Early terma as found manuscripts.

In Nepal this spring, I spent a pleasant hour on a guesthouse rooftop in conversation with Dan Hirshberg, a Harvard PhD candidate. Dan has been studying the earliest biographies of Nyang ral, the great Nyingma master of the 12th century. Based on his reading of these biographies, Dan is developing the theory that the very earliest Buddhist termas (gter ma), the revealed ‘treasure texts’ for which the Nyingma school is so famous, could sometimes be based on the simple concrete recovery of actual old manuscripts. By contrast, Dan remarked, subsequent terma discovery depends more heavily on the more complex mystical processes of ‘remembering’ a teaching from a past life with which all students of terma are familiar. Unfortunately there was not time for me to hear at length how Dan himself sought to support his hypothesis, but I was able to briefly tell him that we had already found some possibly supporting evidence.

Last year, Cathy Cantwell established that a substantial component text from one of the most important early terma collections, Nyang ral’s famous Deshek Dupa (bde gshegs ‘dus pa), corresponds exactly to the Dunhuang manuscript IOL TibJ 331.III.[1] While the Dunhuang version is anonymous, Nyang ral claimed the original author of his terma was Vimalamitra, a famous Indian scholar traditionally associated with the Dzogchen teachings and held to have come to Tibet in the late 8th century, at the time of Padmasambhava and Emperor Trisongdetsen.

IOL TibJ 331.III is a text that we studied in detail some years ago, in one of our earlier projects on Dunhuang manuscripts.[2] Our earlier study established that this very same text also appears, albeit in slightly different order, as chapters 8-11 of a historically transmitted Nyingma tantra called the ‘Perfection of Activities Tantra’ (‘phrin las phun sum tshogs pa’i rgyud). In less exact replications, it also occurs in some other Nyingma tantras as well (ibid. 76-87). Clearly, this is a text with many ‘incarnations’.

Leonard van der Kuijp has established Nyang ral’s dates as 1124-1192. We know the Dunhuang texts are a lot older, and current palaeographic thinking attributes the handwriting style of IOL TibJ 331.III to the mid-tenth century, which is just before the start of the Sarma (gsar-ma) or New Translation period, and two hundred years before Nyang ral. We also know that Nyang ral was a very major scholar of the Nyingma tantras, although we do not yet know exactly which ones were studied by him or in which redactions.

What are we to make of Nyang ral’s terma discovery? Might he have extracted his terma from within the pages of canonical Nyingma tantras, such as chapters 8-11 of the ‘Perfection of Activities Tantra’? As far as we currently know, not very likely, since none of the versions we have so far found in any of the canonical tantras are as close to the Dunhuang text as is Nyang ral’s terma. According to current evidence, the most likely hypothesis is that Nyang ral found an old stand-alone manuscript corresponding to IOL TibJ 331.III, perhaps one that had been lost for some time, and put it back into circulation, supplying in the process a substantial commentary, and an attribution to Vimalamitra.

Cathy’s discovery that the text of Nyang ral’s terma existed at Dunhuang about 200 years before Nyang ral’s time raises many important questions about early terma, and about early Nyingma tantric literature as a whole. We are planning a substantial research project on these issues, all the more so since a detailed look at Nyang ral’s phurpa writings has long been on our agenda.

It is widely held within Tibetan Studies that whilst Bon terma were often simply conceived of as lost old manuscripts that eventually surfaced again, Nyingma terma are more typically associated with and largely dependent on additional visionary procedures, in which the text revealer ‘remembers’ the transmission of the teaching to him by Padmasambhava or some other great master in a past life. Clearly, as Dan Hirshberg suggested, and as some others have more tentatively suggested before him, a reliance on visionary procedures to produce the text need not always or on all occasions have been the only method. Whilst extant redactions of Nyang ral’s Deshek Dupa can contain such items as the terma punctuation mark (gter shad) and the Ḍākinī Symbolic Script (mkha’ gro brda yig), which nowadays are suggestive of the mystic processes of remembering, we must also conclude that at least one substantial stand-alone component part of the huge Deshek Dupa cycle looks like it was primarily based on a found manuscript.

