Explanation Of The Rinchen Terzod
The Rinchen Terzod (the Precious Treasury of Terma) is one of the most sacred and important sets of transmissions of
the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. In the Nyingma, or Early Translation School, great masters such as Guru
Rinpoche, Vimalamitra, and Vairotsana, among others, gave teachings which were concealed during their own time and
later discovered by eminent masters who came between the 11th and 19th centuries.
late 19th century, in an effort to save these precious works from permanent obscurity, they were collected into the
Rinchen Terzod, comprised of 64 volumes of Tibetan text. This collection was described by the 15th Gyalwang Karmapa
as "the quintessence of the ocean-like teachings of the [Awakened Ones], the profound [collection of the Awareness
Holders] of the Early Translation School."
The empowerment rituals of the Rinchen Terzod are rarely
performed, as they take 3-6 months to complete; this cycle of empowerments has only been given once before in the
Western world, by Kyabje Penor Rinpoche in 1988.
The Subject of the Rinchen Terzod
generally considered that Padmasambhava, known familiarly to Tibetan Buddhists as Guru Rinpoche, was the primary
Indian master responsible for establishing Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. Other major figures who
contributed, especially to the establishment of the innermost teachings of the Buddha known as the Vajrayana, were
another Indian master named Vimalamitra and the Tibetan translator Vairochana. In addition, Guru Rinpoche had 25
greatly accomplished disciples, among whom was Tibet's king, Trisong Deutsen, and a woman considered to be the
foremost of these 25, Yeshe Tsogyal.
Tibetan Buddhist religious history tells us that Guru Rinpoche, with
enlightened foresight, understood that there were many teachings that would benefit future generations more than the
people of his own time. Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal together concealed these teachings, along with many sacred
objects, in various places throughout Tibet. Guru Rinpoche then taught his 25 disciples particular aspirational
prayers to be recited so that in future incarnations they would discover these teachings at the appropriately
From Sangye Lama in the 11th century up to the present day, the discoverers of these
teachings have been known as tertöns —treasure revealers. The teachings and sacred objects that they
discovered are known as terma—treasures. It is these terma, generally unique to the Nyingma school, that form
the subject of the Rinchen Terzod.
How the Rinchen Terzod was Compiled
In the 19th
century, three great masters who would be directly responsible for the Rinchen Terzod were born in eastern Tibet:
Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870), and Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye. Jamyang
Khyentse Wangpo and Chokgyur Lingpa became treasure revealers of wide renown. Jamgon Kongtrul was a heart disciple
of both of these lamas, and received all of their treasure teachings as well as many more.
became alarmed by the possibility of many of the profound terma, especially the older ones, being lost to this
world. At first he gathered many of them into a 10-volume collection known as the Small Precious Treasury. Asking
his teacher Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo about putting together a larger collection of as many of the extant terma as
possible, it was agreed this was a crucial task, and Jamgon Kongtrul the one to perform it. Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
even rediscovered some of the lost teachings and entrusted them to Jamgon Kongtrul, along with the injunction that
he should gather as many of the others as he could. The importance of this endeavor was further confirmed in a
letter to Jamgon Kongtrul from Chokgyur Lingpa, saying he had had a direct vision of Guru Rinpoche who told him to
give his own terma appropriately, and that Jamgon Kongtrul was the right recipient.
With both of his
teachers' blessings, Jamgon Kongtrul devoted much of the rest of his life to creating the Rinchen Terzod. Patiently
undergoing great hardship, Jamgon Kongtrul traveled all over Tibet. He himself received the necessary empowerments
and reading transmissions for the various terma from contemporary lineage holders, as well as collecting copies of
the texts. When completed, the Rinchen Terzod totaled 64 volumes of terma from a wide range of treasure
The Purpose of Compiling the Rinchen Terzod
Through the 1000-year history of
the terma teachings in Tibet, there was a tendency for practitioners to focus on the terma which had been more
recently discovered. Thus, the practice of some of the profound, older terma had gone into decline. In some cases,
their lineages had been lost altogether. Additionally, some terma teachings had been discovered and were practiced
in very remote, lightly populated regions of Tibet, and for this reason were under threat of extinction.
As a result of Jamgon Kongtrul's great efforts to assemble all of these terma into the Rinchen Terzod, many of
Tibetan Buddhism's highest teaching cycles were safeguarded from disappearing altogether, and preserved for the
benefit of future generations of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.
Additional Information about Terma
According to traditional explanation, a brief description of terma (the "treasure
teachings" of Tibetan Buddhism) consists of five categories:
1. The identification of terma;
lineage of terma teachings;
3. The categorization of terma;
4. The clarification of misunderstandings
about terma, and;
5. The purpose of terma.
The Identification of Terma
meaning of ter is "inexhaustible." Certain accomplished masters, with great wisdom and compassion for future
generations, were said to have the power to seal into invisibility profound teachings, ritual objects, and valuable
substances until the propitious time for their rediscovery. The authentic terma are thought to provide special
blessings due to their unbroken lineage, pure origins, unchanged words, and perfect meanings.
in Tibet, terma are mostly associated with Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), the Indian master credited with
establishing Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. With his spiritual consort and foremost disciple Yeshe Tsogyal,
he traveled throughout Tibet to conceal terma. In general, it is said that he concealed 108 major terma, 1000 minor
terma, and innumerable others scattered across the Tibetan plateau.
