Everything is fake in China: Treasure-revealers, False Prophets, and the Miracle of Community Belief

fake terton post

(Not sure why this picture is so small, but hopefully at the top you can see some of the photos of the allegedly fake Golok terton Drolma Thar, on the bottom left, Pema Lingpa, and on the bottom right a pensive Jesus Christ)

Tertön གཏེར་སྟོན་ or ‘treasure revealers’ are visionary prophets or saints in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are understood to be reincarnations of the original disciples of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the Indian tantric master or ‘Second Buddha’ who established Buddhism in Tibet. Before he dissolved his 8th century physical form, Guru Rinpoche is said to have hidden various ‘treasures’ or terma གཏེར་མ་ all over Tibet and the Himalayas, with the intention that these treasures would be discovered by appointed persons at a later date. Guru Rinpoche left various treasures for safekeeping with guardian spirits in the sky, under the earth, in rocks and caves, and in the mind-streams of his closest disciples. Centuries after his time and into the present, certain individuals have claimed to have had powerful visionary experiences and past-life memories which have convinced them and others that they are reincarnations of Guru Rinpoche’s elect. Attending to these visions, insights, and memories, these individuals have been able to follow the clues to unearth treasures left specially for them across space and time by Guru Rinpoche and his partner the great female Buddha and queen Yeshe Tsogyal.

Treasures take various forms. They may be special physical objects or relics: statues, ritual implements, and so on, thought to have particular power to bless and help beings. Sometimes small scrolls written in cryptic celestial script will be discovered, which provide a basis for unlocking full gong-ter དགོངས་གཏེར་ or revelations that have been seeded in the minds of tertön, which are subsequently decoded and written down to become new, revealed scriptures. Treasure texts are considered by those who believe in them to be direct and realized transmissions from the numinous. These revelations are even sometimes said to be superior to canonical Buddhist teachings that have been passed down orally and via copying and translation from Sanskrit, for two reasons: their directness and ‘fatedness’ removes the factor of human-historical error and degeneration, and the fact of Guru Rinpoche having assigned specific treasures to specific times, people, and places means that treasures are uniquely suited to the needs, capacities and circumstances of their contemporaries.

As scholars have noted, the development of such a ‘tantric prophet’ tradition in Tibet ensured that the Tibetan Buddhist cannon remained an open one – it allowed for the fact that new scriptures ultimately ‘written’ by Buddhas could be included in the canon at any time. The terma tradition also supported the indigenizing and autonomizing of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans no longer had to look, with something of a sense of cultural inferiority, solely to India to find the teachings and teachers of their imported religion. Guru Rinpoche’s actions and prophecies ensured that Buddhist teachings and blessings were now literally contained within the land of Tibet itself, were indelibly printed on the mind-streams of Tibetans. Great Indian masters could reappear in Tibetan form in Tibet, teachings and practices uniquely pitched at Tibetan sensibilities and problems could arise when needed, without just being dismissed as heretical innovations and forgeries.

Except of course, when people did decide to dismiss treasure-revealers and treasure-revelations as fake. Much of the canon of the Nyingma or Ancient Translation school of Tibetan Buddhism is made up of revealed treasure-texts. These texts are beautifully written, and comprise complex scripture-cycles filled with teachings on meditation, medicine, ritual, song and dance, and a host of other philosophical, and magico-religious material. Still, there is a long tradition of denouncing treasure revelations in Tibet, just as there exists an equally longstanding and vigorous tradition of apologetics for their authenticity and value. Further, even ‘approved’ treasure-revealers themselves acknowledge that there have been and will be fake tertön and fake treasures.

