When will the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, return to the land from which he fled nearly a quarter century ago? Here in the capital of what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, that question is on many lips. Maroon-robed elderly lamas (Buddhist monks), devout women spinning their prayer wheels, Chinese-trained teachers in dusty blue Mao jackets - even junior government officials - give their own wishful answers.
Tibet under the rule of a central Chinese leadership dominated by reformist Deng Xiaoping is a far different place from that of the harsh, chaotic Cultural Revolution years (1966-76). Incense burns once again before the great, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and pilgrims prostrate themselves before its massive wooden doors.
Tibet is in the second year of a drought. Hills that should be green are dusty brown, with a stubble of grass hardly adequate to feed the shaggy black yaks grazing on them. But the Lhasa Valley itself is green, irrigated by the Lhasa River.
Peasants, who are back in colorful native garb after being forced into Mao blue or khaki during the Cultural Revolution, have been reaping bumper crops of wheat and barley.
Normalcy has, in short, returned to Tibet as it has to the rest of China. But it is normalcy with a difference, for Tibet is not at all like the rest of China.
In Tibet, normalcy means the revival of Buddhist monasteries and the freedom to worship in them. It means an end to ''ultra-leftist'' Cultural Revolution attempts to set the poor and former serfs against former landowners, lamas, and intellectuals. It means a new attempt to reconcile Tibetans with Hans (the ethnic group constituting a majority of the Chinese), and to convince Tibetans that despite the presence of the Chinese Army, they are active participants in their own regional government and not merely a people under military occupation.
And all this despite the legacy of history, especially of the tragic rebellion of 1959 which precipitated the Dalai Lama's flight to India.
Many believe that a fundamental reconciliation between Hans and Tibetans is not possible and that the best Peking can hope for is a sullen, grudging acceptance of its rule.
Others say that Tibetans, particularly of the younger generation, recognize that their country cannot modernize without Chinese help and that Tibet must achieve its destiny within the context of a multinational China.
Whether, when, and how the Dalai Lama returns to Tibet could play a decisive role in settling Tibet's future. The government position, as conveyed to reporters by Yong Pei, director of the minorities bureau of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, is that the Dalai Lama is free to return to his homeland whenever he wants, for either a short or permanent stay. Behind the scenes, there has been a long series of contacts between the exiled Dalai Lama's office in Dharmsala, India, and Chinese authorities in Lhasa and Peking.
A group of 19 Tibetan exiles headed by a ''living Buddha'' now in Lhasa purports to be a fact-finding mission sent by the Dalai Lama or by sources close to him. But Chinese authorities say the group consists of expatriate Tibetans authorized to visit relatives at home.
The Dalai Lama recognizes his people's difficult geographic and geopolitical position. He seems devoted to a peaceful resolution of the Chinese-Tibetan relationship, having cautiously approved Peking's more conciliatory policies toward Tibet. Yet he is holding out for more solid evidence of religious and political freedom before committing himself to return. He remains immensely popular in Tibet. His photographs are everywhere: in temples, in the Potala palace where successive dalai lamas ruled, and in private homes.