The discoverers of these terma are
always incarnations of one of Guru Rinpoche's 25 most accomplished disciples, who made specific aspirational prayers
just for this purpose. Three of the earliest tertöns were Sangye Lama (1000-1080), Nyangral Nyima Oser
(1124-1192) and Guru Chowang (1212-1270). The phenomenon of terma revelation, transmission, and practice has
continued until the present day. Such cycles of revelation, appearing as very fresh, pure methods to swiftly
accomplish supreme enlightenment, are known as the Close Lineage of Treasures.
The Lineage of Terma
In Buddhist cosmology, our present era is known as a degenerate time. In such a time, enlightenment teachings can be
subject to the interpolation of contradictory instructions, impure practice, and other interference throughout the
generations such that they lose their potency or effectiveness, or the lineage becomes lost altogether.
The terma teachings are Guru Rinpoche's uniquely skillful method for counteracting the degenerate times. Their
periodic arising ensures that efficient techniques for experiencing the true nature of mind beyond suffering, with
the full strength of their blessings intact, are always available to sentient beings seeking to liberate themselves
Depending on how they are counted, there are six, seven, or nine methods for transmitting
terma lineages. The first three—Mind-to-Mind, Symbolic Indication, and Aural Transmission—make up the
first three, and when The Secret Entrustment of the Dakinis, The Bestowal of Empowerment Along with Aspiration, and
The Yellow Parchment Word Transmission are added, this makes six. If this last is eliminated, and the Transmission
of Spiritual Connection and The Blessed Transmission of Experience are added, this becomes seven. Adding an addition
two—The Unadorned Aural Lineage and The Practice of the Four-fold Activities Transmission—are folded in,
this makes nine methods of terma transmission altogether.
The Categorization of Terma
is said that in reality there are innumerable kinds of terma with techniques for liberating innumerable sentient
beings with their various mental dispositions. For the sake of expediency, however, the following general categories
of terma teachings are named:
1. Terma categorized according to place— Terma caches revealed from
the earth, rocks, mountains, cliffs, lakes, and so on are known as earth terma; the texts mystically concealed in
space and appearing at a particular time to the destined master are called space terma; those which spontaneously
arise in the clear light mind of a master's perfect meditative stability are called mind terma; and those which
appear in the visionary experience of an undeluded and purified mind are called pure vision terma.
Terma categorized according to its nature— The teachings that reveal the vast and profound qualities of the
Buddha's doctrine and its commentaries are called dharma terma; those that are in the form of rare and precious
objects are called valuable terma; and those which consist of nectar, medicine, and so forth are called terma of
3. Terma categorized according to the means of revelation— The treasures that are
revealed in absolute secrecy are called secret terma; those which are revealed in front of others are called public
4. Terma categorized according to its main theme— Treasures which present a complete path for
attaining perfect Buddhahood are called major terma; those which present methods for more minor accomplishments are
called minor terma.
5. Terma categorized according to its direction— There are some treasures which
have a symbolic correlation according to direction: the ripened eastern treasure of fruit, the integrated southern
treasure of the stem, the radiant western treasure of the flower, the dispersed northern treasure of the branches,
and the deeply-rooted treasure of the center. Others such as those which contain instructions on the practice of the
Three Roots are called root terma; those presenting such practices as Guru Yoga or Avalokiteshvara sadhanas, or pith
instructions on the highest methods of Dzogpa Chenpo, are called fruit terma; and there are myriad other inner
sub-divisions of terma.
The Clarification of Misconceptions About Terma There are some who
criticize the terma teachings as just a mental fabrication of the Tibetans, and claim as their reason that no Indian
antecedents can be found. Such is not the case, however, as there are many examples from India.
Jampel Shenyen concealed all the oral teachings of tantric essence under the huge rock sealed on top by a crossed
vajra to the northeast of Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya), India. Likewise, The Sutra on the Five Aggregates was concealed
within the Pedra Retra Stupa. Once, while the Brahmin Demed Legnang was accompanying the Buddha along the way, there
arose different sounds and lights from a protrusion of soil on the old stupa. The Buddha with his eyes full of tears
prostrated and circumambulated it. When Vajrapani asked him about it, he said that there is the treasure of the
The Chinese version of the Lankavatara Sutra says that Madoepa, the King of Nagas, offered
a conch shell to the Buddha, which was handed over to Maudgalyana with the command that he conceal it as a treasure
at Mount Gogpa. There are numerous other examples.
Other criticism states that treasure teachings are not
mentioned in either the Buddha's teaching or in the commentarial canon. This is also false. The All Surpassing Merit
Gathering of the Concentrative Sutra reads, "Jampel, the four elements arise from the sky treasure. Likewise, all
the virtuous teachings arise from the heart of the Buddha. Hence, make use of this treasure's purpose."
