XIGAZE, China -- Preserved in saffron, coated with gold leaf and still wearing his gold watch, the body of the 10th Panchen Lama sits in the lotus position in a glass case inside the Tashilhunpo Monastery.
By the dim light of yak butter lamps, squads of monks chant sutras -- as they have around the clock for more than four years since the death of Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest leader.
After this month, this remarkable scene will disappear: His body will be sealed inside an ornate stupa, or soul tower, on which the Chinese government has spent more than $10 million.
The 10th Panchen Lama was a complex figure who suffered at times for opposing China. At other times, he was a pawn in Beijing's efforts to subdue Tibetan nationalism by controlling Tibetan Buddhism.
Hailed as patriot
He is hailed as a patriot by the Chinese government -- as opposed to the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's highest leader and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, whom China reviles for seeking Tibetan independence.
So officials earlier this month eagerly provided one of the last viewings of the 10th Panchen Lama's remains and showed off his lavish final resting place.
The cozy relationship between Beijing and this 500-year-old monastery in Tibet's second-largest city buttresses the Chinese government's rule over Tibet and its claim that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom.
The current search for the 10th Panchen Lama's reincarnation -- a secretive process run by monks under China's ultimate authority -- further strengthens Beijing's hand.
China has said the final choice of the "soul boy" must meet its approval, starting with the demand that he come from Tibet or another part of China and not from among Tibetan exiles, who are apt to be independence advocates.
As with the 10th Panchen Lama, the 11th can be expected to be a Chinese patriot, an arrangement of apparent benefit to Tashilhunpo Monastery.
Tashilhunpo now has 780 monks -- only about 20 percent of its total before the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, but a much higher percentage than Tibet's other monasteries.
While not entirely rebuilt from the destruction of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, the monastery is said to be in better condition than any other.
"We don't need conflict;, we need peace," says Qazha Qamba Chila, who heads Tashilhunpo.
China particularly keeps a tight rein on the three great monasteries in the Lhasa area, all loyal to the Dalai Lama and long sources of opposition to Chinese rule. Their numbers of monks are limited to 10 percent or less of their levels in the 1950s.
Monks from one of the three, Drepung Monastery, often turn up in independence protests and on lists of Tibetan political prisoners. Once the world's largest monastery with about 8,000 monks, Drepung now has only about 600.
Officials aren't eager to show off Drepung. They only allow a closely monitored interview with the head of the monastery's "democratic management" committee, a group of monks that deals with the government on financial matters.
Loathes Chinese rule
But a reporter who managed to talk privately with five other Drepung monks found that each loathes Chinese rule and wants
China to leave Tibet.
These conversations can be taken two ways: as signs of Chinese repression and of the degree to which an independent religious culture persists in Tibet.
This halfway situation stems from China's apparent conclusion that it cannot gain a firmer hold over Tibet by actively repressing so deeply rooted a religion as Tibetan Buddhism. China simply tries to prevent it from re-emerging as a political force.
The Chinese strategy now seems to be to outlast the Dalai Lama, who despite growing international prestige is no closer to achieving Tibetan independence. Over time, China hopes, he may become less important to Tibetans raised since he fled to India in 1959.
But Tibetan reverence for the Dalai Lama does not seem to be waning.
Though the Dalai Lama remains central to Tibetan life, he can't return to Tibet unless he stops seeking independence. This standoff points to an ultimate crisis: If the 58-year-old living god dies in exile, China likely would assert authority over the search for his successor.
And unlike the current search for the new Panchen Lama, this would be actively opposed by Tibetan exiles -- creating a dangerous conflict that could leave Tibetan culture rudderless and open to more tragedy.