Dalai Lama celebrates 88th birthday at residence in northern India


‘I expect to live to be more than 100 years old,’ says the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama celebrated his 88th birthday at his residence in Dharamsala, India, on Thursday, feted by song-and-dance performances and declaring he was in good health and expected to live to be 100.

“Today, you are celebrating my 88th birthday, but when I look in the mirror, I feel I look as if I’m still in my 50s,” the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism said to those gathered for the celebration. “My face doesn’t look old, it isn’t wrinkled with age. What’s more I still have all my teeth so there’s nothing I can’t eat or chew.”

“According to indications in my own dreams and other predictions, I expect to live to be more than 100 years old,” said the Dalai Lama, whose real name is Lhamo Thondup and is also known as Tenzin Gyatso. “I’ve served others until now, and I’m determined to continue to do so. Please pray for my long life on that basis.”

Attending the celebration in the temple courtyard adjacent to the Dalai Lama’s residence were his relatives, members of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and later Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, chief minister of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where Dharamsala is located. 

His birthday comes amid ongoing controversy about who should determine his successor. 

Tibetans say they have the right to do so according to their Buddhist belief in the principle of rebirth. They believe the Dalai Lama chooses the body into which he is reincarnated, a process that has occurred 13 times since 1391, when the first Dalai Lama was born. 

But China, which annexed Tibet in 1951 and maintains a tight rein on the western autonomous region, says only Beijing can select the next spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, as stated in Chinese law. 

The Chinese government intends to appoint a pro-Beijing puppet leader in place of the Dalai Lama after he dies, giving it an opportunity to firm up its control of the region, according to a report issued in 2022 by the International Tibet Network, a global coalition of Tibet-related groups.

Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of supporting terrorism and trying to split Tibet from China, though the spiritual leader is pursuing a policy approach called the Middle Way, which accepts Tibet’s status as a part of China but urges greater cultural and religious freedoms, including strengthened language rights, guaranteed for ethnic minorities under the provisions of China’s own constitution.

The Dalai Lama cuts a birthday cake presented to him during the celebration of his 88th birthday at his residence in Dharamsala, India, on Thursday, July 6, 2023. Credit: Tenzin Choejor
The Dalai Lama cuts a birthday cake presented to him during the celebration of his 88th birthday at his residence in Dharamsala, India, on Thursday, July 6, 2023. Credit: Tenzin Choejor

“I was born in Tibet and I bear this name Dalai Lama, but in addition to working for the cause of Tibet, I’ve been working for the welfare of all sentient beings,” he also said in remarks to the crowd in Dharamsala. 

“I’ve done whatever I could without losing hope or allowing my determination to flag. I’m angry with no one, not even those Chinese leaders who have adopted a harsh attitude towards Tibet. Indeed, China has historically been a Buddhist country as witnessed by the many temples and monasteries I saw when I visited that land.”

Subtle celebrations

China has sought to erase the Dalai Lama and his likeness from the Tibet Autonomous Region, so Tibetans there celebrated his birthday in subtle ways.

They shared poems and odes to the Dalai Lama online and circulated in various online messaging groups an image of a hat he wore as a child in a popular photograph, with the number “88” appearing below it. 

“Tibetans are engaging in creative ways as well as performing religious activities to celebrate his holiness’s birthday,” said a Tibetan who lives in the region, referring to reciting prayers and hoisting prayer flags. 

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, also expressed gratitude for the support he has received from his friends. 

In a four-minute recorded video message marking his birthday, the Dalai Lama said, “On the occasion of my birthday, if you, my friends, can guard your minds and lead good-natured lives, you will be joyful at heart, and as a result be able, directly and indirectly, to help everyone around you.”

High-level government officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, issued birthday greetings to the Dalai Lama on what Blinken said was an auspicious day for the Tibetan community. 

“His Holiness’s kindness and humility serve as an inspiration to many around the world, and I have deep admiration for his ongoing commitment to peace and nonviolence,” Blinken said. “Today, may we reflect on his messages of compassion and tolerance as we reaffirm our commitment to upholding the human rights of all people, including those of the Tibetan community.”

“The United States is unwavering in our commitment to support the linguistic, cultural, and religious identity of Tibetans, including the ability to freely choose and venerate their religious leaders without interference,” he said.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Spoke to His Holiness @DalaiLama and conveyed heartfelt greetings to him on his 88th birthday. Wishing him a long and healthy life.”

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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