Fears that China will appoint a new Dalai Lama after the death of the current one have led Tibetan chiefs to contemplate breaking with the centuries-old system used to choose their spiritual leader - including doing away with Dalai Lamas or changing the system of their reincarnation.
China, which accuses the Tibetan spiritual leader of seeking independence for Tibet, angrily condemned the Nobel Peace Prize-winner's proposal as a subversion of Buddhist tradition.
But the Dalai Lama said it was up to the Tibetan people to decide.
"If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, it will continue," he said in an interview at a religious leaders' gathering in the Indian city of Amritsar.
The Dalai Lama said a referendum would be held among all traditional Tibetan Buddhists along the Himalayan range, including China, Nepal and India and into Mongolia, to determine what kind of leadership they want after his death.
"When my physical condition becomes weak, and there are serious preparations for death, then this event should happen," said the 72-year-old, adding "according to my regular medical checkup I am good for another few decades".
It was not immediately clear how such a vote would take place, particularly in areas under Chinese rule, where even his portrait is banned. However, 80,000 Tibetans voted last year for their government in exile based in India.
China, has ruled Tibet with a heavy hand since its forces invaded in 1951.