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Treasure Tradition


TREASURE TRADITION . The Treasure (gter ma ) tradition has some precedents in Indian Buddhism. One striking example is a prophecy by the Buddha in the Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra that predicts the sūtra would come to be hidden in the ground for future times when it could be propagated again. The Treasures also draw widely on a range of notions about revelation and visionary inspiration from both Indian and Chinese religions. However, as a well-defined movement with far-reaching political and cultural significance, Treasure is a distinctively Tibetan phenomenon.

Treasure-like claims can be found in the colophons of some of the early Tibetan Snying thig (Nyingthig, "Heart Sphere") scriptures, but the Treasure tradition in its full form only emerges gradually. It is common both to certain branches of Tibetan Buddhism and to the adherents of Bon, another religious tradition that has ancient roots in Tibet but that comes together as a school at around the same time as the appearance of Buddhist Treasure adherents. An early Bonpo "treasure discoverer" (gter ston ) is said to be Gshen chen Klu dga' (Shenchen Luga) of the eleventh century. A formative moment for the Buddhist Treasure tradition is to be identified in the work of Nyang ral Nyi ma 'Od zer (Nyangral Nyima Ozer, 1136c. 1204), a visionary and scholar of the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school of Tibetan Buddhism. This Treasure discoverer codified a full-length hagiography of Padmasambhava, the Indian Tantric master who is said to have been invited to the royal court in the eighth century to teach Buddhism to the Tibetans. This story included seminal passages about Padmasambhava's concealment of Treasure as part of his mission in Tibet.

Nyang ral Nyi ma 'Od zer and his hagiography of Padmasambhava are concerned primarily with the triumph of Buddhism over Tibet's older religions, especially the traditions called Bon, but the Bon tradition produced many Treasures of its own and flourished throughout the same time period that the Buddhist treasure tradition did. These Bon Treasure scriptures contain much of the same range of types of meditative and ritual practices as the Buddhist Treasures, but their narratives of the period of the royal court are told from a different perspective, focusing upon Bonpo struggles with the Buddhist faction and the persecution of Bon by the Buddhist kings. They trace the ultimate origins of Treasure teachings to the founder of the Bon religion, Gshen rab Mi bo (Shenrab Miwo), and to early Bon masters in Tibet.

In the Buddhist version of the Treasure story, the rationale for hiding Treasures is said to have been formulated when Padmasambhava discerned the future, a time when Tibetans would need special teachings to get them through certain difficult periods. He therefore designed special Buddhist practices and scriptures just for those times and proceeded to set up the circumstances for those special teachings to be revealed at just the right moment. This involved designating some of his own disciples to reveal those teachings in a future lifetime. Padmasambhava then uttered an empowering prophecy about that future revelation and proceeded to hide the teachings in a way that they would not be available until the proper prophesied moment in the future.

As the Treasure tradition develops, the manner in which Padmasambhava and other treasure concealersboth Buddhist and Bonhide these teachings comes to be distinguished into several types. The basic form of the story is that the Treasures are buried in the physical worldin, for example, the ground or a stone or a pillar. But another mode soon appears by which the concealer buries a Treasure in the memory of the future discoverer. This alternate means relying on mental processes and visionary experiences and is often said to be set into motion when the concealer transmits ritually to the future discoverer an especially impressive communication. This makes it memorable enough to be held in mind over the course of several lifetimes. In either caseof the "earth Treasures" or the "mental Treasures"the buried teaching is usually encoded in some way, often said to be a special abbreviated language or script distinctive to the ākinīs, a class of female enlightened spirits. Padmasambhava's consort and disciple Ye shes mtsho rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyal), a former Tibetan queen, is herself cast as a ākinī and served as Padmasambhava's principal helper in the effort to conceal treasure. Ye shes mtsho rgyal often is said to have been both the scribe for the Buddhist treasure teachings and their encoder.

