One day after President Barack Obama met the exiled monk at the White House in defiance of Chinese warnings, the National Endowment for Democracy gave the Dalai Lama a medallion before a standing-room-only crowd at the Library of Congress.
The Endowment, which is funded by the US Congress, hailed the Dalai Lama for supporting a democratic government in exile and his willingness to even abolish his centuries-old spiritual position if Tibetans so choose.
"By demonstrating moral courage and self-assurance in the face of brute force and abusive insults, he has given hope against hope not just to his own people but also to oppressed people everywhere," Endowment president Carl Gershman said before placing the Democracy Service Medal over the monk's neck.
The Dalai Lama, who fled his Chinese-ruled homeland for India in 1959, voiced admiration for US and Indian democracy and said China's authoritarian system was unsustainable.
"The Chinese Communist Party, I think, did many wrong things. But at the same time, they also made a lot of contribution for a stronger China," he said.
The Dalai Lama pointed to the growing interest of many Chinese in getting rich. Calling himself a Marxist in his support for a strong social safety net, the Dalai Lama joked: "Sometimes I feel my brain is more red than those Chinese leaders."
"Sometimes I express now the time has come for the Communist Party should retire with grace," he said in English, laughing that Chinese leaders would be "furious" at his comments.
China earlier protested Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying the United States had "grossly violated basic norms of international relations" and summoning the US ambassador, Jon Huntsman.
"The US action seriously interfered in Chinese internal affairs, seriously hurt the feelings of China's people and seriously harmed China-US relations," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the Dalai Lama's meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were part of a longstanding US dialogue with the Tibetan leader.
"I think on this issue, obviously we just agree to disagree," Crowley told reporters.
Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of trying to split China, although the exiled leader has repeatedly said he accepts Chinese rule.
In a nod to Chinese sensitivities, the Obama White House prohibited cameras from entering the meeting, which took place in the Map Room, not the seat of presidential power in the Oval Office.
But the White House later issued a statement voicing support for the Dalai Lama and his nonviolent quest for greater rights for Tibetans.
With Obama, the Dalai Lama has now met every sitting US president since George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Offering one tidbit from Thursday's meeting, the Dalai Lama revealed that Obama gave him a memento from a much earlier interaction with a US president -- a copy of a letter Franklin Roosevelt sent him in 1942.
Roosevelt mailed the Dalai Lama, who was then seven, the letter and a golden Rolex watch as a gesture to seek relations with the remote Himalayan land.
"At that time, my only interest is the gift of the watch, not the letter," the Dalai Lama said with a laugh.
"I actually don't know where that letter goes. Now after 68 years, just yesterday, President Obama gave me a copy of that letter."
The monk frequently tells the story of the watch, saying that fiddling with it helped spur his lifelong interest in science.
In 2007, he carried the gold watch in his pocket when George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, the only time a sitting US president has appeared with him in public.