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Dalai Lama marks 89th birthday, allays concerns about his health

In a video released Saturday on his 89th birthday, the Dalai Lama said he was recovering from his recent knee replacement surgery, felt “physically fit” and thanked Tibetans around the world for praying for him.

“I am nearly 90 now, except for the issues with my knee, I am basically in good health,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said in the five-minute video, his first public statement since undergoing successful knee surgery on June 28 at a top New York City hospital.

“Despite the surgery, I feel physically fit,” the Dalai Lama said, allaying concerns about his overall health. “So, I wish to ask you to be happy and relaxed.” 

“Today, Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet are celebrating my birthday with much joy and festivity,” he said, speaking in Tibetan. “I would like to thank all my fellow Tibetans, inside and outside Tibet, for your prayers on my birthday.” 

Several global leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, sent birthday greetings.

“Through his promotion of nonviolence and compassion, as well as his commitment to advancing human rights for all, His Holiness serves as an inspiration for the Tibetan community and many around the world,” Blinken said in a statement.

Modi wrote on X: “Sent my greetings to His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 89th birthday. Pray for his quick recovery after his knee surgery, good health, and long life.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner enjoys strong support in the United States, where prominent lawmakers have spoken out about human rights issues in Tibet. 

China, however, considers him a separatist and has criticized those who meet with him, including a delegation of U.S. lawmakers who recently met with him in Dharamsala, India.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed a bill urging China to re-engage with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders to resolve its dispute over the status and governance of Tibet. China-Tibet talks ground to a halt in 2010.

“We stand by His Holiness and the Tibetan community as they seek to preserve Tibetans’ distinct cultural, religious, and linguistic heritage,” said U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Uzra Zeya, in a birthday greeting.

Thousands converge

At the Park Hyatt Hotel in New York, where the Dalai Lama is recovering, a steady stream of Tibetans and Buddhist devotees have gathered every day since his arrival in the United States on June 23, braving the heat to walk around the hotel and offer prayers.

On Saturday, to mark his birthday, devotees converged in even larger numbers to offer hundreds of katags, white Tibetan silk scarves, and bouquets of flowers outside the hotel, which many referred to as their “temple.”

Billboards in New York’s Times Square flash birthday greetings to the Dalai Lama just after midnight on July 6, 2024. (RFA/Nordhey Dolma)

On Friday evening, on the eve of his 89th birthday, at least a thousand Tibetans gathered in New York’s Times Square to witness two giant billboards carrying birthday messages written in Tibetan and English.

As the messages flashed at midnight, the crowd – many of whom were decked out in Tibetan dress and waving the Tibetan flags – cheered, sang, danced and chanted prayers.

Reflecting on his life so far, the Dalai Lama said in the video he was resolved to continue to give his best to promote Buddhism and the well-being of the Tibetan people.

He also acknowledged the “growing interest” in the Tibetan cause in the world today, and felt he had made a “small contribution” toward that.

‘Year of Compassion’

In Dharamsala, India, Sikyong Penpa Tsering, the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile, announced plans to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 90th birthday next year as the “Year of Compassion” marked by a series of year-long events starting in July 2025.

The Dalai Lama has said that he will provide clarity around his succession, including on whether he would be reincarnated and where, when he turns 90.

Sikyong Penpa Tsering and Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang cut the birthday cake at the official Central Tibetan Government-led ceremony to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s 89th birthday in Dharamsala, India on Saturday, July 6, 2024.

China – which annexed Tibet in 1951 and rules the western autonomous region with a heavy hand – says only Beijing can select the next spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, as it seeks to control the centuries-old selection process for religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans, however, believe the Dalai Lama chooses the body into which he will be reincarnated, a process that has occurred 13 times since 1391, when the first Dalai Lama was born. 

The 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet amid a failed 1959 national uprising against China’s rule and has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, ever since. He is the longest-serving Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader in Tibet’s history.

Ever since, Beijing has sought to legitimize Chinese rule through the suppression of dissent and policies undermining Tibetan culture and language. 

Beijing believes the Dalai Lama wants to split off the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan-populated areas in China’s Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces – which Tibetan refer to as “Amdo” and “Kham” – from the rest of the country.

However, the Dalai Lama does not advocate for independence but rather proposes what he calls a “Middle Way” that accepts Tibet’s status as a part of China and urges greater cultural and religious freedoms, including strengthened language rights.

Blinken said in his statement Saturday that the “The United States reaffirms our commitment to support efforts to preserve Tibetans’ distinct linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage, including the ability to freely choose and venerate religious leaders without interference.”

Additional reporting by Tashi Wangchuk, Dolkar, Nordhey Dolma, Dickey Kundol, Yeshi Dawa, Sonam Singeri, Dorjee Damdul, Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Written and edited by Tenzin Pema, edited by Malcolm Foster.