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ARE THE TREASURES AUTHENTIC?

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It did not take long from the first major Treasure revelations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries before skeptics from rivaling Buddhist schools began questioning their authenticity.74 The appearance of the Treasures coincided with the second wave of Indian Buddhist import to Tibet from the tenth to

fourteenth centuries. At this time, as the texts and practices of the New Schools (gsar ma) and the older Nyingma tradition became increasingly measured against one another, tensions often ran high as the life-giving favors of the political and financial establishment were perceived to be intimately linked

to publicly demonstrating the supremacy of one’s own religious tradition at the expense of others. The New Schools primarily sought to establish themselves by emphasizing the Indian origin of their texts—an origin the Nyingma School had difficulty proving, in part due to the long time span since its textual

import from India in the eighth and ninth centuries. As a verifiable Indian origin became the central measure for authenticating Buddhist scripture in Tibet, the texts and practices of the Nyingma School were quickly disclaimed as Tibetan forgeries and interpolations. Even so, the approach to validation

propagated by the New Schools was never rigorously applied internally and would occasionally be suspended with if seen to conflict with the inherited textual corpus of the New Schools themselves.75 Nevertheless, as this new-found standard of evaluation became increasingly normative in the Tibetan discourse on authenticity, the stage was quickly set for a polemical confrontation over the validity of the Treasures.


Traditional Polemics The lack of mention of the Treasures in outside sources until the thirteenth century tells us that in terms of adherents and political influence the Treasure tradition must have been a relatively minor movement at least until the time of Nyangral Nyima Özer in the second half of the twelfth century. During the first half of the thirteenth century, however, with the appearance of polemical works denouncing Treasure revelation we may assume that

the tradition had gained momentum through the revelations of Nyangral Nyima Özer and Guru Chöwang—the two most prominent figures among the early Treasure revealers. The earliest known critique of Treasure revelation is by the scholar and polemicist Chak Lotsāwa Chöje Pal (1197-1265), who advanced his

criticism of the Treasures as part of a general complaint against practices and scriptures circulating in Tibet that he perceived to be spurious in nature.76 Having argued at length against the general teachings of the Nyingma School he concludes this section of the text with a critique of the Treasures and Guru Chöwang, concerning whom he remarks:


At the time when Samye Monastery was being constructed Guru Padmasambhava arrived from India and vanquished false teachings. Then, having made a few auspicious connections by accepting students, he returned to India. Later, Pekar, a Gyalpo spirit, entered the body of a Nepalese known as Kakarudzin. He

put on a meditation hat, placed feathers in it and put on a brocade cloak. He then went to Samye where he declared himself to be Padmasambhava and taught innumerable perverted teachings and thereafter these numerous wrong teachings spread. The many false teachings were then manipulated by the one known as Guru Chöwang who became possessed when a Radza spirit entered him after telling him that they were Treasure texts. Subsequently, nāgas, demons, and

Gyalgong spirits gathered around his false teachings which resulted in outbreaks of leprosy and psychotic fits. These were then taken as his signs of accomplishment. Such texts that appear from Treasures are not authentic. 77 There were other thinkers of this period, such as Jigten Gönpo (11431217),78 Sakya Paòçita (1182-1251), and possibly even Butön (12901364),79 who, like Chak Lotsāwa, saw it fit to issue warnings against the Treasures. In a text attributed to the famed scholar Butön Rinchen Drub the author seems to agree with Chak Lotsāwa’s assessment of Guru Chöwang and comments:


Such false teachings, pretending to be the words of [[[Padmasambhava]]], Were presented as Treasure revelations by Chöwang who was under the influence of demons. Thereby numerous incorrect teachings were put into writing Leading many beings down the wrong path.80 He also says:

Likewise, each and everywhere, Any region has a false Treasure. Once revealed, they now spread in all directions. Still, although they are obviously false teachings, The inhabitants of the Snowy Land perceive them to be true.81

Even so, the main objection of the early polemics seems to have been a concern that the Treasures were false Tibetan compositions devoid of spiritual continuity with Buddhist India. Sakya Paòçita, in his Differentiation of the Three Precepts, offers the following remarks: There are scriptures that emerge from Treasures, Traditions that have been copied from elsewhere, Teachings that are written, teachings that are dreamt, And traditions that were memorized.


If you pursue the lineage of these back to Vajradhara Or even receive their transmission from others It will of course go against the dharma— But it will also negate our own tradition.82

Although the condemnation of the Treasures was often categorical and determined, the early skeptical writings generally offer little historical, philosophical, or philological deduction to support the critique. This did not, however, prevent these writings from becoming standard models for subsequent condemnations of the Treasures by the New Schools. Thus, two centuries following the critiques of Sapaò and the other early polemicists, the Treasure apologist Ratna Lingpa sums up the skeptical arguments in the following manner:


Treasure Revelation


There are some ghostly and sectarian people…who criticize the Treasures. They say that the Treasures are false and never were concealed. Even if the Treasures should happen to be genuine, they will say that they are earth teachings, stone teachings, and wooden teachings as they were concealed in earth, rocks, water, and so forth. Yet other people claim that if the Treasures had been concealed at the time of Urgyen Padma during the early spread of the

teaching they would have turned to dust by now. Therefore, since they are still intact, it is claimed that we deceptively hide and discover them ourselves. Still others say that the Treasures are controversial, have little success, and only benefit others slightly while yet other people say that the oral transmission of the Treasures is broken as they do not have an oral lineage. They call them “teachings that burst forth” because it is claimed they have no spoken transmission or empowerment.


