Talks between representatives of Tibetan exiles and the Chinese government are imminent, according to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader who has lived in exile in India for more than 20 years.

In an interview at Manikaram, a remote village in the Indian Himalayas, the Dalai Lama said that the delegation of Tibetan exiles will be leaving in the next few weeks for Peking to talk with senior Chinese leaders.

"We have to discuss certain things which are at the moment very confidential," the Dalai Lama said. He predicted major changes "within the next two or three years."

State Department analysts said they had no knowledge that such a visit was impending, but placed varying degrees of credence in the report.

["It would be really remarkable (if such a visit came off), but it is not beyond the realm of possibility," said one analyst, who noted that the Dalai Lama had studiously avoided criticizing the Chinese government when he visited the United States last fall.]

If the visit occurs, it will be the first time since the Chinese occupation of Tibet more than 20 years ago, representatives of 100,000 exiled Tibetans have discussed a possible settlement with the Chinese. Five representatives of the Dalai Lama visited Tibet at the end of last year, which seems to have opened the way for negotiations to begin.

The Dalai Lama speaks highly of the new Chinese leaders who, he says, have adopted a policy of "seeking truth from fact."

"They now more or less admit that their policy in Tibet over the last 20 or 30 years have been a failure. So they are trying to find a new way to solve this problem," he said.

But he remains very critical of local officials in Tibet. "Their behavior is very silly, I doubt whether the senior chinese leaders actually know the situation, so my own people are making careful, unbiased observation. They will explain to the Chinese leaders and, according to the situation inside Tibet, I will have discussions with the Chinese leaders. If both sides are genuine, the right solution will be found."

The Dalai Lama would not describe the precise form the discussions will take. "At this particular moment, the Dalia Lama's mouth must be kept quiet," he said. "Since the Chinese attitude is becoming soft, then so must I be."

Among possible topics of discussion is the status of Buddhism in Tibet. The official Chinese position is that Tibetans have complete freedom of religion. Recent reports suggest, however, that of an estimated 3,000 monasteries that existed before Tibet was integrated into China, only a handful remain -- the rest having been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Young people are reportedly forbidden to visit temples and shrines and entry to the main cathedral in Lhasa is said to be by ticket only.

Another question that might be on an agenda is what exactly constitutes Tibet.

Greater Tibet takes in Amdo (now the Chinese province of Qinghai) and other territory which has been annexed to the provinces of Gansu, Sichwan and Yunnan. According to the Chinese, there are 1.7 million people in Tibet, while the Dalai Lama estimates there are 6 million.

Under present arrangements Tibet is an autonomous region of China, but in practice, Chinese officials still dominate the higher levels of the Tibetan Communist Party and the regional administration.

If the Dalai Lama returned, he would bring with him thousands of young Tibetans who have been educated in India and the West, and this influx of young westernized, noncommunist Tibetans could pose a problem by the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama is 45 years old and, although he insists that his own future is unimportant, it is unlikely that his people would agree. Most Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is the living Buddha -- the 14th reincarnation of Chnresi -- and no amount of Chinese propaganda has been able to erase this belief.

The Dalai Lama said that he is "quite hopeful, if the present policy in China continues," that he will be allowed to return to Tibet. But he is also haunted by the possibility that, as has happened so many times in the past, the political line in China will change.

"New slogans? A new Gang of Four? That is a very good question," he said. "I don't know the answer. Do you have any advice to offer?"