WASHINGTON — Thousands of expatriate Tibetans joined a 76th birthday celebration Wednesday for Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who told followers he is happy and proud to be giving up his political power.
The Dalai Lama is in Washington for an 11-day Buddhist ritual, known as a kalachakra, drawing followers from America, Asia and Europe.
In May he relinquished his leadership of Tibet’s government-in-exile, giving up the political power that he and his predecessors have wielded over Tibetans for hundreds of years.
The Dalai Lama said Wednesday that he believed in the separation of powers and was taking the step voluntarily.
“Now I can tell you that religious institutions and political institutions must be separate. I will fully implement that,” he told followers at a half-full Verizon Center stadium, which is more commonly host to the Washington Mystics basketball team. Many of this crowd wore the saffron robes of a monk or the chupa, a traditional Tibetan gown.
Although the Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, his decision to abdicate his political role is one of the biggest upheavals in the Tibetan community since the Chinese crackdown that led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in India in 1959.
The Dalai Lama arrived Tuesday on what is his longest visit yet to Washington. He will meet with lawmakers, but the White House has yet to announce if President Barack Obama will meet him, a fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama did not receive the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader when he visited Washington in October 2009, but he did four months later, although in low-key fashion. Another meeting would anger China.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for Tibet. The Nobel laureate says he only wants autonomy for Tibet within China.
The prime minister-elect of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that continuing Chinese repression inside Tibet is a tragedy and urged continuing U.S. support for Tibetan autonomy.
Sangay, who won an April vote by Tibetan exiles, said he hoped Obama would meet with the Dalai Lama.
Although the kalachakra is a religious ritual, Sangay said it was also an expression of a desire shared by Tibetans both inside and outside China to be able to meet with their spiritual leader.
“We are able to do so here, in the free world, but inside Tibet we are not,” said Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard legal scholar who grew up a refugee in India. “Tibetans inside Tibet have this same basic right.”
In Nepal on Wednesday, hundreds of riot police blocked exiled Tibetans from celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday at a school near the capital Katmandu over concerns that gatherings would turn anti-Chinese.
China says the Dalai Lama is welcome to return to Tibet if he drops his separatist activities, accepts Tibet as an inalienable part of China and recognizes Taiwan as a province of China.