The last of the Dalai Lamas?

Sydney, Australia - He has spoken all week about the future; of the environment, the world's rivers, melting glaciers and the youth who will inherit this ailing planet. Indeed ''Our Future'' is the title of his 10-day Australian tour. But behind the scenes it is the future of the Dalai Lama, the institution, that is increasingly occupying the thoughts of those who for more than half a century have looked towards the exiled political and spiritual leader as the face and voice of Tibet.

Could the 14th Dalai Lama be the last in the 600-year-old lineage? And if so, who then will lead the Tibetan people? Such questions have gathered pace not just as the Dalai Lama advances in years but because 50 years after he fled into exile across the Himalayas, a return to his homeland and a political solution to Tibet seems further away than ever.

''[What happens] after me, that is up to the Tibetan people and also it will depend on circumstances,'' the Dalai Lama says.

We sit in a side room at Sydney's Entertainment Centre, a room and a venue more typically associated with visiting rock stars than red-robed monks. He is about to take to the stage to deliver several hours of spiritual teachings to several thousand assembled in the auditorium. And despite a bout of flu, his focus and seemingly inexhaustible energy is striking. At 74, he circles the globe constantly giving teachings and meeting world leaders. His pace seems to have quickened as though the problems ahead require greater effort.

The Dalai Lama is many things to many people. A living Buddha to his followers, an international media celebrity and, to China, a splittist and a devil in monk's robes. He is also the world's longest-serving ruler. He has led his people longer than Queen Elizabeth II, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand or Fidel Castro. He has seen Chinese leaders come and go. And in the past year he has seen regular talks between his envoys and China stall. He has also seen his efforts to establish autonomy - rather than independence - for Tibet within the Chinese system, rejected.

''What next'' is increasingly the subject of discussions among the Tibetan leadership. So too is a succession plan. And the Dalai Lama acknowledges that, in the short term, appointing a senior figure as an interim leader while he is alive is a possibility. ''Almost like a deputy Dalai Lama,'' he says. ''That is one idea. But [it is] not decided.''

Some have suggested such a role could be filled by the Karmapa Lama, now in his mid-20s, who might rule until a new Dalai Lama comes of age. The Karmapa, the Tibetan-born head of the Kagyu sect, fled into exile in India as a 14 year-old.

But it is the longer term that is the real issue. The institution will continue as long as it is useful, the Dalai Lama has said. And some of his statements have suggested that he believes it no longer is. He told students in Japan last year that although the Dalai Lama had been the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people for hundreds of years, that time had gone.

A statement on his website puts it this way: ''I feel the institution of the Dalai Lama has served its purpose.''

Nonetheless, it is a comment that can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways.

''If after some time things become normal and the Tibetan people enjoy meaningful autonomy and freedom of religious practice [and] materially more prosperity … and people say the Dalai Lama institution is not necessarily relevant, then we will stop,'' he says. ''If on the other hand, while we remain outside as refugees, I think most probably the Tibetan people want to have another Dalai Lama.''

But if the institution does continue, it seems unlikely to continue in its current form, not least because of the unique - and to Western ways mystifying - manner in which the Dalai Lama and other high lamas are chosen.

For hundreds of years, when each Dalai Lama has died, senior lamas have conducted a search across Tibet to find an infant successor. The child is regarded as the reincarnation of the previous office holder and the process of selection can involve consulting oracles and interpreting auspicious signs. The current Dalai Lama was selected in this way as a four-year-old.

But since 2007 the Chinese Government has insisted that it must approve the recognition of all reincarnate or high lamas. It is for this reason that the Nobel peace prize winner has signalled that if there is a future Dalai Lama he - or she - will not be found in Tibet or China.

Instrumental in selecting the Dalai Lama in the past has been the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second most important figure. In a sense they have operated down the centuries like a tag team, one being involved in the recognition of the other.

But this is not likely to happen this time. For when the current Dalai Lama announced in 1995 that a six-year-old Tibetan boy was the new Panchen Lama, China took him into custody - he has never been heard of since - and appointed their own. At that time, some saw this as an attempt by China to eventually control the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Now the strategy seems to be to wait him out.

In the meantime - and with the stalemate in official dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama - he has been encouraged by support he has received from Chinese intellectuals. This has included from a group of prominent Chinese lawyers who issued a report mid-year saying that last year's riots in Tibet were rooted in legitimate grievances and not a plot by the Dalai Lama.

''Although intellectuals are very few compared to their masters … eventually their influence [on] the masters are very important. So therefore things are changing,'' he says. ''This is a hopeful sign.''

Increasingly, he has attempted to talk directly to Chinese people, including in Sydney yesterday when he met a group of 300 Chinese Australians. A similar meeting is expected in Melbourne next week where he will also attend the Parliament of the World's Religions.

The 14th Dalai Lama says that whether he is the last Dalai Lama is not for him to decide. He has more pressing concerns.

''My business is to utilise my life for some purposeful service to the well-being of other people. That's my main concern,'' he says. ''Building a society with modern education and also our traditional values … If society remains weak even a world leader cannot do much.''