Sunday, November 26, 2023

Terton Onomastics

Title page of a text included in BDRC no. W4PD975 (click to enlarge)

If you’ve been with us in recent years you would know this: Surprising new pieces of older Tibetan literature are popping up all the time. You would also know that the main place where this is happening is BDRC (formerly TBRC) and its BUDA website. The title page you see just above with the unusual archway of entry is a great example. Maybe the best part of its story is that, for Tibetan readers of the world, it presents a number of puzzles, puzzles that I haven’t, or haven’t yet, solved to my own satisfaction. One of the mysteries is who wrote it, but before going into that, let’s try and say what it’s about. Come, let’s walk through that door.

First, the title: 

Gsang-sngags-kyi Rig-pa-'dzin-pa-rnams-kyi Rnam-thar Sa-bon tsam dang Mtshan dang Mtshan-gyi Rnam-grangs 

“Knowledge Holders of Secret Mantra: Seed Biographies along with Their Names and Variant Names.”

The title already tells you it’s an onomasticon, a study of personal names of a limited group of persons. It tells you who those persons are, ‘Knowledge Holders of Secret Mantra.’  When you look into the book’s content, it is clear this means above all those known to us as Tertons. A Terton (གཏེར་སྟོན་) is someone who reveals or extracts (སྟོན་ or བཏོན་) treasures (གཏེར་མ་). By treasures we think first of their scriptural discoveries, although relics, images, medical works and even luxury objects and precious metals could also be found by them, often in one and the same excavation site.

I tried transcribing the first couple of pages, not being all that certain I could manage the odd style of cursive* with its special abbreviation practices.** I soon ran into puzzling problems. Particularly when I got to the misplaced passages marked off with special symbols such as the ‘three jewels’ mark, it wasn’t clear to me where these were meant to be inserted. These first pages do not yet concern the Tertons, the Treasure Revealers, but rather the Treasure Concealers, in particular “Guru Rinpoche” Padmasambhava followed by his 25 disciples. Mostly it is filled by brief sections about the Tertons and their individual names. I thought I ought to make a list of their names at least (see the Appendix).

(*I do appreciate the calligraphy, but at times its style could be described as sloppy, just notice how the letter “zha” [ཞ་] appears. **For the word mtshan, as you can see already in the title, its root consonant "tsh" can be reduced to the tiny flag that normally serves to differentiate it from the "ch." The resulting abbreviation looks something like "m'n.")

You get the impression this includes more mention of Bon than is usual in works on this subject. Already in the Guru Rinpoche section we are told what names he received in Bon sources.

I will go ahead and quote from our earlier blog (linked below) knowing that adherents of the Nyingma school may be discomfited:

“And of course, it needs saying that the Bon school must be brought into our future conclusion-making processes, as they have a rich literature of Tertön histories, prayers and prophecies of their own. It’s even possible that followers of Bon got their terma traditions underway before the Nyingma did.”

To flesh that out a bit, it seems likely as we suggested in that same blog that the first Nyingma Tertön was active in around 1080 CE. If so that makes the Nyingma phenomenon significantly later than the Bön Terma tradition that begins in a big way with the discoveries of Shenchen Luga in 1017 CE, although with the revealers of the Nāga Hundred Thousand (ཀླུ་འབུམ་) and a few other Bon scriptures, we would need to push Bon Terma revelations back a century or so before Shenchen’s.  So their Termas may be not just a half, but as much as two centuries older than Nyingma Termas.

There is a lot more to know about the Tertons as a group of prophetic revelatory figures in Tibetan history simply because Tibetan Studies experts as a whole haven’t studied them in sufficient depth and detail, not yet. Not just the onomastic and biographical works, but other genres, in particular Terton prayers and prophecies need to be taken into account. The sheer weight of the volumes of rediscovered teachings would disable more than one elephant. There is so much to take in. 

At the head of my own list is a better understanding of the surely different, but often similar and occasionally overlapping, traditions of Bon and Nyingma schools. The good investigative work that has been done here and there hasn’t really been put together to form a fuller circumspectual portrayal of the phenomenon of Treasure revelation — what it was and is, what it has meant to Tibetans, and what it ought to mean to everyone. Let’s get to work. 