In a subsequent posting, I will mention some other correspondences between Dunhuang manuscripts and Nyang ral’s writings, concerning early Nyingma traditions of Padmasambhava.

[1] Dunhuang is a Buddhist site in North Western China where a substantial library of texts was recovered intact in the early 20th century, undisturbed since their interment in the early 11th century. It contains a many manuscripts from an earlier date still.

[2] See pages 68-135 of our Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang.Vienna, The Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2008.

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15 Responses to Early terma as found manuscripts.

  1. Dan Hirshberg says:

    This sheds some much needed light into the shady spaces from which Tibetan Buddhist treasures emerged. I continue to support my views as described above, which largely are derived from close analyses of Nyang ral’s early biographies, parts of which likely originated the century after his death. I am writing a chapter on treasure recovery during the Tibetan renaissance now, so my evidence and arguments remain in process, but suffice to say that I am looking more to Bonpo materials for correlates (precedents?) of the early Buddhist treasure movement: many of the elements presented as normative, both traditionally and, more problematically, in scholarship, appear to be much later. I was very excited to hear about these findings – will look forward to the book!

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dan, your work sounds extremely interesting. I have always argued (starting from my PhD research) that the Tibetan treasure movement, even in its earliest periods, must have been something pretty complex, with many contributing factors and traditions. Maybe I will do a blog entry on this some time. Your ideas contribute a great deal towards putting together a more complete picture of this complexity – I look forward to its publication.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dan, I just want to make the clarification that I certainly do agree that the testimonies of the early biographies of Nyang ral constitute important evidence in and of themselves. Someone just emailed me wondering if I accepted the principle of using their testimonies as genuine evidence, so let me make it clear that yes, if used critically, I do see such biographies as valuable sources of evidence. It is felicitous that what Cathy has found seems to support the evidence of the biographies from an entirely independent source.

      • Dan Hirshberg says:

        Yes – it’s an important question and we need to be specific with what we mean by evidence here. While we certainly cannot confirm that the biographical episodes are as Nyang ral described them (though there are some first person accounts), the core narratives of his biographies were likely composed by direct disciples in the century after his death. They are not comprised entirely of his testimony, but they are legitimately early witnesses of the treasure movement.

  2. mike dickman says:

    ha!… innerstirring… this is an idea that’s been batting around in the back of my head, too, for some while… maybe i’d heard tell of Dan’s ideas somewhere in my not very peripatetic and somewhat concentric social circles?
    thanks for this, Rob.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Could be, Dan was in KTM when we were. In addition, people like Ron Davidson have also surmised such might have been the case, but without establishing the kind of sound evidence-based case Dan H is building up, nor any evidence like Cathy’s.

  3. Dan says:

    I’m not sure if it addresses this particular issue, but there is what looks like an interesting article about Terma by Holly Gayley of the University of Colorado here:


    After you get there you have to find and tap on the link for this:

    “Ontology of the Past and its Materialization in Tibetan Treasures.” In The Invention of Sacred Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008.

    Maybe I’ll go read it and find out what it says. If I find time in the near future!



    • Dan Hirshberg says:

      (above is not me)

      • Dan says:

        We know I’m not you, Dan!

        • Dan says:

          Dear Madam and Sir,

          I did read Holly Gayley’s article meanwhile. Not so surprised I didn’t see there any sustained discussion about whether physical writings were or were not found by the tertons. Still, in general I think it’s quite a fine essay on Treasures and would recommend it to most people. The one mentionable fault I find with it is the failure to seriously go into the Indian Buddhist materials that are suggestive of Tibetan terma practice. In particular, the bibliography is lacking what I consider one of the most important treatments of this subject by a certain person well known to all the world as Rob Mayer:

          Caskets of Treasures & Visions of Buddhas: Indic Antecedents of the Tibetan gTer-ma Tradition. IN: P. Connolly, et al., eds., Indian Insights, Luzac Oriental (London 1997), pp. 137-151.

          D.M. (not D.H.)

