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Have you ever caught yourself making snap judgments based on a video or news story without understanding the full context? Join us as we discuss the recent incident involving His Holiness of the Dalai Lama and a young boy, and examine the need to pause and educate ourselves before making judgments. Our guest, Sujatha Baliga, brings an insightful perspective as a survivor of child sexual abuse, a public defender of the accused, and a Buddhist practitioner with audiences with the Dalai Lama.

In this eye-opening conversation, we explore the impact of the media storm and criticism that resulted from the incident, and the importance of understanding cultural context. We'll also discuss ways of healing from sexual violence, restorative justice, and how we can create a more restorative and healing environment. With Sujatha's guidance, we navigate through this complex issue and offer valuable insights. Don't miss this critical conversation around elders and young people interacting in ways that are not conducive to current standards.

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David: Welcome to Restorative Justice Reflections, the show where we talk about the things that are happening in news, pop culture, the media and try to make sense of it all. I'm your host, david Ryan, barcaga, castro-harris all five names for all the ancestors And here with me today is Sujatha Baliga. She has been, we've actually been in conversation for a little bit and you can hear the full conversation that we're having on another episode of This Restore of Justice Life, but in this moment we're responding, reflecting on a recent incident that popped off in social media, where a video was put out of His Holiness of the Dalai Lama asking a little boy to suck his tongue. There was a lot going on under the surface of that, and so we're here to explore that. 

David: You know, Sujatha, you introduced yourself on This Restore of Justice Life, so and people can read the description to learn a little bit more about you But really quickly, when you saw this happen, what came up for you? What was your reaction as somebody who has deep experience in Buddhist tradition and personal experiences with His Holiness of the Dalai Lama? 

Sujatha: Yeah Well, thank you so much, david, for giving an opportunity for other things to be heard on this, and so, just really briefly, i think it's important to name that I come to this conversation as a very public survivor of child sexual abuse and someone who spent my entire adult life dedicated to healing from and ending child sexual abuse. I'm a former victim advocate. I've worked extensively in the field and ultimately found my way to restorative justice, and so and yes, i am a Buddhist practitioner and I've had multiple audiences with the Dalai Lama, and the first one was in 1996 when I met him really struggling with my own work in trying to end sexual violence and my own sort of survivor journey And his advice to me on ending child sexual abuse and how to make that. My life's work has really guided my work, and so that is some background information. I am also deeply embedded in Tibetan community and have been for decades knowing many Tibetans and spending at least three times a week spending time with Tibetan folks, and so this is some of the background information that I have, or just background stuff. I also am a former criminal defense attorney who has worked with folks who have been accused of things they did not do, and so I actually bring sort of a legal analysis to the conversation as well, and so I hope that this can be beneficial. So, yeah, that's a little bit of a background information. And I don't know, david, do you want me to just say a little bit about what I go? You asked me what was my initial reaction. 

Sujatha: So when I first saw the video so my knowing his holiness as I do, and seeing the clip that I saw, it was very obvious to me that it was edited, and edited in two ways. One was that it was just like two little clips of something stuck together, and that it also that the boy's face was completely blurred out, so much so that you couldn't really see what was happening between their faces. And so, because that's how my mind works, and because you know, knowing after 87 years of a public and a private life, that I have had some privy to of nothing like this ever having been said about him before, right, i was like what else is going on here? And I think that that is an important thing for folks to Ask themselves before rushing to. Oh, let's have a snap judgment. That this person is doing something Really like creepy or disgusting is to actually say what else might be going on here, right, and so that was my snap feeling. 

Sujatha: I also had a sinking feeling like, oh no, this is like, this is clickbait. That is going to be really damaging to not to his holiness, because His holiness is fine, you know, but to the Tibetan people and to our own minds That we need some people we can trust and love in this world. And so I felt sort of sick for all of us. That was my initial feeling, like, oh, this is really bad. This should not this. We need to pause before we run with this narrative And to educate ourselves and to understand what's happening. But that's not how the world works these days, is it david? So that was my initial reaction. 

David: Yes and like. For me, like not having as much experience with both Buddhism, his holiness, but like being a critical consumer of media, it's like one. You know that edited nature of this clip was Something out there. Two like what with. 

