WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 — Over furious objections from China, Congress bestowed its highest civilian honor today on the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a troublesome voice of separatism.
Dressed in flowing robes of burgundy and orange, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, beamed and bowed as President Bush and members of Congress gave him a standing ovation upon his arrival at the Capitol where he came to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Lawmakers praised him as a hero of the Tibetan struggle. Mr. Bush called him “a man of sincerity and peace.”
But the Dalai Lama also said that he felt “a sense of regret” over the sharp tensions with China unleashed by his visit and the honors conferred upon him.
In gentle language and conciliatory tones, he congratulated China on its dynamic economic growth, recognized its rising role on the world stage, but he also gently urged it to embrace “transparency, the rule of law and freedom of information.”
The 72-year-old spiritual leader, reading at times with difficulty from the English translation of a speech written in Tibetan, made clear that “I’m not seeking independence” from China, a division that Beijing ardently opposes.
Nor, he said, would he use any future agreement with China “as a steppingstone for Tibet’s independence.”
What he wanted, the Dalai Lama said, was “meaningful autonomy for Tibet.”
After speeches by the president and the top leaders of each party as well as by the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, another Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Congressional Gold Medal winner, the Dalai Lama accepted the medal, drawing a standing ovation from a crowd that included such Tibet sympathizers as the film director Martin Scorsese and the actor Richard Gere.
But earlier in Beijing, Chinese officials had offered sharp new criticism. The top Chinese religious affairs official condemned as a “farce” the American plans to honor the Dalai Lama.
“The protagonist of this farce is the Dalai Lama,” said Ye Xiaowen, director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Reuters reported. Other officials have warned that the award ceremony could have a “serious impact” on American-Chinese relations.
But Mr. Bush, when asked about the political fallout from Beijing during a news conference earlier today, appeared unconcerned.
“I don’t think it ever damages relations when an American president talks about, you know — religious tolerance and religious freedom is good for a nation. I do this every time I meet with him,” he said.
The two men have met three times before. But in the face of the Chinese broadsides, their encounter on Tuesday was as low-key as possible in the circumstances, with the meeting in the White House residence, not the Oval Office, and with no cameras present. White House officials insisted that the meeting was that of a president and a spiritual, not a political, leader.
Mr. Bush reminded reporters that he had informed President Hu Jintao of China, when they met recently in Sydney, that he would be meeting with the Dalai Lama. Later, in his remarks under the Capitol Rotunda, the president urged the Chinese to do the same.
“They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
In apparent protest over the award for the Dalai Lama, China pulled out of a meeting this month at which world powers were to discuss Iran. It also canceled an annual human rights dialogue with Germany, displeased by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting last month with the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Among the several lawmakers who spoke today, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took sharp aim at the Chinese Communist government. She spoke of Tibetans who “continue to suffer under the iron grip of Beijing’s rulers,” and said the Tibetans know “that truth and justice will prevail over evil and repression.”
Representative Tom Lantos, the California Democrat is who chairman of the committee, denied Chinese charges that the Dalai Lama is a separatist. And he issued a challenge to China: “Let this man of peace visit Beijing.”
The president’s 30-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama on Tuesday had been cloaked in secrecy.
“We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye,” Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “We understand the Chinese have very strong feelings about this.”
White House spokesmen said the two men discussed the situations in Tibet and in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where that nation’s government, which has close economic ties with China, has cracked down recently on pro-democracy protesters. The United States has urged China to press the Burmese military government to ease off.
The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since the Chinese Army crushed an uprising in his homeland in 1959. Tibetan Buddhists revere him as their spiritual leader.
He has been pressing, without success, to go to China to advocate for greater cultural and religious freedoms for his followers. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.