Being a Treasure revealer himself, one should of course not uncritically accept Ratna Lingpa’s characterization of the skeptical positions as he would have no interest in making this critique appear any more sensible than necessary. Nevertheless, his description of the criticism does indicate that, until the fifteenth century, the critique of the Treasures had developed only slightly from its early formulations quoted above. Furthermore, this hermeneutical

status quo appears to have continued into the following centuries as well, as the polemical literature increasingly ossified around previous positions. Thus, the arguments set forth by the Gelugpa scholar Sumpa Khenpo (1704-1788) in the eighteenth century remain by and large identical to the critique advanced during the early days. Although the Treasure revealers are no longer portrayed as possessed by demons, Sumpa Khenpo still suggests that the

Treasures are best avoided as they are composed by charlatans wishing to deceive the public. Characteristic of the polemical literature, both skeptical and apologetic, Sumpa Khenpo states his position in no uncertain terms but offers no actual arguments in support of his view.84 This has been noted by Kapstein who quite rightly remarks:

We should not lose sight of the fact that scholarship consists not of merely arriving at conclusions, but also of justifying them. Sumpa Khenpo doubts the authenticity of the Testimonial Record of Padmasambhava and of the Maòi Kambum, but never does he give us a detailed and critical account of his reasons for harboring those doubts. This being so, the correctness of his position is anything but self-evident.85


Despite the assumptive nature of the skeptical critiques, the Nyingma School clearly felt a need to defend its revelations and, rather than stoically ignoring the criticism, it soon composed a series of vigorous and spirited rebuttals of the charges brought forth against the Treasures. Among the various

apologetical writings of the Nyingma School, the most detailed works related to Treasure revelation are the two Treasure chronicles by Guru Chöwang and Ratna Lingpa.86 Since the main principles of Guru Chöwang’s arguments have already been mentioned above, and as they have also been discussed in some detail elsewhere,87 we shall here focus primarily on Ratna Lingpa’s Treasure defense. At first glance, the two chronicles resemble each other as both

authors are concerned with demonstrating commonalities between the Treasures and the generally accepted Indian Mahāyāna canons, though Ratna Lingpa’s Treasure chronicle is both longer and more detailed. The primary theme throughout this treatise is an attempt to situate the revelatory activity of the Treasures firmly within mainstream Mahāyāna Buddhism. Like Chöwang, Ratna Lingpa claims that Treasures are not only religious texts and objects revealed in Tibet but include anything meaningful that previously has been concealed, in actuality as well as figuratively, from the perception of sentient beings. This may include, but is not restricted to, the Buddha’s teaching. Ratna Lingpa defines a Treasure in the following words:

It is a Treasure because it is concealed. It is a Treasure because it is hidden. It is a Treasure because it is inexhaustible. It is a Treasure because it fulfills needs and wishes.88

A significant aspect of this wide definition is, however, inevitably defined as the Buddha’s teaching, which, according to both Treasure chronicles, was repeatedly concealed and revealed in India as the archetypal example of a Buddhist Treasure. Having included the generally accepted Buddhist canons within the Treasure phenomenon, Ratna Lingpa concludes that Tibetan Treasure revelation represents no new form of spiritual transmission; in fact it merely continues an already well-established tradition of scriptural revelation in Buddhism. Having argued at length for the equation of accepted Indian scripture

with the Treasures of the Nyingma School, Ratna Lingpa devotes his fifth and last chapter to a point-by-point rebuttal of particular objections to the Treasures, defending them against the claims that they are fake, originate in the outer elements, could not have survived into the present, are mistrusted, unpopular and of little benefit, devoid of spiritual lineages, and emerge at random.89 Regarding the first claim that the Treasures are essentially

fraudulent and therefore inherently unworthy of respect, Ratna Lingpa asks a rhetorical question. If the Treasures were not authentic, he says, how could one account for the prevalence of self-appearing Treasure statues, hidden Treasure valleys, the numerous accomplished masters in the Treasure lineages, and the abundant riches that appear from the Treasures of wealth?90 This argument is of course dubious as a skeptic would question the authenticity of such phenomena no less than that of the Treasures themselves and, as such, Ratna Lingpa’s refutation appears rather analogous to the skeptical approach to

polemics witnessed above.91 Considering the question of the general authenticity of the Treasures settled, Ratna Lingpa continues his rejoinder by attacking the critique that the Treasures emerge from the five elements. The textual matrix for this rather odd objection seems to be the Manual of the Single Intent by Jigten Gönpo, which says:

There are some who would have it that teachings (chos) without lineages and earth teachings (sa chos), sky teachings (gnam chos), gter-ma [i.e. Treasures] and so on are profound and miraculous. But we hold that the teaching transmitted through a lineage is [truly] profound and miraculous.92


