You may be surprised to learn that some Aro students are agnostic about the Aro lineage history. Some are outright skeptical. This is not a problem. We can practice the Aro teachings wholeheartedly, without taking the lineage history as gospel. Since Buddhism is a religion of methods, not truth, belief is mostly irrelevant. And the content of the terma is almost completely separate from its history.
The word “really” suggests that there is a single correct standard of existence—and that anything else is a lie or evasion. But the question of whether you and I exist, and how, is central to Buddhism. There is no single or simple answer. Extraordinarily subtle philosophies have developed to address that question. Ultimately, to quote the Thirteenth Karmapa,
. . . since the Buddha’s intention cannot be expressed
in words, all statements of samsara and nirvana
being “existent” or “non-existent” are mere conventionalities.
As I have mentioned, the history of termas, and other Tibetan scriptures, is often used as evidence to authenticate them. These histories are, however, visionary history, not objective history. They describe visionary truth, not objective truth.
The history of most termas involves Yeshé Tsogyal. She acted as Padmasambhava’s scribe, and wrote most of the “earth terma” scrolls. She also was involved in the concealing of many mind termas. And she gave direct transmission of many pure vision termas. (The Aro gTér falls into this class.)
there is no reason to believe that Yeshé Tsogyal existed
As a matter of objective truth, there is no reason to believe that Yeshé Tsogyal existed at all. (See Janet Gyatso’s “A Partial Genealogy of the Lifestory of Ye shes mtsho rgyal.”) Everything that is known about her appears to derive from visionary sources (dreams, visions, past-life recollections). The earliest known mention of her is in a document written several centuries after the time she is supposed have lived. The various visionary accounts of her life contradict each other on basic facts.
Tibetans universally believe that Yeshé Tsogyal was a nirmanakaya, or flesh-and-blood Buddha. But from the standpoint of Western historical methods, this is quite likely not true. And important aspects of her life story are certainly not true in this objective sense.
That might seem a problem, since she plays such an important role in the validation of terma. But the question of her existence as nirmanakaya is irrelevant to that. It is sufficient that she exists as sambhogakaya, because the authentication of terma is a matter of visionary truth, not objective truth. In fact, according to the “secret” interpretation of the meaning of terma validity, the history of a terma is entirely irrelevant to its authenticity.
Yeshé Tosgyel as yidam is one of my main practices. In that practice, I am entirely confident that she does exist as sambhogakaya. So I see no conflict between my respect for the Western scholarship that reveals one type of truth about her, and my respect for the termas that reveal another.
The Aro lineage history also includes some figures that are only known from that history. The Aro terton herself, Aro Lingma, is an example. As with Yeshé Tsogyel, everything we know about Aro Lingma comes from visionary sources. Primarily, this is the dreams, visions, and past-life recollections of Ngak’chang Rinpoche. He is her lineage holder and the rebirth of her son.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
In some cases, we know someone did not exist simply because we do not know that they did exist. We know that there was no President of the United States named J. Irvington Snird III. If there had been, we should have heard about him.
Absence of evidence for Yeshé Tsogyal is only weak evidence of her objective non-existence. Tibetan historical records from that period are sketchy. It would be only faintly surprising for there to have been a queen of Tibet who became a consort of Padmasambhava but is not mentioned in any surviving document from the next few centuries.
Absence of evidence for Aro Lingma is not at all evidence for her absence. She was not famous and she did not have a big following. She and her students traveled as a nomadic encampment (as was common for the ngak’phang in Eastern Tibet), so they left behind no buildings. In the chaos of the Chinese aggression, a great many religious leaders were killed, artifacts confiscated or destroyed, and texts lost. For example, the termas of Kyabjé Drimé Özer Rinpoche were apparently lost. He was famous (in his own right and as the consort of Sera Khandro), and definitely existed by objective historical standards.
You might suppose that any terton would be famous, but that is not the case. The standard work on the subject, Wonder Ocean, says that “this vast land has been filled with known and unknown, named and unnamed Termas comparable to a heap of mustard seeds.” Probably more of them are now forgotten than remembered.
So did she really exist, or what?
In terms of objective history, there is precisely as much evidence for Aro Lingma as for Yeshé Tsogyel: none. To dismiss Aro Lingma for lack of objective historical evidence skates on extremely thin ice. That criterion would invalidate most if not all Tibetan Buddhist lineages.
So, for Tibetan Buddhists, the question must be posed in visionary terms. A difficulty with visionary history is that it depends on whose visions you consider reliable. This is the same impossible problem I discussed earlier in the context of terma validation. Only a Buddha can reliably determine whether a vision is valid.
Many people have had visions of Yeshe Tsogyel. Only a few have had visions of Aro Lingma. But by numbers, we should believe in the Virgin Mary rather than Yeshe Tsogyel. Numbers aren’t evidence.
Whether Aro Lingma existed as nirmanakaya comes down to whether one thinks Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s visions are reliable. Apart from Buddhas, none of us are qualified to have an opinion about that.
Fortunately, whether Aro Lingma existed is not relevant to deciding whether to practice the Aro gTér. She might have existed but taught a false terma. Even if she did not exist as nirmanakaya, she may have delivered a true terma to Ngak’chang Rinpoche as sambhogakaya. So we might remain curious about her existence—but do not need to have an opinion.
I mentioned earlier that a main function of lineage histories is inspiration. I find the Aro lineage history exceptionally inspiring, whether or not it is objectively “true.” I particularly love the story of Jomo Chhi’med Pema punishing a rock. This story can be understood as a teaching on many levels. In fact, it unfolds with a different message according to the principles of each yana. You might find it interesting to see how many layers of meaning you can find there.