I’ve heard there may be a new book coming out that will answer our questions about how Treasure traditions may be inspired by or simply continue earlier robust traditions both Indian and Tibetan.  No, I didn’t write it, and I won’t say more until it is more than a rumor echoing in empty space.

Some refs.

We’ve already blogged at some length about Tertons a few years back, just look here: Locating a Terton Prayer in Terma History. Once there, you’ll find references to further resources that I won’t list all over again. Your dyed-in-the-wool Tibetosophers can have a look at this webpage we made, supplying a particular set of sources of Tertön names that may be compared and contrasted to this newly noticed onomasticon.

An onomasticon, really? That means a collection of nouns limited to a particular specialized field. Most often it means a collection of proper nouns. Perhaps the best known work by that name, the Onomasticon by Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339 CE), was limited to place names within the area of what we call the Middle East. It’s particularly important for understanding the place names on the Madaba Mosaic Map that can still be seen in situ on the floor of a church in a town in Jordan located high in the hills just east of Jericho. Although it hardly compares, I’ve also composed a kind of onomasticon limited to Tibetan proper names, both person and place names. It took over 40 years to make it, with a length of about 1,700 pages if it were ever printed on paper. Just a few days ago I posted it at a free website, free in its making and free to use, called “Tibetosophy.”  If you feel you are ready to make use of it, feel free to go here:

You can even make use of it to find out more about the Tertons named in this Onomasticon.  The bibliographical details are as follows:

“Rig pa ʼdzin pa rnams kyi rnam thar sa bon tsam dang mtshan gyi rnam grangs ci rigs.” Bla ma don rgyal gyis nyar tshags mdzad paʼi dpe rnying dpe dkon, vol. 32, pp. 93–136. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), Accessed 18 Nov. 2023. [BDRC bdr:MW4PD975_317ABE]

If you want to get to it easily, just type the entire Resource ID number W4PD975 into the search box at BUDA. Click on the scanned title page. Then go to volume 32 and scroll down about a hundred pages. 



I will list the names of the Tertons here, not promising a thorough, in-depth job of it. My reason for doing this is just so they will be findable by people out there searching the worldwide web. As things stand, it isn’t likely OCR will be effective enough with cursive manuscript for a long time into the future, so the effort can be justified. I assign page numbers to the text, as the folios are unnumbered and in a booklet format (44 scanned pages in all): 

1)  Names and forms of Guru Rinpoche according to various sources.  Scan pp. 1-5.

  • The name is Padma-mthong-grol in Bon sources, specifically citing the testimony of a Terma revealed by the Terton Guru Rnon-rtse aka A-ya Bon-po Lha-'bum.  Scan p. 6.

2) Emperor Khri-srong-lde'u-btsan.  Scan p. 7.

3) The sons of the same and the subsequent royal line.  7-8.

Others among the 25 disciples of Guru Rinpoche apart from the Emperor, starting with Gnubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes as no. 2, each subsequent one should have received his or her own numbers 3-25.  No. 8 is Vairocana (on p. 10) who deserves special attention.  Dran-pa-nam-mkha' is noticed on p. 16, with the information that he was given the name Phung-bon Mgo-dmar because he was presented with a red hat at his ordination. Ends (p. 18) with an interesting comment that there can be different ways of listing and identifying the 25 disciples and that some say there were 27.  Scan pp. 9-18.

At scan p. 19 begins the listing of the “Hundred Tertons” (གཏེར་སྟོན་བརྒྱ་རྩ་).  We'll just list their names with page and line numbers (interlinear mchan-notes do not count as lines) so you can locate information about them with ease. At least to begin with each Terton is awarded a number (superinscribed above the name), so we will attempt to follow the same system. Even if the numeration gives out after no. 14, I just keep numbering them anyway. In my experience the number “100” was never meant to be exact:

1. Sangs-rgyas-bla-ma, the 1st of the Tertons.  19.1.

2. Rgya Lo-tsā.  19.2.

3. Sna-nam-pa ('Brog-pa Sna-nam Thub-pa-rgyal-po).  19.4.

4. Rgya Zhang-khrom.  19.6.

5. Nyi-ma-seng-ge.  19.7.

6. Dbu-ru Ston-pa Shākya-'od.  19.8.

7. Bon-po Brag-tshal.  20.1.

8. Snye-mo Zhu-yas.  20.3.  He is quite rightly identified as a Bonpo by birth, but not noticed is that he was a chief disciple of Gshen-chen Klu-dga'.