David: From what I know about his holiness, like what sticks out in my mind the the most is the playful nature of How he interacts with people, right, and so, even without knowing the Full context of what was going on there, my initial thing was like oh, this was just like a joke that went wrong. Not like this is a sexual predator, right, and I think like there's space to be like, even if, like that's the case of what was happening. There's space to be critical of Elders of a different generation, like acting in ways that like are not conducive to like our current, like Who's standards for like what is appropriate interaction between Elders and young people, and like we can have that conversation. But to label someone like sexual predator In a moment is like Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, let's stop. And so when we think about like a restorative justice process And like maybe not, we're not getting to like the justice of this all, but like, we're thinking like restoratively, we're thinking about being like what happened, like what actually happened, who was impacted and how? 

David: and like What are the needs present in that situation in order to make things right or as right as possible? Whose responsibility is it to meet those needs? So I mean, let's start with the what happened. Um, yeah, yeah, what happened. 

Sujatha: I think it's really important to start with what happened, i mean, and I think, well, and we can start with who is harmed actually, which is the way we start restorative conversations And what we know is that initially, initially, there was no harm to that boy. And if there are many of us who've gotten to see the full, unedited, unedited version of that thing and other moments where the boy seems like awkward or embarrassed or something, yes, i mean so the, the engagement goes on for over three minutes And there's a lot of hugging and playing and tickling and goofing that occurs in the context of this entire thing and Um, and then there is post video footage of the boy and his mother, who was sitting next to them when this whole thing was happening. It was her event, uh, that she was putting on for a foundation that she runs that helps children, and there were 120, you know, college-age kids in the audience and some smaller kids, and he was one of them and he asked his holiness for a hug. His holiness can't hear, um, and didn't understand the word hug, and I think he misinterpreted it as so he's, he's almost 88, he learned English in his late forties And his English is actually quite bad, and he says that he enjoys speaking in English because it creates Um mistakes that become laughable. He has actually said that on. Why do you speak in English when your Tibetan is so like? we miss So much of his thinking? but he does it for us so that we can get to hear him in English And also because he says it's funny when he makes mistakes. 

Sujatha: So he made a couple English mistakes here. First was that they were trying to tell him hug, hug, hug, and he couldn't hear um, and Any any. Like four or five people just keep coming up to him, try to tell him, like, what this boy is asking for, and so he's like oh, yeah, yeah, come, come, come. And so then he thought it was kiss. He's like first here, then here, then here, and so his holiness, you have to understand, is um, and so this can cut both ways for those of us who know that there's tons of clergy sexual abuse that occurs right, um, and at the same time, in understanding that his holiness has been a celibate his entire life And has been withdrawn from external culture and society in many ways, um, and particularly around things sexual. It's just not how he's thinking, right, and so he's goofy, and so you can see him pulling people's noses, pulling people's ears. You know Being very physically goofy with people and because of that there's sometimes sort of cross cultural gaffes, um. 

Sujatha: And so with Tibetan folks, mouths and tongues aren't necessarily seen as sexual. You can google it right now and say Tibetans and their tongues and you will find thousands of pictures of Tibetans going like this And there's, like I, just a lot of that. For those who are just listening, i'm sticking out my tongue in like seven different ways And so there's a lot of goofing and greeting and communicating with tongues that is 100,000 percent non-sexual. And so to me there's like this cross cultural gaffe between the missing, what he heard and the tongues not being sexual And the fact that he's all like. The first time I met him he played a humongous practical joke on me and he's just goofy and playful and sometimes even like a little he pushes the edge. 

Sujatha: He's a little inappropriate in some ways, but not sexually inappropriate, just he uses physical humor and slapstick humor all the time to break the tension between people, especially those who, like, revere him as a God or feel awkward. And so the boy is feeling awkward because it took forever for him to get onto the stage and his mother is seeing, like you see her expression. She's like what are you doing? Like you know, like it was she's. She's laughing, but she's also like this is the event she's putting on. The boy is awkward and his holiness starts playing with him. That is literally what is happening, and so for those who know him know that that's what happened, and so was the boy harmed. 

Sujatha: Who was harmed from the post audience interview where the boys literally saying the words it is inexpressible. He said it is indescribable, inexpressible. The blessing of being in, in, be able to receive a blessing from his holiness, that's what the boy said immediately thereafter. And then afterwards the boy like, goes and tries to do this other thing, there's blessing, we break a coconut to get his blessing. This was happening within the South Asian context, and notions of bodily autonomy of children, of course, need to be respected generally, yes, and so I said how things play out as sexual or not sexual or abusive or not abusive actually has cultural context, and so almost every South Asian person I know who saw it was like this is not a lot of beer, not a lot of, and it never even occurred to us. I think that it would be sexual. But those of us who straddle societies and cultures understand oh hey, yeah, that's going to. That's not going to look good And it is going to. People are going to run with it for clickbait And that is what happened. 

