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How Terma is Found

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Over its more than one thousand year history the treasure tradition has standardized the narrative of treasure discovery. Although few histories of revelations follow the standards narrative, it is useful to survey in order to understand the many steps that the tradition claims as part of the treasure discovery process.

The first thing that is said to be found by the terton is the list or inventory (dkar chag or byang bu) of the treasures that he is meant to reveal during his life. This list is found, like other termas, in rocks, statues, and so on, or is given to the terton in a vision or in reality by Padmasambhava. He appears sometimes in the guise of a yogi, a monk or in any other form. It can also be given by one of the guardians of the teachings. Ratna Lingpa (rat+na gling pa) is said to be the only terton who found all the termas predicted in his inventory. This is why his teachings are said to carry particular blessings and efficacy.

In order for the terton to find the treasures listed in the inventory, many auspicious connections need to be gathered. Often one condition is that the terton meet a predestined spiritual consort through whom his or her spiritual channels will be untied, allowing the free flowing of the teachings through the terton’s wisdom mind. That is, the treasure tradition maintains that sexual yoga is necessary for the discovery of treasure, a claim that has earned the tradition considerable scorn by its (primarily ordained) detractors. This applies to both male and female tertons. There were, however, a few major tertons, such as Rigdzin Jatson Nyingpo (rig ’dzin ’ja’ tshon snying po) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (’jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang po) who were celibate and did not rely upon a spiritual consort to reveal their termas. However, Khyentse Wangpo bemoaned the fact that his treasures were only mind treasures and not earth treasures, which he considered superior.

Termas are said to be extracted from their place of concealment at the time when they are most needed and beneficial to sentient beings. Depending upon the circumstances, the quality of the auspicious connections, the purity of sacred bounds between teacher and disciple (samaya) and the merit of beings, the terma will be revealed more or less easily and will benefit a greater or a smaller number of people. When Dudjom Rinpoche (bdud ’joms rin po che), for example, was sitting in small room facing the entrance of Padmasambhava’s cave on the cliff of Paro Taksang (pa ro stag tshang) in Bhutan, the yellow scroll for his Vajrakilaya cycle of teachings came floating in the air through a small open window and landed in his lap. In some other cases, tertons are said to have toiled for days with axes and rods to reach the terma deeply embedded in the rock.


Normally, only the terton who was meant to find the terma is able to decipher the dakini script. Yet, according to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, other tertons may get a general idea of the kind of treasure the scripts code is for, such as a guru sadhana or a Dzogchen teaching. Some exceptional tertons like Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo are said to be able to understand all forms of dakini scripts. Khyentse Wangpo once confided that, on one occasion, he had been able to see clearly the locations of all the termas hidden in Tibet and other places.

Such great tertons are also the ultimate reference to judge the authenticity of other termas. It is therefore customary for a terton to present his terma to such a master and ask him to confirm whether his discovery is genuine and will benefit beings, or whether it should be discarded. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche used to show his mind treasures to his teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (rdzong sar mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros). Chokyi Lodro not only validated the termas but requested Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to give him the transmission for them. Often treasure revealers are taken under the sponsorship of ordained lamas, granting them the legitimacy that celibate institutional hierarchs wield in Tibetan society.

The tradition allows for two or more tertons being entrusted with the same treasure discovering it either together or simultaneously in various places. This was often the case with the three great 19th century masters Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul and Choggyur Lingpa (mchog gyur gling pa). Once, Choggyur Lingpa came to show Khyentse Wangpo the treasure of the Sampa Lhundrup cycle (bsam pa lhun grub) that he had just revealed. Khyentse Wangpo not only confirmed the authenticity of the terma, but added that he had exactly the same treasure, almost word for word, and that there was not need for him to put him into writing, since Choggyur Lingpa had already done so. A similar process happened for Choggyur Lingpa’s Barche Kunsel (bar chad kun gsal) treasure; Khyentse Wangpo claimed to have also revealed it, but as mind treasure, whereas Choggyur Lingpa’s was earth treasure.


Having received the treasure inventory, the terton next follows it to the proper location where he needs to find and “open the door of the treasure” that often bears a distinctive mark. In there he usually finds a treasure box (gter sgrom) that often takes the aspect of a round brown jewel stone that contains the yellow scroll. He then has to put back something in place of the treasure (gter tshab) and again seal the place of concealment. This is done to placate the non-human entity who guards the treasure, a form of barter to prevent the guardian from feeling bereft. The act of revelation is either done alone or with assistance, and is sometimes performed before an audience of devotees in an event called a “public treasure” (khrom gter). The fifteenth century terton Pema Lingpa (pad+ma gling pa) was particularly famous of public treasures, and Choggyur Lingpa made a habit of the practice in the later part of his career.

As mentioned above, auspicious circumstances play a vital role in the revelation of termas. The story is told that once Padmasambhava appeared in person in front of Ratna Lingpa in the form of a yogi dressed in yellow raw silk. He showed him three scrolls, a white, a red and a blue one, and asked Ratna Lingpa to choose one of them. Ratna Lingpa answered that he wanted all three. Because of the auspicious connection created by his answer, Ratna Lingpa received all three inventories and revealed in a single life time the termas he would have otherwise revealed in three successive life times.

Seemingly insignificant events may also create various levels of auspicious links. Once, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was requested at Neten Monastery (gnas bstan) in Nangchen to decipher a yellow scroll rediscovered by Choggyur Lingpa, which the latter had never put into writing. Khyentse Rinpoche put the scroll in a cup filled with sacred amrita substances and asked the monks to perform an elaborate ganachakra offering. At some point during the ceremony, he requested ink and paper and was brought about fifty white sheets, which he soon filled with his writings. When he handed the text over to the lama who had made the request he said: “There was three versions of the terma, a long elaborate one, a medium one and a condensed one. According to the amount of paper you gave me, I have put into writing the medium-sized one.” Thus, some tertons write out a terma briefly while some in its full length. An example of a complete length terma is the thirteen-volume terma of Sanggye Lingpa (sangs rgyas gling pa, the Lama Gongdu (bla ma dgongs ’dus).

In many cases, the terton keeps his discovery secret for many years, and practices the teachings they contain until achieving signs of accomplishment. He will then transmit it to a single disciple. Such first recipient of the teachings, who has generally been prophesized in the terma itself, becomes the holder of the teaching. Jatshon Nyingpo kept his Konchok Chidu Treasure (dkon mchog.