However, as we can see, Jigten Gönpo’s concern is not that the Treasures issue from the five elements but rather that they emerge without an established lineage. Thus, if taken as a direct reply to Jigten Gönpo’s critique, Ratna Lingpa’s response would partially misconstrue the original argument. We cannot, however, exclude the possibility that Ratna Lingpa addresses a derogatory oral tradition, which dismisses the Treasures as “earth teachings” and so forth

without the underlying hermeneutics of Jigten Gönpo. In any case, whether addressing an actual or a fictive critique, Ratna Lingpa argues that the Buddha himself was composed of physical elements and so was his speech. Furthermore, he notes, since the various precious substances involved in writing, such as gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, etc., all are extracted from


the earth, that would make any written text an earth teaching; using ink would make it a water teaching; while moving the hand freely through space when writing would make it a space teaching.93 Proceeding, Ratna Lingpa argues in a similar fashion against several other seemingly minor objections before he turns to the more serious accusation that the Treasures lack an unbroken spiritual continuity and thus have lost their transformative power and relevance.94 Ratna Lingpa addresses this charge by arguing that the Treasure revealers already have received full spiritual transmission at the feet of Padmasambhava himself in their past existence. In this view, Padmasambhava came to Tibet as an already fully enlightened Buddha and conferred all relevant empowerments and oral transmissions on his Tibetan disciples, the discoverers to be. Only then were the Treasures concealed along with instructions to reveal them in the future. At the appropriate times the revealers then locate the Treasures based on preliminary Treasure guides (kha byang), also concealed by Padmasambhava, that mark the exact location of each Treasure. Still, even though the revealer will thus already have received the complete transmission to the relevant Treasure, to awaken this past karmic imprint, he must enter a period of private appropriation of the Treasure in which he meets Padmasambhava in actuality, vision, or dream. This meeting will then restore the recollection of the past empowerments, prophecies, and oral transmissions. In Ratna Lingpa’s view, the allegation that the Treasures possess no spiritual continuity is therefore without any merit and, citing a Treasure prophecy by Padmasambhava, he admonishes his readers to pay no more attention to the skeptical charges than a deer is concerned with the sound of a running stream.95 Finally, Ratna Lingpa rebuts the concern that Treasures suddenly appear out of the blue—a phenomenon derogatorily described as

“teachings bursting forth” (rdol chos). This rebuttal is reminiscent of the one just witnessed in that both are concerned with demonstrating an unbroken spiritual continuity for the Treasures. Here Ratna Lingpa argues that the Buddhist teaching likewise originally “burst forth” from the realization of the Buddha and was transmitted in a line of masters in whose minds realization similarly appeared instantaneously. Therefore, the entire Buddhist teaching,

according to Ratna Lingpa, has been transmitted in a process identical to the sudden appearance of the Treasures.96 In this way, Ratna Lingpa considers the challenge to the Treasures’ authenticity effectively reversed and concludes his Treasure chronicle. There is, however, little reason to believe that Ratna Lingpa’s arguments actually ever succeeded in persuading any number of skeptics of the spiritual validity of the Treasures. On the contrary, it seems that

the attempts by Treasure apologetics to argue that Treasure revelation is an integral part of mainstream Buddhism—or rather, that mainstream Buddhism is Treasure revelation—fell on deaf ears as critics continued to advance their objections in much the same manner of the early centuries.97 Thus, the exchange of views came to a hermeneutical halt, and as late as the nineteenth century, we find Jamgön Kongtrul defending the Treasures with essentially the arguments of Guru Chöwang against criticisms not unlike those advanced by Chak Lotsāwa.98 We have witnessed here some traditional attempts to argue the deceitful

nature of the Treasures and followed the subsequent replies to this critique by the followers of the Nyingma School. We have also noticed how a number of basically unconvincing arguments, advanced by skeptics and apologists alike, remained surprisingly stagnant over the centuries and, on the whole, failed to effect any significant change of opinion on either side of the religious divide. Surely, the perceived need by Tibetan scholars to follow established party lines and adhere to positions already formulated by the founders of their respective traditions must have inhibited the vitality of the Treasure debate

considerably. Nevertheless, the inherent difficulty of determining the validity of claims of revelation per se no doubt also contributed to this situation. Let us now look closer at this issue and try to gauge its effect on the way that the Treasures have been perceived in the West. The Occidental Adoption Although Tibetan attempts to bridge the divide between the skeptic and the devotee generally are few and far between, their influence cannot be dismissed offhand. The famed master of the Nyingma School, Ju Mipham (1846-1912), whose views on Treasure revelation we shall consider

below, was not the first author to seek broader perspectives outside the traditional dichotomy of right and wrong. One such previous writer was Tsele Natsog Rangdrol (b. 1608), a yogin-scholar of the Kagyu and Nyingma Schools, who in discussing the Treasures of Urgyen Lingpa, acknowledges the value of certain skeptical arguments.99 Although Tsele fundamentally agrees with the traditional position that Treasure revelation should be appreciated in reference to an a-temporal transcendent realm in which enlightened manifestations can appear in any shape or form, he also concedes that spiritual fraud disguised as genuine revelation is a real and likely possibility. He remarks:


