Tib., gTer-ma: Mother Treasure

A name for so-called "treasures" in the form of hidden teachings, texts or objects; intended to be re-discovered at a future time by a terton.

gter shad The icon shown at left is the Tibetan symbol known as Tershad (gter shad),indicating that a given text belongs to this class of literature.

According to the Vajrayana tradition, such texts were most often prepared, sealed and hidden by Padmasambhava and/or Yeshe Tsogyal during the time that Buddhism, after a relatively short flowering, was threatened and outlawed in Tibet. In this sense, independent of the following classification, terma is an early, Tibetan concept of what contemporary speech refers to as a 'time-capsule', hidden for the sake of future generations. At times, a teaching was thus hidden not for reasons of persecution, but because certain teachings were judged too advanced for the then living.

Going into more detail, terma are classified into different types, depending on the method of discovery:

In both these last cases (2 and 3), the revelation and its subsequent publication knows several stages. First, the terton receives the terma (during a sexual ritual) in an esoteric "Twilight Language" (Skt., sandhyabhasa) or "Dakini Cipher" (Tib., mkhai' gro'i brda yig).

Next, he or she again utilizes (sexually induced) visionary lucidity in order to translate/transliterate the revealed text into legible language. Third, both the vision and the generated text are presented to one's guru/lama and, in due course (which may take years), to one's peers and the lay public in general. Only if all parties - guru, peers and a substantial number of lay people - accept and embrace the new and/or renewed vision and version of the teachings, does the terma become part of the generally accepted tradition. In this case, the terton becomes an honored and respected teacher - otherwise he/she is publicly labeled/exposed as a treacherous charlatan.

For examples of terma, see the following works and text collections:
Bardo Thödol, The Secret Autobiography of Yeshe Tsogyal, Khandro Nyingtig, Longchen Nyingtig, Padma Kathang, Rinchen Terzod.


Tulku Thondup: Hidden Teachings of Tibet
Janet Gyatso: Apparitions of the Self