In the discovery of earth termas, earthly materials such as symbolic script written on yellow scroll are used to awaken the terma in the mind of the tertön. In the discovery of mind termas, no external earthly objects are relied on.
- Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
- ‘Terchö’ literature can be in three parts: Lama, Dzogchen & Tukjé Chenpo (Tib. བླ་རྫོགས་ཐུགས་གསུམ་, la dzog tuk sum), i.e.
- teachings on Dzogchen, and
The Terma Tradition
- In a number of spiritual traditions of the world there are many instances of the discovery of teachings and objects through mystical power.
- In the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition of concealment and revelation of teachings and materials of religious value through the mystical power of enlightened beings is most prevalent by far.
- While transmitting esoteric teachings to his realized disciples in Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava concealed many teachings with the blessings of his enlightened mind stream in the nature of the intrinsic awareness of the minds of his disciples through the power of “mind-mandated transmission” (Tib. གཏད་རྒྱ་, Wyl. gtad rgya); thereby the master and disciple became united as one in the teachings and realization.
Here, the master has concealed the teachings and blessings, the esoteric attainments, as ter in the pure nature of the minds of his disciples through his enlightened power, and he has made aspirations that the ter may be discovered for the sake of beings when the appropriate time comes.
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche writes:
- In propagating the Buddha’s teachings amid the shamanistic society that dominated Tibet at that time, Padmasambhava saw clearly that some teachings would have to wait for a more appropriate time to take root.
- Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, edited by Harold Talbott (Boston: Shambhala, 1996).
- That's why translator B. Allan Wallace refers to termas as 'spiritual time-capsules'.
- Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Hidden Teachings of Tibet, central pictures.
- Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzogchen and Padmasambhava, page 74.
- Tulku Thondup, Enlightened Journey: Buddhist Practice as Daily Life, pages 93-94.
- Ibid, page 95.
- Ibid, page 96.
- Chagdud Tulku, Lord of the Dance (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 1992), page 11.
- Andreas Doctor, Tibetan Treasure Literature: Revelation, Tradition and Accomplishment in Visionary Buddhism (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2005).
- Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom, revised edition 2002).
- Janet B. Gyatso, 'Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature' in Cabezón and Jackson, ed., Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996).
- Michael Aris, Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives, Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.
- Ringu Tulku, The Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, 2006), pages 117-121 & 159-160.
- Thinley Norbu, The Small Golden Key (Shambhala Publications, 1999), ‘4. Nyingmapa Kama and Terma'.
- Tulku Thondup, Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism (London & Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1986, reprint edition 1997).
Terma (Tibetan: གཏེར་མ་, Wylie: gter ma; "hidden treasure") are key Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings, which the tradition holds were originally esoterically hidden by various adepts such as Padmasambhava and his consorts in the 8th century for future discovery at auspicious times by other adepts, known as tertöns.
Tradition holds that terma may be a physical object such as a text or ritual implement that is buried in the ground (or earth), hidden in a rock or crystal, secreted in a herb, or a tree, hidden in a lake (or water), or hidden in the sky (space).
Fremantle (2001: p. 19) states:
- ...termas are not always made public right away. The conditions may not be right; people may not yet be ready for them; and further instructions may need to be revealed to clarify their meaning.
In this way, one may see the tradition of terma and terton as analogous to that of inspiration and providing a legitimate cultural forum to ensure continuation of tantric tradition, and ensuring Vajrayana Buddhism's and Bön's continued relevancy in an evolving world.
Padmasambhava and his principal consorts and disciples secreted away and hid scriptures, ritual objects and relics etc., to secure and protect Buddhism during the time of decline under King Langdarma.
Out of this activity developed, especially within the Nyingma tradition, two ways of dharma transmission: The so called "long oral transmission" from teacher to student in unbroken disciplic lineages and the "short transmission" of terma.
The central Mahayana figure Nagarjuna rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in one hundred thousand verses" in the realm of nāga, where it had been kept since the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Earth treasures include not only texts, but also sacred images, ritual instruments, and medicinal substances, and are found in many places: temples, monuments, statues, mountains, rocks, trees, lakes, and even the sky.
Occasionally, full-length texts are found, but they are usually fragmentary, sometimes consisting of only a word or two, and they are encoded in symbolic script, which may change mysteriously and often disappears completely once it has been transcribed.
It is the tertön who actually composes and writes down the resulting text, and so may be considered its author.
The mind-terma are constituted by space and are placed via guru-transmission, or realizations achieved in meditation which connect the practitioner directly with the essential content of the teaching in one simultaneous experience.
In one sense, all terma may be considered as mind-terma as the teaching associated is always inserted in the mind of the practitioner, in other words the terma is always a direct mindstream transmission from the vidyadhara.
At the time of terma concealment, a prophecy is generally made concerning the circumstances in which the teaching will be re-accessed. Especially in the case of an earth-terma, this usually includes a description of locality, and may specify certain ritual tools or objects which are required to be present, and the identities of any assistants and consorts who are required to accompany or assist the tertön.
The example of Nagarjuna is often cited; the Prajnaparamita teachings are traditionally said to have been conferred on Nagarjuna by the King of the nāgas, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake.
"Pure visions" are pure teachings received from the vision of deities and are not necessarily terma as they do not require mindstream transmission from a vidyadhara to the practitioner experiencing the pure vision.
The Northern Treasure is compiled from texts revealed in Zhangzhung and northern Tibet, the Southern Treasure from texts revealed in Bhutan and the southern area of Tibet, and the Central Treasure from texts revealed in central Tibet close to Samye Monastery.
'A Cavern of Treasures' (Tibetan: མཛོད་ཕུག, Wylie: mdzod phug) is a terma uncovered by 'Shenchen Luga' (Tibetan: གཤེན་ཆེན་ཀླུ་དགའ, Wylie: gshen chen klu dga') in the early eleventh century. Martin (n.d.: p. 21) identifies the importance of this scripture for studies of the Zhang-Zhung language:
- "For students of Tibetan culture in general, the mDzod phug is one of the most intriguing of all Bon scriptures, since it is the only lengthy bilingual work in Zhang-zhung and Tibetan (some of the shorter but still significant sources for Zhang-zhung are signalled in Orofino 1990."
It is popularly (but incorrectly) known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Among other famous terma cycles are:
- Longchen Nyingtig (Heart Essence of Longchenpa) Another well-known Dzogchen cycle of texts, revealed to tertön Jigme Lingpa in the 18th century.
- Rinchen Terdzod (Precious Treasures) Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, and Chogyur Dechen Lingpa assembled thousands of Terma treasure texts from the Nyingma tradition all across Tibet, creating the 108 volumes of the Rinchen Terdzod.
- Jangter (Wylie: Byang gTer, Northern Treatures) revealed by Rigdzin Godem. Features the prominent sub-cycle, the Konchok Chidu revealed by the terton Jatson Nyingpo and widely practiced in Kagyu lineages as well.
- Nam Cho (Space Treasures) transmissions and empowerments are considered the heart transmission specific to the Palyul Lineage.