9. Grub-thob Dngos-grub.  20.4.

10. Gtsug-lag-dpal-dge.  20.7.

11. Ku-sa Sman-pa.  20.8.

12. Bon-po Lha-'bum.  21.4.

13. Khyung-po Dpal-dge.  21.5.

14. Gra-pa Mngon-shes.  23.1.

15. Ra-shag Chen-po.  23.6.

16. Nyang-ral.  23.8.

17. Dbon-sras Khyung-thog (=Khyung-thog-rtsal).  24.6.

18. Ra-mo Shel-sman.  25.1.

19. Gu-ru Chos-dbang.  25.3.

20. Gu-ru Jo-tshe.  25.7.

21. Padma-dbang-phyug.  26.2.

22. Do-ban Rgya-mtsho (~Dor-ban?).  26.4.

23. Rakshi Ston-pa.  26.6.

24. Byar-rong E-yi Sman-pa (=Nyi-'od-gsal).  26.8.

25. Gra-sgom Chos-rdor.  27.1.

26. G.yag-phyar Sngon-mo.  27.4.

27-28. Grum, and his patron of Paro, Bhutan named Nag-po-mkhar.  27.6.

29. Lha-btsun Sngon-mo.  27.9.  Notice the mention here of Mchog-'gyur-gling-pa (1829-1870), which helps us date the work.

30. Nyi-ma-grags-pa.  28.4.

31. Rin-chen-tshul-rdor.  28.7.

32. Tshe-brtan-rgyal-mtshan.  29.4.

33. Me-ban Rin-chen-gling-pa.  29.6.

34.  O-rgyan-gling-pa.  29.10.

35. Dri-med-'od-zer.  30.4.

36. Rog-rje-gling-pa.  31.3.

37. Gter-bdag-gling-pa.  31.8.

38. Padma-kun-skyong-gling-pa.  32.2.

39. Mdo-sngags-gling-pa Mchog-ldan-mgon-po.  32.4.

40. Bstan-gnyis-gling-pa Padma-tshe-dbang-rgyal-po.  33.1.

41. Rdo-rje-gling-pa. 33.4.

42. Rin-chen-gling-pa, "The Second" (=Sangs-rgyas-gling-pa).  34.2.

43. O-rgyan-padma-gling-pa.  34.7.

44. O-rgyan-las-'phro-gling-pa.  35.1.

45. Bsam-gtan-bde-chen-gling-pa.  35.6.

46. Zhig-po-gling-pa.  35.8.

47. Bde-chen-gling-pa (the one born in Gro-shul Tshwa-lung).  36.1. Here on scan no. 36 is a statement about how the Thang-yig that was found at Shel-brag actually has 47 Tertons ranging from Sangs-rgyas-bla-ma up until Bde-chen-gling-pa. I'll transcribe it:

de ltar gter chen sangs rgyas bla ma nas bde chen gling pa'i bar thang yig shel brag ma'i dngos bstan bzhi bcu zhe bdun gyi rnam thar sa bon tsam du btus pa de'ang snga phyi rim par byon pa'i go rim du mi gnas thang yig gi dngos bstan ma bcos pa yin no ||

  • This does create some perplexing problems as the Biography of Guru Rinpoche from Shel-brag was revealed in 1352. Just identifying let alone dating the particular Bde-chen-gling-pa who was born in Gro-shul is a problem, but nobody seems to date him or any other figure by this name to any time before the 17th century. Well, let’s go on to list the rest.