Public skepticism surrounding tertön has a long history. Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhists have hardly been entirely credulous when it comes to dealing with self-avowed tertön. Tertön make big claims, and big claims require big evidence, and big results. Indeed, there exists an entire category of treasure revelation or tertön miracle which is geared towards responding to community suspicions: what is known as trom-ter ཁྲོམ་གཏེར་ or treasures miraculously revealed in ‘the market’, that is, in public, in front of a crowd (Community suspicion has not necessarily been helped by the fact that as part of their methods for receiving and decoding treasures tertön have often made use of tantric sexual yoga practices, which require the help of destined sexual consorts, who may be enmeshed in pre-existing social/religious obligations when a tertön happens to come into their life. Fascinatingly, too, the sizeable amount of autobiographical material we have from tertön shows that they have often struggled themselves with self-doubt and uncertainty about their own capabilities and experiences). There is an excellent story about market-treasure involving a famous Bhutanese tertön by the name of Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). Challenged by the local governor, who assembles a crowd of people as witnesses to his abilities, Pema Lingpa declares he will dive into a lake and retrieve a treasure for his audience to prove he is not a deceiving evil spirit or someone who relies on these. Lest the people think he has conveniently hidden woo-woo seeming trinkets in the lake beforehand, Pema Lingpa declares that he will enter the lake and retrieve treasures from its secret submerged cave and spirit-guardians, while holding a lit lamp throughout. If he’s the real deal, he will not only get the treasures but will return from under the lake with the lamp still burning. The deal made, Pema Lingpa strips naked, dives in, and does just that.

Tertöns’ various publics have submitted them to all kinds of challenges. Treasure-revealers have been divested of their robes, and suspended by ropes off the sides of cliffs, to extract treasures from the rock in mid-air. It’s clear that no tertön is worth much without legitimating audiences and communities. The great tertöns of established tradition are those who managed to persuade their audiences: governors, kings, high lamas and lay Buddhists, of their authenticity and turn them into patrons. When we read about fake tertön it’s usually in a general way, as a broader category or trope, a necessary foil against which genuine tertöns can position themselves. For there to be real treasure-revealers there must be fake ones. Notwithstanding a handful of hardline sectarian-types or skeptics who disavow treasure-revealers and treasures entirely, the possibility of revelation from transcendent sources remains a significant part of Buddhist theory. There have likely been a great many tertön who didn’t manage to convince their audiences, who were scorned and discredited and faded into obscurity, whose names and faces we will never learn about.

Treasure-revealers and discussions about them continue to play a role in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism. These conversations inevitably relate to broader social issues and politics. Michael Aris, a Tibetologist who was also the husband of Burmese stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi, was apparently strenuously disinvited from Bhutan for denouncing all treasure-revealers as clever (if earnest) charlatans, and differences of opinion over the legitimacy of Tibetan Buddhist religious figures cut to the heart of questions about religious authority and institutional control. Recently, videos and photos of a Tibetan treasure revealer from Pema County in Golok called Drolma Thar or Trin-nam have been doing the rounds on Tibetan social media. This evidence purports to expose Drolma Thar as a fake tertön. Now, thanks to the power of smartphones and the Internet, false prophets can be unmasked and memorialized. In the comment attached to these photos, Tsering Woeser explains how this fake tertön pretends to be pure and authentic by publicly revealing treasures, but in fact produces round stone relics not from the ultimate void of absolute reality or via dakinis, but from out of a small bag inside their clothes.

Tsering Woeser goes on to say that in order to execute their deceptions, such figures take advantage of the general publics’ lack of education and sound judgement. She compares this incident to other cases of religious trickery, and despairs at the prevalence of falsely enthroned reincarnate lamas, fake goods, falsely-labelled contaminated food, and generally fake everything in today’s China/Tibet. She notes how such deceivers and their ‘nauseating and filthy’ actions impede and do harm to authentic Buddhist teachings for Tibetans and in general.

These comments about false prophets shared online got me thinking about different kinds of community and belief. Being exposed as having used sleight-of-hand to manufacture miracles is a sure-fire way to lose community trust. But one thing that stands out for me is that, in Tibetan Buddhist and other religious contexts, the fact of prophets performing miracles alone is rarely ever actually enough to persuade their audiences to throw in with them and their novel visions or claims. Even if you’re a skeptical, rational materialist reading the synoptic gospels and suspending disbelief today, you may think that Jesus actually turning water into wine or raising the dead would have been pretty persuasive, a deal-breaker. But just like with tertön, the point wasn’t just that Jesus managed to perform miracles. Other Jews had and could perform similar if not greater feats, just as pagan sorcerers had been parting waves and reversing death for centuries. Like Pema Lingpa, Jesus was also accused of working his miracles by means of demons, and even his own mother and family was concerned for his sanity/soul (check out Mark 3:21-35, where Jesus responds to this, and also addresses the issue of exactly who the community to which he is accountable is). What mattered was that the prophet was performing their miracles under the right auspices and authority – and in Jesus’ case (and in tertöns’ cases too, one could argue), that the execution of those miracles fulfilled a set of previously prophesized and communally significant or intelligible mandates.

