How Could The Dalai Lama Not Understand Self-Hatred?

hhdl_ss-300x205In a new column for On Being, Sharon Salzberg recounts a story that has become very famous among Western Buddhist teachers and students over the past 25 years. It is her story of asking the Dalai Lama how to work with the experience of “self-hatred,” both as students and teachers. The famous part of the story is that his Holiness couldn’t even wrap his brain around the question, either because of the intricacies of translation or because he really didn’t have any personal experience of the concept of self-hatred. The translation issue has always confused me: there are definitely words in┬áTibetan┬áthat mean hatred, And there are definitely words that mean inward pointing or self-oriented. So self-hatred shouldn’t be such a difficult idea to translate, at least not conceptually.

Read Sharon’s article; It’s great. I am really looking forward to Sharon being honored at the Garrison Institute benefit celebration this Friday night.

I can’t believe that self-aggression is really just a western experience, although perhaps our consumer culture takes our distaste for ourselves to new levels. What do you think? Is self-hatred a western thing or a human thing?

5 thoughts on “How Could The Dalai Lama Not Understand Self-Hatred?

  1. Every time I hear that story I cringe. “Not true” I think! I cannot speak for the Dalai Lama (obviously!) or the “Tibetan people” or even any group of people, but what I will say is – look at the effects of colonization. One need not read writers such as Frantz Fanon or Ngugi Wa Tiongo to know that in places that have been colonized by the so-called “Western” countries, such as India, for example, you will find a colonization of the mind – internalized racism, inferiority complexes, and deep inner not okayness. This may manifest as being subservient to white/British folks, looking at light skin as an ideal of beauty, treating those deemed to be “foreigners” (white folks) with respect while treating fellow country folk crappily. How could this not speak to a deep lack of self love and self acceptance? Perhaps there wasn’t the language in the culture to understand one’s experience as “self hatred” (this is harsh language; I as a New Yorker with Indian roots could never personally identify with such language), BUT, that doesn’t mean the behaviors associated with it are foreign to places outside “the West.” Au contraire!! Look at how the pressures to “succeed” have people in “non-Western” countries like India go to unhealthy lengths to do it? If they were really truly loving themselves, would external markers of success matter?? I just think this story created a oversimplification and also a dichotomy that are quite simply – false. Again, can’t speak to what His Holiness said, just that I think the way it’s been extrapolated to me doesn’t make sense. If anything it may be the “concept” of self hatred that doesn’t exist culturally in Tibet, but the actual experience of not fully loving and accepting oneself surely does.

    1. Mona, I understand what you mean about self depreciation and social pressure and colonisation, but I believe this is not the self-hatred we are talking about here, which is really baout a relationship between oneself with oneself. I think you say it yourself, actually, when you say that the expression salf-hatred is too much, that “with Indian roots I could never personally identify with such language”.
      I think what this sef-hatred is about is really what its wording means. It’s not just about the colour of one’s skin, or the ethnicity, or whatever.
      You are lucky, somehow.

  2. This anecdote makes me cringe, too. Agree with what Mona said, but also, it reminds of that great moment in Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim, where Jim tells the woman he loves that he loves her, and she says “I’m not sure what love is” and Jim says, “Oh, don’t say that; no, don’t say that It’s a word you must often have come across in conversation and literature. Are you going to tell me it sends you flying to the dictionary each time? ” It rings false to me. The Dali Lama has been around long enough to know what self-hatred is. I honestly think maybe he just literally didn’t understand the English words. Otherwise, seems to me very disingenuous.

    1. I am European living in India among Tibetans and I can swear he was ingenuous. There is some sickness that we, form the industrial and post industrial world, have that they don’t have, and it almost seems to be a genetic difference, so radical… Any Tibetan doctor treating both Tibetans and Westerners can tell.
      Yet it’s not genetic. It is culture that translates psychosomatically. Plain.

  3. Oh, no. I don’t mean to jump in with a counter-comment, and perhaps I am in a minority position, but having lived for several years in Tibetan communities in exile in India in the early ’80s, and from hanging out with lots of lamas who actually DO hard-core meditation rather than just teaching about it, I don’t feel at all Pollyannaish is saying I feel it’s not unlikely HH the DL was being quite genuine. I will admit to the likelihood of “crossed lines of communication” if this interaction were viewed from the Transactional Analysis perspective. Perhaps this “cringing” that is being reported here in response to this exchange could fertile ground to self-reflection and meditation? I am not saying it has not been, but just saying. It seems so easy this days for the “internet rage machine” to be triggered by coming to conclusions about some conversation we are hearing at best second hand. And that may also be a very fertile ground for introspection. I don’t think the discussion really goes anywhere to portray it as an either/ or as “Is self-hatred a western thing or a human thing?” Of course self-aggression exists in Tibetan folks. I know from much experience. But I honestly don’t think it’s that much of big deal due to many religio/cultural bound mitigating factors and norms, many of which are the exact opposite of the ones in which we find ourselves embedded. The more interesting question is what the “cringing” is about” given all the factors at play in an exchange of words the context of which, the setting of which cannot possibly be appreciated in IMS sound bites like these. (IMS- Insight Mediation Society in Barre, Massachusetts). With much loving-kindness. T.

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