  4. Cathy Cantwell says:

    I wasn’t going to get involved in the discussion at this stage, given other work I am currently embroiled with. But I can’t resist, especially having noted Dan H’s query about which of Nyang ral’s Phur pa texts we are talking about… So, in response to Dan’s question, no, it is not the Nyang ral’s root Phur pa tantra in the bDe gshegs ‘dus pa, although that is itself a fascinating Phur pa text, which I have already done a bit of work on and we hope to include a study of it in the proposed Nyang ral Phur pa work. As the Tibetological geeks amongst you will know, the root bDe gshegs ‘dus pa texts were included in rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum, so we have both the NGB and the bDe gshegs ‘dus pa collections to consult. The version given in Volume 3 of the mTshams brag edition of the bDe gshegs ‘dus pa’i chos skor (see http://tbrc.org/#library_work_Object-W22247) is moreover covered with annotations which were part of the original page design (space is left for them between the words of the main text).

    To get back to Nyang ral’s version of the Dunhuang text IOL Tib.J 331(III). This is found in Volume 9 of the above mentioned edition of the bDe gshegs ‘dus pa’i chos skor (p.351-365). Its title is a rather different from that of the Dunhuang text. IOL Tib.J 331(III) gives it the title, “zhi ba’i mchog ‘pho ba’i ‘phrin las bsdus pa” (the Supreme Pacification, the Concise Enlightened Action of Transference). Nyang ral’s version is entitled, “byin rlabs phun sum tshogs pa phur pa’i sgrub pa bi ma las mdzad pa zhi ba yon tan spo ba’i cho ga” (the Perfection of Consecration Phurpa practice by Vimala, Enlightened Qualities of Pacification, the Rite of Transference), while the colophon gives the short title, “byin brlabs phun sum tshogs pa phur pa’i bsgrub thabs” (the Perfection of Consecration Phurpa Sādhana). Despite the slightly variant titles, there is no doubt that the text, start to finish, is the same. Rob comments that it is “not very likely” that Nyang ral compiled it from the ‘Phrin las phun sum tshogs pa’i rgyud (Tantra of the Perfection of Enlightened Action), which contains the whole of IOL Tib.J 331(III). I would go further and suggest – leaving aside Guru Rinpoche’s direct intervention in the case – the only possibility is that Nyang ral found the text intact. The ‘Phrin las phun sum tshogs pa’i rgyud (and still more the sections of the text found in other NGB texts) has the material in a different order, and it is integrated within the structure of a larger text. We can safely dismiss the suggestion that Nyang ral might have taken out exactly the same sections and reordered them in exactly the same way as the Dunhuang text.

    I hope that a study of Nyang ral’s version will help us to resolve our outstanding puzzles with IOL Tib.J 331(III). Nyang ral follows his text with two commentaries, the second of which is extremely detailed, and then with further related materials.


    • Rob Mayer says:

      Thanks, Cathy. One other possibility we can not totally exclude is that the whole text was preserved in yet another canonical text we don’t yet know of (we have not read them all), in which it constituted something like a single chapter, thus becoming a prime candidate for extraction. I never quite dare to say never in this business….but yes, Nyang ral finding this text as a stand-alone looks most likely.

  5. Hi to Rob & all,

    This blog and its comments are very interesting indeed — thanks!

    A tangential but perhaps interesting question is how found manuscripts have been viewed in later times. Presumably old texts — some possibly dating back to the Imperial period — have continued to show up occasionally, perhaps even into this century. Have these continued to be viewed as gter ma? Or just as “some weird old thing someone found in a cave”? If they are seen as gter ma, are they taken as-is, or used as a basis for elaboration?

    Likely, as with so much in Tibetan practice, the answer is different in different cases. Still, it would be ironic if genuine Imperial-period manuscripts were not viewed as sa gter when discovered. (And ought we not to revere Sir Aurel Stein as the greatest gter ston of all time, on that basis? 🙂

    Regarding a different thread, I would like to second the suggestion that you look into the Parry/Lord lineage of research on the composition and transmission of bardic epic. The religious context is perhaps less similar than Medieval Judaism, but there is an awful lot of detailed research and insight there. One of the basic findings is the same — that small chunks are recycled more-or-less verbatim, and the skill of a bard is in the arrangement.

    The Lumbini conference looks to be most interesting. I am developing the hypothesis that this period has significant implications for the future of Buddhism, as it appears to be the only time in which Buddhism developed in a primarily non-monastic social context. I don’t suppose there is any hope that a proceedings will be available?

