The Dalai Lama preached Saturday to thousands of supporters in Mongolia, on a visit set to test the country’s ties with China at a time when it is seeking a critical aid package from its powerful neighbor.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader addressed followers at the Gandantegchenlin monastery and spoke about materialism to kick-start a four-day visit that Mongolia has said will be purely religious in nature and won’t include meetings with officials.
Still, the trip could have repercussions for land-locked Mongolia’s relationship with China, which protested previous visits by the Dalai Lama by briefly closing its border in 2002 and temporarily canceling flights from Beijing in 2006.
China views the Dalai Lama as a separatist seeking to split Tibet from China and strongly opposes all countries from hosting the monk, who has been based in India since fleeing Tibet during an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry strongly urged Mongolia to deny the Dalai Lama a visit for the sake of a “sound and steady” development of bilateral ties.
The Dalai Lama’s visit comes at a time when Mongolian leaders are seeking a $4.2 billion loan from Beijing to pull the country out of a deep recession. With commodity prices slumping, Mongolia is running out of hard currency to repay foreign debts and is seeking help from a neighbor that accounts for roughly 90 percent of its exports.
Mongolian Buddhism is closely tied to Tibet’s strain and many in the heavily Buddhist country revere the Dalai Lama, who made his first visit in 1979.
Mongolian religious figures say the visit could be the last for the 81-year-old spiritual leader, and some of his followers traveled hundreds of miles to see him while braving the coldest November temperatures in a decade.
Daritseren, a 73-year-old ethnic Mongolian from Russian Siberia, said she only heard on Friday that the Dalai Lama was visiting Mongolia and traveled with 40 other people for 15 hours overnight to make it just in time for the sermon.
Boldbaatar, a 75-year-old herder, said he rushed from 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.
“I’m an old man,” he said. “Maybe I’m seeing His Holiness, the incarnation of Lord Buddha, for the last time.”
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to chant special sutras on Sunday at a large sports facility built by Chinese companies through Chinese aid.
Religious scholars say during the visit the Dalai Lama is expected to offer input on the search for the 10th reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, a top-ranked lama in Buddhism.