Keeping the Faith Alive: The Tertön as Mythological Innovator in the Tibetan Treasure Tradition

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Matthew Wheeler

Abstract

This paper presents a phenomenological study of how the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism preserves its religious beliefs amidst significant external and internal cultural shifts through an agency of mythopoesis intrinsic to its theological doctrine. The Nyingma School is singular in the world of Buddhism for its recognition of tertöns, or “Treasure revealers,” who are men and women believed to possess mystical powers that enable them to discover and decipher sacred texts and religious relics hidden throughout the Tibetan landscape by Buddhist luminaries and masters of the past. These teachings and objects, known as Terma or Treasures, are then shared with the community, monastic and secular alike, to advance their quest for enlightenment and liberation in a world they perceive to be in perpetual decline. This study will demonstrate how the mythopoeic function of the tertön has been efficacious in preserving the Nyingma community’s faith in the Buddhist mythos as that mythos is communally perceived from their idiosyncratic worldview. From the specific example of the Nyingma’s Terma tradition, a general conclusion can be drawn that an internal means of mythopoesis is instrumental to the perpetuation of religious and spiritual belief systems whose worldviews become increasingly vulnerable to the momentous changes with which globalization has impacted the modern world.

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