What does “valid terma” mean?

Padmasambhava, source of Vajrayana

Padmasambhava manifesting as Dorje Chang (Vajradhara)

Nyingma Lamas agree that some termas (revelations) are true, valid, authentic, or legitimate. Other supposed termas are false, invalid, inauthentic, illegitimate, fake, forged, or bogus.

But what do these words mean? Why should we care about this? What is it that is good about a valid terma and bad about an invalid one?

The answer is not obvious. For example, termas are called “true” or “false,” but this has nothing to do with ordinary true and false statements. Termas are concerned with visionary truth, not ordinary or objective truth. No terma is either true or false in the ordinary sense.

All Buddhist doctrines can be understood at many levels. Often, these levels correspond to the major yanas: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. These are sometimes called the “outer,” “inner,” and “secret” interpretations. They also may correspond to the three “kayas” or modes of existence. Those are nirmanakaya or physical existence; sambhogakaya or visionary existence; and dharmakaya or enlightened potential existence.

Each of these views is more accurate than the previous one. The Dzogchen view is that anything that is the product of enlightened mind is terma. This matters because only products of enlightened mind are likely to be effective as tools for realizing enlightenment ourselves.

The outer meaning of terma

The “outer” interpretation of terma is that Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyel wrote sacred texts on bits of paper 1250 years ago. They hid these under rocks. Tertons dig up the pieces of paper and read the texts. This is an understanding in terms of nirmanakaya—physical reality. According to this view, termas are validated by physical evidence.

There is a common Tibetan view that any Buddhist text that came from India must be valid. Any scripture that originated in Tibet is automatically inauthentic. According to the outer understanding, the importance of terma is that Padmasambhava brought all the terma texts with him from India. Therefore they are valid.

There are several good reasons to reject the “outer” meaning of terma:

  • It is explicitly rejected by the authoritative Nyingma books on the subject. Tulku Thondup’s Hidden Teachings of Tibet is one. He writes that this outer meaning is a useful approximation for “common people,” but actually mistaken.
  • The idea that everything Indian is valid, and nothing Tibetan is, is silly. It is just a Tibetan cultural neurosis. Tibetans are not spiritually inferior to Indians. (Similarly, the Western idea that everything Tibetan is valid, and nothing Western is, is also silly.)
  • Western historical scholarship shows that Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal almost certainly did not physically write most termas.

The inner meaning of terma

The inner interpretation is that, by magical power, Padmasambhava hid termas in the minds of his disciples. These disciples are reborn as tertons. The enlightened nature of their minds retains the teachings. The physical objects that tertons uncover are not themselves the termas. These objects are only “keys” to remind tertons of teachings they received in earlier lives. The physical objects are hidden miraculously and not merely buried in an ordinary way. They are actually pulled from non-physical realms, rather than rocks.

This is the view of Tantra. It describes the visionary, magical reality of the sambhogakaya, rather than ordinary reality. Termas are validated by miracles because both arise from the sambhogakaya.

According to this understanding, true termas are valid because they come from the realm of the gods. They were written by sambhogakaya deities. False termas are those written by humans. Humans are not capable of writing authentic scripture.

This view is accurate. But it is also metaphorical. As with all of Tantra, it is complicated, colorful, and exciting.

The secret meaning of terma

The secret interpretation is that Padmasambhava is nothing other than the enlightened mind of the terton, whose primorial understanding is awoken by all phenomena. Enlightened mind is ultimately not personal. The minds of the sambhogakaya deities, of Padmasambhava, and of the terton are not separate. All enlightened mind arises from the dharmakaya—undifferentiated enlightened potential. Everything that arises from the dharmakaya is terma. According to this view, all Dharma is terma, regardless of whether it was written in India, Tibet, or America.

This is the view of Dzogchen. As with all of Dzogchen, it is simple, clear, and vast. Because of its vastness, it may be difficult to understand. (The Tibetan word sang, “secret,” is better translated “non-obvious” in the outer/inner/secret hierarchy. No one intends this meaning to be hidden. It is just hard to get your head around.) The inner meaning is given as a helpful metaphor, that is more complex but less mind-stopping.

