A contemporary gö kar chang lo terma

[This post originally appeared on the obsolete “Ngakpa Update” site, December 6th, 2010.]

Antonio Terrone recently completed a most interesting PhD thesis on the current status of the gö kar chang lo’i dé (gos dkar lcang lo’i sde—ngakpas) in Kham and Golok (eastern parts of the culturally-Tibetan region).

Aspects of particular interest are the revelation of new termas that establish the authenticity of the gos dkar lcang lo tradition, and the political relationship of yogic Nyingma with the Chinese authority.

An abstract of the thesis is available online. I haven’t obtained a copy of the full work (titled Bya rog prog zhu: The Raven Crest. The Life and Teachings of Bde chen ‘od gsal rdo rje Treasure Revealer of Contemporary Tibet). I hope the author will make a book version available soon.

Terrone spent much time in Kham and Golok studying several contemporary tertons. One, Déchen Ösel Dorje (bDe chen ’od gsal rdo rje, born 1921) is of central interest. Terrone writes:

I argue that one of the central themes of his revelations is to provide legitimacy and status to the class of non-celibate Tantric professionals called the white-robed and matted-haired group (gos dkar lcang lo’i sde). Particularly important for this is the rTsol med, a Treasure [terma] teaching attributed to Padmasambhava that is an initiation ritual for Tantric adepts [presumably, ngakpas]. Interestingly, this text lists a number of regalia (rgyan) that provide the adept with the appropriate signs of his rank. I argue that that this a ritual scripture is not only intended to provide legitimacy to the class of non-celibate adepts, but also attempts to provide a distinctive identity to the lineage initiated by bDe chen ’od gsal rdo rje.

Terrone apparently writes in detail about the social process of terton validation. This inherently ambiguous process establishes a visionary teacher as a religious authority, who is able to exercise power for social and religious ends.

From Terrone’s abstract, and other current fieldwork, it appears that there is a resurgence of the gö kar chang lo’i dé in the region. At least in part, this is because the Chinese administration has broken the power of the monastic establishment. For reasons still not entirely clear, the monasteries actively suppressed the ngakpa tradition, which is flourishing after the removal of that constraint. Terrone writes:

…the Chinese government’s political strategies… [in] Tibetan areas have caused a weakening of the religious authority of many monastic institutions by debilitating their economic power, incapacitating their political influence, limiting their educational authority, and perhaps most crucially diminishing their once large monastic population. After years of administrative control, the historical role of monasteries as exclusive guarantors of religious authority and scholastic legitimacy and as institutional centers of traditional instruction has drastically decreased. Nevertheless, a number of alternative forms of religious authority have emerged in eastern Tibet that reflect the often eclectic nature of the rNying ma community such as visionary activities, Treasure revelation, and the formation of large and innovative religious communities as centers of practice and cultural production.

There is a fascinating analogy here to the situation during the Tibetan Dark Age.

According to traditional Tibetan history, the “Dark Age” began when the evil emperor Lang Darma destroyed Buddhism in Tibet. Recent Western scholarship suggests that Lang Darma was not anti-Buddhist, as he has been portrayed. (In fact, he may have been a Buddhist himself.) He did not destroy “Buddhism”; according to Nyingma tradition, he left ngakpas alone. Rather, he de-funded, and perhaps actively suppressed, monastic institutions. Those were a drain on the imperial treasury, and a locus of power outside the secular state, who could have threatened his authority.

The interlocking power structure of the secular state and the monasteries had limited the practice of Tantra during the Imperial Period. During the Dark Age, non-monastic Tantric flourished. In fact, it did so “excessively,” in the opinion of someone at the time, who did not approve. This flowering appears to have been due to the decline of monastic power and so the end of its suppression of Tantra.