“Why practice a dubious new terma when you can choose a safe, generally-accepted one?”
A good question. A terma is a Tibetan Buddhist “revelation.” In all religions, new revelations are suspicious. Maybe they are just some nonsense someone made up. Why not stick to the ancient, tried-and-true scriptures?
In the Nyingma tradition, there is an ancient, tried-and-true answer: new termas are inherently better. They are better for three reasons:
- New termas are less likely to have been distorted by human error.
- New termas spring from a living source of inspiration.
- New termas address current social conditions; old ones address obsolete conditions.
Straight outta tha dharmakaya
The ancient scriptures originated more than a thousand years ago in India. They have been passed from teacher to student over and over. That is called the “long lineage of transmission.” Although the ancient scriptures are considered very holy, few are actually read or practiced by the Nyingma.
The risk in a long lineage is that, at any link in the chain, errors may creep in. A teacher may incompetent; a student may misunderstand. Even if there is only a tiny misunderstanding at each link, after centuries the original meaning may be lost.
Termas have a “short lineage of transmission.” According to the Dzogchen theory of terma, they come to the terton (revealer) straight outta tha dharmakaya. According to the tantric theory of terma, they came from the gods to Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyal. They gave them for safekeeping to dakinis (minor goddesses). At the appointed time, the dakinis deliver them to a terton.
Either way, when a terma is taught by the terton him or herself, there is no possibility of error.
fresh and miraculous
A new terma is said to be “still warm with the breath of the dakinis.” In other words, it is fresh and miraculous. A living terton is a continuing source of new inspiration and new teachings. Along with the dakinis, a terton breathes new life into the unchanging essence of Buddhism.
A terton can pass some of the new inspiration and insight to his or her students; and they may pass some to their students. But it often does not take very many years before vital new teachings turn into musty old texts—venerated in theory and practiced by rote.
A possible contemporary example
In the 1990s, I practiced Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training terma. About fifteen years after his death, his successor made changes to the programs based on the terma. Some Shambhala practitioners, including some senior teachers, regard these changes as distortions. The Wikipedia describes this as “controversial.” I don’t have an opinion about this, having moved on from the Shambhala organization before the changes were made. However, it shows how, just a few years after a terton’s death, changes can be made in his teachings—for better or worse.
A time for all things
According to Nyingma theory, each terma must be revealed at its proper time. That is because a main function of termas is to address specific historical circumstances. Each terma contains innovations that are relevant to particular social conditions.
For this reason, older termas may be less relevant for contemporary Buddhists. This is particularly true for Western Buddhists, who live in a very different social and political world than the Tibetan feudal theocracy.
During the past few hundred years, Dzogchen has been under intense political pressure. It is regarded as illegitimate and dangerous by Tibetan religious conservatives. In this environment, it was usually best to present Dzogchen as though it were anuttara tantra. Tantra is less controversial. Disguising Dzogchen as tantra was socially necessary—but arguably it obscured the essence of Dzogchen.
The Shambhala terma might be described as “Dzogchen straight-up,” without the lower yanas. That is not how Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described it, but I think it’s reasonably accurate. I do not think he could have taught Shambhala Training in Tibet. It would have been politically impossible, because he described it as non-Buddhist.
The Aro lineage’s perspective is that Dzogchen is particularly relevant to contemporary Western social conditions. The complex style of tantra common in Tibet in recent centuries is really only feasible for full-time practitioners: primarily monks. Dzogchen is simple and practical for people with jobs and families.
Western guarantees of religious freedom mean that we can ignore Tibetan political imperatives. The Aro gTer presents Dzogchen as Dzogchen, not as tantra. “As Dzogchen” means “as simple, non-conceptual methods for instantaneous self-liberation.” I think that makes the Aro tradition particularly appropriate for our time.