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Terma (Tibetan: གཏེར་མ་, Wylie: gter ma; "hidden treasure") are various forms of hidden teachings that are key to Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhist and Bon religious traditions. The belief is that these teachings were originally esoterically hidden by various adepts such as Padmasambhava and dakini such as Yeshe Tsogyal (consorts) during the 8th century, for future discovery at auspicious times by other adepts, who are known as tertöns. As such, terma represent a tradition of continuous revelation in Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. Termas are a part of tantric literature.
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). Though a literal understanding of terma is "hidden treasure", and sometimes refers to objects that are hidden away, the teachings associated should be understood as being 'concealed within the mind of the guru', that is, the true place of concealment is in the tertön's nature or essence of mind. If the concealed or encoded teaching or object is a text, it is often written in dakini script, a non-human type of code or writing that only a tertön can decipher.
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. Often, the tertön himself has to practice them for many years.
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 Tibetan Buddhism's and Bön's continued relevancy in an evolving world.
The terma tradition is particularly prevalent in, and significant to, the Nyingma lineage. Two of the most famous tertön in the 20th century, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (2nd Dudjom Rinpoche) and Dilgo Khyentse, were Nyingmapa. Tertön are also prevalent in Bön traditions and a few tertön have been Kagyupa.
Padmasambhava and his principal consorts and disciples secreted away and hid religious texts, ritual objects and relics etc., to secure and protect Buddhism during the time of decline under Langdarma. Some of these terma have been rediscovered and special terma lineages established throughout Tibet as a result. 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 foremost revealers of these terma were the Five Terton Kings and the Eight Lingpas. In the 19th century, some of the most famous were the Khenkong Choksum referring to Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul and Orgyen Chokgyur Lingpa.
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 Gautama Buddha.
The terma tradition of rediscovering hidden teaching is not unique to Tibet. It has antecedents in India and cultural resonances in Hindu Vaishnavism as well. The Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is said to have rediscovered a fragment of the Brahma Samhita in a trance state of devotional ecstasy.
There is another occasion involving Chaitanya, who deposited his divine love (prema) for great saint Narottama Dasa in the Padma River in Bangladesh. When Narottama Dasa turned twelve years of age, he collected this treasure after a revelation in a dream.
In the Western world a similar tradition is held in Mormonism. Underwood notes, "[Joseph] Smith looks like an American terton-seer translating ancient [terma] texts written in cryptic Reformed Egyptian," like the dakini script, "by the great prophets of the past, Mormon and Moroni." Similar to Padmasambhava, the purpose cited by these prophets for hiding the texts for a future time was in "keeping the faith on track by making clear the fundamental 'plain and precious' principles of the tradition." And as mind-terma are "not physically discovered but are revealed through the mind of the terton," Joseph Smith's revelations of the prophecies of Enoch and the parchment of John did not have any direct physical source but were revealed through Smith's mind. Skousen contrasts Smith's work with the terma tradition, particularly the Book of Mormon, in claiming that Smith did not rely on "mindstream transmission," but was translating from a text written on gold plates. However, witnesses note that Smith didn't use what was allegedly the gold plates during the translation, but translated by scrying with a seer stone in a hat, dictating the text as he saw it appear in his mind in a trance-like state of consciousness, suggesting a mystical translation with the text coming from Smith's mind.
Fremantle (2001: p. 17) affirms that according to tradition:
Termas are of two main kinds: earth treasures and intention, or mind, treasures. A teaching concealed as an intention treasure appears directly within the mind of the tertön in the form of sounds or letters to fulfill the enlightened intention of Padmakara. 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. In the case of texts, they are not, as one might imagine, ordinary books that can be read straightaway. 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. They are simply the material supports that act as a trigger to help the tertön reach the subtle level of mind where the teaching has really been concealed. It is the tertön who actually composes and writes down the resulting text, and so may be considered its author.
The earth-terma are physical objects — which may be either an actual text, or physical objects that trigger a recollection of the teaching. 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. Once this has occurred, the tertön holds the complete teaching in mind and is required by convention to transcribe the terma twice from memory (if of textual nature) in one uninterrupted session. The transcriptions are then compared, and if no discrepancy or inconsistency is evident the terma is sealed as authentic. The tertön is required to realise the essence of the terma prior to formal transmission.
In one sense, all terma may be considered mind-termas , since the teaching associated is always inserted in the essence of the mind of the practitioner; in other words the terma is always a direct transmission from the essence of the mind of the guru towards the essence of the mind of the tertön. The terma may also be held in the mind of the tertön and realised in a future incarnation at a beneficent time. A vision of a syllable or symbol may leaven the realisation of the latent terma in the mind of the tertön. The process of hiding in the mind implies that the practitioner is to gain realisation in that life. 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.
Though somewhat contentious, the kind of revealed teaching embodied in the terma system is based in solid Mahayana Buddhist traditions. 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. Similarly, the Six Treatises of Asanga are considered to have been conferred on him by the Buddha Maitreya, whom he visited in Tushita heaven during a vision.
"Pure visions" are pure teachings received from the vision of deities. These are not necessarily terma, because they do not require mindstream transmission from a guru to the practitioner experiencing the pure vision. The esoteric teachings resulting from pure vision are based on the tantras, and are sometimes considered as terma due to their merit.
A terma tradition also exists in Bön. Most Bön termas were hidden during the period of decline under King Trisong Deutsen, and rediscovered around the 11th century. Teachings were hidden by masters such as Lishu Tagring and Drenpa Namkha, often inside Buddhist temples, as in Samye and Lhodrak.
For the Bonpo, Gankyil denotes the three principal terma of Yungdrung Bon, the "Northern Treasure" (Wylie: byang gter), the "Central Treasure" (Wylie: dbus gter) and the "Southern Treasure" (Wylie: lho gter). 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.
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.
One of the most famous terma known throughout the world is the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ་, Wylie: bar do thos grol; "Liberation by Hearing in the State of Bardo"). It is popularly (but incorrectly) known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. As a set of funerary texts and practices, it had a very specialized utility, and was revealed by Karma Lingpa, who also revealed the Zhitro teachings. Among other terma cycles are:
gter ma: Terma. 'Treasure.' 1) The transmission through concealed treasures hidden, mainly by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal, to be discovered at the proper time by a 'tertön,' a treasure revealer, for the benefit of future disciples. It is one of the two chief traditions of the Nyingma School of Vajrayana Buddhism, the other being 'Kama.' This tradition is said to continue even long after the Vinaya of the Buddha has disappeared. 2) Concealed treasures of many different kinds, including texts, ritual objects, relics, and natural objects.
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