The duck test

Evaluating the Aro gTer using scholarship

Only one of the three traditional ways to evaluate termas seems to have any practical value. That is to rationally compare it with other Buddhist doctrines and practices to see if it is consistent with them. This is called “authentication by scholarship” in the Tibetan tradition.

This method is traditionally considered unreliable. The problem is that termas describe enlightened non-conceptual mind. No matter how learned you are, you cannot reliably evaluate enlightened non-conceptual mind using ordinary conceptual mind.

Worse, famous scholars often come to different conclusions. In fact, the main sport of Tibetan intellectuals was denouncing the scriptures of other Tibetan sects as inauthentic. Dudjom Rinpoche, the greatest Nyingma scholar of the last century, warned that

If all the doctrines refuted by learned and accomplished Tibetans were false, no authentic doctrines would be found . . . As long as we have not acquired the pure eye of the doctrine, whereby the truth about doctrines and individuals is seen, it is an unbearably terrible deed to analyze things through exaggeration and depreciation, saying this is perverse, this is impure, and that artificial.

Still, because the other two traditional methods of evaluating terma seem entirely impractical, scholarship is the best tool we have. It seems better than nothing. Even if it is unreliable in theory, it gives me confidence in practice.

Apparently a false terma

There is a remarkable thing called the 7:7:7:7 Telektonon Revelation: Radial Matrix-Plasma Universe Model Nying-Thig Terma of Mayan Galactic Time. This is unlike anything else I have ever seen. I have no idea what it is. “Nying-thig” is a branch of Dzogchen. However, nothing in the Telektonon seems to have anything to do with the Dzogchen I have read about or been taught. The Telektonon has a scattering of technical terms from Dzogchen, but used in ways that make no sense to me. It also uses technical terms from several other esoteric religions.

it might be a demon duck of doom

Altogether, the Telektonon does not walk like a duck, and does not quack like a duck. I can’t be sure it is not a duck. It might be a Demon Duck of Doom. Padmasambhava might appear in person and tell me “Yeah, I know it is weird. But that’s because it is by far the most direct and powerful of all my teachings. Practice the Telektonon for two weeks and you’ll become a Buddha. I guarantee it, or your money back.” I would sure follow that advice. Until then, I figure that, whatever the Telektonon is, it is not an authentic Nyingma terma.  [Note added two years later:  See this interesting reply from someone who practices it, has had good results, and believes it to be authentic. Apparently I was too quick to dismiss it when I wrote this page.]

The duck test

So what about the Aro gTer? With terma, not ducks, we’d like to know:

  • Does it include the sorts of things that other termas include?
  • Is what it says about those things consistent with widely-accepted Nyingma texts?

Since one of the functions of a terma is innovation, each should be somewhat different from others. However, we should expect this to be modest:

  • Are the innovative features of the terma consistent with general Nyingma principles? Are they similar in character to other Nyingma doctrines and practices?

I have limited qualifications to answer these questions. I am not a trained Tibetan scholar. However, I have read more than a hundred books on Tibetan Buddhism, concentrating on Dzogchen and Nyingma doctrine. Based on that, I am confident that the answers to all these questions is “yes.” It is possible that I am wrong. But if I am wrong, it must be about a subtle detail.

I know enough to say that the Aro gTer is not obviously not an authentic Nyingma terma. I know enough to say that the Telektonon is pretty obviously not an authentic Nyingma terma.

There are people who say the Aro gTer is obviously not a Nyingma terma. None of them seem to know much at all about its content, so I don’t know how they can have come to that conclusion. Most critics also appear to have large gaps in their knowledge of basic Vajrayana (although one or two do have thorough understanding of Nyingma doctrine).

What does the Aro gTer include?

There are no standards for what a terma must include. A terma can cover any Buddhist subject, or many subjects. (The only minimum requirement is that to count as a “great terton,” one’s terma must include material on Dzogchen, Padmasambhava, and Chenrezik. Most tertons apparently do not meet that standard. The Aro gTer does include all those, so maybe the Aro terton was “great.” I don’t actually know how or why that would matter.)

Most of what is taught in Aro could be called “the usual stuff.” A standard Nyingma reference work, like Dudjom Rinpoche’s Fundamentals of the Nyingma School, could almost work as an Aro textbook. (That book’s style is elegant but hard for beginners to follow, which is why I say “almost.”)

So I won’t go into the usual stuff. Instead, I’ll describe what is unusual.

The Aro gTer mainly concerns Dzogchen. It has some material from Anuyoga and almost nothing from Mahayoga. This is unusual in recent centuries. Most tertons have concentrated on Mahayoga. However, this doesn’t seem to pose a problem. Minor termas can be on any topic, and Dzogchen-only revelations were common earlier in Tibetan history.

The Aro gTér contains material from all three Dé (branches) of Dzogchen. This is unusual but not unprecedented. The other well-known instance is the Désum (“three Dé”) terma of Chokgyür Lingpa.

Unlike the Telektonon, the Aro Dzogchen teachings cover the usual topics: rigpa and the nature of mind; the self-liberation of phenomena; the Three Statements of Garab Dorje; the three Dé; the four naljors and four ting-ngé-dzin of Semdé; trekchöd and tögal; the four Da; the twenty-one Sem-dzin; dark retreat; and so on.

The Aro gTer Sutra of the Owl-Headed Dakini covers the main topics of Sutrayana (basic Buddhism) from point of view of Dzogchen: the Four Noble Truths, the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice, the Five Precepts, the nature of Refuge, Bodhicitta, and so forth. Dzogchen interpretations of Sutric topics are standard in the Nyingma School. The Owl-Headed Sutra is unusually comprehensive; but that does not seem a problem.

Is the Aro tradition’s treatment of the usual stuff consistent with Nyingma doctrine?

Yes.

No one has said it isn’t, so I won’t say more about this.

Are its innovative additions plausible?

There is nothing in the Aro gTer that seems obviously out of place. The Telektonon discusses the Mayan calendar. This seems peculiar, since that is part of a Central American Indian religion. There’s nothing like that in the Aro gTer.

The Aro terma’s main innovation is a shift in emphasis from Mahayoga to Dzogchen. That would tend to reverse the general trend of recent centuries. I don’t see that it raises a question of authenticity.

In terms of doctrine, there is little new in the Aro gTér. I have discussed its nine bardos elsewhere. The Owl-Headed material might be seen as innovative, but it is all straight-forward applications of Dzogchen logic to Sutric subjects. Similarly, the Nyida Mélong Gyüd teachings on vajra romance are an elaboration of a standard Tantric topic in Dzogchen terms. All these cases seem plausible as small additions that are consistent with existing Nyingma teachings in topic and logic.

In terms of practice, the main innovation is the Aro sKu-mNyé. There are systems of sKu-mNyé in many Tibetan lineages. I gather that they are all very different, but I don’t know any of them. I’m not competent to evaluate whether the Aro one is a plausible innovation as a practice. Its conceptual explanation seems consistent with what I have read of Dzogchen long-dé in non-Aro texts.

Test results

The Aro gTér walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck. Since scholarship is unreliable, it might not be a duck.

It might be a fat platypus that has learned to use a hunter’s duck call. It might be a sophisticated robot in a duck suit. It might be an evil shape-changing alien from Planet X.

Most likely, it is a duck.