Although the main part of [the two versions of the Chronicle of Padmasambhava] surely is the words of the Great Master, obviously some uneducated and foolish people have interpolated them with colloquial terms and phrases of their invention. Similarly, the famous Five Chronicles are unmistakenly a [[[Treasure]]] by Orgyen Lingpa. However, no matter how you examine the verbiage and meaning, it is unlike authentic [[[Treasure]]] teachings. For example, the

assertion that Guru Rinpoche had a son and the predictions of people who later appeared I personally find implausible. The various versions of [the Chronicle of Padmasambhava] are for the most part comprised of the teachings of Master Padmasambhava. Of course they possess great blessings, but it is simply hard for me to regard them as reliable historical sources.100


Although Tsele offers no further philological elaboration on his assertions, he clearly sympathizes with the concerns that the veracity of certain revealed accounts was questionable. Critique of religious revelation claiming authoritative origins is not tied exclusively to Treasure revelation but represents a religious and philosophical tension in Buddhism as old as the tradition itself. In India, a number of early Buddhist communities seem to have shown little

interest in limiting authentication to mere historical analysis, and instead validated scripture based on soteriological value—an approach that gave rise to a most fertile climate for the emergence and institutionalization of religious scripture.101 Still, even in this rather liberal intellectual climate, the authenticity of new scriptural traditions never went fully uncontested and frequently met with skeptics advocating a more conservative approach based

on historical realist verification.102 The Nyingma School defended its Treasures within a framework of soteriologically validated authenticity but in the origin accounts of the Treasures simultaneously narrated a complex account of transmission and revelation, seemingly unfolding within historical time. The apparent conflict between advancing soteriological defenses of the Treasures, while still including historical elements in origin narratives, has been

interpreted by some as demonstrating the Nyingma School’s concern to maintain historical credentials for its Treasures in a Tibetan religious society demanding so.103 While this explanation no doubt contains an element of truth, it is, however, not fully satisfying when considering how the historical claims in the origin accounts often became the particular targets of criticism, and instead of raising the validity and


respect given to Treasures, these claims became some of the most discredited features in the entire literature of the Nyingma School.104 Demonstrating a firm historical identity for one’s scriptural tradition surely concerned all the religious schools of Tibet; that the Tibetan canon was compiled on such criteria is evidence to this effect. However, the origin accounts of the Treasures are perhaps better seen as religious elements internal to the tradition

rather than as tools to convince a skeptical antagonist in the outside community as, although no one could have been surprised that the historical claims advanced in the Treasures would meet with a skeptical reaction, Treasure revealers continued unabatedly to root their revelations in the legends of the Yarlung dynasty. It seems therefore fair to assume that the historical claims of the Treasure literature were advanced, not in the hope that outside skeptics would abandon their disbelief and become Treasure adherents, but rather as a means for internal communication that traced the origin of the

Treasures to a matrix of internally accepted religious authorities.105 In this way the Nyingma School included these historical narratives as a way to demonstrate, internally, the legendary origin of the tradition to its followers—knowing that these very claims would be viewed by its rival Tibetan schools as res odiosa.106 As we noted above, the historical claims advanced in the Treasure literature probably never persuaded many skeptical Tibetans to embrace this tradition while, on the other hand, the followers of the Nyingma School already would have been inclined to accept, a priori, the general principles

of Treasure revelation even in the absence of such legends. This in turn indicates that the authority granting authenticity to Treasure revelation, even internally, must be identified only outside of these historical narratives. Treasure literature frequently states that the historical claims are told to “engender confidence” (nges shes skye pa) in the Treasure. However, this confidence is generated, not in a skeptic intrinsically inclined to question the value of the Treasure but in a devotee who has already fundamentally accepted the basic principles involved in Treasure revelation. In this way the

historical accounts in the Treasure literature retain only marginal influence for establishing the authenticity of the Treasure compared to other more basic, less philosophical factors, such as the political, financial, and religious support extended to the Treasure revealer by the local elite, combined with the revealer’s own ability to magnetize an audience through a charismatic personality. Based on such basal factors a final authentication of the Treasures can then be granted by a broader community of followers. Only then, once a teaching has been accepted within this fundamental validating framework, can the historical narratives come to the fore


and fulfill their purpose of imbuing the insider with respect and veneration for the Treasure’s exalted origin. A related issue is the difficulty of evaluating historical claims when little actual material exists from which to derive conclusions. For the overwhelming majority of earth Treasure revelations, the only extant physical evidence linking the Treasure to antiquity is the so-called yellow scroll (shog ser) from which the Treasure

manifests in the psychic vision of its revealer.107 In the case of the later mind Treasures, however, no physical evidence whatsoever exists, as the entire revelatory process occurs exclusively within the mind of the revealer.108 In either case, the actual revelation of the Treasure is predominantly a mnemonic process that leaves little or no historical material from which to judge a potential relation to eighth century dynastic Tibet. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that the Nyingma School did not embrace the association of the Treasures with the dynastic period according to the principles of

