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Mar 12
Tuesday

Considering the Future of the Treasure of Shambhala

Filed under Dharma Teachings, Opinion Pieces

Este artículo ha sido traducido al español aqui.

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In these heartbreaking days, while we are committed to redesign the entire structure of our community and practice, I wanted to add an element that may provide some historical perspective for our considerations.  This is not meant to in any way dictate what we decide to do; those directions will be shaped by the community input to the Process Team, and by auspicious coincidence.  Certainly, I have no idea or recommendations for the future.  But the Buddhist and Shambhala teachings are often predicated on the question of what we are to accept and what to reject.

As a student of my root guru, the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, I have tried in the decades since his passing to understand who he was and what he did.  I have puzzled over the final ten years in which he continued teaching the profound Buddhadharma, but he obviously prioritized the Shambhala teachings as chief among his heart treasures.  As a scholar-practitioner, I have witnessed how the Shambhala teachings became primary sometime after his passing, and I have increasingly understood this decision as core to the Tibetan tradition and lore of terma itself.

Terma are “discovered treasure” teachings, also known as “close transmissions,” especially associated with the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition.  They are contrasted with the Kama teachings, that are the “long transmissions” through historical lineages of greatly realized adepts like Naropa, Milarepa, and the Karmapas.  Terma teachings are called “new transmissions” because they arise without a long lineage of adepts and are destined to address the new conditions that arise throughout history in fresh and immediate ways.  The Shambhala teachings are primary among the terma teachings discovered by the Vidyadhara, the Druk Sakyong, over a series of years.

Historically speaking, there have been many terma discovered over the centuries by “treasure discoverers” (tertons) like the Vidyadhara.  Most of those terma have remained obscure, and have even disappeared, because there is more to a terma than its discovery.  Scholars have identified the prevailing historical skepticism that terma have faced within Buddhist traditions over the centuries in Tibet;  tertons have been accused of being charlatans, eccentrics, and frauds, even among the most traditional yogic practitioners.  Even the great 18th century Jigme Lingpa, discoverer of the Longchen Nyingtig, was deeply concerned with providing legitimacy for his discovery, given the skepticism of his age. The dissemination of a new terma is scrutinized closely, and terma are eventually considered legitimate only in special circumstances, such as whether they lead to palpable realization of some kind or provide clear benefit to beings in the dark age. 

Tertons have typically relied on a lineage-holder to propagate the terma, a terdak.  That is, the terton discovers the treasure, and the terdak provides commentaries and support for practice for the principal discoverer, and so the terdak is a key figure in the destiny of the treasure teachings.  Sakyong Mipham has committed his life to being the terdak of his father’s Shambhala terma.  Another key element has been the practitioners who engage in the practice, and whether they develop realization of the teachings.  In the case of societal teachings like Shambhala, a great deal depends upon the community of practitioners.

This suggests that for the first generation or two, the future of terma is most fragile and subject to scrutiny.  If the teachings do not take root, traditionally the dakinis whisk them away to the lha realm where they may remain until a future, more auspicious moment.  Certainly, the career of the terdak can influence the future of the terma, which we are witnessing in a major way in our community right now.  But also the practice and realization of this first generation of practitioners has a tremendous impact on the future of the terma.

Among some members of the Shambhala community there has been enormous bitterness about the Sakyong’s decision to make the terma central in our community, sidelining the precious Buddhadharma teachings.  I have at times felt that way myself, as I continue to hold the Buddhadharma transmissions of the Vidyadhara as central in my life.  Could it be that at least some part of the Sakyong’s decision had to do with the commitment to sustain the terma?  That is, would we as a community have explored the depth of the Shambhala terma if it had remained sidelined in our lineage?

And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma.  He has devoted the last ten years of his teaching to deepening our realization of the power of basic goodness and creating enlightened society, and many of us have felt the transformative power of those teachings.  The flourishing of Shambhala has been directly related to the power of the terma for individuals and the whole community.  I like to think that current events are the way the protectors and dralas are cleaning out our lineage’s closets and basements so that the terma can deliver on its promise.  There is no way we could or should continue with secrets that are in direct contradiction to confidence in basic goodness and enlightened society.  There is deep health in the breakdown of our damaging structures and behaviors, but whether the overall outcome will be beneficial to our community and humanity depends in part upon what we decide to do.

As we make decisions and plans for our future as a community, it is important to recognize that we are the generation of practitioners who have received the precious Shambhala teachings in the introductory curriculum, the intermediary practices, and in the advanced retreats.  The future of those teachings rests in part on how we respond to this crisis.  In my devotion to my root teacher, I wonder about this essential part of his legacy.  Can we embody the core teachings of basic goodness and enlightened society as we experience the heartbreak and make the necessary changes in our community?  Can we continue to highlight the Shambhala terma in our practices and community life?  Will the terma continue beyond this generation of Shambhala practitioners, or will it go the way of the obscure or irrelevant ones?  The Vidyadhara, the dakinis and dralas, and the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, are closely watching.

 

For further historical context, please consult:

Andreas Doctor, Tibetan Treasure Literature: Revelation, Tradition and Accomplishment in Visionary Buddhism (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2005).

Janet B. Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self:  The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1998).

Janet B. Gyatso, “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature” in Cabezón and Jackson, ed., Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996).

Tulku Thondup, Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism (London & Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1986, reprint edition 1997).

 

Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, where she is a founding faculty member.  She has been a Shambhala acharya for 19 years, and was previously Dean of the Teachers’ Academy.  She is author of Dakini’s Warm Breath (Shambhala 2001) and Meditation and the Classroom (SUNY 2010), and numerous articles and book chapters.

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