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A young monk opens a rare window of candor in Tibet

On weekdays, Khenpo wears crimson robes, chants at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, and studies Buddhist scripture rolled into long tubes.

On weekends, he adopts a different identity. He sports a baseball cap and baggy jeans, listens to hip hop, and chats on his cellphone. And he likes hanging out with monks from local monasteries.

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But the young monk is no party animal. I meet the young and refreshingly candid Khenpo (not his real name) while he kicks a soccer ball on a dusty patch at the bottom of Potala Palace.

I've been to three monasteries in two days. But monks did not speak privately to foreign journalists. And they won't talk in front of officials.

Khenpo, however, wants to talk. He grew up in a village with pigs and yaks, but is now interested in the outside world, which he learns about from TV and the Internet.

Today, I tell him, officials here said that most Tibetans have abandoned their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the hope that he will return. Is this true?

Khenpo is very clear about both the Dalai Lama and what he feels is a major crisis for the future of Tibet. His point confirms what other Tibetans have told journalists: Chinese are diluting traditional Buddhist culture and the monks' role.

"They are coming like a flood," he says. "The politics, the jobs, the population - everything is Chinese. My friends can't find a job. Chinese is the only thing you hear on TV or radio. We are losing our culture, and we don't need the Dalai Lama to tell us this. It is what we are experiencing. It is getting to the point that we can't recognize what is Tibetan anymore."

As for the Dalai Lama, Khenpo says, "We love him.... We can't say so, but it is what we think. We keep him in our hearts. We don't speak his name in public, but we speak of him at home. We will always want him to return."

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Until five years ago, Khenpo adds, most of the temple rooms inside the main monasteries in Lhasa still showed framed photos of the Dalai. But police began to raid the temples; also, there are now more informers among the monks, he says. People keep Dalai Lama photos in their homes, "but this is dangerous," Khenpo says, since authorities know this.

This summer the International Campaign for Tibet, a nonprofit organization in Washington that promotes self-determination for Tibetans and to protect their culture, put out a lengthy report detailing a crackdown by Chinese authorities on Buddhist practice in Tibet.

It argues a systematic campaign by China to limit the number of future monks, to constrain their movement and ability to speak, to force monks to take patriotic education classes, to make personal loyalty oaths to China more important than scriptures.It also says the Chinese government is claiming authority over Buddhist reincarnation beliefs related to the religious leadership.

I don't mention the report, "When the Sky Fell to Earth," to Khenpo, but do ask about the findings. He confirms most of them. "Many thousands" of monastery applicants are being turned away, he says.

"The monasteries are the heart of Tibet, and this is what is being squeezed and crushed," Khenpo argues. He thinks the squeeze is not directly repressive, but is being carried out by management policies that slowly constrict the monks.

I'm aware that Khenpo can be arrested just for speaking with me, but he's not at all worried, he tells my interpreter.

What most irritates the hip-hop monk, however, is that he can't debate, argue, disagree, or challenge openly.

"The Dalai Lama wants us to think freely and to act as freely as we can," he says. "But there are limits. If someone from China says something about our history, and we think it is not true, or it is not what our scholars teach as the real history, we cannot say so. We are not free to dispute. There is only one version of history allowed."

In front of the magnificent Potala, the light is fading, but the sky remains a clear, pale blue. The erstwhile home of the Dalai Lama gracefully turns from white to a rich, creamy orange. The serenity ends when Khenpo's cell rings, and he darts off.

Across from Potala is a public square where a huge obelisk has been dedicated, a reminder of Tibet's "liberation" by China. Steps away is a new disco, "J.J.'s," where waitresses in white leather miniskirts serve drinks to noisy Sichuan businessmen. On the wall, across the main dance floor, spreads a huge graphic reproduction of the palace. Above the palace has been painted a rainbow, a Chinese symbol for success.