Talk Categories Tibetan Buddhism | Talk Locations University of Colorado Boulder

Visions and Prophecies of Terma

The study of termas (concealed teachings) is an essential part of studying Tibetan Buddhism. But what are termas? What is the difference between earth and mind termas? How and why are they concealed by tertons? Why are they important in studying Tibetan Buddhism? Khenpo Sodargye discusses these and other questions in this talk.


“Each terma has many attributes that are different from all other teachings, along with incomparable blessing power. The flourishing of the Dharma in Tibet today is in part the result of the blessings of many tertons. This makes it very necessary and meaningful to carry forward the terma teachings.”

Speech by Khenpo Sodargye

Introduction to Terma and Tertons

Introduction by Professor Gayley

Khenpo Sodargye is one of the successors of the internationally renowned, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, who was the founder of Larung Buddhist Academy in Sertar, in Eastern Tibet. Larung Gar is one of the largest monastic establishments in the Tibetan areas, housing more than 10,000 monks and nuns, including many Chinese disciples of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and now also of Khenpo Sodargye.

Khenpo’s visit is part of a new phase of Tibetan Buddhism, which came to the West more than 30 years ago and now is spreading throughout China, a development that Khenpo Sodargye is very much responsible for spearheading. We’re very lucky to have him here visiting Colorado, so let’s give him a big welcome.

Introduction to Terma and Tertons

Today, here at the University of Colorado, we have professors and students as well as many independent scholars and researchers gathered together, so I would first like to say “Tashi Delek” to everyone.

I have been requested to talk about the profound teaching of terma and its related knowledge. Actually, not only is it difficult to clearly present the teaching of terma in a one-hour lecture, it is also a difficult task for audiences to try to comprehend this information in such a short time. However, as the teaching of terma emphasizes dependent origination, let us then create a favorable dependent origination and learn about terma together. I’m extremely happy to talk about it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, terma occupies a position of great importance due to its profundity and richness. When I came to the U.S., twenty years ago, I found many scholars doing research on termas, in general, and Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s terma in particular. When I learned that this was the case, I rejoiced deeply in my heart, as I felt then and still feel strongly, that terma is particularly resonant with the modern age. Modern people like fresh things, Guru Rinpoche left termas corresponding to this age, that provide those who connect to it with an incomparable blessing power.

Today, many people in different places and of different nations struggle and compete for money but very few of them are engaged in seeking the kind of profound wisdom that can be found in termas. However, it seems clear that the people gathered here are interested in it, so I see this as a progression of human thought and an advanced way to seek the truth.

Those who haven’t studied terma may feel it to be extremely obscure, because in Buddhism, terma is truly profound in every aspect of its view, practice and conduct. Thus, without a general comprehension of Buddhism—especially without understanding, experiencing, and realizing the profound view and practice of tantra, since what we’re talking about is an esoteric specialty couched in modern terminology, it would be natural if you were to find this difficult to understand.

In general terms, as we know, terma are Guru Rinpoche’s Nyingmapa teachings concealed for his future disciples. As a matter of fact, in addition to Sutrayana scriptures, such as The Play in Full, The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, The Sutra on the Samadhi that Gathers All Merit, there are abundant descriptions of terma to be found in Tibetan Buddhism. For example, we find histories of terma discoveries in the biographies of Tsongkhapa and of the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, of the Gelugpa; also in the biography of Chogyal Phagpa of the Sakyapa; the biographies of Marpa Lotsawa and Rangjung Dorje of the Kagyupa; as well as many others in the Kadampa tradition.

King Songtsen Gampo left teachings known as The Pillar Testament, for future Tibetan generations and concealed them in a pillar in the Jokhang Temple. In the later propagation period, guided by a prophecy, peerless Lord Atisha revealed this terma. Many wise men, like Khedrub Je, were familiar with this and mentioned it in their teachings.

In terms of terma teachings, the Treasury of Precious Termas, compiled by Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche, includes the termas of 108 tertons as well as many small terma fragments. Terma discoverers, known as tertons, are found almost everywhere in Tibet. The termas that they find are like mushrooms in grasslands, each of them is a profound monument to Guru Rinpoche. It is particularly in the Land of Snow, that many great tertons have emerged. If we were to collect all of their termas, as a wise man once said, the total number of their volumes would amount to more than that of the Qianlong Tripitaka—which is to say, a very large number.

Termas can be either earth treasures or mind treasures: earth treasures are hidden in mountains, lakes, houses, pillars and so on, to be discovered later by tertons; mind treasures are sealed in the luminosity of a terton’s mind. In the past, Guru Rinpoche and other great masters sealed certain teachings with their prayers and blessings. Sealing a treasure in the luminosity of the mind through the power of aspirations is a unique feature of these mind treasures.