realist historical interpretations, but consistently emphasized the lack of intrinsic existence of time and matter, which allowed for an abstract philosophical approach to such legends.109 Although the Treasure transmission eventually sees itself elaborately attached to an “historical reality,” it emerges so thoroughly saturated by the events of the realization lineage of the conquerors that any subsequent historical claims simply cannot be separated from this noumenal reality and taken at face value. Therefore, to assert that the Treasure legends were composed primarily as counterevidence to charges of

forgery, and that a primary defense strategy was to link Treasures to a Buddha of the Indian Buddhist world, partially misrepresents the intent behind the historical narratives.110 Although the Treasures do emphasize the role of the Indian master Padmasambhava and his Tibetan disciples in the transmission accounts, the primary function of these historical descriptions is to provide an origin account for the Treasure teachings rather than attempting to convert outside skeptics. The Treasure teachings repeatedly emphasize their roots in the transcendent, and the buddha of the origin account is not always a

buddha figure connected geographically to India but rather to the principle of enlightenment itself. In fact, the Nyingma School has often deemphasized the historical link of its canonical scriptures to India. Consider Dudjom Rinpoche’s remarks: None the less, some jealous persons created discord by, for example, declaring that certain of the ancient tantra had been composed in Tibet because they did not exist in India. However the non existence of those tantras in India did not prove them to be inauthentic. Even the tantras which did exist in India did not originate there: they were brought forth by great accomplished masters from the domains of the gods, nāgas, yakøas, çākinīs and so on…and later they were introduced to India.111 Acknowledging the a-historical framework in which they appear allows us to fully appreciate the historical claims found in the Treasures, and to consider

the religious purposes that such narratives fulfill as spiritual links, neither fully mundane nor completely beyond, between the practitioner of the Treasures and the transcendent ultimate from which these revelations flow. As we have seen, even though the body of polemical literature continued to grow, the basic arguments presented by the two opposing parties remained disproportionately static, and the Treasures were repeatedly presented either as true and genuine revelations or conning schemes of trickery. If we consider the link that existed in Tibet between acknowledged possession of scriptural

authority and concrete political survival, it is of course understandable that most commentators showed little interest in searching for a middle ground in validating the Treasures. What is surprising, however, is the tendency in a number of Western studies to adopt the very same dialectical parameters metered out by the Tibetan tradition.112 For example, Michael Aris, in his well-known study of the Treasure revealer Pema Lingpa, repeatedly debunks this figure as a spiritual charlatan but offers little evidence for his assertion.113 Finally, perhaps sensing that his reader might not yet be fully convinced, Aris advances the following exhortation:

Most important of all, many of Pemalingpa’s contemporaries were of the opinion that he was basically a fraud. If they, with the radical and brilliant skeptic Drukpa Kunley among them, not to mention the “reformed” Gelukpa school, were capable of holding that view, then surely the rational and critical scholars of the twentieth century can do so too.114

Aris never explains why a rational and critical scholar should accept the evaluations of Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), “the madman” (smyon pa) as he was also known, whose eccentric views and behavior challenged virtually all established figures and institutions, and those of his fifteenth century Gelugpa contemporaries, well-known for their skepticism toward the Nyingma School,


as evidence to Pema Lingpa’s spiritual authenticity. It seems clearer, however, that he has appropriated a politicized Tibetan agenda to argue a personal conviction that has not otherwise been convincingly established.115 Not everyone has been skeptical of the Treasure revelations of the Nyingma School and Aris in fact makes a point of criticizing several scholars for presenting charitable views of the Treasures.116 However, generally the passages in question

consist of minor remarks and tend to be less definitive in their evaluations of the Treasures. Still, like the skeptical positions, they generally offer little rationale for the way that views are assumed and judgment passed.117 Now, considering that to the Nyingma School the very being of the Treasures per se defies historical pin-pointing, it becomes clear that the question of authenticity beckons a much broader methodological approach than that which

traditional polemicists previously have employed. I have argued above that, in spite of the numerous historical claims associated with Treasure discovery, their ultimate authentication rests on their acceptance, first by established religious authorities, and next by a broader community of devotees. However, fully appreciating this approach to Treasure validation requires us to suspend our notions of veracity as measured in purely historical terms and instead

to engage with the Treasures as revelatory products. This implies appreciating them as scripture rather than text.118 Within the field of Buddhist studies this approach has been rare but a similar methodological hesitation can be identified in other branches of religious studies. In an insightful study Cantwell Smith has argued that scripture (and the authentication that makes it so) is created from a process of human interactions rather than historical

verification.119 Smith suggests that the academic emphasis on historical methodologies is a strategy created by scholars trying to avoid the hermeneutical challenges posed by the diversity of religions and the variety of interpretations of their beliefs. He categorizes this scholarly reluctance to engage with the notion of scripture as “academic fundamentalism” that refuses to acknowledge value in other traditions or interpretations. Then, as an encouragement to

appreciate religious writings in broader ways, he sets forth the following proposition: Fundamental, we suggest, to a new understanding of scripture is the recognition that no text is a scripture in itself and as such. People—a given community—make a text into scripture, or keep it a scripture: by treating it in a certain way. I suggest: scripture is a human activity.120


