Tibetans in the Phila. area celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday

Tibetans from the Philadelphia area gather at Fort Washington State Park for the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday.
Tibetans from the Philadelphia area gather at Fort Washington State Park for the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2014

In March 1959, Lobsang Shawu was among a group of men who helped guard the Dalai Lama's summer palace during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese government.

After Tibet's spiritual leader quietly fled to India, Shawu was thrown into a Chinese prison for 15 years. He was subject to what amounted to house arrest for five more.

Shawu eventually was allowed to leave for India, where tens of thousands of Tibetans have fled and the Dalai Lama remains. In 2008, Shawu arrived in Philadelphia, where he has relatives.

On Sunday, in a grassy field in Montgomery County's Fort Washington State Park, Shawu, now 82, celebrated the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday with the region's small, tightly knit Tibetan community, which numbers about 150.

"He is not just any ordinary man," Shawu said, speaking through an interpreter about the spiritual leader, who Tibetan Buddhists believe has been reincarnated from a line of 13 Dalai Lamas before him. He is also the longest living Dalai Lama.

"He does everything good for all living beings," Shawu continued. "He says to be compassionate even to your enemy - even to the Chinese."

After more than 50 years in exile, the Dalai Lama's relationship with China remains testy, particularly over whom the next spiritual leader will be. In the last few years, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Prize in 1989, has said that when he is about 90, he will consider whether the position should continue or not. The Chinese government, which is atheist, has said that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate and that his successor must be approved by the state.

"If they can manipulate the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, they can pretty much control all of Tibet," said Karma Gelek, 34, who was born in India to Tibetan exiles and now lives in Philadelphia. "They've invaded Tibet, but they've not been able to win the people's hearts and minds."

The Tibetan Association of Philadelphia hosted the birthday party. Most of its older members were given asylum by the U.S., which has allowed more Tibetans into the country since the early 1990s. The nonprofit organization has plans to build its own cultural center in the coming years.

At Fort Washington State Park, the flags of Tibet and the United States flanked a large photo of the bespectacled leader, born Lhamo Thondup. Smoke from burning juniper leaves wafted through the air. Men in robes chanted Buddhist prayers.

Each person placed a white silken scarf on the table holding the Dalai Lama's photo, and then bowed. A recently recorded message from the leader played over a loudspeaker, telling followers to be kind and to speak from the heart, among other tenets of Buddhism.

Celebrants sang "Happy Birthday" and ate cake. Some of the women joined in a circle for a traditional Tibetan dance.

"We don't get to do this too often - celebrating our own culture," said Rinzin Lhamo, 19, a University of Pennsylvania student who lives in Springfield, Montgomery County. "It's up to us to educate ourselves on our own history. And that can be hard but we've got to do it."


bfinley@phillynews.com

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@Ben_Finley

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