Earth and Mind Treasures

The Conditions for Studying Terma

To study terma, you first have to have had some realization, along with sufficient intelligence to understand all of the scriptures. Moreover, it is indispensable to have received empowerments from lineage gurus along with the corresponding vows. With all of these conditions, the meaning of terma will be clarified. It would, otherwise, be very difficult to understand terma based purely on academic studies. Nevertheless, since terma teachings are extremely profound and are themselves inconceivably powerful blessings, once you are connected with them, you will accumulate great merit.

A brief introduction to terma teachings can also be found in the text, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, written by Dudjom Rinpoche; in which the sixth chapter contains the biographies of many great tertons. I don’t know whether this book has yet been translated into English. I do know that long ago, Ruizhi Liu had translated it into Chinese. This version, however, is a little bit abstruse, so later I spent about five years translating it again and determined that the terma history was recorded clearly in the sixth chapter.

Earth and Mind Treasures

Termas can be either earth treasures or mind treasures: earth treasures are hidden in mountains, lakes, houses, pillars and so on, to be discovered later by tertons; mind treasures are sealed in the luminosity of a terton’s mind. In the past, Guru Rinpoche and other great masters sealed certain teachings with their prayers and blessings. Sealing a treasure in the luminosity of the mind through the power of aspirations is a unique feature of these mind treasures.

The criteria for becoming a terton is quite strict. By comparison, becoming a master of teaching the Dharma is not as difficult. One cannot claim to be a terton simply because one wants to be one; rather, one has to realize the nature of the mind. As an example, I once met someone who claimed to be a terton; he held a long vajra in his hand, had a hair knot on the top of his head, and said, “If I insert my vajra into a rock, I will reveal a terma.” Unfortunately, this is utterly impossible!

As it is said in all of the commentaries written by past masters, mind treasures are different than the Dharma that arises from pure visions and experience: mind treasures require the realization of the nature of mind, along with the previous aspirations; while the Dharma that arises from pure vision needs only one or the other of them. Dharma arising from one’s experience, is like composing an article with one’s own mind; it can lead some students and teachers to consider themselves to be real tertons, when really, what they have accomplished, may only be the Dharma arising from their own experience.

This then begs the question, “How is a mind treasure concealed?” Basically, after realizing the nature of the mind, one will find the teachings that are concealed within Dakini scripts in the luminosity of the enlightened mind, like treasures that are hidden in a seabed.

To illustrate this, let us consider how ordinary people have past and future lives. If a teaching were concealed in consciousness, it is certain that after several rebirths, the consciousness would have undergone some amount of change, in which case, even if the teaching were sealed by an aspiration in this life, it might not be recalled in a subsequent life. As such, mind treasures can only be revealed after the realization of the nature of the mind; it is an incontrovertible prerequisite for mind treasure. In essence, without having realized the nature of the mind, it is impossible to extract mind treasure.

These terma teachings are very profound and have the power to prevent the Dharma from withering away. The flourishing of the Dharma in Tibet today is in part the result of the blessings of many tertons. This makes it very necessary and meaningful to carry forward the terma teachings.

Why We Must Carry Forward the Terma Teachings

True Stories of Terma Revealing

As previously stated, there are many biographies of past tertons. As for myself, I have been to many places with His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche. Today, I’ll share some of his stories with you. He was a great terton himself, and his previous lives included Lerab Lingpa, a great terton and also the teacher of the 13th Dalai Lama. During that life, he revealed many termas and left many commentaries; some of you have been studying them. If you read his works, you’ll see how an authentically qualified terton should behave.

In 1990, His Holiness went to India and Bhutan, where he visited Paro Taktsang, a retreat place of Guru Rinpoche, it was there that he revealed The Sadhana of Wrathful Padmasambhava. Lama Rinpoche said that The Sadhana of Wrathful Padmasambhava comprised 9 volumes but if he had taken all of them away, it would have been detrimental to the future flourishing of Bhutan. So he only revealed a statue of Guru Rinpoche together with this sadhana as a representative.

Such accounts of revealing terma in mountain rocks are very common in tertons’ biographies. Dudjom Lingpa’s is a great example; in his autobiography, are recorded his experiences from the age of three until he reached the age of 62, which include many miracles of revealing termas from mountain rocks. I feel very happy to have translated this book into Chinese.