In this way, Smith points out the simple truth that texts are transformed into scripture only through the validation process of a devotional community. As for Treasure validation, this suggests the fruitlessness of measuring scriptural authenticity merely with the yardstick of historicity, as scripture

functions and exists in a realm beyond the measurable. Thus, Smith’s statement is an invitation to expand the methodological horizon and look for alternative avenues for exploring the Treasures when perceived as scripture rather than as scrolls. Although both traditional and modern studies of Treasures often omit such alternatives, it would be premature to pronounce the entirety of Tibetan Treasure hermeneutics as caught up in polarized debates

of right and wrong. In fact, we have the existence of a fascinating late nineteenth century composition to indicate otherwise. Mipham’s View: A New Hermeneutics? The text in question belongs to the Treasure tradition and discusses the identity, not of the Treasures, but of the visionaries who claim to have uncovered them. Previous scholarship in this area is sparse and little information on the Treasure revealers is available.

This text, entitled Gem that Clears the Waters: An Investigation of Treasure Revealers, is composed by the renowned nineteenth-century master of the Nyingma School Ju Mipham.121 It is more concise than many other works by Mipham, yet it is an excellent source of information on Treasure revealers and questions of their validity. Right from the outset, Mipham acknowledges that the Treasure tradition, to which he himself belonged, contains certain

fraudulent elements who exploit the good faith of devotees by posing as genuine Treasure revealers.122 In this way Mipham does position himself within the traditional polemical framework of right and wrong, and he certainly writes hoping to expose those who unjustly pose as genuine visionary masters. However, in the course of writing, Mipham also touches on a number of issues of intrinsic interest for the study of the Treasure tradition that differentiate his text from the standard presentations of the saint–fraud dichotomy so often found in Tibetan polemical writings on this topic. Mipham diverts from his usual

scholastic writing style and presents a lively critique, full of both humor and sternness, of spiritual fraud in the name of Treasure revelation. His thoughts on this subject are noteworthy for several reasons. Most important, they are a rare acknowledgement that the issue of authenticity is more complex and warrants deeper methodological consider


ation than the standard polemical evaluations would have us believe. Second, as a critique of the Treasure revealing community from within the tradition itself, it provides important insights into the challenges the Nyingma School faced in curbing what appears to have been a widespread presence of deceit in the name of Treasure revelation. This insider’s challenge to the authenticity of proclaimed revealers indicates the difficulty the Nyingma School experienced

in maintaining a clean name and reputation in the public perception. Perhaps Mipham felt that this type of challenge would be difficult to address effectively in an environment of traditional philosophical discourse and that by adopting a more colloquial and direct style of writing he could better address the issue in a straightforward manner that would prove comprehensible to both commoners and scholars alike. Acknowledging the polemical nature of the text, the editors of Mipham’s collected works placed it adjacent to his famous replies to Gelugpa criticism of his controversial Bodhisattvacāryāvatāra

commentary.123 According to the brief colophon, it was composed “suddenly as it came to mind,”124 and its style and language convey a sense of freshness and directness rarely encountered in classical Tibetan literature. The text contains no opening verses of praise or prayer and immediately tackles the issue at hand in a straightforward manner free from distracting philosophical sophistications. The fact that this is not an “ordinary” scholastic composition makes it all the more intriguing and fascinating as a window into the Treasure tradition, as Mipham speaks from his heart and addresses the

culprits directly in a way that hits home much more effectively than would the elegant prose style for which he is otherwise so well known. Mipham’s homeland of eastern Tibet was generally inclined towards a charitable view of the Treasure tradition, so Mipham is not obliged to defend the tradition’s basic premises. Instead he can concentrate on weeding out negative elements within the Treasure culture. In this process, he commences by characterizing the false revealers and then proceeds to evaluate the damage they inflict. Toward the end of his analysis, he offers devotees suggestions on how to identify

such imposters. Mipham’s admission that charlatans exist within the ranks of Treasure revealers indicates that even the Nyingma School’s east Tibetan heartland must have harbored significant public concern that not all revelations could be trusted. Previous studies have for the most part described criticism of the Treasure tradition as stemming from scholars outside the Nyingma School, but Mipham makes it clear that the issue of authenticity was a concern for the Nyingma School as much as for


anyone else. In fact, he urges its followers to take the outsiders’ critique to heart and calls it "nectar-like advice."125 Although Mipham admits to the falsity of certain Treasure revelations, we should not therefore conclude that he generally finds Treasure revelations suspect or spurious. Rather, his goal is to expose the false revealers and expel them from the community so that the inspired lives of genuine Treasure revealing masters can shine unblemished

by public mistrust brought on by frauds and imposters. Clearly a level of public criticism of the Treasure revealers existed at the time. The internal controversies over the compilation of the Store of Precious Treasures126 would no doubt have contributed to the tattered image of the tradition, but the misgivings Mipham addresses here seem to have been rooted in a more fundamental and widespread suspicion among the general populace. Mipham acknowledges this mistrust, and speaks to the frauds as follows:


