WASHINGTON — The Dalai Lama on Tuesday opened a visit to Washington to deliver mass spiritual teachings, with a legislative aide saying the Tibetan spiritual leader will meet top members of the US Congress.
The revered Buddhist monk, who will celebrate his 76th birthday on Wednesday, was cheered on by Tibetan and local well-wishers as he arrived on a sunny afternoon at a hotel in central Washington.
China strongly opposes any international meetings with the Dalai Lama and the White House has declined comment on whether President Barack Obama will meet the Tibetan spiritual leader during his nearly two weeks in the US capital.
A congressional aide, who asked not to be identified, said House Speaker John Boehner will meet the Dalai Lama at his office Thursday and House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will attend.
Under the Constitution, Boehner is the third highest-ranking US official. Pelosi is a longtime critic of China on human rights ground and has met frequently in the past with the Dalai Lama.
Maria Otero, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs who acts as the special coordinator for Tibet issues, met the Dalai Lama upon his arrival at the airport, a State Department official said.
Organizers expect up to 10,000 people to flock to an arena in downtown Washington as the Dalai Lama leads a 10-day Buddhist ritual known as the Kalachakra, in which practitioners meditate and pray for world peace.
This Kalachakra marks the first in more than five years. It was last held in India, where the Dalai Lama has lived in exile since 1959.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner enjoys a wide following around the world, but China accuses him of being a “splittist” and protests his frequent meetings with international leaders.
The Dalai Lama says he is seeking greater autonomy for Tibetans under Chinese rule. He recently stepped down from his political role, saying he wanted to clear the way for a next generation of Tibetan leaders.
Tibetans earlier this year elected Harvard academic Lobsang Sangay as head of the government in exile, although few doubt that the Dalai Lama remains the face of Tibet for the world.
Obama received the Dalai Lama last year, but only away from cameras in the White House’s private residence. China nonetheless protested, as did a number of US lawmakers who denounced what they considered disrespect toward the religious leader.
The US president also faced criticism at home in 2009 when he did not meet the Dalai Lama during a visit by the monk to Washington. White House aides worried a meeting would have soured Obama’s first trip to China later that year.
At a congressional hearing last month, lawmakers from both major US parties urged Obama to show strong support for the Dalai Lama and to meet him on his current visit.
Actor-activist Richard Gere told the hearing that Obama needed to be firm on Tibet, saying of China: “Every time we are wishy-washy with them, they take advantage of it.”