Terma validation in Tibetan practice

The Lady of Shallot

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888

Termas (Tibetan Buddhist revelations) may be authentic, or fake. According to theory, there is no good way to tell which is which (unless you are a Buddha). Two methods are available: to have a vision, or to apply scholarship. However, both are so unreliable that they “are of little help.”

This is a practical problem for anyone in the Nyingma tradition, which is based mainly on termas. How did Tibetans deal with this in practice?

Let me start with a quote from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s wonderful memoir, Blazing Splendor, concerning the terton Chokgyur Lingpa.

[The important Lama] Situ didn't believe in just any terton [revealer of termas] who happened to pass by. Indeed, Situ had been decidedly unimpressed by another recently visiting terton, about whom he had remarked, “Well, well! That guy claims to be a treasure [terma] revealer, but his posturing seems to me merely an excuse to keep a woman. All he really succeeds in doing is defaming the Lotus-Born master.” But Situ had some confidence in Chokgyur Lingpa, and so was prepared to meet him. Nevertheless, he called for Lama Ngaktrin, saying to him, “I hear that you have clear dreams due to your practice of Naropa's Six Doctrines. This Terton claims to be an emissary of Padmasambhava and has declared himself a major revealer of treasures. But I don't trust just anyone who claims to be a terton. Since our monastery has arranged to welcome him as a dignitary tomorrow, you should watch your dreams tonight for signs that might verify his claims. Report back to me any experiences or visions you have.” Ngaktrin was quite a remarkable practitioner and had accomplished much in his retreat. During his dreams that night, he received a prophecy confirming that Chokgyur Lingpa was indeed an authentic terton. Upon hearing this dream, Situ was delighted and amused. “Ha ha! Ha ha!” he joked, “Chokgyur Lingpa must be a true terton—assuming of course that we can trust your dreams.”

In Tibet around 1900 there were huge numbers of supposed tertons. One had to choose which to take seriously. This passage describes Situ applying one official method, that of visions. He recognized that it was not necessarily reliable. Whose visions count as evidence? Based on his knowledge of Lama Ngaktrin, he had partial confidence in Ngaktrin’s dreams. Others might have disagreed.

There are also stories of tertons being quizzed on doctrine to ensure that their views were orthodox. This is an application of the second official (but officially unreliable) method.

The most successful tertons were great showmen. Their reputation was based largely on the miracles they performed while revealing buried (“earth”) terma. According to Blazing Splendor,

It had to be this way, because Tibetans . . . were known to be extremely skeptical. They didn't blindly believe everyone who claimed to be a terton . . . it was no simple feat to convince people that Chokgyur Lingpa was in fact an emissary of Padmasambhava. [He did so by miraculous uncoverings.]

Although this was a major way of authenticating terma in practice, it has no value in theory. The Tibetan view is that enlightened Lamas can perform miracles—but so can unenlightened, evil sorcerers. A powerful black magician might might duplicate the magical appearances that accompanied an earth terma unveiling. (And the possibility of sleight of hand and other mundane trickery was understood.) Even so, although ordinary Tibetans were skeptical about religious poseurs, they were eager when it came to the fancier class of miracles. Those were rarely seen, and outstanding entertainment.

In practice, there was little agreement about which termas were authentic. The conservative position was that they were all better avoided. Even if some were valid, who could know which?

Still, many people recognized that some termas were of great value. Termas addressed current conditions and concerns in ways the ancient Indian scriptures could not. But which to accept?

Opinions about particular termas evolved over decades and centuries. Many—perhaps most—termas that are widely accepted now were initially met with general hostility and skepticism. For example, the usual view in 1100 was that Aro Yeshé Jungné had personally invented Dzogchen. It was considered some sort of Zen/Shaivite fake, because it has no Sanskrit texts, and is quite different in principles from accepted Indian Tantra. Dzogchen is now accepted by most (but not all) Tibetan Lamas.

Francis Bacon, Screaming Pope

Francis Bacon, from the Screaming Pope series, 1953

It seems that the situation was rather like that in the Western avant garde art world. It is extremely difficult to know which innovative contemporary painters are any good. Most painters who are now considered the greatest were initially scorned as producers of perverse, crude, incomprehensible, ugly rubbish.

The field of art criticism tries to explain why some art is good and some is bad. Much of this is interesting and can be helpful in learning to appreciate art. However, it does not produce agreement among experts, and seems not to offer much help in predicting which new artists will succeed. This is analogous to the “scholarship” method of terma validation.

In practice, success for a painter, rock group, or terton depends heavily on assembling supporters. Art and music critics have enormous power to sway mass opinion. Powerful Lamas had the same function in Tibet. According to Blazing Splendor,

if one of the Karmapas shows respect for a terton, then the Karmapa’s influence and blessings will make everyone accept the terton and his teachings without doubt or dispute . . . otherwise, the terton is at risk of being called crazy or a charlatan.

Money is power. For a painter, wealthy patrons provide not only a living, but also credibility. Signing with a major record label, and the support of music company executives, is critical for a band. It is also necessary to sell prints, records, or concert tickets. Similarly, Tibetan histories frequently speak admiringly of the power of successful tertons to raise vast quantities of money in donations from both rich patrons and the masses of poor peasants.

It is helpful for artists—and tertons—to be innovative enough to be interesting, but not so innovative as to be alienating. It helps to be charismatic, articulate, and intimidating.

Opinions of art, like terma, shift over time. A poet or painter can repeatedly alternate between famous and forgotten over centuries.

The art establishment considered Pre-Raphaelite paintings scandalous, bizarre, blasphemous and ugly when they first appeared around 1850. By the end of that century, they were widely admired and mainstream. (The Lady of Shalott, at the top of this page, is one of the best-known Pre-Raphaelite works.) But then for most of the 20th century, the art world regarded the Pre-Raphaelites as kitsch. Kitsch is “fake art” that panders to vulgar taste by conventional prettiness and suppression of negativity.

Thomas Kinkade, Garden of Prayer

Thomas Kinkade, Garden of Prayer, 1997

I have always loved the Pre-Raphaelites, and I do not believe they are kitsch. One reason is that I am violently allergic to kitsch in general. I greatly admire the nightmarish paintings of Francis Bacon. (One of his “screaming popes” appears above.) He is the opposite of kitsch. My positive opinion of Bacon is shared by most art critics—although there are probably few who like him as much as I do. The paintings of Thomas Kinkade, on the other hand, I loathe as authentic kitsch—despite their superficial similarity to the Pre-Raphaelites. This is the opinion also of most art critics. However, he is enormously popular.

The Pre-Raphaelites were rehabilitated late in the 20th century. They were accepted as high art again. How will they be viewed in a hundred years? I have no idea. I also have no idea concerning Bacon and Kinkade. It would not surprise me if future art critics overwhelmingly consider Bacon the vilest trash produced by a nihilistic and depraved century—and regard Kinkade as the great classical master who redeemed it. This might depend in part on trends in religious politics. Kinkade appeals primarily to evangelical Christians. Bacon, I presume, does not.

Opinions about art, and terma, are not altogether arbitrary. It certainly helps for a painting, or terma, to communicate a great and novel truth. It helps for the artist, or terton, to possess genius, insight, talent, and technical skill. I would not deny that Kinkade has all those. I only believe that he is a minion of Satan, because what he communicates is profoundly false. Doubtless Kinkade’s admirers think the same of Bacon.

In practice, termas are validated by history and by political power. If they survive for a century or two, and have a decent number of adherents, they come to be viewed as authentic by many Tibetans.