This summer, for the first time in 18 years, Tibet's No. 2 religious leader was allowed to leave Peking and receive pilgrims in Tibet.
The visit of the religious leader, the Pachen Lama, is the latest waft of liberalism that has swept the harsh mountain plateaus of Chinese-ruled Tibet since 1979.
But the unresolved question is whether Chinese administrators and generals can allow this freedom to grow. Can they risk a growing separatism in this strategic mineral-rich buffer zone separating mutually suspicious China and India?
One man holds part of the answer. He is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. As an exile in India and the highest leader of Tibet's Buddhist faith, he has been conducting a delicate bargaining game with China.
This month the lanky, bespectacled, and softspoken man opened a new chapter of religious activities with political overtones. In trips to visit other Tibetan refugees around the world, he has captured headlines and spotlighted Tibet - and himself as a would-be spokesman for his country's 1.8 million people.
This, it is hoped, will encourage, prod, and entice China toward granting political and religious freedom in Tibet.
Sources close to the Dalai Lama have been quoted as saying the visits are not politically motivated, but will be along the lines of the recent travels of Pope John Paul II. Still, in all this the Dalai Lama appears to be a man of both religion and politics.
This is hardly surprising. According to tradition, the Dalai Lama, as Tibet's highest religious leader, was seen as both God and king. Today he is the world's most prominent, if diplomatic, spokesman for Tibetan political and religious freedom.
In July and August the Dalai Lama left his sanctuary in Dharmsala, northern India, for journeys to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. September and October itineraries include Outer Mongolia, West Germany, France, Spain, and Italy.
The Dalai Lama has also quietly reached out to Peking. Since 1979 he has dispatched four delegations to China to sound out the prospects for a settlement. A fifth is scheduled for next year.
So far the Dalai Lama maintains the time is not ripe for him to return to China and cooperate with China's policies in Tibet. During the Dalai Lama's Southeast Asia tour, an aide is reported to have said, ''The Chinese should not try to force anything on us. We've been out of Tibet for 21 years and we are not in a rush to return if it means giving up our cause.''
China's rival, the Soviet Union, has offered military assistance to backers of Tibetan self-determination, according to a report attributed to Pema Gyalpo, a liaison officer for the Dalai Lama. Mr. Gyalpo said Tibetan exiles have turned down the offer in favor of continued peaceful dialogue with Peking. ''We do not want to become a pawn in the Soviet-Chinese rivalry,'' he said.
The Dalai Lama speaks amicably of China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, who has pushed reforms in Tibet. But he quietly insists he cannot end his exile and return home without stronger Chinese guarantees of Tibetan autonomy in politics, religion, and culture.
China, for its part, has repeatedly shown interest in winning over the Dalai Lama. One evidence is Peking's invitations for him to take up residence in China.
Many analysts suggest Peking needs the Dalai Lama's return and endorsement to consolidate China's shaky position in Tibet, a still backward area known for its herdsmen and shaggy-haired cows called yaks. The Chinese, who often judge cultures partly by their dietary habits, have traditionally regarded the Tibetans as inferior ''barbarians'' because of their practice of eating beef, milk, and butter from these mountain-roaming animals.
Travelers to Tibet report strong support there for the Dalai Lama. This may be why China appears to hope that if the Dalai Lama returns, Tibetans will be encouraged to make peace with China's political and military leadership.
Scholars and journalists who have recently visited Tibet describe signs of Tibetan bitterness toward Chinese stationed there. They report evidence of contempt toward Tibetans by Chinese civilian and military personnel. This gap persists - despite Mr. Deng's efforts to relax restrictions on Buddhist religious observances in Tibet.
Today the temples of Tantric Buddhism are again open to worshipers. Some large temples have even been permitted to recruit the new monk novices who pledge themselves to celebacy and the service of their orders. At least 80,000 religious pilgrims lined up to receive the Pachen Lama's blessing this summer.
The Peking government also has sought with mixed results to reduce arrogant ''Han chauvinism.'' This, it concedes, has too often been displayed against Tibetans by the Chinese, who largely run the once-independent area that China turned into an ''autonomous region'' in 1965.
When Mao Tse-tung's communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, they took over their predecessors' claim to a largely independent Tibet. In the early 1950 s a Communist military invasion secured Chinese control but left Tibet with a great deal of autonomy.
The present Dalai Lama fled Tibet 23 years ago after participating in an unsuccessful revolt against Chinese armies. The rebellion had grown after China tightened its grip on Tibet in the mid-1950s.
From the Tibetan viewpoint, China had broken the promises it made in an agreement pledging Tibetan autonomy. From the Chinese viewpoint, a clampdown was necessary to guarantee secure borders and prevent Tibet from allying itself with a foreign power such as India, the United States, or the Soviet Union.
Whether Deng and the Dalai Lama are now willing to cancel old arguments remains to be seen.