    Best wishes,


    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dear David,
      Thank you for your very interesting comments. Your question about the reception of found manuscripts in later times is very relevant. A significant factor seems to be the nature of the person who finds the manuscript. The Dunhuang finds, for example, do not automatically count as terma because the people who discovered them were not Nyingmapa lamas prophesied to find treasure. Hence for many lamas they count as antiquities rather than as terma. Nevertheless, their discovery can be received within the general frame of reference of the terma tradition: one doubtful lama expressed fears that the Dunhuang texts I showed him might have been maliciously planted by wicked ministers of old, to deceive hapless persons of the future. This of course is the classic method of designating bad terma. While other lamas are much more positive about them, nowhere have I found them reverenced in the same manner as, say, the termas of Dudjom Rinpoche or Khyentse Rinpoche. I can only guess that similar conditions might have prevailed in the past: unless their finders were terton-types of people, found manuscripts might have been regarded more as antiquities rather than as termas.
      Regarding your second point: the Parry/Lord/Foley lineage is somewhat older than the modern Talmudists, and the modern Talmudists are in general informed of the Parry/Lord/Foley strand of thinking, and include it in their thinking. Some of the Hebraists are significant contributors to Oral Literature journals etc. Nevertheless, the relevance of the Parry/Lord/Foley model in this context can be overplayed. As George Fiztherbert and I agreed this week over lunch, oral epic literature such as Gesar is in important respects constructed differently to the written Dharma literature, despite having some similarities. The Gesar bard typically makes up the greater proportion of his actual words used, while the lama composing a dharma text is at the other extreme, largely relying on existing words. Even in the earliest phases of Buddhism before its commitment to writing, when it could be said to be entirely oral, it had an orality very different to the Epic model. The Buddhist bhanaka was, like his Brahmin counterpart who memorised the Veda, a walking voice recorder, not a creative bard. Mnemonics was the key, more than poetic riffing on a given structure. If you got five epic bards all reciting at once, you would not expect them to come out with the same words – it would be a cacophony. Yet even 500 bhanakas reciting together would have the purpose of reciting exactly the same words in perfect harmony. The communal recitations of modern monks are similar: they ought to, and often do, work from memory, but nowadays are backed up by texts as well. Another important difference is that Epic recitations need to be understood by their audience, and are in vernacular languages. Yet Dharma recitations are in Dharma languages that might vary considerably from the surrounding vernaculars, and so might be incomprehensible to most of the audience, and even to some of the reciters. Still, there is no doubt that the Parry/Lord/Foley model should be thoroughly considered as an important comparator. It is often through such contrasts that insights emerge.
      Yes, I think the Lumbini conference will be very interesting, and we certainly do propose to publish a proceedings. No doubt it was as you say a period in which the non-monastic tantric practitioners played an important role. Nevertheless, research by Helga Uebach, and reiterated by Ron Davidson, suggests that there was also a greater degree of institutional continuity through this period than is sometimes thought. It seems that some of the Imperial period dharma colleges did manage to continue.

  6. Bryan Phillips says:

    Just to add a bit here to a fascinating thread: I have been at work mainly on the thugs rje chen po materials of both Nyang-ral and Guru Chos-bdang, and while the latter clearly cribs from the former at times (which tells us something about how quickly certain of Nyang-ral’s terma collections came together after his passing), it seems VERY clear to me after reading Studholme’s study of the Karandhavyuha that significant aspects of Nyang-ral’s thugs rje chen po teachings could easily be construed as liberal “translations” of the Karandhavyuha into a royalist, nostalgic 12th c. Tibetan milieu. So this is a slightly different argument for the “inception” of terma, that is neither strictly material recovery, nor strictly a visionary “download” of a fully complete cycle, but perhaps a middle ground that represents creative interpolation and application. I suppose what’s at odds within the tradition would be the *source* of that creativity; is it deferred directly to Guru Rinpoche, or can great terton like Nyang-ral actively conceive a “fusion of horizons” between Indian Buddhism and their own medieval Tibetan circumstances? This question is especially interestign in Nyang-ral’s case, given that he is sort of the sine qua non for the whole dynamic of Padmasambhava prophesied terma and tertons.

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