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Twenty-two years have passed since Chinese troops flushed Tenzin Gyatso out of his Himalayan Shangri-La. From his outpost in Dharmsala in northern India he has watched from afar while Chinese administrators tried to redesign life in the rugged stratospheric climes he once ruled, while Cultural Revolutionaries wiped out all but a handful of his country's 2,300 Buddhist monasteries, while garrisons of Chinese troops were posted in that strategic terrain between India and China, and while his people's backward economy foundered to the point of leaving thousands in rags and starvation.

But in a curious 180-degree twist, the Chinese who once were so anxious to see Tenzin Gyatso go, now seem to want him back.

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Exile has not, after all, changed his role as the Dalai Lama, leader of the estimated 6 million Tibetan Buddhists. As China's new leaders see it, his services could be precisely the boost a sagging Tibet needs.

And for those anxious to see how far China will go in easing restrictions on religion, this could be the acid test.

"They are finally treating me seriously," he recently told newsmen here, throwing the sash of his rust-red robe over his shoulder and sipping the boiling-hot water he likes to drink while giving an audience.

"Things are changing for the better. I am optimistic."

In fact, never in his 22 years of exile has the Dalai Lama been more convinced that he will return to the mysterious and isolated mountain-country often dubbed "the world's rooftop."

Watching the Dalai Lama conduct an audience with a group of curious Westerners, one is tempted to think of Yul Brynner's characterization of the authoritative, inscrutably arbitrary, and playful King of Siam in "The King and I," despite the crew cut, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and Western style wristwatch and leather shoes.

The Dalai Lama moves with an air of authority accentuated by the utter deference shown him by his entourage of silent red-robbed Buddhist monks and Tibetan exiles in Western dress. (He is also surrounded by the unsubtle presence of plainclothes Secret Service men who give him head- of-state protection wherever he goes.)

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In conference, the Dalai Lama answers questions with staggered bursts of his deep voice, gesturing deliberately with his bare right arm, and choosing carefully the words from the English repertoire he has been cultivating in recent years.

One moment he looks down at the floor as if preoccupied with some stately matter. The next, he spins playfully in his swivel chair (obviously a somewhat unfamiliar devive), rolling off the edge of the plastic mat that covers the carpet, breaking into a good-natured chuckle and grin.

"I am a human being," he constantly reminds his audiences.

"I want to talk to you not as a Buddhist leader, not as a Tibetan, but as a human being, human to human."

Yet the Dalai-Lama is deadly serious when it comes to the thorny dilemmas of reentering the sphere of Chinese Realpolitik.

His own struggle to adapt highlights the dilemmas of buddhists throughout much of central and South Asia.

From Siberia and Mongolia to soviet Central Asia, from Tibet to Sri Lanka, hundreds of millions of Buddhists have come under atheistic Communist rule and are trying to figure out how to cope. Many have been waging a desperate struggle to prevent their traditional religion and life styles from being trampled by the advance of Marxist theories of economic growth and technological change.

The Dalai Lama, on one hand, stresses his moral obligation to teach the Tibetan children and to build and preserve Tibetan culture. Even in exile he has managed quite well with the task.

But he concedes that "realistically" (a term he uses frequently these days) the Chinese and Chinese communism are in Tibet to stay. And he is prepared to make some concessions -- provided the Chinese are.

"We have reached a point at which, realistically, it is better not to remain hostile toward each other, but to have some sort of dialogue or detente," he says, chuckling again, this time with delight at having pulled the Western political term out of the air.

Detente "Lama-style" has so far proved quite the family affair.

Since 1979 three delegations of Tibetans have journeyed to Tibet on his behalf. One was led by the elder brother Thubten jigme Norbu (a professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Indiana). The other two were led by a younger brother and sister.

During the second delegation's visit in July 1980 to the capital, Lhasa, Tibetans craving the Dalai Lama's return mobbed his representatives, trying to snatch a piece of their clothes or locks of their hair to take home and worship (a practice common to earlier periods).

Though the perturbed Chinese unceremoniously terminated that visit, they have still been sending olive branches to woo the Dalai Lama back.

High-ranking members of the Communist party have repeatedly said that his return would be a welcome aid in the effort to lift Tibet out of centuries of economic backwardness.

"When Hu Yaobang [general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party] visited Tibet last year," the Dalai Lama explains, "he publicly admitted to the mistakes and failue [of past Chinese policies] and he apologized for them.

"I admire his courage in admitting past mistakes. The present leaders have seen that past ideology was not working out. Instead of bringing more prosperity, it brought more suffering. So they have to accept reality. And with that new sincere and realistic, attitude, I think we can solve some problems."

