Buddhism coexists uneasily with communism in Tibet, despite Peking's religious policy permitting the revival of monasteries and lamas. ''Will Buddhism outlast communism?'' a visiting journalist asked the Rev. Dengdan Zhenchelie, the ''living Buddha'' of Chu Mu Ling monastery and a vice-chairman of the Tibetan Buddhist Association.
''As Buddhists, we pray for long life for our religion,'' the ''living Buddha'' replied. ''But communism,'' he added enigmatically, ''is quite another cup of tea.''
Until 1959, the Dalai Lama was both the religious and temporal ruler of Tibet. In that year the Tibetans rebelled against Chinese military rule, and the Dalai Lama fled with 100,000 followers into India, where he remains. After the Dalai Lama's departure, Tibet was turned into an ''autonomous region'' of the People's Republic of China.
Monasteries, which had totaled 2,100 before the Chinese takeover, were gradually reduced in number until in 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution , there were only 300.
In that anarchic explosion, class struggle was taken as the ''key link,'' and poor Tibetans were encouraged to rise up against landowners and rich Tibetans. The monasteries became a principal target and many were closed or destroyed. The Rev. Dengdan Zhenchelie, for instance, was packed off to a labor reform camp for three years.
Since the fall of the ''gang of four'' and the rise of senior leader Deng Xiaoping and his associates, Peking has drastically changed its policies both toward national minorities and toward religion. In Tibet, the new dispensation dates from May 1980, when Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Vice-Premier Wang Li visited Tibet, sacked the hard-line party secretary, Ren Rong, and installed a more reformist regional leadership under Tibetan-speaking Yin Fatang.
Today, 45 monasteries have been revived, with more than 1,300 lamas.
''We still need several thousand more lamas,'' said the Rev. Lobsang Pintso, abbot of Lhasa's most important temple, the Jokhang. But he said he was satisfied with the religious policies of the new Chinese leadership.
Jokhang now has 57 lamas, of whom 25 are young lamas taken in since 1981. The Rev. Lobsang Pintso said that he was in Lhasa in 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled, and that he would have liked to flee at that time. ''But I was afraid of being killed or wounded, so I didn't,'' he said disarmingly.
Did he regret not having fled? ''Well,'' he answered, ''during the Cultural Revolution, I sometimes wished I had. But now I am glad I stayed.'' He said he had not been imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, but had been taken to a farm and forced to do agricultural work.
The abbot hopes the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet, and that if he does, he might be made chairman of the regional government. ''But this will be decided by the authorities,'' he said.
One of the newest lamas in the Jokhang is shy, diffident Yixi Jiacuo, who was not even born when the Dalai Lama fled. ''Why did you want to become a lama?'' he was asked.
''I wanted to study the Buddhist scriptures in this life,'' he replied softly , ''so that I can lead a happier life in the next life. Man can get so far with his own unaided efforts. But to go further, I feel religion is essential.''
In Drepung monastery outside Lhasa, there is a still younger lama, bright-eyed Awang Quni, who is just 10 years old. His father, he said, is a bricklayer, his mother a seamstress. His parents sent him to the monastery when he was 7, both because they wanted to have him become a lama and because of his own strong wish. He now spends 9 to 10 hours a day reading and reciting Buddhist scriptures. He has never been to a secular school and, indeed, learned to read and write after coming to Drepung.
Awang Quni, sitting between two elderly lamas, handled a barrage of questions from nearly 40 journalists with aplomb.
Occasionally, he would look to one or the other of his mentors for prompting, but they resolutely left him to answer as best he could. Did he know the capital of China? No. Did he know the capital of Tibet? Yes, Lhasa. Where is the Dalai Lama? In India. Who is he? Guanyin. (Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, a bodhisattva known by Chinese as Guanyin.)
What are you taught about the Communist Party? (He looked around startled.) Nothing. Did you never learn anything about the Communist Party? No. Do you have any playmates? Yes (pointing at a boy about his own age, probably the son of one of the caretakers). Any toys? No, but sometimes I paint.
Could you recite a sutra for us? Oh, yes. After a moment's thought, eyes scowling in fierce concentration, he launched into a singsong chant that must have lasted at least 10 minutes. What was that? That was a prayer for the safety and long life of the Dalai Lama, he explained.
Watching this lad and the two elderly lamas sitting protectively on either side of him, and seeing the stream of pilgrims who daily make the rounds of the principal monasteries, one felt that Tibetan Buddhism was certainly in no immediate danger of dying out. The official attitude is that Buddhism is expected to last for at least another five or six generations.
Officials also say that the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and that people are therefore free to believe or not to believe. The authorities try to distinguish religion from politics, but in a country with as strong a theocratic tradition as Tibet, religion, Tibetan nationalism, and politics all seem tied together in an emotional, instinctive whole in which one element can hardly be differentiated from another.
The most intense combination of these three elements may be seen at Gandan monastery 40 miles outside Lhasa.
This great monastery, one of the country's four major monasteries (the others being Sera and Drepung in Lhasa, and Tashilumpo in Shigatse), stands on a hill in a dramatic mountain setting. Once it had more than 10,000 lamas, as did Drepung. Today it has but a fraction of this number.
Gandan was wrecked during the Cultural Revolution, its Buddhist statuary destroyed or defaced, its buildings ruined. The destruction was wreaked by Tibetans themselves urged to follow the slogan of ''class struggle as the key link.''
But today the monastery is a beehive of rebuilding activity. Seven halls have been restored already and the rest of the work is proceeding with careful, loving detail. Much of the work is done by volunteers. The government supplied 600,000 yuan ($300,000), but the bulk of the funds required - about 1.5 million yuan ($750,000) - comes from private contributions.
Much of the money was raised in the northwestern province of Qinghai, which adjoins Tibet, and which is the home of the Dalai Lama's parents. In short, many Tibetans still feel that by making pilgrimages to the holy monasteries, and by contributing money to their upkeep and rebuilding, they are building up merit for themselves in the next life.
The political significance of the rebuilding of Gandan and of the revival of Buddhism in general is that this enables large numbers of Tibetans to focus their energies on a purpose more concrete and meaningful than modernization.
In the village of Caigongtang just outside Lhasa, for instance, visiting journalists came across Danda, a well-to-do peasant who first spent money on rebuilding and improving his house, and then on monthly pilgrimages and offerings to Buddhist monasteries.
At least three days a month, Danda said, he visits one of the major monasteries - Drepung, Sera, or Gandan - or the Jokhang temple in central Lhasa, making offerings of cash, barley, and butter. He figured that he spent about 60 yuan ($30) per month on these offerings - the equivalent of a factory worker's monthly wages.
Danda has become well-off because of the economic incentive policies introduced throughout China by Deng Xiaoping and his associates. Danda has a large family with much earning power. He and his family have the usual agricultural jobs plus sideline occupations. They live well.
But beyond a certain level, he is not as interested in accumulating more things as he is in piling up merit for the next life. It is a way of thinking that accentuates his Tibetanness and that is beyond the understanding of most Chinese.
Not all Tibetans are like Danda. Many want the tangible fruits of modernization, fruits they know can be obtained only through cooperation with and reliance on the Chinese.
But observers familiar with Tibet say that somewhere in the thought of almost every Tibetan - no matter how nonbelieving he or she may profess to be - there remains a latent acceptance of the kind of thinking Danda represents. The Communist Party leadership in Tibet recognizes the strength of this kind of feeling and has been warning its own subordinates against trying to oppose it.
In a recent issue of the ideological fortnightly, Red Flag, first party secretary Yin Fatang spoke of ''some comrades'' who ''clung to past (left) mentalities and show lack of understanding of the party's present policies.'' While emphasizing the importance of economic work, Mr. Yin said, ''If we do not pay attention to nationality and religious problems which are the prerequisite for stability and unity, the realization of the tasks of economic construction will also be hampered.''
There are young Tibetans who, having been educated in Chinese schools and joined the Communist Youth League, honestly believe that ''religion is inconsistent with the modernization of our country,'' as one of them told a visiting journalist. ''To bring about modernization, we must educate the masses for a long time and try to get them to recognize that there is no God.''
But others, asked to compare Buddhism and communism, would probably reply as did the living Buddha that ''communism is quite another cup of tea.''
Peking's dilemma in Tibet, therefore, is profound. It would like to harness religion to its own chariot of economic modernization. If it wants the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, it is precisely because it hopes that in some way he may be persuaded to promote modernization and Sino-Tibetan cooperation among his own people.
But these goals will succeed only to the extent they fit in with the Tibetan ethos, with what Tibetans themselves instinctively feel to be appropriate. As Yin writes in his article, ''In developing the economy and culture in Tibet, it will never do just to copy the pattern of the interior (i.e. the Chinese provinces of China). . . . What we need is to continue our efforts to understand and grasp the special circumstances of Tibet and follow a prudent policy aimed at steady progress.''
Can Peking and its representatives in Lhasa practice what they preach?
Success or failure depends entirely on the answer.