The Dalai Lama came under fire on Wednesday (23 September) for saying that if he were to have a female successor, she would need to be "very attractive" or else she would be "not much use". Many took to Twitter to express their shock and disapproval at the religious leader's comments, branding him "sexist" and using the hashtag #DalaiLamaSexist to hit back at his comments.
However, the Dalai Lama's followers have come to his defence, insisting his comments were not meant to be sexist, but rather that they should be taken in context with a wider understanding of Buddhism. Tenzin Peljor, a Buddhist monk, explained that in Mahayana Buddhism, there are seven features of human rebirth that are required in order to be effective in helping others, one of which is an attractive form. He said that attractiveness, in Buddhism, is associated with the practice of patience and that a male successor would also be required to be good looking.
"Appealing forms attract people," said Peljor, who is also a board member of the German Buddhist Monastic Association. "To state a fact is not sexist per se. People might think that what he said implied that women are useless if they are not attractive but I think what he means is that you are more effective if you have an attractive form. This is what both, Mahayana teachings and science, state as well."
He went on to explain that the first "Karmapa" was so ugly that his appearance would be compared to that of a monkey. His bad experience made him then vow to only be reborn in an attractive form from them onwards.
Another follower, Carol McQuire, agreed that the comments needed to be considered within the wider context of Buddhist rebirth. She also pointed out that the Dalai Lama's acceptance of a female successor was a "radical" and "non-sexist" step when considering all previous Dalai Lamas have been male.
Other members of the Buddhist community have said he was only joking and the comments were meant to be taken in a light-hearted way. The International Campaign for Tibet was among them, with Kate Saunders, its communications director, saying: "The Dalai Lama was saying it in a lighter vein – he was clearly teasing – when he was describing the possible looks of a future incarnation. He has consistently shown himself to be stressing on the importance of inner beauty and knowledge rather than external beauty."
However, some have argued that the Dalai Lama was given the chance to show he was joking. BBC interviewer Clive Myrie asked: "You're joking, I'm assuming? Or you're not joking?" The Dalai Lama then responded: "No, it's true."
A blog titled the Tibetan Feminist Collective said the Dalai Lama was in fact trying to make a joke about his own appearance but that "the irony was missed". They point out that that Dalai Lama is "known for his self-deprecating brand of humour" and wrote: "His Holiness was making a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own physical appearance and attempting to make the joke that any potential female reincarnation of a future Dalai Lama should be the opposite of him."