These new Chinese policies, he says, have also permitted some Buddhist temples to be rebuilt in Lhasa. The government has promised to help fund the restoration of a major monastery near Lhasa. In the smaller towns and countryside Tibetans have also been allowed to reopen some of their monasteries, although the restriction of religious freedom still remains tight outside the larger towns.

The Chinese have further agreed in principle to allow eiled Tibetan teachers to return and teach tibet's young people. (When the Dalai Lama's sister visited the countryside last summer, she was appalled to find that many children were not being taught any Tibetan; others learned it only as a second language.)

In addition, the authorities have stopped changing Tibetan names into Chinese. They have put some tax reforms into effect. Private farmers have been promised more land and given permission to increase their planting of the staple crop Tibetans prefer, barley.

But for all the apparent reconciliation, the stickiest of all sticking points remains:

What kind of political status would the Chinese grant the Dalai Lama when and if the returns?

In the eyes of common Tibetans, of course, he is not just a religious leader, but a god-king carrying on the 1,200-year-old tradition of priest-kings who held temporal, as well as religious, authority.

At age three, the lore has it, Tenzin Gyatso was singled out after a search by Tibetan elders as the reincarnation of the previous priest-king who died in 1933. (The title "Dalai Lama" comes from the Mongolian for "Ocean of Wisdom.")

he Chinese made an attempt years ago to resolve the problem of the Dalai Lama's political status.

When they look over Tibet in 1950, they gave the young Tenzin Gyatso (then only in his 20s) a position in the Communist administration as chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the Autonomous Tibetian Region. But it soon proved only a figurehead role. And even that was abruptly terminated in 1959 when the Chinese crushed a Tibetan uprising and he fled the country.

Still, in tune with the freer spirit of China's new politicos, the first secretary of the Tibetan Communist Party, Yin Fatang, recently indicated that the Dalai Lama had once held a state position and "our central leaders can work out an appropriate role for him in the future."

What that means is yet far from clear.

Would he, "realistically," be expected to simply toe the Communist Party line?

The prospect has sent the resourceful monk delving into the political textbooks to see if his brand of Buddhism could really coexist with a Marxist framework.

"This is a very complicated problem, but we have to face it -- not just for Tibet but for lands right up to the Soviet republics, for the [many millions of people] who are buddhists living under communist systems," he explains.

"I muself feel that we can find some common ground between Marxism and Buddhism," he says, now measuring his words carefully to avoid saying things that might offend the Chinese at this delicate stage.

"The Marxist framework, at least in its ideal, is concerned for benefiting all human beings, especially the working class, in this life. Buddhism is also concerned about humans and this life, though in addition it is concerned about all forms of life and future life.

"The Marxists," he goes on, "are concerned -- again in the ideal -- not only with production of goods but also how to distribute them equally. Buddhism has sought that, too, although it has done it through charity on a voluntary basis. This is because Buddhism emphasizes sympathy with all life and with serving.

"Now realistically in today's world Marxism has taken so many forms. The concentration of power in the hands of a few in these countries shows that something has been inadequate in their theory. But what I'm saying is that, if you leave out the element of international power politics, we could find common ground with Marxism in its ideals of benefiting the majority of the working class."

In his usual optimism, the Dalai Lama expects that things will resolve in time. Still, for the moment he remains deeply cautious. He is not sure the time is right for his return to Tibet.

He needs stronger evidence that his Tibetan colleagues will indeed be allowed to teach children inside Tibet. He needs more guarantees that Chinese designs for the future of their "young revolution" include enough elbow room for the likes of a Dalai Lama.

Most of all, he wants to see is still better atmosphere of trust between Chinese and Tibetans -- as he puts it, more kindness.m

Recent Chinese-Tibetan bridges have been a good start, one senses from his tone. But there is still a distance to go.

At Harvard's Sanders Theater some days after the press gathering, a packed crowd got a glimpse of his theory of the bridge-building still needed in Tibet, and beyond.

"Without kindness we cannot survive in this world. Through hatred and anger there is no possibility to achieve real world peace. . . . Peace through force may gain something in the short run. But for the long run [it has] no possibility of real hope. . . .

"Kindness is the most reliable and trustworthy [means]. At this time the cultivation of an atmosphere of kindness, compassion, and love is extremely important. The value of kindness is limitless. . . . Each of us has the responsibility to serve mankind, to think of mankind, to be concerned for mankind. . . . My brothers and sisters, please keep in mind this noble task."

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