Some termas were discovered in lakes. When Lama Rinpoche went to Qinghai in 1994, he went to the Nyenpo Yurtse Sacred Mountains, where there’s a sacred lake from which he took out a small casket. When the casket was opened, a Sadhana of Vajrasattva was found inside. This story is included in his biography. I’m not simply making it up. For your reference, the whole procedure was clearly recorded in a video.

It is recorded that once, when Terton Pema Lingpa was going to reveal a profound terma, he held up a lit lamp and jumped into a lake. Later, after he had brought out the terma, the lamp was still burning. In the Khampa area, Dechen Lingpa also revealed a terma that had been hidden in a small lake. When he was trying to locate the terma, half of Naga Dharmapala’s body appeared over the lake and offered the terma to him. This story is also recorded. It is safe to say that reading the biographies of tertons makes us wonder about the many mysteries in this world.

Additionally, some termas are found in the sky. I have observed one such case with my own eyes. In 1986, carrying nothing with him, His Holiness went to the sacred Go Bo Mountain at Minyak. When we circumambulated the holy mountain, Lama Rinpoche recited many mantras with a khata in his hands, at which point, very suddenly, a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha appeared on the khata. Tulku Lungdok and many others witnessed this event. Normally, I am not a person who easily believes in mysteries, because Buddhist logic forces me analyze what I am told, but when you see something with your own eyes, you have to believe it.

Considering the way that I’m talking about my guru’s story, some of you might think I am exaggerating the greatness of my guru. In this regard, it is good to understand that the Buddhist view is that, lies mixed with deceiving words should never be used to praise your guru. Flattering your guru with deceptive language is slander rather than a compliment. Equally true, is that it is reasonable to talk about a witnessed fact anywhere.

Some might think that for a terma to be revealed from the sky is unreasonable. How can something appear from empty space? It indeed contradicts what seems to be true to worldly people. In physics, if we accept the perspective of quantum mechanics, when a substance is divided into smaller and smaller components, we will eventually end up with nothing. Likewise, due to dependent origination, any phenomena can arise from emptiness. This is very similar to quantum mechanics.

Additionally, there are some tertons who would sometimes send others to reveal termas. When causes and conditions ripen, it is possible for people sent by these tertons to reveal a particular terma. H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche’s biography tells us that when he went to Sangye Chenpu in 1988, he found a casket of termas, and that he asked Khenpo Chopa to find an identical casket that day and not to come back if he failed to find it. With this serious direction, Khenpo Chopa went to search for the casket. Later, inside a nearby cave, a person delivered an identical casket to him. Inside these two caskets, there was a Sadhana of Kurukulle, later found among His Holiness’ works, which had been translated from Dakini scripts.

Some mind treasures are revealed by recalling previous lives; for example, teachings given by Guru Rinpoche can be retrieved when the disciple revisits the place where the teaching was given. When His Holiness went to Yanglesho in Nepal in 1990, he recalled a previous life as a Nepali minister by the name of Jinamitra, and so the time came to reveal the terma. He revealed a Sadhana of Vajrakilaya, which, though not as extensive as that of Lerab Lingpa, still had tremendous blessing power. His Holiness gave many lamas in India and Tibet the empowerment and transmission of this brief Sadhana of Vajrakilaya.

Why We Must Carry Forward the Terma Teachings?

Each terma has many attributes that are different from all other teachings, along with incomparable blessing power. Furthermore, the transmission of terma is very intimate and occurs without any intermediaries. These terma teachings are very profound and have the power to prevent the Dharma from withering away. The flourishing of the Dharma in Tibet today is in part the result of the blessings of many tertons. This makes it very necessary and meaningful to carry forward the terma teachings.

Some of you have been studying and learning about termas for a long time, and that is so meaningful. If possible, you should practice the termas revealed by qualified tertons yourself. The importance of this is beyond description. Personally, I have a strong faith in termas and believe when considered among all the cultural treasures in the world, termas are extraordinarily profound and subtle. For me, this is an uncommonly strong faith.

However, among tertons, as already stated, there are authentic tertons and false tertons. To determine whether a terton is authentic or not, some masters will verify his terma by scriptures and reasoning, and also by whether the terton has a vision of deities. Some masters will also examine whether or not practicing the terma can benefit individuals and society. If everything is auspicious, then it is determined, that the terton is authentic. On the other hand, if practicing the terma does not bring about any progress, then it is determined not to be genuine. So these are some of the many methods for evaluation.

The Importance of Taking Terma Study Seriously

In Tibetan Buddhism, if you want to study termas or any other teachings, it’s important to take them seriously. I’ve visited some American universities and found many teachers and students there who are studying Tibetan Buddhism. This is very good. Unfortunately, most of them do not go deeply into Buddhist philosophy and very often regard it as nothing more than a compendium of myths and legends. When they find that some of the Buddhist teachings incomprehensible, they, like many modern-day scientists, consider them to be erroneous. This is because they perceive them as mere myths and legends, which is a view that could not be more incorrect.