Andreas Doctor’s Tibetan Treasure Literature describes the history of this view. It was first presented by Guru Chöwang (1212-1270), one of the earliest and most important tertons. Since then it has been the view of numerous Dzogchen masters, such as Ratna Lingpa (1403-1478). It was the view of Kyabjé Dudjom Rinpoche, perhaps the greatest Dzogchen teacher of the 20th Century, in his The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (p. 927, and 747-748 concerning pure vision terma and treasures of intention).

I have seen the words “outer” and “inner” used in terma theory only by Tulku Thondup. His book concentrates on the inner meaning. He spends less time on the secret meaning, and he does not use the word “secret.” However, it seems reasonable to use it due to the common association of outer, inner, and secret with Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen.

Why does terma validity matter?

According to the outer view, physical evidence validates terma. According to the inner view, visionary evidence validates terma. According to the secret view, nothing external can validate terma. That is because the dharmakaya is empty. According to the outer and inner views, the history of a terma is critical to its authenticity. According to the secret view, history is irrelevant. There is no time in the dharmakaya.

According to the inner view, termas are magically effective on account of Tantric transmission through Padmasambhava to the terton. This involves three special kinds of transmission that tertons receive, in addition to usual kinds.

According to the Dzogchen view, the dharmakaya is simply the empty creative nature of the terton’s mind. The sambhogakaya is simply the brilliant communicative energy of the terton’s mind.

So, a valid terma is one that comes from enlightened mind; an invalid terma is one that comes from ordinary mind.

The reason this matters is that a terma is a vehicle that takes us from ordinary mind to enlightened mind. A valid terma explains the nature of ordinary mind and enlightened mind, and the path from one to the other. A terma must also be innovative. That is one of the essential functions of termas. By imitation, it is possible that an unenlightened person could produce an accurate description of the way to enlightenment. It is extremely unlikely that an unenlightened person could produce a guide that was both innovative and accurate.

This does not help answer the question “how do we know whether a purported terma is valid.” But at least it explains what the question is.

And, it explains why only a Buddha (a person with enlightened mind) can give a reliable answer.

More on the “secret” meaning of terma

Tulku Thondup writes:

From the philosophical point of view, in the ultimate nature, or absolute truth, there is no difference between teacher and disciple, or between the effects of teaching and listening . . . The Dharma appears in the manner that accords with the perceptions of beings and with their karmic causation and circumstantial conditions. Dharma . . . comes from realized or ordinary beings, trees, water, sky, mountains, earth, rocks, or mind, according to the karma and conditions of the receiver. For a highly realized person all phenomena can be a source of Dharma, for many people only limited sources, and for some only the scriptures and the aural instructions. And for many nothing is a source of Dharma. (pp. 57-58)

There is no difference between teacher and disciple. This is the essence of “mind transmission” in Dzogchen. The enlightened mind of the teacher is not separate from the enlightened mind of the student. Transmission occurs when this non-separateness becomes obvious. “Transmission” may be misunderstood to be a ritual, which might be exciting or boring. Actually, the ritual only creates conditions in which non-separateness is more likely to be recognized.

Enlightened mind is non-personal. The gods (dharmakaya and sambhogakaya) are not separate from Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava is not separate from the terton—because the terton recognizes his or her own enlightened mind. When we practice yidam, we attempt to recognize the non-separateness of our minds from the yidam. When we practice Lama’i Naljor (Guru Yoga), we attempt to recognize the non-separateness of our minds from the Lama. Our Lama, the terton of our lineage, Padmasambhava (or Yeshe Tsogyal), and the gods—all have the same nature.

The Dharma appears in the manner that accords with the perceptions of beings. The Nyingma tradition regards Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyel as the origin of Vajrayana. For that reason, anything we recognize as the origin of Vajrayana, we call Padmasambhava or Yeshe Tsogyel. When a Lama is the source of Vajrayana—she is Yeshe Tsogyel. When a mountain is the source of Vajrayana—that is Padmasambhava. When the sun glinting on river ripples is the source of Vajrayana—that is Yeshe Tsogyel. When the roar of a motorcycle engine is the source of Vajrayana—that is Padmasambhava.