July 6th, 2011
09:30 PM ET
By Ana Sebescen, for CNN
Thousands of well-wishers sang "Happy Birthday" Wednesday to the Dalai Lama, who turned 76 at the beginning of an 11-day visit to the capital on which he will meet with top congressional leaders.
So far, the White House has remained silent on a potential meeting between the Tibetan spiritual leader and President Obama
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has invited the Dalai Lama to the Capitol on Thursday to meet with congressional leaders, his office announced Wednesday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be among those attending.
Obama met with the Dalai Lama in Washington in February 2010, triggering a rebuke from China, which considers the Dalai Lama the leader of a separatist movement.
"I always say, the best gift to me is to practice compassion," said the Dalai Lama said Wednesday. He urged the crowd to search for happiness within and promote non-violence, compassion and equality around the world.
The term "Dalai Lama" is a Tibetan Buddhist religious title. Under Buddhist teachings, the title is given to those who are the reincarnations of a lineage of religious teachers. The current Dalai Lama is considered the 14th in this line.
Wednesday's festivities marked the start of the Dalai Lama's visit, during which he will confer a special blessing and ancient Buddhist teachings.
"Rich, poor, believer, non-believer - no difference. We are all the same," the Dalai Lama said.
Guests to the birthday celebration included Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the late Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King III, the son of assassinated civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Gandhi echoed the Dalai Lama's call to work toward ending both "physical" and "non-physical" violence.
"I invite all of you to 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," said Gandhi.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who espoused non-violence in an effort to end South Africa's apartheid system, also joined in the celebration via a video message.
While acknowledging that spreading justice and peace is "an enormous task," Tutu praised the Dalai Lama's efforts.
While in Washington, the Nobel Peace laureate, along with Namgyal Monastery monks and senior lamas, will enact a Tibetan Buddhist ritual by chanting prayers and creating a Kalachakra sand mandala, a detailed Buddhist sand art ritual created as a symbolic blessing of the Earth.
"Kalachakra is a promise of Buddha that he will stick with us so that we can attain Nirvana," said Tenzing Norbu, a Tibetan immigrant who attended Wednesday's celebration.
The Dalai Lama fled to into exile after China's invasion of Tibet in 1949. He established a democratic exile government in Dharamsala, northern India. This year, in May, he gave up his political role, but remained Tibet's leading spiritual leader.
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