Terma (Buddhism)

From New World Encyclopedia

Terma ("hidden treasure") refers to esoteric Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings allegedly hidden by various adepts (such as Guru Padmasambhava) for future discovery at appropriate times.[1] According to Tibetan tradition, these so-called "secret teachings" were concealed to protect Buddhism during the time of persecution under King Langdarma (838-841 C.E.). Some of these terma have supposedly been rediscovered and the person who finds a terma is called a tertön.

A terma may be an object (such as a text or ritual implement) that was buried in the ground, hidden in a rock or crystal, secreted in a herb or a tree, hidden in a lake (or water), or hidden in the sky (space). Some terma teachings are understood as being encoded within the elements, particularly æther or space. If the concealed terma is a text, it is often written in dakini script: a non-human type of code or writing.

The terma tradition is particularly prevalent in, and significant to, the Nyingma lineage. The majority of terma teachings are tantric in nature and represent "continuing revelation" in Tibetan Buddhism. In this way, termas are a form of ongoing Buddhist inspiration. In particular, Nyingma scriptures have been updated by terma discoveries in this way and special terma lineages have been established throughout Tibet as a result.


Although the terma tradition is most closely connected to Tibetan Buddhism and the Bön religion, it nevertheless has antecedents in Hinduism as well. For example, the Hindu Vaishnava saint, Caitanya, supposedly rediscovered a fragment of the Brahma Samhita during a trance state of devotional ecstacy showing that hidden teaching are not unique to Tibet.

Additionally, in Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna allegedly rediscovered the last part of the "Prajnaparamita-Sutra in the realm of naga, where it is said to have been kept since the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

The discovery of terma in Tibet allegedly began with the first tertön, Sangye Lama (1000–1080). The foremost revealers of these terma were the Five Terton Kings and the Eight Lingpas. In the nineteenth century some of the most famous were the Khen Kong Chok Sum; referring to Jamyang Khyentse, Jamgon Kongtrul and Chokgyur Lingpa Five of them were widely recognized as very important ones and called the five terton kings:

  • Nyang Ral Nyima Özer (1124-1192)
  • Guru Chökyi Wangchuk (1212-1270)
  • Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405)
  • Pema Lingpa (1445/50-1521)
  • Padma Ösel Do-ngak Lingpa (Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo) (1820-1892)

Other Tertön of outstanding importance were Nyangral Nyima Oser (1124–1192), Guru Chowang (1212–1270), Rigdzin Godem (1307–1408), Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), Migyur Dorje (1645–1667), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Orgyen Chokyur Lingpa (1829–1870). Two of the most famous tertön in the twentieth century, Dudjom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, were of the Nyingma school.

Many tertön are considered incarnations of the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava. However, it is noted that those who discover Terms have particular characteristics:

"One of the special requirements for the discovery of termas is the inspiration of the feminine principle, just as it was necessary for their concealment. The great majority of tertön's have been men, and generally they are accompanied by their wives or female companions (who need not necessarily have a sexual relationship with them). Alternatively, something representing the tertön's complementary energy, whether male or female, must be present."[2]A vast system of transmission lineages developed.

Out of this activity developed two ways of dharma transmission: The so called "long oral transmission" from teacher to student in unbroken disciplic lineages and the "short transmission" of terma.

Types of Terma

According to tradition, there are two kinds of termas: earth treasures and mind treasures:

"A teaching concealed as an intention treasure appears directly within the mind of the tertön in the form of sounds or letters to fulfill the enlightened intention of Padmakara. Earth treasures include not only texts, but also sacred images, ritual instruments, and medicinal substances, and are found in many places: temples, monuments, statues, mountains, rocks, trees, lakes, and even the sky. In the case of texts, they are not, as one might imagine, ordinary books that can be read straightaway. Occasionally, full-length texts are found, but they are usually fragmentary, sometimes consisting of only a word or two, and they are encoded in symbolic script, which may change mysteriously and often disappears completely once it has been transcribed. They are simply the material supports that act as a trigger to help the tertön reach the subtle level of mind where the teaching has really been concealed. It is the tertön who actually composes and writes down the resulting text, and so may be considered its author."[3]