As mentioned above, one of the most important requirements of a genuine terma is that the teachings it contains be efficacious and useful. As it happens, terma texts are loaded with practical instructions relating to yoga, meditation, and the ritual management of disease, natural forces, and misfortune. Tibetan saints, no matter how spiritually gifted, require communities to support and develop their social ‘life’ within the community. Even authentic spiritual transmissions are useless if they can’t be taken up and run with by others. The prolific tertön Dudjom Lingpa (1835-1904) left us an autobiography filled with records of his extraordinary, personal visionary encounters with Buddhas, gods and spirits. It may sound obvious, but his spiritual diary of experiences matters most for being read and circulated – his revealed instructions matter because others have used them and have gained experiences and spiritual attainments of their own, and have then deigned to continue to pass these teachings on to yet more people. The fact of Dudjom Lingpa’s experiences alone, the whether-or-not of him having themor of them being real is less important.

Vincanne Adams has pointed out how the Tibetan verb for ‘to believe’ – ཡིད་ཆེས་བྱེད་པ་ yee chay che pa – can be glossed as ‘to amplify or to make the mind bigger’. She has reflected on how in Tibetan, as with many other languages, words for belief are etymologically less concerned with existential facts of being or non-being, and hinge more often around ideas of trust, confidence, and investment. To believe in or to have faith in something is to trust that by investing one’s focus, mind or energy in something, one will ultimately come out richer in the bargain. One’s mind will be made bigger, will be amplified and exceed its current dimensions. The fact that treasure revealers’ ultimate proof is in the pudding of their revelations’ ability to benefit their communities reminds me of the story of the 1st/2nd century Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus and the so-called Akhnai or ‘Snake Oven’ debate from the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59).

Here’s an excerpt from a Rabbi Abba Wagensberg about the story:

“There was once a debate concerning the status of an oven’s purity. It was dubbed the “Snake Oven,” due to the amount of discussion ‘coiled’ around the topic, as a snake coils around its prey. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that the oven was pure, while the other Sages argued otherwise. To prove his viewpoint, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the law is like me, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree suddenly uprooted itself and flew about the length of a football field. The Sages, unimpressed, commented that a proof of Jewish law cannot be brought from a carob tree.
Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If the law is like me, let this stream of water prove it,” at which point the stream began to flow uphill, a truly miraculous event! Again, the Sages were unmoved and stated that Jewish law could not be verified through water. So Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If the law is like me, let the walls of this study hall prove it.” Suddenly, the walls began to cave in.

Although the walls of the study hall caved inward out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they did not collapse completely, out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages, but remained at a tilt. The Sages stated that we do not bring proof for Jewish law through the walls of a Beit Midrash. And Rabbi Yehoshua, one of the Sages, exclaimed to the walls, “Why are you getting involved in a debate between the Sages?!”

With the Sages still not persuaded, Rabbi Eliezer called to Heaven to prove his opinion correct. Immediately, a heavenly voice (Bat Kol) rang out, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is like him at all times!” To protest, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and cited the verse in this week’s portion, Lo Bashamayim Hee – [Torah] is not in Heaven.” Since God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, at Mount Sinai, authority over Torah matters is here on Earth, not in Heaven!

Furthermore, since the Torah states (Exodus 23:2) that we are to rule according to the majority, that in itself is explicit proof that in the case of the oven the law was in accordance with the consensus of Sages.

Some time after this incident, Rabbi Nathan saw Elijah the Prophet and asked him how God had reacted at the conclusion of the “Snake Oven” debate. He responded that God had (metaphorically) smiled and said, “My children have been victorious over Me!””

