The 9-year-old boy at the heart of a dispute between the Dalai Lama and China arrived blanketed in tight security at a sacred Tibetan temple today in China's latest effort to persuade Tibetans to accept him as the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

Arriving in a 21-vehicle convoy, which included wailing police vans and an ambulance, and surrounded by monks carrying walkie-talkies, the boy was rushed into the Tashi Lhunpo monastery to officiate over a Buddhist ceremony here in Tibet's second largest city. After the unveiling of a 100-foot-long satin depiction of the "Buddha of today", the boy returned to his well-guarded compound nearby.

A crowd of several thousand Tibetan pilgrims, some prostrating themselves at the foot of the temple's 10-foot mud walls, was kept far from the youngster, whom China chose in 1995 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama -- the second most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The exiled Dalai Lama picked another boy, and that child and his family are believed to be under house arrest.

The show of force and the unwillingness of Chinese authorities to allow a group of foreign reporters to actually see the doe-eyed youngster, named Losang Qamba, were an indication of the difficulty China is having in persuading Tibetans to accept the boy as their new "ocean of knowledge" or Panchen Lama. Security was similarly tight during a pre-dawn visit to the famed Jokhang Monastery in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, on June 18, as well as for his arrival in Shigatse on June 20, witnesses said.

The controversy over the new Panchen Lama, the 11th in a line that stretches back centuries, is more than just a religious tussle. It cuts to the heart of the legitimacy of China's rule over Tibet and illustrates the tenuous support the government in Beijing has in its most remote province. It also underscores the enduring authority of the Dalai Lama, the exiled temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who fled China in 1959 after an unsuccessful uprising against Chinese Communist rule.

Since that uprising, China's policy toward Tibet has alternated between fierce repression and perfunctory tolerance of its unique culture and religion.

The 10th Panchen Lama died of an apparent heart attack in the Tashi Lhunpo monastery on Jan. 28, 1989, during a period when anti-Chinese demonstrations raged throughout Tibet. He was beloved by many Tibetans and had been a longtime critic of Chinese Communist rule while working within the Chinese system to improve the lives of Tibet's 2.4 million people.

Here in Tashi Lhunpo, traditional home of Panchen Lamas and the site of the world's biggest bronze Buddha, 20-odd gold-domed Buddhist chapels cascade off a mountainside about a mile from the center of Shigatse in south central Tibet. More than 13,000 feet high, the town is ringed by forbidding peaks that plunge into a valley verdant with barley and wheat. In the city's center, karaoke bars and Sichuan food joints dominate the scene -- a mark of the unrelenting influx of ethnic Chinese.

Ironically, many Western analysts blame the Dalai Lama for sparking the controversy. In May 1995, he announced his choice of a boy from Nagchu province in Tibet as the Panchen Lama's reincarnation. Monks from Tashi Lhunpo had been in secret contact with the Dalai Lama and had submitted a list of names to him. It was assumed that China would allow the Dalai Lama to participate in choosing the 11th Panchen Lama as long as he did not publicize it.

But after the Dalai Lama made the announcement, the abbot from Tashi Lhunpo, Chatral Rinpoche, was arrested and jailed for illegal contacts with the exiled leader. Beijing then chose a different boy.

In interviews supervised by Chinese officials, religious figures contended that Tibet's people supported Beijing's choice.

Nema Tsering, a deputy governor of Tibet, said concern about "separatist terrorist activity" explained today's tight security. "No matter what you say, in Tibet there is a separatist struggle."

Wang Dui, a deputy director of the Jokhang monastery, said the welcome at his monastery for the Panchen Lama had been both "gracious and warm." At Tashi Lhunpo, a 64-year-old monk named Ang Tsering said -- with a deadpan expression -- that the monks there felt "unlimited happiness" at the young boy's arrival.

But in surreptitious conversations, monks at both monasteries said they had been under enormous pressure from China's government to accept the boy. One monk at Jokhang said no real worshipers had come to see the boy and the monastery's 115 monks were herded into the main hall on June 18 hours before dawn without being told what was happening.

"All of us were very uncomfortable. They threatened us. They said if we didn't behave we'd be kicked out of the monastery," he said.

"The pressure here is very high," echoed a monk at Tashi Lhunpo, which has more than 800 monks. "They told us that if we didn't behave we would be forced out and that the monastery would not be allowed to replace us." China already limits the number of monks in Tibetan monasteries.

More than 15,000 pilgrims flocked to the Tashi Lhunpo monastery today, the first day of a three-day festival, to see a depiction of the "Buddha of the past." Many said they did not accept China's choice.

"I didn't come here for the boy," noted an elderly man who said he had walked five days to reach Shigatse. "I came here to collect karma."

CAPTION: Losang Qamba, the 9-year-old boy designated as the Panchen Lama by China, places his hand on the head of a monk at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse. A rival Panchen Lama chosen by the exiled Dalai Lama is thought to be under house arrest.