To Tibetans, he is the "defender of the faith," the lasting symbol of Buddhist purity and national independence surviving in exile after three decades of Chinese Communist repression in his homeland.

To the Chinese who annexed Tibet in 1951, he is an international embarrassment and political nemesis challenging Communist control of this strategic avenue to central Asia.

The difference in perceptions of the man called Dalai Lama, whom the Tibetans consider their spiritual and political leader, sums up the problem of Tibet today. It explains why the Communist government in Peking failed to subdue the Himalayan frontier by years of coercion, and why local separatists continue to sabotage Chinese rule even in this current era of official accommodation.

Life for Tibetans without their god-king is spiritually and politically incomplete, somewhat like Roman Catholic existence cut off from the pope. The current is the 14th Dalai Lama, a title combining dalai, for "ocean of wisdom," and lama, or monk.

"How can we be happy for one minute of the day when our leader is so far from home?" asked a disgruntled Buddhist lama.

Part of the answer lies in Peking and part in the foothills of northern India, where Tibet's former regent set up his government-in-exile after an anti-Chinese uprising here was crushed by the Red Army in 1959.

With their efforts to force communism on Tibet now acknowledged as a failure, Peking's leaders want the Dalai Lama back to help pacify a people long ago alienated from Chinese domain. Only his return could confer legitimacy on their rule over almost 2 million Tibetans.

The Communists offer to forget the Dalai Lama's past "errors" and even to give him a figurehead job in Peking--1,600 miles from Lhasa--provided that he drop his claim to Tibetan independence.

"So long as you are patriotic, our policy is to let bygones be bygones," explained a local Communist official to visiting foreign correspondents.

For the Dalai Lama, 49, patriotism has little to do with China. He says Tibet was independent before the Communist conquest and pledges to carry the banner of Tibetan self-determination until convinced his people are happy under Chinese suzerainty.

To the Chinese offers, he has responded with the subtle ambiguity of a Buddhist sutra or maxim. He has praised Peking's new moderation in Tibet but remained skeptical of its enduring commitment to religious freedom. "Once bitten by a snake," he has said, "you feel suspicious even when you see a piece of rope."

He has spoken of visiting Tibet in 1985 "to see with my own eyes what the situation is," but he has been vague about precise plans for a return.

In Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama has been in exile since fleeing Tibet in 1959, he reiterated in a recent interview his desire to visit his homeland in 1985, United Press International reported.

He said he had not yet worked out the details of his possible visit, but said he would like to visit the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai and his birthplace, Taktser village just outside Tibet, in addition to Tibet. Asked about Tibetan fears that the Chinese might assassinate or kidnap him during his visit, the Dalai Lama said his "own judgment and wisdom" would serve as his precautions.

The situation he would find today certainly has improved since Peking confessed in 1980 to a generation of disastrous policies and stopped the systematic ruin of local customs.

Yet, the Tibet the Dalai Lama left in 1959 could only be a distant memory. All but a handful of the 2,100 monasteries that once shone like jewels against the mountainous landscape lie in piles of rubble today. Only a few of the 120,000 lamas who helped him run his feudal theocracy escaped persecution and still preach. The elegant manors of Tibetan noblemen have been converted into shabby state warehouses.

Although Tibet still is a troubled colony, occupied by about 100,000 Chinese civilian bosses and twice as many soldiers, it now has regained a semblance of normal life under the new, relatively liberal rule in Peking.

Tibetans once again can practice their highly ritualized form of Buddhist worship, and they even are permitted to display pictures of the Dalai Lama, as long as he is being extolled as a religious figure and not as the advocate of Tibetan statehood. Any talk of him a few years ago was regarded by Communist officials as treason.

The adulation of the Dalai Lama must be seen to be believed. His bespectacled visage appears everywhere--in the laps of golden buddhas, pinned on people's vests and plastered across the walls of simple, mud houses.

Women cry at the sight of his photograph and beg foreign visitors for copies of magazine covers bearing his image. Children wear around their necks pieces of filthy string he is said to have once blessed. Worshipers thrust his picture at the sky, chanting, "Long live the Dalai Lama."

