Asking the wrong question

Fungus, Hay-on-Wye, 1998

According to Nyingma theory, there is no reliable way to determine which termas are valid. As a result, Tibetans have been quarrelling about termas’ validity for a thousand years. The arguments, often vicious, convince no one. They go around in circles, because they have nothing new to say. The dispute has rarely gone beyond “You faked it yourself!” “No, I got it from a Buddha!” “Did not!” “Did too!” “You are possessed by a demon!” “No, you are!” This level of argument should be left on the children’s playground.

On this page and the next, I suggest a way out of this deadlock. What I have to say is not traditional. However, I think you may find it sensible.

We need to go back and ask: “Why did we want to know which termas were valid in the first place?”

In Tibet, only a tiny religious elite actually practiced any termas. A main religious activity of lay people was to donate money to holy men. That is supposed to produce merit, resulting in better future lives. For most Tibetans, a key practical question is: which are the holiest men? Giving money to an authentic tertön (revealer of termas) would be the most effective use of funds. Giving money to a false tertön might be worse than useless. As a result, questions of terma validation are intimately tied up with money and power in Tibetan culture. These considerations are irrelevant to most Westerners.

For those who actually practice, the question is “which termas work?” For this, the Tibetan debate is framed wrong. It starts from the assumption that a terma is either true, or false. Apparently, if it is true, practicing it is a sure, quick way to enlightenment. If it is false, practicing it is a sure, quick way to hell. This extreme polarization is unhelpful and silly. It leads to scriptures that are full of advertising hype. They get titles like The Innermost Utterly Unsurpassable Ultra-Double-Top-Secret Essence of Life, The Universe, And Everything. It also leads to the demonization and political persecution of religious competitors.

Termas are never either true, or false. Essentially none of Buddhism is. Buddhism is concerned with methods, not truths. Termas are not factual statements that can be objectively tested. They are practices that can only be evaluated experientially, to see what happens.

In the words of Andreas Doctor, a Western expert on termas:

Recognizing that the final authenticating measure for Treasure [terma] revelation lies beyond what can be objectively verified, it appears a less rewarding exercise to perpetuate a debate of the Treasure along a simplified framework of true or false. Instead, looking beyond the traditional saint-charlatan paradigm may allow for other, more rewarding perspectives . . . (The Tibetan Treasure Literature, p. 50.)

On the next page, I suggest that the right question to ask is “which termas, or other practices, will be most useful for me?” The answer may be different for each of us.