Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
HISTORIES in TIBET
The Bardo Thodol and the Tibetan Terma Tradition
The Tibetan Book of the Dead was a somewhat obscure Tibetan religious text that surfaced in 1919. It was acquired in Darjeeling from a British officer stationed in northeastern India by the Theosophist and traveling religious studies scholar Walter Evans-Wentz. Evans-Wentz had previously written the 1911 thesis "The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries" at Oxford describing the folk beliefs common in Britain about the Fair Folk. But he turned to traveling and discovering the "secrets of the East" sometime after his graduation which was consistent with his Theosophical interests.
Evans-Wentz was studying Vedanta and doing meditation in India at an ashram at the time he came across the text. He worked with the translator and headmaster of a boy's school in Gangtok, Sikkim Kazi Dewa-Samdup for two months to produce the basic English text of the Bardo Thodol.
In Tibet the text might have been considered a terma (gter ma) or treasure text since its existence was obscure and probably no longer part of any current living Buddhist lineage. It therefore could have been one among thousands of texts that were created and hidden by the Indian monk Padmasambhava (and later other lamas) during his visit to Tibet in the 7th century CE. These texts were not only material scrolls but also revelations deposited in the minds of future individuals to be revealed when the time was right and the information could be understood and used properly. It is also somewhat of a mystery how it became probably the most read and commented upon Tibetan religious text in the Western world.
The text would take on a life of its own as it was published and republished with extensive commentaries in five separate editions each somewhat unique. The first publication was the 1927 edition by Evans-Wentz himself. One theory concerning its popularity was that the text fit nicely with the post World War I interest in spiritualism and the afterlife as people were curious about the the realm of the dead, and wanted to contact their relatives who had died in war using the methods of spiritualism.
The later editions had so many introductions, notes, commentaries, etc. that they comprised half of the book, and came to "overwhelm the original text". The 1957 edition with an introduction by the psychologist Carl Jung was perhaps the most popular edition.
The terma tradition filled a need for continuing revelation and a way to recover lost teachings in Tibet.
As one author describes termas,Certain schools of Buddhism developed their own way of dealing with texts that were lost accidentally due to invasions, natural disasters, mold, and insects, and texts that were destroyed deliberately by rival sects. After the chaos and civil war in ninth and early tenth century Tibet, we see a new idea to deal with the loss of sacred texts and the practices they describe, as well as the disruption of lineages. In the late tenth and eleventh centuries in Tibet, the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed the idea of termas or 'hidden treasures'. A terma may be a physical object such as a scroll or object that is buried in the ground, hidden inside a rock or crystal or tree, located deep in water, or hidden in the sky or some other locale. It is found or revealed by a terton, an inspired person. Sometimes terma refers to objects that are hidden away, and at other times the terma is an idea or teaching may appear spontaneously in the revealer's (or tertön's) mind. If the concealed object is a text, it is often said to be written in dakini writing, which only a tertön can decipher. Termas may also be found in the Bon and Kagyu traditions.This information may be helpful in understanding the basis of authority of the Bardo Thodol. Although the text was not discovered by a lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, there is a long standing tradition in Tibet of finding and reviving ancient teachings based on recovering old, forgotten, lost texts. The fact that the recovery was done by Western scholars instead of Buddhist monks does not necessarily taint or limit the validity and value of the text and its contents.
As a result of the rediscovery of some of these termas, special terma lineages arose and were established throughout Tibet. It became an alternative justification for lineage within the Nyingma tradition, and two ways of dharma transmission were developed. These were the "long oral transmission" from teacher to student in unbroken lineages of gurus and disciples, and the "short transmission" of terma.
In addition, one important criterion for identifying termas is that these texts spread and strengthen the Buddhist tradition. Based on this standard, though the text is associated with a large group of texts related to death from the older Nyingma tradition and does not derive from the more dominant Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo Thodol may be one of the more successful termas in history.
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