A Gold Medal for a Tibetan Buddhist Icon

The award ceremony seemed intended as much to pressure China as it was to hail the Dalai Lama's legacy

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The Dalai Lama displays the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

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Outside, it resembled a Tibetan folkfest on a warm October afternoon. Inside, it looked like a solemn, dark-suited conclave of the leaders of the U.S. government, seated in the soaring civic space of the Capitol Rotunda. Dark-suited, that is, except for the splashes of saffron and burgundy color in the robes worn by monks of Tibetan Buddhism.

One of those so clad was there to receive Congress's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, beamed. The 72-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and an international icon of nonviolent struggle and religious freedom, the Dalai Lama was playing the role of honoree in a ceremony last week that seemed intended as much to pressure China as it was to hail his legacy. After years of private meetings that U.S. presidents conducted quietly to avoid antagonizing an increasingly powerful China, George W. Bush became the first to appear in public with this Dalai Lama, presenting the award with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd. Said Bush, "I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation."

China, which crushed a Tibetan rebellion in 1959 and reviles the Nobel Peace Prize winner as a separatist—or "splittist," in its jargon—was having none of it. It denounced the ceremony as a "farce" that had "gravely undermined" Chinese-U.S. relations. "We are furious," insisted one senior Chinese official, though his U.S. counterparts predicted there will be little real fallout as a result.

In his address, the Dalai Lama bemoaned that because of Beijing's resettlement of ethnic Han Chinese, "Tibetans will be reduced to an insignificant minority" in their Himalayan homeland. He appealed not for Tibetan independence but rather for "meaningful autonomy" and expanded religious and cultural freedoms "within the People's Republic of China." As so many times before, that is not the way his call is being heard in Beijing.