Washington: Thousands of people flocked to a Washington arena to celebrate the 76th birthday of Tibet`s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who urged followers to mark the occasion by practicing compassion.
The Verizon Centre in the US capital`s Chinatown was transformed into little Tibet, with vendors selling handicrafts from the Himalayan country and intricate mandalas hanging incongruously underneath advertisements for fast food.
Tibetan monks and nuns bowed in 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.
A senior US State Department official met with the Dalai Lama, discussing Washington`s "strong" support for Tibet, the State Department said on Wednesday, in a move likely to frustrate China.
During their talks, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero and the Dalai Lama spoke about "strong 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.
"She also commended the Dalai Lama for his commitment to peace and nonviolence and the pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government."
He is set to meet on 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.
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 neighbour which is eager 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. Desmond Tutu, South Africa`s former archbishop who fought non-violently against the apartheid regime, saluted the Dalai Lama as a friend in a videotaped message.
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”.
Arun Gandhi, the grandson of India`s apostle of peaceful resistance Mahatma Gandhi, urged supporters of the Dalai Lama to work to end both physical violence and "non-physical violence" which they feel inside themselves.
"Pledge today as a birthday gift to His Holiness that we will no longer hate, that we will no longer discriminate, we will no longer be greedy and that we will always respect each other irrespective of religion or philosophical outlook," Gandhi said.
Organisers 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 symbolise life`s transience.
The Dalai Lama also plans a free public teaching on the lawn of the US Capitol on Saturday, which organisers expect to draw a large crowd.