The earth-terma are physical objects—which may be either an actual text, or physical objects that trigger a recollection of the teaching. The mind-terma are constituted by space and are placed via guru-transmission, or realizations achieved in meditation which connect the practitioner directly with the essential content of the teaching in one simultaneous experience. Once this has occurred, the tertön holds the complete teaching in mind and is required by convention to transcribe the terma twice from memory (if of textual nature) in one uninterrupted session. The transcriptions are then compared and if no discrepancy or inconsistency is evident, the terma is sealed as authentic. The tertön is required to realize the essence of the terma prior to formal transmission.

In one sense, all terma may be considered as mind-terma as the teaching associated is always inserted in the mind the practitioner, in other words the terma is always a direct mindstream transmission from the vidyadhara. The terma may also be held in the mindstream of the tertön and realised in a future incarnation at a beneficent time. A vision of a syllable or symbol may leaven the realization of the latent terma in the mindstream of the tertön. The process of hiding in the mindstream implies that the practitioner is to gain realization in that life. At the time of terma concealment, a prophecy is generally made concerning the circumstances in which the teaching will be re-accessed. Especially in the case of an earth-terma, this usually includes a description of locality, and may specify certain ritual tools or objects which are required to be present, and the identities of any assistants and consorts who are required to accompany or assist the tertön.

Though somewhat contentious, the kind of revealed teaching embodied in the terma system is based in solid Mahayana Buddhist traditions. The example of Nagarjuna is often cited; the Prajnaparamita teachings are traditionally said to have been conferred on Nagarjuna by the King of the nagas, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake. Similarly, the Six Treatise of Asanga are considered to have been conferred on him by the Buddha Maitreya, whom he visited in Tushita heaven during a vision.

Prominent Terma cycles

One of the most famous terma known throughout the world is a text popularly (but incorrectly) known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The correct title is Bardo Thodol, Liberation by Hearing in the State of Bardo. As a set of funerary texts and practices, it had a very specialized utility. Among other famous terma cycles are:

  • Longchen Nyingtig (Heart Essence of Longchenpa). Another well-known Dzogchen cycle of texts, was revealed to tertön Jigme Lingpa in the eighteenth century.
  • Rinchen Terdzod (Precious Treasures). Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, and Chogyur Dechen Lingpa assembled thousands of Terma treasure texts from the Nyingma tradition all across Tibet, creating the 108 volumes of the Rinchen Terdzod.
  • Jangter (Wylie: Byang gTer, Northern Treatures) revealed by Rigdzin Godem. Features the prominent sub-cycle, the Konchok Chidu revealed by the terton Jatson Nyingpo and widely practiced in Kagyu lineages as well.
  • Chokling Tersar (New Treasures) revealed by Chogyur Dechen Lingpa.

Minor Terma cycles

  • Nam Cho (Space Treasures) transmissions and empowerments are considered the heart transmission specific to the Palyul Lineage. These teachings were revealed as terma to the seventeenth-century Terton, Migyur Dorje, and were expanded upon by his root teacher, Karma Chagme Rinpoche (the great Kagyu master).
  • Dudjom Tersar encompasses all the terma revelations of Dudjom Rinpoche in the 19th century.


  1. Guru Padmasambhava predicted that in the future hundreds of tertons would spread his teachings. Fremantle states, "...termas are not always made public right away. The conditions may not be right; people may not yet be ready for them; and further instructions may need to be revealed to clarify their meaning. Often, the tertön himself [sic.] has to practice them for many years." See Fremantle (2001, p. 19)
  2. Fremantle 2001, p. 19
  3. Fremantle 2001, p. 17. Note that Padmakara in this text is another name of Padmasambhava.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fremantle, Francesca. 2001. Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-57062-450-X
  • Low, James. 2006. Being Guru Rinpoche: A Commentary on Nuden Dorje's Terma Vidyadhara Guru Sadhana. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 978-1412084079
  • Rinpoche, Tulku Thondrup. 1986. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 978-0861710416
  • Thondup, Tulku. 1997. Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 978-0861711222


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