David: So And it didn't happen immediately, right, this was an event in February of this year. We're now having this conversation in the middle of May. This popped off in April, right, and so when we think about you know who was harmed? I think about in that situation, right, kind of nobody, like yeah, there was awkwardness, sure, but like that's not harm, right. I like to think about the ways that I want to shout out Stas and Lee from Spring Up when they use their analogies of, like you know, harm, conflict, abuse, right, it is not conflict. 

David: Like it is not harm that we disagree or have like an awkward moment, right, it's not even harm that I like happened to like brush up against your shoulder that like has a bruise, right, like you're hurt. And I think when this was publicized, like this hurt a lot of people, right, both because it reminded them of things that happened in their lives, things that have happened in the lives of people around them, And because of the disconnect between the cultural context and you know the edited nature of the video. Like there was a lot of hurt that was brought up because of something that was perceived as an older person taking advantage of a younger person, right, like, yeah, that's understandably upsetting for some people, yeah, and so like, like there is hurt there, but like, what was the harm? Right, who was harmed? 

Sujatha: Yeah, We can have our feelings and we can find things disturbing, but that doesn't and we can receive. Hmm. So here's an example. There is, you know, let's say that when you were a kid, somebody had harmed you with like a chair, that they'd beat you with a chair or something, and sometimes seeing chairs that are shaped like that chair that was a part of your childhood trauma is triggering to you. That is so reasonable, right? There are many people who are sexually harmed as children, where tongues were a part of that harm. I get it. That is horrible. 

Sujatha: Right to have to see some of the you revered and respected and wanted to believe like there's one perfect person out there in the world. There still is. He's amazing and nothing bad happened. I can see how seeing that picture made you feel yucky, right. But that doesn't mean that what we are seeing through our lens and i'm not saying this to gaslight anybody It's to understand that we have our own cultural context, our own lived experience through which we see. There's so much knowledge we have as survivors, as people with direct lived experience, as experts in certain areas, and there are other pieces of knowledge and wisdom about, for example, how other people live and exist in the world that we also have to fold it right, and so we have to be able to hold those two truths simultaneously. And so you know what the fact that half the world does not make out. Did we even know this? half the world does not use the mouth as a sexual thing. 

David: So like did we know that out? 

Sujatha: And so right now it encourage you, david, to acknowledge that you are seeing that through your own cultural lens. When i was a kid growing up in India Right parts of my childhood in India i just remember funny that they would like cut all the parts of the movies out that involved like lots of making out and tongue kissing and stuff. And i would say to my family, like y'all so prude? they'd be like no, it's just gross. It's not that, it's that we're trying to block The sexuality from our eyes. It's that. Why do you people like suck on each other's faces? that's nasty, right? I had to really think about that. They like, wow, yeah, what's sexual for everyone isn't the same right and what is So? 

Sujatha: there's a continuum of things that happen between bodies in the world. Some of them are wrong everywhere. A 50 year old Having sex with a 10 year old is always wrong. There's nowhere where that is okay, nowhere on the planet. I mean it might even be legal in some places, but it is not okay, right. And a parent holding hands with their four year old is always okay. 

Sujatha: And almost everything in the middle Is culturally defined, and we as americans in particular, have a bad habit of putting our lens on everybody else's stuff. I'm not saying every single thing in the middle. There are lots of things that are not okay in there And we are having an evolving notions of children's bodily autonomy and we do need to wake up to that, right. But that doesn't mean that when someone else crosses our cultural notions of children's bodily autonomy, that makes them a sexual abuser. Oh, my goodness, you know, and if we live that way, honestly right, like particularly for the survivors out there in the world, i just want to assure you like there are some people we can actually trust. And it was a big learning for me, right, choosing to have a child and to leave that child at home with my co parent. Right, was that was a, that was a journey. Right, choosing to make a human with another human after what I had lived through? right, but I know in the core of my being that my partners You know the safest person on earth and we have to believe that about some of us, right. So that's when it's like oh, we know the ball is never been accused of anything like this. Of course, it was always the first time in this, not the other. Yes, and Can we pause right and be like you, david, and say, oh, i'm a discerning Consumer of media. Let me use my perspicacious mind to dig a little further. 