Concealing the Treasure in code helps protect it against discovery by the wrong person at the wrong time. The other element that ensures that the Treasure reaches its correct destination in the future is the prophecy uttered at the time of the treasure's concealment. In the case of the Buddhist Treasures, these prophecies are uttered by Padmasambhava and serve to name the future discoverer and some of his (and sometimes her) circumstances, also often in coded or abbreviated form. When a discoverer in later times comes to present a teaching that is claimed to have been originally hidden as Treasure, one of the things that adds to the credibility of that claim is if the Treasure does indeed contain this prophetic utterance, with specific reference to the discoverer's name and other characteristics.

Most Treasure texts do include such prophecies as part of the narrative sections that advance the legitimacy of the Treasure itself. When one considers what Treasures are from the perspective of the discoverer, one can understand why legitimacy is such a key issue. Treasure teachings usually come in the form of texts although they can also come in the form of objects, such as ritual instruments or symbolic images. To claim that such things, be they textual or otherwise, were indeed concealed in the past for a particular purpose to be fulfilled in the present and additionally that the discoverer is a reincarnation of a person in the past specifically appointed to uncover that Treasure now requires support and evidence in order to be believed.

In fact the Treasures were regularly subject to criticism by skeptical members of most schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Partially such skepticism had to do with institutional and sectarian competition. In large part the Treasure tradition served as a vehicle for religious figures to distinguish themselves outside of the conventional monastic and academic avenues for self-advancement. But that was precisely what made them subject to doubt. This doubt is also represented in psychological and personal terms in accounts of the experiences of the discoverers themselves. In fact it is for this reason that the Treasure tradition spawned prodigious autobiographical writing throughout its history, often focused on narratives, sometimes idiosyncratic and poetic, of dreams, visions, and meditative experiences. In these experiences the visionary would make contact with the teachers of the past who had originally concealed the Treasure, such as Padmasambhava or an exalted Bon po master. The discoverers were often preoccupied with "reading the signs" of their lives, their bodies (which often included special marks and patterns on the skin), and their surroundings in order to pick up signals and evidence that would connect them with their prophecy texts and elements of a past life as a disciple of the original concealer. Once the discovers did access the actual Treasure itselfwhich often came in abbreviated form either in a dream, in a vision, or in "reality" in the form of a small scroll of paper with just a few cryptic linguistic indicationsthey would struggle with "decoding" the initial Treasure signs, a struggle that itself would have to draw on a whole range of esoteric yogic practices and skills. In short, a key part of what made the Treasures credible was just such genuine doubts and heroic struggles on the part of the visionary introducing them.

The successful effort to access Treasure material and then decode and unpack it to serve as a teaching tradition served to bolster the reputation of the discoverer himself or herself, and indeed the success of a Treasure often rode on the discoverer's charisma and personal power. But other kinds of evidence were also marshaled. In many ways it was frequently the virtues of the teachings themselvestheir ritual or soteriological efficacy, their aesthetic qualities, and their compelling narrativesthat made them believable and worthy of veneration as representations of truth and reality, that is, as teachings of an enlightened figure like Gshen rab Mi bo or Padmasambhava who served as an intermediary for primordial enlightenment itself.

In the Buddhist case, the Treasure promoters argued that their teachings should actually be considered to be originally and most basically the actual words of a buddha, on a par with other canonical Buddhist scriptures translated from Indic languages into Tibetan. Evidence of the success of these Treasure scriptures may be seen in the careers of the discoverers and the kinds of following they attracted and the communities and institutions they built. It can also be assessed in the longer term legacy: how often a given Treasure cycle was published, how often it was ritually performed. In fact there have been hundreds of Treasure discoverers introducing treasure texts and objects from the twelfth century ce to the twenty-first century. Many achieved great fame, and their works had lasting influence upon Tibetan literature, religious practices, and especially narratives about Tibet's royal past and its present religious identity. Some of the discoverers, like Klong chen pa (Longchenpa), were also scholars of the highest order. Others, such as 'Jigs med gling pa (Jigme Lingpa), introduced Treasure ritual cycles that had far-reaching popularity and influence.

