Richard Gere helps accept Liberty Medal for the Dalai Lama

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Thupten Jinpa helped accept the Liberty Medal on behalf of the Dalai Lama. He and Richard Gere, board chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, praised the Dalai Lama's devotion to improving the human condition.

The person everyone wanted to see wasn't there.

But the ceremony took place nonetheless, and people cheered the Dalai Lama in his absence as representatives of the human-rights advocate accepted the Liberty Medal on his behalf Monday.

"People keep asking me, 'What is it about the Dalai Lama?' " the actor Richard Gere, a close friend, told several hundred people at the National Constitution Center. "It's that he's genuine, at all times."

Even, Gere added, when he's cranky.

Health concerns forced the Tibetan religious leader to cancel his two-day appearance in Philadelphia.

In a recorded video greeting, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama looked tired - a change in a man known for his strength and vigor.

The Dalai Lama thanked the Constitution Center for recognizing "my effort, my little service to humanity."

He said he was "committed until my death [to the] promotion of human value, the human value including freedom, liberty." He was recognized in Philadelphia for his efforts on behalf of freedom, dialogue, and tolerance.

His work in crafting a democratic constitution for Tibet - a land occupied by China, which says it has ruled it for centuries - was especially relevant to the concept of the Liberty Medal, center officials said.

The medal comes with a $100,000 prize, which the Dalai Lama donated to the Mind and Life Institute, a Massachusetts nonprofit that aims to build scientific understanding of the mind as a way to reduce suffering and promote human potential.

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the Constitution Center, praised the Dalai Lama on Monday as "one of the world's most enduring symbols of liberty."

For decades, the Dalai Lama has been advocating for Tibetans, teaching Buddhism, and extolling kindness. He angered the Chinese government by condemning what he called a "cultural genocide" against Tibet.

When it was announced in June that the Dalai Lama would receive the medal, a Chinese embassy spokesman condemned him as "a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion."

On Monday, as the ceremony neared its start, a plane circled over the Constitution Center trailing a banner that read, "False Dalai Lama Give Religious Freedom & Rights."

The Liberty Medal, established in 1988, is given annually to men and women who strive to secure liberty for people around the world.

The 2014 medal went to Malala Yousafzai, the teenage student from Pakistan who stood up to the Taliban. The previous year's winner was Hillary Rodham Clinton, and others have included Muhammad Ali, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the director Steven Spielberg.

The evening event had been expected to draw about 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans from exile communities in Washington, New York, and Canada. Instead, with the Dalai Lama absent, the Tibetan crowd was small and local.

One of those who attended was Shewo Lobsang Dhargye of Glenside, who once worked at the Dalai Lama's palace in Tibet.

The failed Lhasa Uprising in 1959 spurred the Dalai Lama's flight into exile - and saw Dhargye sentenced to 15 years in a Chinese prison and five more in a labor camp.

He sought political asylum in the United States in 2008 and became a citizen last week. He's still in touch with the Dalai Lama.

"It's a little sad that he's not able to receive the award personally," he said. "On the other hand, awarding it to him, it's an amazing and happy day."

Last month, the Dalai Lama canceled his fall visit to the U.S. and checked into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for evaluation. His office said doctors urged him to rest for several weeks.

Gere joked on Monday that as the Dalai Lama has gotten older, he has looked less Tibetan and more like a favorite grandfather.

"This is one of the great ones," said Gere, board chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet. "One of the great ones on this planet who are outside time and space."

The Dalai Lama suffers the medical problems of an 80-year-old man, he said, but intends to remain active until he's 90.

"He's still a lion," Gere said. "If anything, he's become more and more vast."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage