SENGCHEN BLOBZANG-RGYALMTSHAN is a living Buddha and a cog in the wheel of Chinese control in Tibet.
As a living Buddha, he was plucked from his home as a young boy a half-century ago to join the monastery and take up the mantle as a reincarnation of a revered Buddhist teacher.
But that does not stop him from serving as an official of the Communist-run Tibetan and Chinese legislatures, although he says he is not a communist. Nor does it stop him from condemning young monks or lamas who form the nucleus of an independence rebellion in the one-time Himalayan kingdom.
"There is no contradiction or conflict. I believe in Buddhism. In terms of isms, Buddhism is idealism, while Marxism is materialism. However, I am not opposed to Marxism," Mr. Sengchen said in an interview in front of government officials, while in Beijing to attend the annual session of China's nominal legislature.
Contending that only a few young monks urge independence, Sengchen says that "the majority of that tiny number of lamas do this out of ignorance or deception. Most of the lamas detest their activities."
In an uneasy but potent mix of religion and politics, China exerts a tightening grip on Buddhism and the political future of Tibet.
In Tibet's 1,400 temples and among its nearly 40,000 lamas, Beijing is steadily expanding its influence, Western diplomats and Tibetan human rights activists say. The religion is central to Tibetan cultural identity.
The number of monks in many monasteries has been reduced and lamas placed on the state payroll. Chinese officials manipulate monastic administrative councils and hold sway over the choice of a growing number of living Buddhas, Western observers say. The government is sponsoring and claims final say in the search for the 11th Panchen Lama, who ranks second in the religious hierarchy only to the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet's former temporal and spiritual leader regarded as the reincarnation of the culture's P rotector God.
"Through the institution of the living Buddhas, the Chinese are shrewdly extending their control and co-opting Tibetan Buddhism," says a Western diplomat who has visited Tibet.
Moves to pervade Buddhist institutions run parallel to an often brutal security clampdown on pro-independence Tibetans aligned with the Dalai Lama, who fled to India with 100,000 refugees in 1959 after a failed uprising. Scores of monks, nuns, and other activists have been jailed and tortured, Western human rights groups say, and hundreds of dissidents remain in prison.
Earlier this month, foreign travelers in the region reported that about 30 people, most believed to be monks, were arrested in small protests coinciding with Tibet's spring prayer festival and anniversary of the abortive 1959 uprising against the Chinese. The outbursts signal the continuing influence of a small underground that perpetuates independence sentiment and claims a widespread following despite a generation of Communist pressure to subdue a people with few cultural and political ties to China. C hina first invaded Tibet in 1949.
"As for some people trying to split Tibet from the motherland, this is only a day dream," said Raidi, a Communist leader in Tibet. "Tibet is an inimitable part of Chinese territory, and there is no room for haggling."
Meanwhile, China pursues a policy of cultural and religious assimilation that began in 1979 when Buddhist belief was once again allowed, monasteries were reopened, and Beijing undertook to undo decades of suppression and bitterness in Tibet.
Today, Beijing is gradually extending its reach into religious life through the living Buddhas to foil religious-inspired nationalism in many monasteries, Western observers say.
Sengchen, the Tibetan legislative deputy who is from the Tashilhunpo Monastery, considered to be in Beijing's orbit, estimates there are currently 200 to 300 such holy men in Tibet. He predicts that "since we are now allowed to search for the reincarnation of the living Buddha, I expect there will be many more."
The holy men are identified through a process of ceremonies, divination, consulting oracles, and observing holy lakes for any signals of infant reincarnation.
Last year, however, Beijing asserted a stronger role by recognizing the elevation of an eight-year-old boy as the 17th rein- carnation of the Buddha Garmaba, the first such sanction in four decades of Chinese rule.
Western diplomats say Beijing sent the head of its Bureau of Religious Affairs to the grand ceremony at a monastery near the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to present the boy a special certificate of recognition and signal its intent to keep tight control over Tibetan religious figures.
Many overseas Buddhists condemn growing Chinese meddling in the selection of holy men, particularly in the search for the new Panchen Lama. The 10th Panchen Lama, who died four years ago and now lies embalmed in a glass case, his face covered with gold leaf, was often considered a Chinese pawn for staying behind in 1959 and opposing independence. But he spent years in prison for speaking out for better treatment of Tibetans.
Western diplomats say that some living Buddhas serve their communities and preserve Tibetan Buddhist traditions despite Chinese influence. Many, however, are manipulated by Chinese officials, a reflection of the hard reality in Tibet. "There's no way that 2 million Tibetans are going to throw out the Chinese," says one observer.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the search for the next Panchen Lama, Sengchen, whose monastery will handle the selection by Beijing, predicts it could take a few more years.
Many Tibetans and Westerners say the quest for the Panchen Lama is but a forerunner to the ultimate struggle over succession to the Dalai Lama which will finally seal Tibet's fate.
As many Tibetans pray for the return of the Dalai Lama, Sengchen also urges that his religious leader come home - but on China's terms. "His return would be good for the religious belief of the Tibetan people," he said. "I have met the Dalai Lama myself. I must say that his religious attainment and knowledge are very great."