Prophecy and terma

Prophecy: the Biblical view

In aggressive gossip about the Aro gTér, it was sometimes said that all termas must have been prophesied in writing by Padmasambhava; and that since there was no prophecy of the Aro terma, it must be fake. This is a myth. I have never read the claim that all termas must be prophesied anywhere other than in attacks on the Aro tradition.

Many termas are prophesied, but it is not a requirement. It is not mentioned as a criterion for evaluating terma in the standard book on the subject, Wonder Ocean, discussed on the previous page. Wonder Ocean explains how a terton should proceed when a prophecy is unavailable.

The nature of Tibetan prophecy can be misunderstood by analogy to Biblical prophecy. From a Buddhist point of view, the future can never be certain, due to the empty nature of all things. The idea that the future is fully determined is a form of eternalism, the denial of emptiness—one of the four non-Buddhist “philosophical extremes.”

A Lama can make a prophecy based on superior insight into the interrelatedness of phenomena, and the way events tend to evolve. But the fulfillment of this prophecy always depends on circumstances. (This is discussed in Wonder Ocean, pages 68 and 154-155, and in Dudjom Rinpoche’s encyclopedic The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 934-935.) If things do not go as expected, the prophecy will not come to pass.

Tibetan prophecy also always has the force of command. Prophecy is not only prediction—this will happen—but instruction: make this happen! Padmasambhava left lists of termas that ought to be discovered, by particular tertons, with notes on how. In many cases, the terton was unable to carry out the prophecy, due to various practical obstacles.

The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism contains the biographies of many tertons. Dudjom Rinpoche introduces the list by noting that “Included . . . are those treasure-finders who have been roughly prophesied . . . in the Injunctions of Padma[sambhava] . . . as well as those who have appeared without being clearly referred to therein, but are none the less universally renowned as valid.” “Roughly prophesied” means that the terton and terma do not completely fit the description, due to unfortunate circumstances that Padmasambhava did not foresee. There can be unexpected positive developments too. Sometimes a terton may discover terma that Padmasambhava originally intended for someone else.

The prophecies of termas and tertons are often extremely vague. For example, the prophecy of the Longchen Nyingthik, perhaps the most widely-practiced Dzogchen terma nowadays, is:

In Chongye my emanation will come to serve the world.
Though no one will know who it is,
He will teach in a forthright manner.
At Chingwardo, or to the south of the Red Mausoleum,
He may found a monastery at the Lhabap Stupa.

If you had doubts about this terma, you might wish that Padmasambhava had been a little more precise. On the other hand, his intention was not to put his “VALID” stamp on someone. His intention was to say roughly what ought to happen.

The vagueness of prophecies mean that they need to be interpreted. This is an uncertain business. Dudjom Rinpoche observes (page 934) that:

prophecies must be ascertained by those who know their intentional basis and reason, and who will not misrepresent them. Otherwise, one must not one-sidedly grasp as true the meaning of a prophecy, having taken only the words at face value, without distinguishing provisional from definitive meaning. This is because even if one knows those things, a prophecy about future good or evil times and so forth may be transformed owing to circumstantial causes, conditions, and coincidences, so that it seems the prophecy is not precisely fulfilled. As the meanings of prophecies have rarely been completely fulfilled, . . . it seems to be extremely difficult for perfectly auspicious circumstances to occur.

The great terton Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo Rinpoche (1820-1892) had a particularly low opinion of prophecy. He growled that “Too much prattle about them is an ingress for demons!”

Prophecy and Aro

Aro Lingma’s discovery of the Aro gTér was prophesied by her mother, Jomo Pema ’ö-Zér. I do not know whether there were any other, earlier prophecies—for example by Yeshe Tsogyel. It may be that one was known when the terma was discovered in Tibet a century ago. Given the historical uncertainties, it would not be surprising if it were lost.

There was a rumor at one point that there is a prophecy somewhere in the Dudjom Tersar that denounces the Aro gTer as a false terma. This rumor was at the level of “I heard that someone said they heard that . . . ” So it is difficult to say much more about it. It seems unlikely that the supposed text will actually be produced.

It would certainly be interesting if it were. My guess is that if it exists, it is so vague that only by heroic feats of interpretation can it be seen to refer to the Aro gTér. But what would we do if it turned out that, somewhere in the standard edition of the Dudjom Tersar, there is an unambiguous statement like “in the future dark age, there shall in the West arise a demonic sorcerer named Chögyam, who shall teach perverted doctrines of nine bardos and vajra romance from the pernicious and false Aro gTer, and shall lead legions of frenzied followers into Vajra Hell”? A fascinating thought experiment.

I know what I would do. What would you do? Leave a comment below.