By Edward Cody
Lhasa, July 10 : In the cool of early morning, with heavy clouds still brooding over the surrounding peaks, thousands of pilgrims circled around Jokhang Temple, some spinning prayer wheels and others leading fluffy little dogs. Their silent procession was a vivid display of the deep-seated devotion to Lama Buddhism that persists in Tibet nearly 56 years after the imposition of communist rule in China.
The solemn circumambulation -- wrinkled peasants parading slowly alongside fresh-faced monks in maroon robes -- has been a fixture of life in central Lhasa for uncounted years. But the spectacle held special meaning last Thursday morning: It was the 71st birthday of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious and temporal leader who still holds the hearts of many of Tibet's 2.7 million people.
Chinese authorities have facilitated the pilgrims' worship, saying China has nothing against Buddhism or any other religion as long as it does not spill over into politics. Beijing has allocated millions of dollars for maintenance of Jokhang Temple and the nearby Potala Palace, Lama Buddhism's holiest shrines. But for many Tibetans, particularly the elderly and the monks who make Buddhism their lives, the Dalai Lama has remained the symbol not only of their spiritual world but also of their ethnic identity and national aspirations.
The intermingling of Buddhism's hold on the Tibetan spirit and the Dalai Lama's role as a political as well as religious leader has confronted Chinese authorities with a difficult situation. Reluctant to be seen stifling religious sentiment or local culture, they have opened up space for worship and pilgrimages, but at the same time they have taken tough measures to prevent Tibetans from coalescing around the Dalai Lama into an organized separatist movement.
The balancing act has produced a more relaxed climate in recent years, although Tibetans who spoke their minds in interviews did so on condition of anonymity for fear of getting into trouble with the authorities. Time, however, may be Beijing's best ally. Economic growth holds the promise of swift evolution in Tibetan society. Economic output in Tibet has risen 10 percent a year recently along with that of the rest of China.
A Tibetan middle-school teacher said intense devotion to Buddhism and to the Dalai Lama as a figure of Tibetan independence is most pronounced among the elderly. Teenagers who learn Chinese and English in his classes have new perspectives on their minds -- from China and the West, he said.
The first train line from Chinese cities to Lhasa, which opened July 1, is likely to accelerate the pace of change, linking Tibet ever more closely with the Chinese heartland. The train not only will bring in thousands more tourists and merchants, but it will also take copper and iron ore from Tibet's extensive deposits to China's mineral-hungry industries, injecting cash into the local economy and outside influences into the culture.
"The opening of the railway will further open up people's vistas and change their concepts," said Champa Phuntsok, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the top Tibetan official here under the Han Chinese Communist Party secretary, Zhang Qingli.
Phuntsok, in an unusually detailed briefing for foreign reporters on a government-sponsored visit, said Beijing's intermittent contacts with representatives of the Dalai Lama have not produced fruit because, beneath recent offers of compromise and limited autonomy, the Dalai Lama's goal remains Tibet's separation from Chinese rule.
The Dalai Lama's envoys have raised the prospect of broadening the Tibet Autonomous Region to include Tibetan-inhabited areas of neighboring provinces, Phuntsok said, and have suggested loosening Beijing's rule to give Tibet an autonomous status similar to that of Hong Kong. Most objectionable, he added, are the elections they have proposed to select a regional government.
These conditions are unacceptable to China, Phuntsok said, because "the final goal is the independence of Tibet." A spokesman for the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, queried by the Associated Press, disputed Phuntsok's outline of the talks and said Chinese officials recently have appeared more flexible.
For some of the Dalai Lama's most devout followers, however, independence has remained the goal, and the Dalai Lama has remained the leader of their national cause.
"We are not Chinese," said a portly monk at a CD shop just down the street from Jokhang Temple. "We are Tibetans."
His 23-year-old companion and fellow monk said that three years ago he tried to sneak across the border from Tibet into India, bound for the Dalai Lama's exile headquarters in the Himalayas. He was caught by Chinese border guards, he said, and driven back to his monastery -- without punishment, but also without change in his conviction that the Dalai Lama should still be Tibet's ruler.
"We monks are all students of the Dalai Lama," he said.
The middle-school teacher said large numbers of Tibetans feel the same way and put up photographs of the Dalai Lama in their homes as a sign of loyalty. Phuntsok said security forces discourage displays of the Dalai Lama's photograph but do not scour people's homes looking for them.
Qu Zha, deputy director of the Jokhang Temple administration, said the Dalai Lama's pictures are banned at the temple. But monks elsewhere in Lhasa furtively showed reporters little photographs of him hanging under their robes like Christian scapulars.
"As believers, we think religion should be separated from politics," Qu told reporters brought to his temple by government officials. "The Dalai Lama is involved in politics. So I believe most of the monks would not support the return of the Dalai Lama.
"Most of the people would not like to see history repeat itself," he added, referring to the serfdom that was common before Chinese rule was restored in 1951 and the severe repression that followed the Dalai Lama's departure.
Part of the repression was forced patriotism lessons for Tibetan monks, designed to persuade them to embrace Chinese rule. Qu said the lessons continue, but only sporadically, and the 180 monks at Jokhang Temple spend most of their non-religious study time trying to learn Chinese and English to keep up with the times.
The temple's main image of Buddha, carried by hand litter for three years over the mountains from Xi'an during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, is one of the objects of worship that draw pilgrims to Lhasa year after year, temple officials said. Others are artifacts in the Potala Palace, including the throne where the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th in a sacred line, once sat to rule Tibet.
One of the pilgrims, a monk named Tchetcham, prostrated himself in prayer before the temple Thursday morning as thousands of fellow pilgrims shuffled by on their circumambulation. During a break, Tchetcham, 44, said he had arrived in Lhasa three days earlier by bus from his home monastery in Xining, in Qinghai province.
The trip, his second, was a sacred duty, said Tchetcham, who uses only one name. Asked what drove him to carry out such a mission, he pointed to the temple wall without speaking. As for how long he planned to continue praying in front of the shrine, he said, "I think I'll go back home sometime next year."