Not far away, in the 15th-century monastery's assembly hall, and out of the view of the tourists, a far more sinister test of wills is beginning. For three months, 70 Chinese Communist "re-educators" have been camped inside Sera, one of Tibet's grandest monasteries. Their goal has been to eradicate the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, once and for all.
"What we are seeing is a real danger to Tibet. It's China's final solution for getting rid of our Tibetan identity," says Tsering Wangyal, a representative of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi.
In between their afternoons spent haranguing Sera's 300 monks, the Communists have lazed around the dormitories of this cluster of red-roofed monastery buildings in the rocky hills above the capital of Lhasa, smoking cheap cigarettes and blasting Chinese pop out of the radio.
Last Tuesday, the "re-education" programme ended and the older monks were summoned to the assembly hall. The great wooden doors were shut to keep out stray tourists: coachloads of visitors were diverted by their official government guides up the path behind Sera to see rock paintings and the sky burial platform where vultures once picked clean the bones of human corpses.
As the monks squatted on their prayer cushions, Communist cadres passed among them, handing out oaths to sign. Each monk was asked to reject the Dalai Lama - exiled since 1959 - and his dream of restoring independence for Tibet. The monks were also obliged to recognise a young boy that the Chinese were trying to set up as an alternative to the Dalai Lama. Meddling rather inexpertly in Buddhist mysticism, the Chinese Communists selected a six-year-old as the reincarnation of another high lama, the Panchen Lama, ranked second in Tibet's spiritual hierarchy. Most Tibetans consider the Chinese candidate to be a young fraud.
When the papers were collected, the re-educators realised that their months of browbeating had been wasted. Not one of Sera's monks agreed to sign. Enraged, the Chinese arrested seven monks whom their spies within the monastery had identified as the likely ringleaders of the protest. They were led off by the Wu-Jing, the armed police whose comically large hats and over-sized uniforms conceal a streak of barbarism: in prison, Tibetan monks and nuns are tortured with electric shocks applied to their mouths and genitals, according to some former inmates. But the damage was done. Word of the monks' refusal spread to nearby Drepung, Samye, 70 miles away, and other monasteries where similar bullying sessions were going on.
With plain-clothed police everywhere, few Tibetans wish to be identified in print. "They even give hidden tape-recorders to nomad pilgrims visiting the Potala palace [the former palace of the Dalai Lama] just to hear what they might pick up from passing groups of westerners," a Tibetan friend warns.
As one Lhasa resident explains cautiously, "What's happening now is nearly as bad as the Cultural Revolution, when thousands of Tibetan monasteries were torn down. Underneath this sweet life of brothels, bars and consumer goods that the Chinese are bringing in, they are systematically trying to demolish the Tibetans' religion, language and culture. They'll leave a few monasteries - dead buildings - open to lure in the tourists, but that's all." Already, little or no Buddhist instruction is allowed inside the monasteries.
Once the Buddhist faith is extinguished in the monasteries, the Chinese are hoping it will then be wiped out among ordinary Tibetans. Some teachers say that the Tibetan language, too, is deliberately being phased out of upper schools. Many Tibetans now use Chinese numbers and days of the week.
"On Chinese television they showed a Tibetan nomad girl - very authentic, with lots of yaks running around behind her. But she was singing in a high Chinese falsetto. They want to preserve the ethnic trappings but have the core be solid Chinese," one Tibet expert says.
Peking has tried to win over the Tibetans with economic reforms, and in several ways this strategy is working. Some Tibetans, such as traders, building contractors, hoteliers and tour operators, are growing rich. Fraternisation is inevitable, given that the Chinese colonists, most of them from nearby Szechuan, probably outnumber native Tibetans in Lhasa. Some Chinese cadres even make furtive visits to pray at Buddhist shrines. You see young Tibetan waitresses trying to copy their trendy Chinese co- workers by bobbing their hair and wearing slacks and lipstick; some Tibetans even confess to liking Chinese karaoke.
The heavy-handedness of Peking's latest tactics, however, has backfired. Tibetans who once were resigned to co-existence with the Chinese are now angry. Many Tibetan cadres have quit the party and their government jobs in disgust, realising that the Chinese will always occupy the top posts and discriminate against them. When a bomb exploded outside a government building in Lhasa earlier this year, one theory made the rounds that it might have been set off by disgruntled Tibetan party officials.