Sometimes then, the community trumps even G-d (incidentally Eliezer was subsequently excommunicated for going against the majority and because his colleague Rabbi Akiba broke the news softly Eliezer didn’t end up using his powers to destroy the universe entirely). Indeed (at the risk of reductionism) French sociologist Emile Durkheim even went so far as to argue that ‘God’ WAS the community, that the Divine was society or the collectivity projected outwards and idealized, which its members then worshipped. Durkheim’s nephew Marcel Mauss was influenced by these ideas, and had some interesting things to say about the magician or miracle-worker’s relationship to their society. In a recent article, cultural anthropologist William Mazzarella discusses Mauss and Hubert’s ideas about belief and the magician’s indebtedness to his community. It seems to me like they provide useful points for reflecting on the dialectical relationships between charismatic figures and their publics, for thinking critically about the social dimensions of magic, ‘mystical’ experience and religious practices, without being overly reductive or dismissive about those things in the bargain:

“To begin with, the relation between the apparently inherent personal charisma of the magician and the investments and commitments of his clientele – which Mauss and Hubert term, significantly, his public – is dialectical. On the one hand, the magician appears singularly powerful in his very person. He is what Gabriel Tarde (1903 [1890]), drawing on older mesmerist terminology, called a magnetizer. Mauss and Hubert write: “His words, his gestures, his glances, even his thoughts are forces in themselves. His own person emanates influences before which nature and men, spirits and gods must give way” (Mauss 2001 [1902-03]: 41). And yet this inherence of the magician’s power turns out to be extimate: it relies on the public potentials that are external to the magician and yet actualized only through his mediation: “It is public opinion which makes the magician and creates the power he wields. Thanks to public opinion he knows everything and can do anything” (50).

Durkheim draws a rigid distinction between religion, which he understands to be an end in itself, expressive of the sui generis status of the social collective, and magic, which he characterizes as an entirely instrumental business, a means to a worldly end. In Mauss and Hubert, the relation between the instrumental/profane and the collective/sacred is more ambiguous. For them, crucially, magicians can only work their magic by “appropriating to themselves the collective forces of society” (111) – or what, in lieu of the compromised term ‘culture,’ I will call the mimetic archive. If a magician manipulates, then he is also, as Mauss and Hubert put it, “his own dupe” (118). Not only must his magnetizing work actualize potentials that dwell in “the collective forces of society,” but it also responds, whether cynically or sincerely, to an overwhelming public demand: “the magician cannot be branded as an individual working on his own for his own benefit. He is a kind of official, vested by society with authority, and it is incumbent upon the society to believe in him. […] He is serious about it because he is taken seriously, and he is taken seriously because people have need for him.”

* Tibetan Studies scholars will no doubt find Mazzarella/Mauss/Hubert’s invocation of the mesmeric term ‘magnetizer’ interesting, given the tendency to translate dbang in Tibetan as ‘magnetizing’ in the context of the las bzhi, i.e. the four categories of tantric ‘actions’ or magical/ritual processes (these are traditionally listed from most peaceful to most agressive – zhi (pacifying procedures), rgyas (expanding, increasing, or enlarging procedures), dbang (empowering, controlling, compelling or ‘magnetizing’ procedures), and the final group, which is the most violent and potentially dangerous or mis-usable, drak (wrathful, murderous procedures). The choice to render dbang as ‘magnetizing’ is of course a result of mesmerism’s influence on Western scholarly thinking and vocabularies. Dbang can also imply tantric initiation or empowerment, and through it’s links to the notion of dbang thang, a kind of personal store of charisma or authority, it connects with a much broader range of connotations and cultural and etymological histories than are encompassed by Mesmerism and early Euro-American ideas about psychosomatic medicine and trance-states. Still, it seems like, following Mazzarella, there may well be some value in unpacking the idea of the magician/mass-media exper as ‘magnetizer’ and how this concept has surfaced in different theoretical and ethnographic contexts across time. Another post, I suppose!

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One thought on “Everything is fake in China: Treasure-revealers, False Prophets, and the Miracle of Community Belief

  1. Pingback: Celebrity Shamans and the Question of Indigenous Knowledge: A Review of, and some stray Reflections on ‘Inyanga: Sarah Mashele’s Story’ | A Perfumed Skull

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