48. Rgya-ban Rdo-rje-'od.  37.1

49. Gu-ru Hūṃ-'bar.  37.2.

50. Lha-btsun Byang-chub-'od.  37.3.

51. Jo-bo Rje Dī-paṃ-ka-ra.  37.5.  This is Atiśa, from Bengal.

52. Zhang-btsun Dar-ma-rin-chen.  37.7.

53. Rong-zom Chos-kyi-bzang-po.  37.8.

54. Rdor-'bum-chos-kyi-grags-pa.  37.9.

55. Sangs-rgyas-'bar.  37.10.

56. Se-ston Ring-mo.  37.11.

57. Rgya Phur-bu (=Phur-bu-mgon).  37.11.

58. Dge-bshes Dra-nga Rdo-rje-kun-grags. 37.12.

59. Lha-rje Gnubs-chung.  38.1.  He is likely to be the magic teacher of Milarepa before Milarepa met Marpa.

60. Rgya-ston Brtson-'grus-seng-ge-dar. 38.4.

61. Lce-btsun Seng-ge-dbang-phyug. 38.5.

62. Sar-ban Phyogs-med.  38.8.

63. Gnyan Lo-tsā-ba Dar-ma-grags.  38.9.

64. Shākya-'od, or Shākya-bzang-po.  38.11.

65. Zangs-ri-ras-pa.  38.11.

66. Gnyal-pa Jo-sras Seng-ge Gnyag-ston Nag-po.  39.1.

67. Snye-mo Rgya Gong-ri-pa Sangs-rgyas-dbang-chen.  39.1.

68-69. Chu-pho Rtogs-ldan, aka Dge-bsnyen-rgyal-mtshan and Dge-'dun-rgyal-mtshan.  39.4.

70. Sprul-sku Ba-mkhal Smug-po.  39.6.

71. Mol-mi-'khyil.  39.7.

72. Gru-gu Yang-dbang.  39.8.

73. Sum-pa Byang-chub-blo-gros. 39.9.

74. Stag-lung-pa Sangs-rgyas-dbon-po.  39.10.

75. Gnyal-pa Nyi-ma-shes-rab.  39.12.

76. Khro-phu Lo-tsâ-ba Gnubs Byams-pa'i-dpal.  40.1.

77. G.yas-ban Ya-bon.  40.2.

78. Bal-po A-hūṃ-'bar.  40.2.

79. A-ro Dpal-po (?).  40.3.

80-82. Sum-tshogs.  Name of a group of three Tertons: Rkyang-po Grags-pa-dbang-phyug, Sum-pa Byang-chub-tshul-khrims, and 'Bre Shes-rab-bla-ma.  40.4.

83. Du-gu Rin-chen-seng-ge.  40.5.

84. Gtsang-pa La-ba-ring-mo, or Gtsang-ring Shes-rab.  40.6.

85. Jo-mo Sman-mo.  40.8.  A woman Terton.

86. Me-long-rdo-rje.  41.1.

87. Skal-ldan Byis-pa.  41.2.

88. Brang-ti Rgyal-nyi Mkhar-bu.  41.3. Revealer of medical Termas.  (Brang-ti Rgyal-mnyes Mkhar-bu is a more common spelling of his name.  Mkhar-'bum also occurs.)

89-92. Four Terma assistants of Gu-ru Chos-dbang by the names of Sgom-chen 'Brug-pa, Gnyan-ston Dzambha-la, Don-grub-seng-ge, and Padma-grags-pa. 41.4.

93. Dung-mtsho-ras-pa, The Earlier.  41.5.

94. Mkha'-'gro-ma Kun-dga'-'bum.  41.6.  Another woman Terton.

95. Dung-mtsho-ras-pa, The Later.  41.7.

96.  Badzra-ma-ti, the Indian.  41.9.

97. Rgyal-sras Legs-pa.  41.10.

—. Scan no. 43 has only two lines saying there were five King Tertons and Three Supreme Emanation Tertons, with the King Tertons being Nyang-ral, Gu-ru Chos-dbang, Rdor-gling, and Padma-gling-pa (the fifth one is not listed).

—. Scan no. 44, the final scanned page, lists alternative names of three prominent women, in fact queens, of 8th-century Tibet.  

So no, I now feel sure there is no telltale statement, let alone an informative colophon, identifying the author. About all I can say for sure is that the author or note-taker (or combination of the two) must have lived sometime in the 20th century because he mentions, in an authored statement of his, the name of the 19th-century Terton Mchog-'gyur-gling-pa.

But let’s consider some possibilities. Now that I've taken the book* down from the shelf and can compare, I see that our author follows more or less the same listing as Kongtrul does in his famous set of Terton biographies (written in 1886), not just for the first 47,** but for the following ones as well. One difference is that while our Onomasticon stops with Rgyal-sras Legs-pa, Kongtrul’s continues with about 60 more names.

(*Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Taye, The Hundred Tertöns: A Garland of Beryl, Brief accounts of Profound Terma and the Siddhas Who Have Revealed It, tr. by Yeshe Gyamtso, KTD Publications [Woodstock 2011].  **These first 47 adhere to the order of prophecies in the Thang-yig, just as Kongtrul did, so from this we draw no diagnostic clues. We have to go on to look at the order and content that comes after no. 47 in the list.)