"The Tibetan cadres are growing more and more despondent; they don't want to be involved in this latest repression," one Lhasa man says.
Peking's attempts to isolate the Dalai Lama from the clergy had already suffered a setback in May when monks at Ganden monastery, not far from Lhasa, hurled stones at armed police trying to outlaw pictures of the Dalai Lama. Two monks were shot dead, 100 others were arrested, and many others fled back to their villages. Ganden was declared off limits to westerners.
Exiled Tibetans date the current crackdown back to the Clinton administration's controversial decision, in May 1994, to renew China's trade status as a most favoured nation. "The moment the Chinese got the renewal, they became much, much harsher with us," says Mr Wangyal. Soon after, a secret meeting was held by senior Communist officials in Peking in which it was decided to "cut the head off the serpent" - meaning the Dalai Lama. The Chinese were alarmed to find that even Tibetan Communist cadres still revered the Dalai Lama, and often hung his photograph in their homes.
Marxist dogma may have made the Chinese officials blind to the depth of religious fervour among Tibetans. Thousands of pilgrims routinely circle around Lhasa, prostrating themselves every step for over five miles. When I stopped to watch villagers harvesting barley, a gang of children with straw in their hair ran over and begged for "Dalai Lama pictures. Dalai Lama pictures". It was the only English they knew. Even in monasteries infiltrated by spies, the monks are flaunting the ban on pictures of the Dalai Lama in many ways. Some display an empty photograph frame on a throne. Others have portraits of their spiritual leader when he was a child, or they conceal his pictures under paintings of an Indian Buddha.
Still, harassment against Tibetan believers is intense. Monks at one small monastery outside Lhasa were shocked last week as three armoured personnel carriers parked outside their gate before rumbling on. While travelling to Samye, probably the oldest and most sacred monastery in the country, I shared a river crossing and a lorry ride through bleak, sandy hills with sullen Chinese soldiers, armed with AK-47s. Samye still showed the scars from an earlier ransacking during the Cultural Revolution; zealots had gouged the eyes out of 8th-century Buddhist frescoes and either looted or destroyed over 40,000 kg of metal statues and other sacred objects.
The re-educators had reached Samye, too. Three monks, including an old gravel-voiced chantmaster, had slipped away from the monastery rather than endure further intimidation. The timing of the three soldiers' arrival at Samye was interpreted by the remaining monks as a warning to discourage other dissenters.
It is doubtful whether Peking's latest assault on the Tibetans will provoke widespread unrest. Most Tibetans adhere to the Dalai Lama's stand on non- violence. The exiled spiritual leader opposes armed insurrection on moral grounds and also out of common sense: the Chinese army would swiftly crush any attempted guerrilla uprising by Tibetans. Also, as one Lhasa resident explains apologetically: "We Tibetans are not good at organised resistance. It's not in our character. We go for symbolic acts, even if they're ultimately futile." He recalls the story of one monk who had to have his legs amputated after a massacre of Tibetan forces by a 1904 British expedition. "That's all right," he told a British surgeon about losing his legs. "This way I won't be able to run away from the battlefield next time you attack."
Under the mask of economic progress, China's persecution of Tibetans continues. Peking refuses to speak to the Dalai Lama, despite his many concessions which would allow Peking to keep control over an autonomous Tibet's defence and foreign policy. "They're as mad as any time since the Cultural Revolution," says one government-in-exile official in Dharamsala, northern India.
Yet Peking's attempts to crush dissent in Tibet seem doomed. Few if any Tibetans accept Peking's candidate for the Panchen Lama. Pictures of him are only displayed in Tashi Lumpo monastery, in Shigatse, 120 miles west of Lhasa, under duress. The Dalai Lama's choice, a six-year-old boy, was arrested by Chinese police and is now believed to be held somewhere in Peking. Exiled Tibetans fear for the boy's safety.
The repression inside the monasteries has only steeled the clergy's resolve to defy Peking's meddling. Inside one of the chambers of a Lhasa monastery, an old monk who was reading scriptures at the window beckoned me over. He motioned for silence, pointing to an eavesdropping device that blinked from the shadows above the statue of a snarling Tibetan deity. Then the monk whispered: "The Chinese will never make us give up the Dalai Lama."Reuse content