So first, you need to study Buddhist philosophy; that is very important. In the process of your research, you need to question and debate with one another. It is crucial to continuously analyze and discuss the teachings over the long term. In our Tibetan monasteries, there are many debate halls in which this tradition is rigorously upheld. It is important that you should also follow this methodology. In actual practice, however, if there are too many conceptual thoughts, too many opinions about this and that, it certainly won’t work.

The Dharma should be habituated in our mind stream. I always say, pure research can’t enable you to master the Dharma, and neither can pure practice. Only by combining theoretical study with practice can the Dharma be integrated into our minds; then we can spread the Dharma successfully and extensively benefit sentient beings.

So if you put termas or any other Tibetan Buddhist teaching into practice by following the traditional procedures of listening, reflecting and meditating, you’ll become a great Dharma practitioner.

That’s my talk. Thank you very much. Tashi Delek.

Question & Answer Session

Termas: Different or Similar?

Life and Study at Larung Gar

Question #1:

May I ask about Larung Gar? I wonder if you could tell us what it is like, and what are the lives of the people who live there like and what fields of study do they pursue?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Larung Gar Buddhist Academy is located in the Dharma center of Dudjom Lingpa. The academy was founded by His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche in 1980. Although to this day, unfavorable conditions sometimes still occur, we have, over time, gradually been building a Sangha of Tibetan and Chinese monks and nuns, as well as lay practitioners. They spend their time listening, reflecting and meditating on both sutras and tantras. So in Tibet, Larung Gar is generally acknowledged as an important Buddhist holy site.

Termas: Different or Similar?

Question #2:

I’ve always wanted to ask this. All the hundreds of years of termas are supposed to be suitable for each time period, special for that generation of people, but if you look, all the terma actually seem very similar. What is the difference between them?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Generally speaking, the blessing of a terma corresponds to a particular time period. However, all of the Buddhist teachings aim to dispel suffering. For example, the Four Noble Truths or the Two Truths, this is what they are all about. Nevertheless, the strength of each terma’s blessing corresponds to different eras and different tertons are prophesied for different times. Also, some tertons may rely on their aspirations to reveal terma in particular places. So terma vary according to different conditions and aspirations.

Can False Tertons Reveal Authentic Termas?

Question #3:

In the case of false termas, if there’s such a thing as a false terton, does he invent something and make it up by himself, or does he find something that is not true, and if he does find something, where does this come from?

Khenpo Sodargye:

False tertons can’t reveal genuine termas. Instead some of them create fake termas. For instance, they first find a cave and hide a buddha statue inside and then sneak away. Then they pretend to reveal it before a group. So false tertons cannot reveal genuine termas, but they can “reveal” fake ones.

Are We Allowed to Read the Termas?

Are We Allowed to Read the Termas?

Question #4:

These days you can go into a book store and find quite a few different terma teachings. I was wondering if these are in the same classification as far as being secret, or is an average person or an average practitioner permitted to read these teachings, or do they need to have special permission, initiation and transmissions?

Khenpo Sodargye:

It may be that the transmissions of some termas have vanished and no longer exist in the world, in such a case, we can read it by ourselves and chant some of the mantras contained within it, after being authorized by certain empowerments. However, to transmit a terma to other people, or to use it to give empowerment, or to teach its pith instructions to others, one should receive its own empowerment and transmission, and then further master its full meaning. Otherwise, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, which strongly emphasizes empowerment and transmission, without these conditions, you are not allowed to give these teachings. So if you have received certain empowerments and transmissions from a qualified guru, you are allowed to read the text by yourself.

Are All Tertons Emanations of Padmasambhava?

Question #5:

Are the Tertons in some way understood to be reincarnations of Padmasambhava, and is that why they are able open these things when they find such objects?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Generally, tertons are reincarnations of Padmasambhava. Some have realized the nature of mind in the presence of Padmasambhava; others have never met him, but after they had realized the nature of mind, they received prophecies of revealing terma.

Some termas were revealed before Padmasambhava left India for Tibet. For example, Nagarjuna went to the Palace of the Nagas and brought back The Hundred Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra. So it is actually a terma. Moreover, Vasubhandu and Dignaga left many termas, which were also spread widely, as is recorded in history. There are also many stories of termas mentioned in Ratna Lingpa’s Nyingma Gyubum and in The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, which was taught by the Buddha himself.

University of Colorado Boulder