Where are the Tibetan texts?

A Tibetan text

The earliest Buddhist scriptures were written in an Indian language called Pali.* Two thousand years ago, a new approach to Buddhism appeared, Mahayana, whose scriptures were written in another Indian language, Sanskrit. There was—and remains—a heated debate about whether the Mahayana scriptures are valid. A large fraction of modern Buddhists do not accept the Sanskrit scriptures, and regard the doctrines they contain as heretical fakes.

One thousand years ago, new scriptures appeared in Tibet in the form of terma. These were written in the Tibetan language, rather than Sanskrit or Pali. There was—and remains—a heated debate about whether these Tibetan scriptures are valid. Some Tibetans do not accept Tibetan-language scriptures, and regard the doctrines they contain as heretical fakes. Only Sanskrit will do.

Get ready for round three . . .

“Where are the Tibetan texts of the Aro gTér?” some skeptics demand. The implication is that anything not written in Tibetan is a heretical fake.

This is a bit rude; terma texts are often kept secret. However, I can reveal all of them here immediately:

There aren’t any.

I expect there were Tibetan-language texts in the time of Aro Lingma, the Aro terton. However, if so, they have been lost.

This is not a problem.

The specific words in which Aro Lingma conveyed her terma are lost. The meaning of her words has been recovered by Ngak’chang Rinpoche from visions, dreams, and past-life memories. He conveys the same meaning in English.

The Tibetan language has no special status. As I mentioned, some Tibetans actually regard any scripture written in Tibetan as fake. They think Sanskrit has a special status; but this is not the view of the Nyingma tradition to which Aro belongs. In the words of Dudjom Rinpoche, Head of the Nyingma tradition, “. . . jealous persons created discord by, for example, declaring that certain of the [Nyingma] tantras had been composed in Tibet because they did not exist in India [so Sanskrit versions were unknown]. However, the non-existence of those tantras in India did not prove them to be unauthentic. Even the tantras which did exist in India did not originate there: they were brought forth by great accomplished masters from the domains of the gods . . .” The great scholar Sakya Chokden observed that “with Vajrasattva’s consent, the compilers of [the ancient scriptures] were themselves permitted to teach them in the language of each different country.”

Although Tibetan is not a sacred language, it does have a practical advantage. When Vajrayana was brought to Tibet in the Eighth Century, hundreds of new Tibetan words were invented to express Buddhist ideas. These translate Sanskrit words for concepts that previously had no words in Tibetan. While we wait for the same to happen in English, the Aro Lamas use Tibetan words as needed.

*What I wrote about Pali was apparently not exactly accurate. See the helpful reader comment below.