Did you know that the current Dalai Lama guest-edited a 1992 issue of the French edition of Vogue? This incident is mentioned in a lengthy official clarification newly released on his website, which addresses some controversial points in a recent video interview with the BBC. In this interview, he said – not for the first time – that if he had a female successor, she would have to be conventionally attractive. The clarification alludes to how he’d once said the same in that magazine’s glamorous ambience, but not to how these remarks were repeated for decades to come, as late as 2016 and now, in 2019.
The clarification includes the following: “[It] sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” It’s true that offhand verbal slips aren’t the only measure of a person’s character, and that one of the excesses of “cancel culture” is that contrition is rarely enough even in the mildest of cases.
But is there really any context where judging a person on parameters of attractiveness, withholding job opportunities because of them, or ridiculing those who don’t fit them (the Dalai Lama even made an expression he called “dead face”), are amusing? Or is it more likely that there are some situations where these statements can be openly challenged and others where they can’t? Many of the reasons why not will directly tie into structural inequalities, which branch into toxic workplaces, family hierarchies, public safety concerns and so on. As anyone who’s had to proffer a half-smile or hollow laugh at an inappropriate comment made in any setting knows, confrontation is not the only measure of disagreement. The statement would be offensive no matter who made it, a recruitment manager or a spiritual leader.
And this is the big context: in a rapidly regressing world, a female Dalai Lama would be a historical first, and of significance to millions. A spiritual life is a life of seeking, sometimes without solutions. The desire to reconcile faith and feminism is made fraught by such beliefs and actions, be they from powerful and well-connected religious figures, or from astrologers, gurus, influencers and ordinary people who internalise and propagate dangerous ideas, including communalist, misogynistic and casteist ones. People invested in equality who also have spiritual lives use their discernment, express divergence when possible, but also risk alienation equally from skeptics and their own teachers or circles. But the alternative – disavowal – is not necessarily compelling.
The women whose words comprise the ancient Buddhist anthology called the Therigatha knew about another kind of disavowal. They wrote about leaving their homes and losing their youth. The celebrated courtesan and monastic Ambapali was among them, with a famous poem on aging in which she described the failings of her body. But her translator Martin Wickramasinghe, whose idea was expanded by her translator Charles Hallisey, insisted that she was not lamenting the impermanence of beauty. She was saying she had been beautiful once, and was beautiful still. Or perhaps, who knows, she was saying she couldn’t care less.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.