That leads me to wonder if our Terton Onomasticon isn’t in fact one of two things:  1. A set of notes made by a reader of Kongtrul’s work, severely abbreviating it and stopping abruptly.  2. An earlier sketch that would only later be expanded into Kongtrul’s work, which could mean it may be a writing of Kongtrul himself. I rather doubt that last possibility, but I suppose it could be considered.  We just have to look into it some more.  I’ve noticed that there are places where our text supplies information not found in Kongtrul’s work,* so it isn’t simply a student notebook.

(*For example it supplies more details about the three subsequent reincarnations of Bde-chen-gling-pa, no. 47 in the list, than you find in Kongtrul.)


— — —


Postscript (Nov. 27, 2023):

About that question of who the first Nyingma Terton may have been. Some might take exception to the ideas put forward, so let me go into it once more. In the Onomasticon and likewise in Kongtrul, it is Sangs-rgyas-bla-ma who was first. Whether or not his history had been told prior to the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama I haven’t been able to discover yet. His dating is quite shadowy, cast somewhere around the last half of the 10th century, active in Ngari. The main problem with him being declared first is just that no texts he excavated, no lineage he initiated, is available in later history, well, not until a visionary rediscovery in the 19th century. 

Sprul-pa'i Gter-ston Rdor-'bum-grags
miniature from a medical text.
TBRC W4CZ355782

The Zab-bu-lung history and a whole group of related Terma histories give the first Terton as Rdo-rje-'bum or Rdor-'bum Chos-kyi-grags-pa. His is somewhat less shadowy, yet shadowy he is, and his discoveries were all related to medicine rather than Dharma.  Obscure as he may be to most of us, BDRC has a Person ID for him dating him to the 11th century.  Let me quote here what was said in the earlier blog, as I’m not sure you will locate it in that rambling discussion:

Looking at the Tertön Prayer itself, what strikes us right away is that the first verse is devoted to a relatively unknown Tertön named Dorjebum (Rdo-rje-'bum) known for his medical terma. He is, in the Zab-bu-lung history explicitly stated to be the first of the Tertöns. The same history does slip Sangyé Lama (Sangs-rgyas-bla-ma) into the discussion, but I fail to find him in the prayer itself.  The Fifth Dalai Lama also mentions Sangyé Lama here, but says only that his lineages were not received. It may be due to Kongtrul that it is now common knowledge that Sangyé Lama must be called the first. As a rediscoverer, he may have himself been rediscovered, or at least revalidated, in the 19th century.

The Guru Tashi history has an argument that Dorjebum lived four generations before Yuthokpa, so dating Yuthokpa’s activities to around 1200, that would put him in about 1080 CE, so that’s about the best I can do at dating him.

Immediately after the doctor’s verse, verse 3 is about two women Tertöns, yet another somehow surprising feature. Why, we wonder, would physicians and women Tertöns take priority?  It is only in verses 4 and 5 that we get the names of the Tertöns of greatest renown (to us at least), Nyangral Nyima-özer and Guru Chöwang. 

I haven’t located any of Rdor-'bum’s medical Terma now existing in the form of actual texts. However, there is a record of teachings received by Brag-dkar Rta-so Chos-kyi-dbang-phyug (1775-1839), with a lineage of the same. I haven’t looked into all of this yet, but perhaps it would be worthwhile to go to BDRC and have a look at it as contained in RID no. W1KG14557. It is quite brief. There are 17th-century sources on him we could look into. There are also biographical sketches of him in the recently compiled collective biographies of physicians, where we learn he lived in the time of Marpa, was ordained as a monk, was active in western Tibet or Ngari, and drew his medical Termas from the heart of an image of Tandrin at Traduntse, and still other such Termas from still other images. It’s even said that lineages descending from him are still alive today. All very interesting and worthy of closer study, I do declare. And it is all made possible by searching in the databases of BDRC. Finally, if you require something about him in English, there is no better place to look than Gavin Kilty's translation of the 17th-century medical history by Desi Sangyé Gyatso, Mirror of Beryl, The Library of Tibetan Classics series 28, Wisdom (Somerville 2010), pp. 177-185. 

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