It should also be noted that Treasure activity was sometimes the site of collaboration between Buddhists and Bon pos. In the nineteenth century the principal Buddhist Treasure cycles were collected by the polymath Kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas (Kongtrul Lodro Taye), himself originally a practitioner of Bon. Kong sprul worked in association with the visionary 'Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse' i dbang po (Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo) and other colleagues and codified a corpus of Buddhist Treasures in a single collection, the Rin chen gter mdzod, of over one hundred volumes. A product of the nonsectarian Ris med (Rime) movement, this collection is organized by literary genre and ritual purpose. It contains a wealth of meditation techniques, ritual actions, and descriptions of deities. It also includes key narratives about Tibet's royal dynasties, the glories of its kings, the defeat of (in this version) anti-Buddhist demons and ministers, and the process by which the Buddhism that Padmasambhava taught to the court was taken in to become Tibet's national religion. The Bon po Treasure literature was also collected, codified, and divided into two main sections that are similar to those of the more mainstream Tibetan Buddhist canon, the Kanjur and Tanjur. But unlike the Buddhist Kanjur and Tanjur, this massive Bon po collection of several hundred volumes consists almost entirely of Treasure texts. Its date of compilation is not entirely clear, but it almost certainly predated the Buddhist Rin chen gter mdzod (Repository of the precious Treasures), possibly by a few hundred years.

For both the Bonpos and Buddhists, Treasure text production constituted a way to formulate new teachings suited to particular situations and audiences while giving them an aura of authenticity, antique pedigree, and religious power. Their specifically Tibetan character is evident in both Treasure traditions. The Bon po Treasures are replete with detailed rituals and deity lore that have no analogue in India and are clearly of ancient Tibetan origin. In the Buddhist Treasures Tibetanness becomes salient in debates about canonicity, authorship, and origins. Tibetan Buddhist orthodoxy had it that all genuinely original and canon-worthy Buddhist teachings had to come from India. By tracing a Treasure's origins back to a primordial Indic buddha or buddha principle, the treasure theorists managed to have it both ways: to give the Treasure an aura of authenticity even while allowing historical Tibetan teachers to formulate new materials under the Treasure tradition's aegis. In both cases it is thus no accident that the Treasure narratives display so much concern with Tibetan history, its leaders, its invasions, its glories, and its disputes. Treasure became a venue for Tibetan religious production qua Tibetan. It eventually became a popular means to acquire spiritual charisma not just by the unconventional yogis of the Bon po and Rnying ma schools who predominated in treasure production but also among some of the more monastic communities and other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. One particularly notable example is that the powerful fifth Dalai Lama had Treasure discoveries, and other Dalai Lamas had important connections with Treasure figures.

It is not coincidental that Treasure discovery continues to be a popular means for lamas to produce teachings and gain followers inside Tibetan areas in China in the early twenty-first century. The potentially nationalist implications of the tradition have not been lost on the governmental authorities, who for the most part have enforced a ban on Treasure discovery and have imposed tight restrictions on flourishing communities that continue to grow up around such visionaries.

See Also

Bon; Dzogchen; Klong chen rab 'byams pa (Longchenpa); Kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (Kongtrul Lodro Taye); Padmasambhava; Ye shes Mtsho rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyal).


Germano, David F. "Re-membering the Dismembered Body of Tibet: The Contemporary Ter Movement in the PRC." In Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, edited by Melvyn Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Gyatso, Janet. "The Logic of Legitimation in the Tibetan Treasure Tradition." History of Religions 33, no. 1 (1993): 97134.

Gyatso, Janet. "Guru Chos-dbang's gTer 'byung chen mo : An Early Survey of the Treasure Tradition and Its Strategies in Discussing Bon Treasure." In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Sixth Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, edited by Per Kvaerne, vol. 1, pp. 275287. Oslo, 1994.

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Hanna, Span. "Vast as the Sky: The Terma Tradition in Modern Tibet." In Tantra and Popular Religion in Tibet, edited by Geoffrey Samuel, Hamish Gregor, and Elisabeth Stutchbbury, pp. 113. Delhi, 1994.

Karmay, Samten G. The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon. London, 1972.

Kvaerne, Per. "The Literature of Bon." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson, pp. 138146. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Thondup, Tulku. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism. London, 1986; reprint, Boston, 1997.

Janet Gyatso (2005)

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