Further, The Concise Tantra of Supreme Bliss says:
"Tantras and the king of tantras—
Will extract from the treasury and bestow."
Some persist in denying the validity of the
treasure teachings, saying they are only found in the Nyingma tradition and not present in the newer traditions. On
the contrary, we can find examples such as the Wrathful Mantra of Fourteen Syllables, which was revealed as a
treasure in India by the translator Rinchen Dak, contained in the thirteen well-known golden volumes of the
Sakyapas. Also, the great Master Tsongkhapa revealed the treasure of The Two Masks of Chogyal, and The Conch Shell,
which was prophesied in the Chinese version of the Lankavatara Sutra. It's possible to find examples of terma in all
Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including from the Fifth Dalai Lama.
The Purpose of Terma
the many reasons for the concealment and rediscovery of terma, the sublime master of the 18th century, Jigme Lingpa,
highlights four: "...to maintain the doctrine's continuity, to avoid corrupted instructions, to keep the blessings
intact, and to keep the lineage closer to the origin of the teachings."
Furthermore, the profound
treasures upon their mere revelation are said to radiate blessings in the immediate area such that the strength of
nonvirtue declines, virtue increases, and there is pacification of seasonal calamities, disease, famine, war, and so
forth. The terma also clear the obstacles to longevity, and hindrances to the activities of the doctrine holders. In
brief, they benefit everyone by enhancing the teachings, wealth, sacred substances, etc., and give rise to the
four-fold liberation. Even at the end of this degenerate era, when the Vinaya doctrine of the sutras disappears, the
secret tantric teachings of Vajrayana will still be propagated. Their continuity will cause vast benevolent
activities to lead all the untamable beings to perfect liberation.
From the words of Guru Rinpoche:
"The terma will be the final doctrine to maintain the teachings in the degenerate era."
It is said that
the liberating activities of the profound terma will not cease until the advent of Buddha Maitreya's teachings.
The Benefits of Receiving Empowerments
An authentic Vajra Master bestows empowerments by conducting a
perfect ceremony for faithful and devoted disciples. Those recipients with sharp faculties realize the ultimate
wisdom of the empowerment upon the mere bestowal; the mediocre ones begin experiencing wisdom; and those with
inferior faculties develop mere understanding. Through tilling, hard, fallow ground can become soft earth, and then,
by planting a seed and assembling the conditions of manure, heat, and moisture, slowly the sprout will grow until
finally the fruit ripens. In the same way, disciples who previously lacked the ability to develop their qualities,
like the hard, barren ground, are purified by empowerment, becoming suitable for the planting and growth of the
seeds of the four kayas. In this case, the conditions are the exertions of effort on the path of generation and
completion stage meditation related to that empowerment. Through this effort, with every single moment, grasping to
the three doors [of body speech, and mind] and to their distinctness (which make four altogether), and obstructions
such as karma, afflictions, and cognitive habitual tendencies, the four temporary obstructions, and so forth, are
all gradually purified. The nature of the four paths of learning, the thirty-seven aspects of enlightenment, the ten
perfections, and the two accumulations (of merit and wisdom)—intensified by the two stages of generation and
completion'gradually develop. Finally, the four vajras of body, speech, mind, and wisdom; the four kayas; and other
inherent qualities become evident as one is freed from obscurations and actualizes fruition.
As stated in
The Condensed Sutra of Anuyoga:
The great magnanimous victor
Who emerged from the three indivisible
adorned with the ocean of wisdom—
[That state] will be obtained in this very life.
Particularly, the importance of the empowerment for accomplishing the path of secret tantra is explained in The
Luminous Essence, a commentary to the Guhyagarbha Tantra: "Briefly, the empowerment is the first and only door to
the path of Vajrayana; it is a dynamic method that dominates the practice and the fruition. Relying upon this, the
view of Vajrayana will arise in our mental continuum. Through practice in accordance with the view, one achieves
capability in the vajra-conduct."
The empowerment makes the sadhana practice, offerings, activity,
recitation of mantra, and gesture of mudra meaningful, and through it we obtain the samaya vows. Therefore, the
empowerment is like the source of all. It is like the king who promotes one to ever greater positions. Each and
every Vajrayana teaching is dependent upon empowerment.
In the ultimate reality, there is no bestowing and
no receiving because the nature of all phenomena is the perfection of the Dharmakaya. With this realization, the
self-awareness empowerment is simultaneously actualized, consummating all empowerments.
The Faults of
Not Receiving Empowerments
The Tantra of Unions says:
Not having engaged in the mandala,
The samayas being abandoned,
And without knowing the secret reality,
Although practiced, it would
And the Tantra of the Buddha's Skull says:
Like a childless home
desolate by a mere death,
Likewise, when separated from the empowerment,
One will be devoid of all
wisdom. Like a guitar,
If stringless, cannot be sounded,
Likewise, without empowerment,
meditation will not be of any use.
Editorial Committee, Ngagyur
Nyingma Institute. Brief
Rinchen Terzod explicacion en español.