Buddha competes with Mao in China's Tibet

''The Dalai Lama is our king,'' said the young man in khaki Mao jacket and baggy trousers. ''Unless he comes back with real political power, there is no point in his coming back at all.''

His three companions, one of them in a denim jacket and striped bell-bottom trousers, nodded. ''A friend of mine slipped across the border to India a month ago,'' one said. ''He is 21 years old, and he said he would not be back for at least 10 years.''

A visiting journalist suggested that life in hot, crowded India would not be very easy for anyone used to the wide open spaces of the Tibetan high plateau.

''The Dalai Lama is our lama,'' came the reply. ''People go to India because he is there. It does not matter what hardships we may undergo, so long as we can be near him.''

We were sitting on the roof of the Ramoche Gompa, a ruined temple that many Tibetans consider the second most sacred temple in Lhasa after the huge Jokhang. Ramoche was built by Wencheng, the Tang princess who married the 8th-century unifier of Tibet, King Songtsan Gampo.

Underneath us, in the main hall of the temple, is an enormous portrait of Mao Tse-tung, evidently installed when the temple was ravaged during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There are plans to restore the temple, but so far the portrait of Mao remains. ''They took our Buddha and gave us Mao instead,'' said the denim-jacketed one.

The young men said they had attended junior high school, where they had been taught Chinese. Today they work in a machine repair shop, and one is a member of the Communist Youth League. They wanted neither their names recorded nor their photographs taken.

Materially, the young men said, their lives had improved tremendously during the past couple of years. For this, they gave credit to the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping and to the new leadership installed in Tibet since May of 1980 by the Peking authorities.

The young men own bicycles and radios. At work, they receive bonuses. They can afford a more varied wardrobe and better food than before the reform policies took hold.

In religion, still overwhelmingly important to many Tibetans, there is relative freedom of worship compared with the days of the Cultural Revolution, when temples and monasteries were smashed by youths carrying out Peking's injunction to ''get rid of the old.''

''I could even become a lama now, if I wanted to,'' said one of the young men.

The denim-jacketed friend intervened again. ''The Chinese do what they like, and we have to follow,'' he said. ''Yesterday I would not have been allowed to be a lama. Today I am allowed to. Who is to say that tomorrow I will not again be forbidden to become one?''

These young men were accosted by chance, and it is difficult to say how typical their views may be. As for the return of the Dalai Lama, there is little question that the overwhelming majority of Tibetans would welcome it. But attitudes toward the Han, the ethnic Chinese who form nearly half of Lhasa's 120 ,000 citizens, are more complex.

''Tibet is very backward,'' said Ma Pengxia, a Tibetan accountant in a local middle school. ''We can modernize only with the help of the Han. What would we do without trucks and cars, for instance? But we make no trucks or cars ourselves. All our vehicles come from other parts of China.''

Hans and Tibetans both need to beware of chauvinism toward each other, Mr. Ma said. But personally he felt there was no tension between Hans and Tibetans he knew. His remarks were echoed by three other young Tibetans, all teachers, who were interviewed by prearrangement with local authorities.

A middle-aged English teacher on a bicycle outside the Jokhang also said that relations between Hans and Tibetans were good. This teacher said he had been mistreated during the Cultural Revolution, but that he had since been rehabilitated and now felt very happy both with his own work and with the general atmosphere of economic improvement and of religious tolerance in Tibet.

Another Tibetan intellectual, who did not want his name used, walked around and around the Barkhor, the circular shopping street surrounding the Jokhang temple, with a visiting journalist one night, maintaining that Tibetan-Han relations had become explosive just before Peking replaced a hard-line party secretary here with a more conciliatory, Tibetan-speaking official in May 1980.

Since then, he said, the atmosphere had improved. ''But still, you'll see hardly any Hans walking around the Barkhor at this time of night,'' he said. ''They stick strictly to their part of the town.''

Which of these views is correct? A visit to Lhasa of less than one week is insufficient to say. Those who knew Tibet before 1980, when the hard-line Chinese were in control, agree that the general atmosphere is far more relaxed now. This correspondent could walk freely throughout Lhasa and speak as he pleased, albeit at times discreetly, with any Tibetan able to handle English or Chinese.

It is also true that, with Mr. Deng's policy of a more open China being applied to Tibet as well as to other parts of China, there is far more coming and going both of foreign visitors and of Tibetans than at any previous time in this long-isolated region's history.

Some 100,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, and while many of them stayed with him in India, others went on to Western Europe or the United States. Many of these exiles have been allowed back for visits, while a number of Tibetans with relatives abroad have been allowed out.

The long-range consequences of these comings and goings remain to be seen. But unless China as a whole retreats back into isolation, Peking will have to work out its relationship with the Tibetans in the context of a more open Tibet within a more open China.

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