Congressional Leaders Meet Dalai Lama in US Capitol

The Dalai Lama makes his remarks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2011, as he is welcomed by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. . (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met Thursday with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in the U.S. Capitol. The Dalai Lama said it was his "duty" to meet with his "old friends" and explain why he voluntarily handed over political power earlier this year.

The Dalai Lama met with several U.S. lawmakers Thursday in his first visit to the United States since he retired as the political leader of the Tibetan government in exile. He was warmly welcomed by Democrats and Republicans.

House Speaker John Boehner was visibly moved, saying that America has long had a strong bond with the Dalai Lama.

"Wherever he goes, the Dalai Lama makes his tireless dedication to the values that we all cherish. He makes them apparent and he make it a bit contagious," Boehner said.

House Minority Leader, Democrat Nancy Pelosi has long been a strong supporter of the religious, cultural and spiritual rights of the Tibetan people.

"I am very proud of the fact that we have come together under the dome of the Capitol a number of times to honor His Holiness," Pelosi said.

The Dalai Lama was forced into exile after a failed uprising of the Tibetan people against the Chinese government in 1959. China accuses the Dalai Lama of advocating Tibet's succession from China. But the Dalai Lama has said for decades that he advocates political autonomy for Tibet, not independence from China. China had warned the United States against holding official meetings with the Tibetan spiritual leader. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that China is against any foreign governments encouraging activities aimed at "splitting the motherland."

Representative Pelosi recalled that many U.S. presidents have had close ties with the Dalai Lama.

"When he was a very little boy and first became the Dalai Lama, President Franklin Roosevelt sent him a watch. Recognizing his love, even as a little boy for science and technology, it was a watch that had the phases of the moon," Pelosi said.

The Dalai Lama said he wants to explain to U.S. lawmakers why he stepped down from political leadership of the Tibetan government in exile.

"I believe the country ruled by kings or queens or religious leader - they are out of date and, in fact, religious institutions and political institutions must be separate," the Dalai Lama said.

He said he felt that the time was right to step down because members of the Tibetan community were ready to step up and lead.

"So now, our small organization in exile community is a fully democratic institution. So we really feel very, very proud," he said.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized President Barack Obama for not setting up a meeting with the Dalai Lama during this visit. The Tibetan spiritual leader is in Washington for 11 days as part of a meditation ritual. Last year, a low-key meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama at the White House angered the Chinese government. Analysts say the president might hold a quiet ceremonial meeting with the Dalai Lama before he leaves.