US lawmakers hailed the Dalai Lama as a global inspiration as they welcomed him on Thursday at the Capitol, urging US President Barack Obama to defy China and also meet the exiled Tibetan leader.
Members of the US House of Representatives briefly put aside a rancorous debate on taming the US debt to receive the Dalai Lama, a rare figure embraced by both sides of the US political spectrum.
US House Speaker John Boehner, the third highest-ranking US official under the Constitution, said lawmakers spoke to the Dalai Lama about “our shared values not just in Tibet and China, but in the Middle East as well.”
“His example humbles nations such as ours that work to spread freedom, tolerance and respect for human dignity,” Boehner told a news conference, flanked by the Dalai Lama and fellow lawmakers.
“We extend to you, Your Holiness, on behalf of the people we serve, our solidarity, our support and our hope that you will come back soon,” Boehner said.
Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader from Obama’s Democratic Party who is a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, stressed the bipartisan support for the Dalai Lama and said the relationship with Congress was “a source of great pride to us.”
The Dalai Lama is in Washington through the end of next week to lead a Buddhist ritual known as the Kalachakra. The White House has stayed mum on whether Obama will meet him after previous flaps over his treatment of the monk.
US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and longstanding critic of China, pressed Obama to commit to a meeting.
“Beijing is implementing new policies to wipe out the Tibetan culture, such as facilitating the immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet and forcing Tibetan herders to leave the plateau and resettle in concrete block apartments,” she said.
“It must be clear that the US sides with the victims in Tibet, not the perpetrators in Beijing. President Obama has an opportunity to make a strong statement about what we stand for by meeting with the Dalai Lama,” she said.
Despite her strong tone, the meeting with the Dalai Lama also had light-hearted moments. Ros-Lehtinen posted a picture of the Dalai Lama eating a cupcake offered by lawmakers a day after his 76th birthday.
The maroon-robed monk chose vanilla over chocolate and ate his cupcake with a fork, she wrote on social media site Twitter.
In his meeting with the lawmakers, the Dalai Lama said he was proud of his recent decision to step down officially from political duties.
The Dalai Lama recalled how China brought him in 1954 to Beijing for the first National People’s Congress and how he later observed India’s parliament under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
“In Peking, Congress meeting silent,” said the Dalai Lama, laughing.
“Whereas in India, full of noise. In parliament, members very fond to criticize each other,” he said.
“I was very much impressed with this system of democracy that means freedom of speech, freedom of talk, everyone equal,” he said.