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Thousands fete Dalai Lama on birthday in US

07 july 2011, 16:43
Thousands of people flocked to a Washington arena Wednesday to celebrate the 76th birthday of Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who urged followers to mark the occasion by practicing compassion, AFP reports.

The Verizon Center in the US capital's Chinatown was transformed into little Tibet, with vendors selling handicrafts from the Himalayan land and intricate mandalas hanging incongruously underneath advertisements for fast food.

Tibetan monks and nuns folded their hands with reverence and American supporters broke into an impromptu song of "Happy Birthday to You" as the Dalai Lama came on stage to mark the start of a 10-day ritual known as a kalachakra.

"Some people ask me for some message for my birthday celebrations. I always say, the best gift to me is to practice compassion," the Dalai Lama said, advising the crowd to look into their minds and hearts.

"Happiness -- it is not money, it is not material things, it is not power," he said. "It is (inside), full of self-confidence."

The Dalai Lama, who fled Chinese rule of his homeland in 1959, recently said that he was stepping down from his political role and handing over to a newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

"For the last few decades, I always said that religious institutions and political institutions are separate, but I myself combined the two," he said, adding with a hearty laugh: "That's hypocrisy. I must even myself fully practice that."

Yet few doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is the face of the Tibetan cause. He is set to meet Thursday with lawmakers including Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the top House member from President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

The White House has stayed mum on whether Obama will meet the Dalai Lama, a move that would be certain to anger China, which has tried for years to isolate the Tibetan spiritual leader despite his global popularity.

"I don't have a scheduling announcement for you," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, declining comment on whether the Dalai Lama has been invited.

A senior US State Department official met with the Dalai Lama on Tuesday, however, and discussed with him Washington's "strong" support for Tibet.

Maria Otero, the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, and the Dalai Lama spoke about US support "for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity, and the protection of human rights in the People's Republic of China," the State Department said in a statement Wednesday.

Some US lawmakers voiced dismay when the Dalai Lama was obliged to come through a back entrance during his last White House visit in 2010. George W. Bush was the only sitting president to appear publicly next to the Dalai Lama.

Nepal, Tibet's neighbor which is careful not to upset China, banned public celebrations of the Dalai Lama's birthday, with riot police arresting three Tibetan exiles and preventing hundreds more from attending a party.

But the Dalai Lama enjoyed shows of support at his birthday party. South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu saluted the Dalai Lama as a great friend in a videotaped message.

Tutu, who officially stepped down from political life last year, said he hoped the Dalai Lama will join him to "sit on my front porch, a couple of retirees sipping rooibos tea and telling stories to the youngsters."

The Dalai Lama said he wants to visit Tutu in October for his 80th birthday celebrations. South Africa barred the Dalai Lama from visiting in 2009 for fear of upsetting China but later said that he would be welcome.

Martin Luther King III, the son of the slain US civil rights leader, appeared on stage with the Dalai Lama and hailed him as a "tireless champion of compassion, human rights and peace."

King offered prayers to the Dalai Lama for his "continued health and the successful mission to bring freedom and peace to Tibet and all nations around the world."

Organizers expect some 10,000 people to turn out during the Kalachakra, in which disciples meditate for peace as part of their quest for enlightenment. The ritual, which was last held more than five years ago in India, includes the building and destruction of a sand mandala to symbolize life's transience.

The Dalai Lama also plans a free public teaching on the lawn of the US Capitol on Saturday, which organizers expect to draw a large crowd.

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