Sujatha: And then, if you dug a little further, you might have also Out that that clip video was actually initially linked to. You know somebody who is a sympathizer with the communist party of China and is out to you know. You know that Chinese and Russian bots have been a huge part of what's gotten that video to go viral and That it got released. While it takes a long get released, it got released on the verge of the first global Buddhist conference that was happening in India, with the Dalai Lama, who's being invited in China, was boycotting it. And so what's up with the timing? why did it takes a long? 

Sujatha: who released the video? What was the impact of blurring that boy's face instead of seeing him smiling right? what was the impact of showing the clips that you showed without showing the whole video? Who's who's behind it and why? right, and What is it? what purpose does it serve? And then also, just like what's coming up for me in this, and can I attend to that with loving, kindness and compassion towards myself, before I start to Launch into saying that person is right. Let's check with ourselves first about what what might be happening here with me. 

David: So Those are some thoughts, yeah and I think, when we're thinking about, like the greater impact on, you know, the repercussions of, like the media storm and Criticism that was, you know, embarrassing for the boy, his family, right. 

David: You're saying, like you know it's holiness, it's probably fine, right, like I'm I'm positive He's not spending any time checking his Twitter mentions or his Instagram or you know what. have you right? Like there, there is impact on, like real people when things like this blow up in media and I think you know, neither you or I are in direct communication with anybody who is, like, directly involved in that particular Incident, but we are people who have been affected by this in the world And so, like you know, there's this part of it that is like, yes, take care of yourself, yes, be a conscious consumer of media, but I also think there's a part of this is like Mind your damn business and do the work that's in front of you. 

David: Where it's like you know there are things that There are lots of things in the world that are happening that like You and I don't agree with, but like we can't do anything about. Yeah right, our outrage is not well used on something like this. There are lots of other things in the world to be upset about. Find your community, find the places in the world where you can do work that is impactful, that is preventing harm, that is healing harm, and Do that yeah, that's right. 

Sujatha: I think that when I think that when we spend a lot of time on performative protection, post facto non-protection That's what happened here, right, a whole lot of people's like, what about that boy? I'm like, well, the boy is now completely, i'm sure, horrified. His family horrified, if you, you know, look again at the post event. You know Conversations with them about how thrilled they were by the whole thing. And now the fact that their family is embroiled in this story, that the Dalai Lama sexually abused a child, like Horrifying for these, this Himalayan family whose Dream in life was to be able to get this blessing from his holiness, and it get turned into something dirty by the media and by people outside their own culture. Terrible for them. We actually, we harm them. Who sexually abused the boy? not the Dalai Lama, we did by sexualizing the event. So is the boy traumatized now? Yeah, i'm sure. I mean, i don't know again, i don't know, i shouldn't say maybe he, like the Bahama, is like whatever those weirdos, everybody made some mess out of this thing. That's not even true, right, like his holiness is not saying those weirdos, if anything, his holiness put out an apology because he understood that How it landed on us was disturbing to our minds, and he wanted to say I'm sorry for that part, you know, yeah, and so people criticize the apology as being sorry for his words. That's all you apologize for. Yeah, because he wasn't sorry for having loved on that kid. He was sorry for how his joking and his behavior was perceived by us in ways that disturbed our minds, and he doesn't want to disturb our minds. That's who he is. So he apologized, exactly correctly, for what it is that he is taking responsibility for, right? 

Sujatha: Yeah, that is really interesting, and I think like, oh, i wanted to name this thing that you're saying about, like, stay in your lane or mind your business, on the one hand, with child sexual abuse, we should never mind our business, right? And, on the other hand, like, what is your role to play? Like, what is your role to play in this? And that's what brings you back to this notion of everyone. You know having something to say about this literally had no role to play in helping in this particular situation And so, and if anything, everybody rushing in actually caused harm. So, yeah, anyway, i'm sorry, david, you had something you wanted to say on that. 

David: Yeah, it was just that you know, when we're thinking about our impulse to act out of our own trauma, act out of our own harm, right, like, there needs to be a moment of like checking in with you. Know what is it and why Is this? Why am I being activated by this And letting that lie? If it's not, if it like, if it doesn't apply, like, let it fly right. Like if it's not about like things that are relevant to you in a good moment or within the scope of like what you can do. I'm shrugging for those of you who are just listening to us, but you know there is a lot more that we discuss about healing from sexual violence, restorative ways of being in general, on our full episode of this restorative justice life with Sujatha. I would invite you, if you haven't already, to tune into that. And, Sujatha, we're actually going to continue the rest of that conversation right now. So thanks for being here on this little piece. 

David: Absolutely. 

Reflecting on Dalai Lama Video Incident
Cultural Context and Media Impact
Restorative Justice and Healing