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11 - Ontology of the past and its materialization in Tibetan treasures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2009

Holly Gayley
Harvard University
James R. Lewis
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Olav Hammer
University of Southern Denmark
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In a mode of revelation particular to Tibetan and Himalayan regions, traces of the past are reportedly embedded in the landscape as terma or “treasures” (gter ma). Hidden away for future generations, these treasures may be esoteric texts, relics, images, sacred dances, ritual implements, medicinal substances, jewels, natural resources, and even whole valleys. The Tibetan propensity for burying valuables during periods of political uncertainty is an indigenous antecedent for the treasure phenomenon cited by scholars. There are also well-known Indian antecedents in stories of the concealment and retrieval of Buddhist scriptures and relics, most famously the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Beyond these antecedents, treasure revelation relies on what I will be analyzing as an ontological conception of the past, whereby an idealized historical period is rooted in timelessness and continues to be accessed in the present. Treasure revelation can be described as a process of recovering such a past, believed to be concealed in the Tibetan and Himalayan landscape as esoteric teachings and sacred objects, intended for the people of particular times and places.

Treasure revelation draws on the authority of the past associated with the “early propagation” (snga dar) of Buddhism in Tibet under the stewardship of kings during the seventh to ninth centuries. In later renderings of this period, three kings in particular – Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen, and Ralpacan – are hailed as devout sponsors of Buddhism and identified as dharmarājas (religious kings) and bodhisattvas (awakened beings).

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2007

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