Few of the world's exiled leaders could claim such ardent support 24 years after they left their homeland.

Born Tenzin Gyatso to a peasant family, the Dalai Lama is considered by his followers to be the incarnation of the Buddha of Mercy. He was discovered at the age of 2 by a party of high monks guided by divine inspiration to find a successor to the previous leader, who died in 1933.

The boy was said to have snatched from his visitors a rosary belonging to the deceased Dalai Lama and spoken to the disguised holy men in the official court language. Their search ended.

The young Dalai Lama fled from the Red Army in 1951 but returned to sign the 17-point agreement that ceded Tibet to China. He was allowed to resume his reign for a transitional period, which abruptly ended in 1959 when his countrymen rose up against the tightening Communist hold. On the night of March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, with rifle slung over his shoulder, left his summer palace and never came back.

Despite Communist prohibitions, his supporters still regard the Dalai Lama as their political as well as spiritual inspiration. A small underground of separatists distributes tape recordings of his pro-independence speeches smuggled into Tibet by religious pilgrims from India. The dissidents encourage Tibetans at least passively to resist Communist control. On the anniversary of the 1959 uprising, they covered the bazaar with anti-Chinese pamphlets.

The separatists claim 2,500 of their confederates languish in Chinese prisons and labor camps for their political convictions.

One of the separatists' greatest fears is that the Dalai Lama will be lured back by Communist promises, put on show and then become a captive of Peking. This, they believe, is what happened to the Panchen Lama, the second highest Buddhist reincarnation in Tibet, who now lives in the Chinese capital with a nominal job as vice chairman of the national parliament.

The Panchen Lama had remained in Tibet until 1964, then was called to Peking, where he disappeared for 14 years. He returned to Tibet on a government-sponsored visit last year and declared, "Only under Chinese Communist leadership can Tibet have a bright future."

Although the Panchen Lama was mobbed by tens of thousands of Tibetans during his brief return, political activists view him as a Chinese puppet.

"They have put the Panchen Lama in a cage and now they want to put the Dalai Lama there with him," said an overseas Tibetan who recently toured Lhasa.

The Communist response is to extend olive branches. The Dalai Lama's bed in the summer palace is no longer left unmade, as it had been for years to show that he had left his homeland in an undignified hurry.

Peking has welcomed five fact-finding delegations sent by the spiritual leader since 1979, and it invites him to set his own terms for a visit of his own.

"Whenever the Dalai Lama feels like coming to Tibet, Tibet will always be open to him," said minority affairs director Yong Pei. "If at the moment he still doesn't think the conditions are ripe enough and he wishes to wait for some time, that also will be okay."

Yong said once the Dalai Lama decides to stay in China, he could be rewarded with a high central government post, perhaps the same as the Panchen Lama now holds. But a position in Tibet appears out of the question, and he would be expected to live in Peking.

"It will depend on what is beneficial to his work," said Yong. "But, as a leader of the state, there would be a lot of work for him to do in the capital."

The Chinese may be famous for their patience, but they know that until they find the right formula to bring back the Dalai Lama, their rule in Tibet will be uneasy and their goal of assimilating this westernmost region will remain a distant one.

The dilemma was vividly portrayed on a Lhasa side street where the famous Ramoche monastery lies in ruin, its carefully etched wood pillars painted over with the radical slogans of the Cultural Revolution. Once the destination for religious pilgrims traveling hundreds of miles by foot, it is used today to store wooden planks and to house meetings of the neighborhood committee.

On the raised altar of the Ramoche, where priceless Buddhist statues once looked out on worshipers, there is a large portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, flanked by red Communist Party flags and the slogan, "Mao Tse-tung, 10,000 years."

A 16-year-old Tibetan boy who had not yet been born when the Dalai Lama fled his country surveyed the dusty hall.

"He's China's chairman," said the boy.

"Our leader is the Dalai Lama," he added. "He's coming back soon."