Hey Treasure revealers! Although all inhabitants of the Snowy Land claim to have heartfelt interest and trust in Guru Padmasambhava, they do feel weary seeing the deceit of liars claiming to be Treasure revealers…so stop lessening the fortune of those who have trust in Padmasambhava.127


Later, Mipham supports this statement by quoting from Urgyen Lingpa’s Chronicle of Padmasambhava, which says “except for dead dogs, anything is revealed as Treasure,”128 referring, in Mipham's interpretation, to weariness with random objects being presented by imposters as religious artifacts blessed by saints in a bygone dynastic era. The scholarly establishment of the Nyingma School seems to have viewed so-called “new Treasures” (gter gsar) with a certain

measure of skepticism while referring to the “older Treasures” (gter rnying) as genuinely authentic and worthy of practice. The idea that past things are better, of course, reflects a universal concern in matters of religion that spans all cultures and regions.129 Nevertheless, given that Treasures in their

very being represent an endorsement of spiritual and religious innovation, it is fascinating to find Mipham extolling this principle. He makes it clear on several occasions that he prefers the older Treasures and hails such early figures as Nyangral Nyima Özer, Guru Chöwang, Rigdzin Gödem (1337-1408), Ratna Lingpa (1403-78), and Karma Lingpa (1326-?) as authentic masters whose Treasures can be followed with confidence.130

Likely, many masters within the Nyingma School were concerned that emerging revelations would include some works of charlatans. As for Mipham, how does he characterize such frauds? He makes no attempt to conceal his disdain for those who deceivingly claim to possess the spiritual qualities required for Treasure revelation. He describes these people as power hungry individuals who will do anything to achieve the fame and economic benefits afforded genuine spiritual masters. In a lively blend of prose and poetry he exposes the many tricks that such individuals employ to gain their desired goals. According to Mipham, these goals are dominated by the wish for fame and wealth and their coveted byproducts. Lamenting the prevalence of such desires, he exclaims: When examining closely those who announce Treasure teachings, they wish for fame, look for wealth, and search for women and so place hope in their Treasures with expectations burning like fire. How rare are those free from lies and deceit!131 These of course are not novel themes in the life of a fraud, but their mention in this text is intriguing as it offers a glimpse into the culture and

politics surrounding the Treasure tradition and its revelatory output. As Mipham introduces the schemes of the false revealers we hear of practices such as inserting the names of wealthy people into the preceding prophetic inventory (byang bu) of the Treasure, lobbying spiritual authorities for recognition,

declaring beautiful women as religious emanations especially suited for partnership, and the common Tibetan (and perhaps universal?) practice of denouncing all adversaries as deceitful demons.132 The predictable result is that the community’s faith is shaken and decreases. Mipham deplores this state of affairs

and speaks directly to the imposters in an attempt to change their crooked ways. In addressing the false revealers he adopts a common Tibetan strategy in communicating with obstacle makers by first issuing a polite request followed by a wrathful threat of the unpleasant consequences of non-compliance. He first

appeals to the moral conscience of the false revealers by reminding them of the destabilizing effect they have by causing the faithful to question the entire Treasure tradition, thereby severing the connection to the liberating instructions of Padmasambhava. For those who ignore such requests, Mipham then issues a warning of the dire karmic consequences awaiting such liars when, in future existences, they will find their tongues transformed into plows employed for farming. Thus, Mipham

reminds the false revealers that there are severe consequences to all parties when someone falsely assumes the mantle of a spiritual adept. Despite Mipham’s lively account of the imposters and their unfortunate effect on the Treasure tradition, the issue of definitively determining the authenticity of such figures has not yet been resolved, and one is still left wondering what to do about the Treasure revealers and their claims. Since Tibetan religious history is amply filled with accounts of respected saints behaving in highly unconventional ways, the roguish actions described above cannot in themselves constitute any final measure for conclusively identifying a fraud. Although the ways of the charlatans appear deplorable by any standard, evaluations based on mere behavioral observation therefore seem insufficient. At the very end of his essay, however, Mipham proposes a measure by which one can, in his view,

finally settle the question of authenticity. The text’s concluding verse suggests that: If you should ever feel doubt in this regard, it is best to resolve this hesitance in the presence of a powerful person.133 This simple advice points directly to the fact that although the Treasure community is plagued by a group of deceitful charlatans behaving in outlandish

ways, ultimately there is no verifiable evidence to aid the devotee in distinguishing deplorable frauds from those beings lauded by Mipham as authentic compassionate masters. Naturally, the lifestyle of a fraud would be predictably short-lived if it did not outwardly resemble its object of imitation, but the real reason that makes the two groups so difficult to distinguish is that both parties identify the source for their discovery in the mental visions of

the revealer, thus suspending the availability of the kind of verifiable evidence on which people ordinarily rely when assessing claims of origin. Mipham’s suggestion that only a spiritually powerful person can determine the validity of the Treasure revealers is an acknowledgment that evaluations based exclusively on historical premises or observations of behavioral conduct will fail to provide any final and definitive answers. According to Mipham,

ultimately it is only the spiritual intuition (i.e. the mastery of supramundane knowledge that perceives the minds of others) of authoritative leaders that can validate the claims of the Treasure revealers. On what grounds can he say this? To answer this we must first look at some of the ways in which Treasure revealers traditionally emerged as successful visionaries in Tibet.


