Terma ("hidden treasure") refers to esoteric Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings allegedly hidden by various adepts (such as Guru Padmasambhava) for future discovery at appropriate times. According to Tibetan tradition, these so-called "secret teachings" were concealed to protect Buddhism during the time of persecution under King Langdarma (838-841 C.E.). Some of these terma have supposedly been rediscovered and the person who finds a terma is called a tertön.
A terma may be an object (such as a text or ritual implement) that was buried in the ground, 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). Some terma teachings are understood as being encoded within the elements, particularly æther or space. If the concealed terma is a text, it is often written in dakini script: a non-human type of code or writing.
The terma tradition is particularly prevalent in, and significant to, the Nyingma lineage. The majority of terma teachings are tantric in nature and represent "continuing revelation" in Tibetan Buddhism. In this way, termas are a form of ongoing Buddhist inspiration. In particular, Nyingma scriptures have been updated by terma discoveries in this way and special terma lineages have been established throughout Tibet as a result.
Although the terma tradition is most closely connected to Tibetan Buddhism and the Bön religion, it nevertheless has antecedents in Hinduism as well. For example, the Hindu Vaishnava saint, Caitanya, supposedly rediscovered a fragment of the Brahma Samhita during a trance state of devotional ecstacy showing that hidden teaching are not unique to Tibet.
Additionally, in Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna allegedly rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in the realm of naga, where it is said to have been kept since the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni.
The discovery of terma in Tibet allegedly began with the first tertön, Sangye Lama (1000–1080). The foremost revealers of these terma were the Five Terton Kings and the Eight Lingpas. In the nineteenth century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum; referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa Five of them were widely recognized as very important ones and called the five terton kings:
Other Tertön of outstanding importance were Nyangral Nyima Oser (1124–1192), Guru Chowang (1212–1270), Rigdzin Godem (1307–1408), Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), Migyur Dorje (1645–1667), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Orgyen Chokyur Lingpa (1829–1870). Two of the most famous tertön in the twentieth century, Dudjom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, were of the Nyingma school.
Many tertön are considered incarnations of the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava. However, it is noted that those who discover Terms have particular characteristics:
Out of this activity developed 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.
According to tradition, there are two kinds of termas: earth treasures and mind treasures:
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 realize the essence of the terma prior to formal transmission.
In one sense, all terma may be considered as mind-terma as the teaching associated is always inserted in the mind the practitioner, in other words the terma is always a direct mindstream transmission from the vidyadhara. The terma may also be held in the mindstream of the tertön and realised in a future incarnation at a beneficent time. A vision of a syllable or symbol may leaven the realization of the latent terma in the mindstream of the tertön. The process of hiding in the mindstream implies that the practitioner is to gain realization 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 nagas, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake. Similarly, the Six Treatise of Asanga are considered to have been conferred on him by the Buddha Maitreya, whom he visited in Tushita heaven during a vision.
One of the most famous terma known throughout the world is a text popularly (but incorrectly) known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The correct title is Bardo Thodol, Liberation by Hearing in the State of Bardo. As a set of funerary texts and practices, it had a very specialized utility. Among other famous terma cycles are:
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