News / Asia

Dalai Lama Arrives in US Capital

The Dalai Lama arrives in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2011
The Dalai Lama arrives in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2011

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William Ide

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, arrived in Washington D.C. to celebrate his birthday and guide followers of Tibetan Buddhism in a 10-day prayer and meditation ritual. The Dalai Lama's visit, which is likely to upset China, is his first to the nation's capital since he stepped down as the political leader of the Tibetan government in exile earlier this year.

Since Chinese forces marched into Tibet more than half a century ago and the Dalai Lama was later forced to flee into exile, the struggle between the two has waged on.

As the Dalai Lama tries to focus solely on his spiritual teachings, analysts say it is too early to predict how China may respond to the Dalai Lama's new role, but note it could be an opportunity.

Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the 7th century CE, and today, Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in many areas of the Himalayan region, Mongolia and many other countries around the world. There are four main sects, or schools, in the Tibetan tradition.

The Dalai Lama belongs to one of the newer schools of Tibetan Buddhism that started in the 15th century. But he is widely revered by all of the Tibetan sects.

The current Dalai Lama, named Tenzin Gyatso and born in 1935, is the 14th to hold the title. After his death, the Central Tibetan administration and leading monasteries will begin their search for a child that is believed to be his reincarnation.

Robbie Barnett is a Tibet expert at Columbia University.

"This is something that may be very important for the Americans and for other Western leaders ... this may be an opportunity that Western powers might want to take in order to ask China to step forward here and have a more positive attitude toward the Tibetan issue," said Barnett.

The Dalai Lama has been talking about getting out of politics and considered himself semi-retired for years.  But it was not until he told the Tibetan government in exile in March that he was stepping aside that it became official.

Since then, elections for a new prime minister of the government in exile have been held.  Lobsang Sengey, a Harvard Law School fellow who was born in exile in India and has never visited Tibet, received the largest number of votes.

Analysts say the Dalai Lama's visit to the United States is significant because it is the first since he retired.

"And actually he did more than just retire, he reshuffled the entire system of government there [the Tibetan government in exile], so that now it is a secular government, the leader is elected," said Barnett. "He [the Dalai Lama] has no official position in it, he merely is a consultant to his own exile government ... and it is going to be interesting to see how foreign leaders will respond to him."

So far, the Dalai Lama’s decision to divorce himself from politics has not necessarily given him more access to politicians.  During a recent visit to Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard did not meet with him.  She claims the decision did not have anything to do with China.

The Dalai Lama took that rejection in stride, saying, "If your prime minister has some kind of spiritual interest, then of course my meeting may be useful. Otherwise, I have nothing to ask him, and also, you see, there is no point to seek advice from him. Oh, from her."

While in Washington, the Dalai Lama is expected to hold high-level meetings with U.S. politicians.  But it is unclear whether President Barack Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama during the visit.

Last year, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the president at the White House angered China even after the administration went to great lengths to keep the meeting low-key - releasing only a still photo of the two together and a written statement.

Barnett says a decision to not meet with the Dalai Lama would be risky, as past presidents have met with him every time he visited the capital.

"I think the American presidency is already locked into a position where it has to treat visits by the Dalai Lama with some considerable seriousness," said Barnett.

In the end, he says, it is likely the president, at the very least, will hold a quiet ceremonial meeting with the spiritual leader to show Washington does not make decisions based on how China might respond.

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