The religio-political realities of nineteenth century east Tibet where Mipham lived were to a large extent governed by the mechanics of a feudal-like society in which major decisions were taken by a relatively small and exclusive financial, political, and religious elite. In such a society any suggestion of delegation of authority to the masses would certainly not have been encouraged, if even conceived of. Thus, an aspiring Treasure revealer would often

ascend to fame only through active endorsements by the established regional powers.134 In theory (and certainly rhetorically), this support would be extended based on a recognition of certain spiritual qualities in the Treasure revealer whereby his revelations, by extension, would be considered endowed with the liberating potency of a genuine Treasure. In reality this process was of course open to the negotiations of spiritual or political intrigue, and the outcome not always a given. Nevertheless, although such social and economic realities had a real and lasting influence on the way the Treasure tradition

developed and flourished, one must also consider other more diffuse elements to the validation of the Treasure revealer such as the influence of his personal charisma and magnetism, and his ability to fulfill both the practical and spiritual needs of the general populace. Although political and religious connections often could go a long way in advancing a given Treasure revealer’s career, Tibetan history is also rich in examples of charismatic visionaries rising to prominence primarily through the strength of their personal magnetism, only subsequently to be aided by established authorities. This latter

factor, while more vague and hard to pinpoint than political backing, seems to have been one of the key ingredients in the success of the Treasure tradition, and would occasionally provide a validating capacity rivaling even that of the religious and political establishment. Regardless of whether Treasure revealers ascended to fame primarily through the support of a religio-political power base or via their personal magnetizing qualities ultimately they would have to persuade a broader public—monastic and lay—of the value of their Treasures so that they could be adopted into a general social religious

framework. Considering the hierarchical structure of traditional Tibetan religious society, much of this communal adaptation would certainly have occurred almost by default simply through the type of authoritative adherence that Mipham prescribes. Although it is doubtful whether any ordinary follower of the tradition ever felt blessed with a real mandate to validate the spiritual leaders of the Nyingma School, one should not disregard the influence of the collective devotional following in authenticating religious figures such as the Treasure revealers. Regardless of their charisma or political


support, the Treasure revealers would eventually have to sustain and fulfill the needs of a faithful audience through their revelations. Not only in the short term by providing an attractive novelty, but also by establishing over time the value of their revelations to Buddhist practitioners by demonstrating such Treasures to be a reliable medium for spiritual growth and fulfillment for those who embrace them. The process through which a devotee of the Treasure

tradition can arrive at a final conclusion regarding the validity of a given Treasure revealer does, as Mipham points out, not include any foolproof checklist of outwardly observed characteristics. Mipham’s solution to this problem is an appeal to authority; a move that in the traditional Buddhist

context has long precedence in the practice of relying on the matured wisdom of spiritual elders. In the context of finding authenticity as an insider within a tradition dominated by revelatory activity, Mipham’s advice therefore constitutes a traditional but also quite pragmatic approach to validation. Implicit in his advice, however, is the deeper consequence that to invest a spiritual teacher with full authority each devotee is ultimately forced to

perform a validation based on a leap of faith. In the absence of any empirically verifiable modes of evaluation, Mipham suggests that the doubtful should rely on “a powerful person” in matters of authenticity, but, of course, identifying such an authority must eventually be performed on similarly faithful

grounds as the initial evaluation of the Treasure revealer takes place.135 Significantly, the validating onus thus returns to the individual devotee who is required, in the final analysis, to form a personal judgment of the Treasure revealer based on the strength of faith rather than any tangible and verifiable evidence of his credentials or the simple endorsement of a religious or political elite. Recognizing that the final authenticating measures for Treasure revelation lie beyond what can be objectively verified, it appears a less rewarding exercise to perpetuate a debate of the Treasures along a simplified framework of true or false. Instead, looking beyond the traditional saint–charlatan paradigm may allow for other more rewarding perspectives for studying this fascinating literature that would enrich our understanding of the philosophical and hermeneutical value of this unique Buddhist tradition. To

acknowledge the influence of the community—a community that is, of course, composed of faithful individuals—in authenticating scripture does not necessarily entail a failure to critically examine the religious claims of the Treasure tradition. Rather, this understanding allows us to engage with the Treasure revealers and their texts in a manner free from the confines of methodologies tainted by the influence


of religious politics. In this way we may explore with fresh eyes the intricate drama that unfolds when religious claims, inspired saints, deceitful frauds, and Tibetan politics all come together in the complex phenomenon of Treasure revelation. Although Mipham is firm in his denunciation of fake

revealers, we may today, while not abandoning careful philological and historical evaluations of individual Treasure scriptures, modify and soften the rhetoric that so often accompanies Treasure evaluations in Tibet and the West by acknowledging that what makes a visionary a saint or transforms a revelation into scripture is indeed a complex interplay of many factors, among which the faith and intuition of the devoted community plays no small or insignificant part.




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