Suspicious Topical Essay - Treasure Revelation

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Suspicious Topical Essay - Treasure Revelation from the Tibetan Renaissance Seminar

Jed Verity

(Posted both here as an informal wiki and external link: in the resources section as a formal Word doc in order to preserve footnotes and THDL styles.)

It is easy to be suspicious of the treasure revelation (gter ma) phenomenon. Whether in the context of Tibet during its renaissance period or in any other time and place that has witnessed the unearthing of divinely concealed valuables, it is only through membership in the tradition that has undertaken and received the revelation, or in a culturally unspecific receptivity to the numinous, or through an academic project of cultural retrieval – it is only in these ways that we can cast aside the skepticism that looms so imposingly over the claims of the treasure revealers (gter ston). Such a dismissal is noble by intercultural and interdisciplinary standards, and yet this essay will do no such thing. Numerous publications have taken on the challenge of unearthing their own treasures from the fertile soil of treasure narratives and their milieu, and nearly a millennium of subscription to the traditions rooted in treasure texts has authenticated the phenomenon in ways that render criticism of the veracity of revealers’ claims moot and downright silly. Though the derision of earlier commentators is thus falling more and more out of fashion, this essay picks up the thread of such skeptics’ sentiments and, based on the evidence in the Blue Annals and in a number of secondary sources (including those in the first note below), attempts a more sensitive and modern presentation of a couple of suspicious dynamics.

The idea that the teachings contained within the treasure texts originated with a or the Buddha is not to be contested, at least not in a discipline such as that which fosters this essay. There is reasonable debate over whether the words of the historical figure of Siddhārtha Gautama or especially Padmasambhava found their way into treasure doctrines, but the notion that these figures in their divinized forms or any other divine figures were responsible for the original content of the texts is not addressable here. The existence of God, or even of Padmasambhava, is outside the scope of this essay.

Kapstein, in his “The Imaginal Persistence of the Empire” (2000), looks at treasure texts, especially the Maṇi Kambum (Maṇi bka’ ‘bum), from within the framework of myth. He discusses the value and truth potentiality of myth in a given community, and finds analogues in classic mythology and that of the treasure texts.

In terms of community, it is indeed clear that the treasure phenomenon was marked by an extraordinary power to unite, and that it was ostensibly designed to do so. It is attested in some of the alleged prophecies of the texts, that the treasures be ubiquitously buried so that no one party can obtain a hegemony of their revelation, and thus their unearthing will forge common ground across the land (Kapstein, 2000).

History suggests that these prophecies became reality, but only to an extent. The treasure texts were suspiciously polarizing as well. At a time of proliferating Sarma (gsar ma) religiosity and scholarship, the threat of assimilation was on the mount. Nyingma (rnying ma) groups not only refused to be folded into the wave of modern trends, but responded with the most divisive measures possible. They looked back as far as possible to contradict the claims of modernists, while formulating practices and philosophies that were post-modern. The Sarma sensibility was caged in from all sides. The rhetoric of treasure might have been embracing and uniting, but such was not the case for the execution and aftermath of its unveiling.

Kapstein’s mythology is only partially applicable as well. The origin myths of treasure texts function in the manner he suggests, but the sections dealing with revelation do not. This distinction, made by Janet Gyatso , splits treasure narratives into the categories of origin and revelation (and byang -bu), describing the stories of the treasures’ first articulation and/or planting and their eventual discovery (and their certification), respectively. While the origin is historically unverifiable, and the revelation contains some potentially mythic elements , the latter also exhibits contemporary sensibilities and descriptive text that bring it fully into the non-mythical. For example, Gyatso discusses the tendency of most revelation narratives to go to great lengths to convey the humility and ineptitude of the revealer, even while touting his great skill and achievement. This modern sensibility was a requisite wrapper for the content of the texts in order to sell their revelation as authentic.

Gyatso also describes the tension inherent in a revelation’s requirement that the revealer have great wisdom and authority, but not be suspected of authorship. This helps to explain the humility in the revelation narratives, but only augments their suspiciousness. After all, despite the cultural value placed on translation and transference of ancient wisdom, it is only in a climate of high suspicion that an accomplished and wise spiritual adept, who is otherwise seeking a sort of self-aggrandizement and communal following, would have to go to such lengths to disclaim any sort of agency in the writing of the text. This overselling is obvious also in the cautionary claims made by revealers and their retinue and in the third kind of text described by Gyatso, the byang (-bu) certificate texts. In the case of the former, a common rhetoric of revealers that dovetailed with the humility tact was a sentiment regarding the danger of pretending to be a revealer while actually being an author. The treasures are extremely powerful, and are meant for very specific people in very specific circumstances. To counterfeit a treasure would be potentially disastrous. While this cautionary appealed to angels on shoulders, and tapped into community aesthetics of moral righteousness, it also provided shelter for the devils on shoulders, permitting a counterfeiter to retreat into the indignation of the unreasonably accused in the face of morally ignorant aspersions.

