A celebration commemorating the 80th birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama drew a massive crowd in California on Sunday.
In an interview with CBS news, the Tibetan spiritual leader downplayed the importance of the occasion, calling it "nothing special."
That did not appear to be the case for the throng of 18,000 who attended his official party, held at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. The Friends of the Dalai Lama, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading his teachings, organized the event. Sunday’s extravaganza also kicked off a three-day “Global Compassion Summit,” to be held at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
The occasion was not without controversy. Crowds of protesters from the Shugden Buddhist community picketed the Honda Center and the UCI campus. The Dalai Lama outlawed the practice of Shugden Buddhism during the 1990s. Protesters at the summit bore signs reading "Stop lying!" and "Hypocrisy," according to an AFP report.
The Tibetan spiritual leader continues to be a figure of controversy in his homeland. According to a report by NBC News, Chinese officials have tightened security in the Dalai Lama's Tibetan hometown of Taktser this week in an effort to minimize celebration and pilgrimage.
The Chinese government considers the Dalai Lama a secessionist and political agitator. During an impromptu birthday speech before the Honda Center crowd, he joked about being labeled a “demon” by his detractors, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. He later urged listeners to take up a "moral responsibility to think of the well-being of humanity."
Other speakers at the event, which was hosted by Today show personality Ann Curry, ranged from the likes of rapper MC Hammer and comedian George Lopez to Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams. The Dalai Lama posed for a picture with Larry King and was caught in a selfie taken by Kris Jenner. Williams, who won the peace prize in 1997 for her work toward the banning of land mines, called the Tibetan spiritual leader "the most rocking, compassionate Buddhist monk I know," according to the AFP story.
The Dalai Lama has inspired a following on par with some of the world's most influential politicians and celebrities. He maintains an official Twitter account with over 11 million followers, making him the 99th most followed person in the world. He is the longest reigning dalai lama in history. He has no plans to address his succession until after his 90th birthday, according to his official website.