The byang (-bu) certificate texts embodied much of this danger in their mandate that treasure revelation be executed by the proper people at the proper times. Given that they often detailed prophecies of revelation, the location of treasures, visions that will lead to revelation, the rituals to use to find it, and so on, all without being too explicit about the identity of the revealer, far from authenticating revealers and revelations, they functioned as litmus tests. As the contents of a certificate text were made known, people surely would have responded to the likelihood of their authenticity, especially in the hands of the certificate revealer. If the response was favorable, the revelation continued (and it had to be done immediately, for it was dangerous to have the instructions for a treasure and not reveal it – i.e. suspiciously, any show of lack of confidence at such crucial moments would lead to doubt in the community). If the response was unfavorable, it could be modified or passed on until the proper elixir of person, time, and environment was concocted, without the actual process of revelation having begun at all.

One of the most suspicious elements of treasure texts is discussed in another of Janet Gyatso’s essays, "Signs, Memory and History: A Tantric Buddhist Theory of Scriptural Transmission". This is the so-called “symbolic script of the ḍākinīs,” with which a number of the treasure doctrines were inked. Often consisting of essentially unintelligible symbols and glyphs, these texts were readable only by the proper pre-designated revealer. It goes without saying that this suggests more than the explicit interpretation that Padmasambhava needed to ensure the purity of his transmission, and goes beyond the “awesome esoterism” that Gyatso describes, to a self-aggrandizement through singularity and proprietorship. What is most surprising is that such tactics were so effective. The environment would have had to be exceptionally accommodating and oriented to esoterism, and the wisdom and creativity of the revealer would have had to be formidable indeed to construct such an authentic and unique cipher.

Going more into the content of the treasure texts, Ronald Davidson writes that "if we were to believe every statement, then the history of Tibet would be little more than a lengthy catalog of incessant warfare." This is of course the case. In fact, the content should not be viewed as much as a narrative of real or even mythologized real events as much as it should be read as an idealization of the attitude and culture of the imperial period. If the majority of treasure content in this period is looking back to a certain golden age for legitimacy, and this golden age happens to be a more warlike period, authentication can be better achieved by importing the mentality of the period into the narrative.

Just what was the nature of this imperial period? Was it as bellicose and hegemonic as it appears? Many of the accounts suggest that it was, but Gyatso (1993) also makes the point that much of our information about the imperial age comes from the treasure texts that are drawing from this period for legitimation. As a result, it is difficult to know the extent to which treasure texts manufactured or glorified the period in question to suit their own purposes. The “double-agency” that Gyatso describes, in which origin narratives prophesize the revelation narratives, which then look back to the origin narratives for validation, threaded through with both genuinely authentic and apocryphal material, protects the whole system with a bulwark of self-containment and internal consistency that is difficult to deconstruct.

There are countless other aspects of treasure revelation to be skeptical about. The relationship between a buried physical item and its corollary in the consciousness-continuum of an individual is fraught with difficulties. There is no question that real items were found, events that may even have spurred the revelation phenomenon despite the initials treasures’ possible origins in the hands of threatened, paranoid, or dead exalted kings. But it is easy to imagine that a good portion of physical items allegedly unearthed would not have survived an authenticity test involving carbon dating. Of course, the validity of a revealer’s incarnational status is highly suspect, but currently beyond the capacity of empirical measurement, which is not to discount it entirely. Furthermore, as David Germano suggested, it’s unlikely that such active and motivated groups would have confined themselves exclusively to translation and revelation over the course of multiple centuries without producing any significant original bodies of work of their own.

Beyond such obvious and large scale issues are minor ones like those mentioned above that nevertheless cast much of the tradition’s premises in doubt. In no way can or should such objections detract from the significance and legitimacy of the tradition on its own terms or on those of the whole of the history of Tibet, however. As Gyatso pointed out (1993), the historicity of all scripture has been questioned. The treasure texts are no exception. It’s just their fantastic premise and intriguing repulsion of authorship that persistently beckon our wonder and suspicion.