Monday, October 1, 2012

New-Age Tertons: Prospects and Challenges of Archaeology in Bhutan

@ Google
On one fine day when the sun was shining brightly on all sentient beings, a man who claimed sainthood jumped and immersed himself into the burning lake of Mebartsho. His retinue of followers were awashed with a mix of awe, wonder, guilt, fright, anger and some with sheer disgust. Choekhor Deb, the undisputed ruler of central Bumthang had ordered Pema Lingpa to retrieve a Terma (Dharma treasure) as a vindication of his claim to the Terton status.
The Deb chose that particular spot for the lake had the notoriety of boiling as if on fire and would consume anything even remotely disrespectful, leave aside someone who with absolute disdain dived into its very depth. He knew that if the claimant was an imposter, he wouldn’t make through this ordeal which was, of course, so much better for the charismatic Pema Lingpa was by now gaining considerable sway over the people of his prefecture.
On his part, Pema Lingpa claimed that the time was not ripe for this undertaking and that misfortune might fall on all concerned if they still decide to go through with it. So, he importuned with the Deb to defer the test of his authenticity. Naturally, the Deb would have none of what he presumed to be escape tactics on the part of a foe who was now becoming too powerful to let go off the hook. Pema Lingpa was adamant too and was confident in his own guiding vision to see him through any ordeal. So, he finally agreed to the test. However, his circle of followers intervened and tried to bring the force of numbers on the Deb so that he would relent on his demand. On the other hand, they pleaded on behalf of the Deb and assured the Lama of their abiding faith and support even if he were to bypass the task.
Both were stubborn men though and wouldn’t go back on their words. So, when Pema Lingpa leapt into the lake bearing a lit butter lamp on his palm, they were guilty for they couldn’t prevent the Lama from taking a task that he was reluctant to take on in the first place. Their reverence for the Lama grew by measures while for the Deb, they felt nothing but disdain and anger for having pushed a great saint thus on the verge.
This legend of Pema Lingpa still reverberates in the valley of Bumthang, the home and workplace of some of the greatest Tertons who were destined to hunt down innumerable treasure troves set aside for them by their spiritual predecessors. The legend has it that Pema Lingpa did eventually come out, not only alive, but with a treasure trove in one hand and the lamp still lit miraculously in his other hand. Pema Lingpa went on to become one of the five distinguished Tertons, and the first Bhutanese born at that.
Tertons are a celebrated class of religious treasure (rock archive) discoverers, and by virtue, great scholars in advancing the understanding of Buddhism in general and the Nyingma tradition in particular to which most of them belong. They unearth religious texts of great significance and antiquity believed to have been strategically placed by the great 8th Century Indian mystic, Guru Padmasambhava in furtherance of the Buddhist understanding, as and when their times were ripe. The works of Pema Lingpa in particular, who discovered many such termas, today stand as basis of our history for in them were supposed entries of the time when Guru Rinpoche visited Bhutan in the 8th Century and of which period, we are left with no other records. However, the Terton’s role in our evolution goes beyond that. The texts they discovered were also divination of events that eventually came to be, both good and bad, and thus they acted as timely guides to preempt disasters and pave the way for good things to come.
The way they functioned, and continue to do so, is nothing but miraculous. Through visions from the Guru himself, the Terton will be led to the particular spot of the treasure in inhospitable terrains like on rocky precipices and deep lakes. Once the guardian deities with whom the treasures were entrusted are done with their due process of verification, they hand over the ownership to their rightful claimants. The Tertons in turn propitiate these caretakers of great powers and as thanksgiving, leave aside marks of their own as replacements of the objects taken.   
The particular incident that occurred in Bumthang has taken special significance in recent times. The legend goes on to say that people were filled with piety and a deep respect for the Lama. However, after noticing what was apparently only a worthless wooden box, the Deb unsheathed his sword and with a hefty swing, struck the box into two halves. What emerged took his breath away, quite literally. A golden statue that was sliced through its torso slapped the face of not only the Deb, but that of Pema Lingpa too, at one stroke. In a flash, the statue flew away and vanished into thin air, but not before he reprimanded the unthinking actions of both the men and bound them with a curse that will shorten the lifespan of the Lama and eliminate the very lineage of the Deb. Indeed, this curse took effect. Pema Lingpa died before his destined time and the Deb faded into oblivion. His fortress and seat of power lies in ruins at the upper reaches of Bumthang valley.
It is an interesting parallel thus that when Bhutan’s first modern archeological digging was done, it was on the ruin of Drapham Dzong, a spot which is so intricately linked with the famous treasure revealer.  
Archeology today has come to throw light on aspects of our past of which we are apparently left with no reliable records. Through various scientific tools of dating materials and their ethnographic abilities to put things into context, archeologists establish the truths of our past in as good a way as ceramics or charcoals could tell a tale.
Both these forms of discovery are means to unravel mysteries of our past. By unearthing esoteric pieces of information, these two historians are then able to interpret them, the archeologist through his lab technology and the Terton through his spiritual visions. It must also be noted that both these mediums of history can be prone to manipulation and manufacturing of facts to suit various ends and various classes of people, subject only to the integrity of the people involved. While modern science has time and again opened itself to scrutiny, analysis of Termas by independent scholars have revealed evidence of doctoring documents to the advantage of the Tertons and their traditions.
While Pema Lingpa himself is beyond reproach for he has backed his grandeur with words and deeds, the medium of the Terton can become dubious play of faith in the hands of a lesser man. The Termas are supposedly written in coded dakanic scripts to which only the Tertons have access and thus, a less scrupulous being can interpret the Terma as he likes. It might be just an unwarranted observation, but today the charm of the Tertons, as they are traditionally perceived, has just about vanished.
Modern archeology has its limits too, particularly in the Buddhist setting of Bhutan. While archeology is incumbent upon the existence of material remains in their original setting, Bhutanese live by a different model. Going by the law of impermanence, we acknowledge that everything, living or constructed, must ultimately return to its original state of non-existence and so, far from taking care to preserve monuments, we actually pull them down so that new forms can emerge in their place. On the contrary, we take care to eliminate any trace of a being once its soul has departed as part of our belief in detachment.
Archeology has been served well in the Western settings were burial mounds and ancient monuments were preserved. These are the locations from where major historical breakthroughs were made. However, these things are quite absent in Bhutan. If the first archeological project was anything to go by, we may never know much beyond what we are already aware of. While the Drapham Dzong projected all the makings of a classic archeological undertaking, the results were more sobering. It is quite well known that the Dzong was destroyed sometimes in the 1600s during the period of the Bhutanese unification. With the accuracy of plus and minus 100 years, it’s unlikely that we will ever know anything of substance from this test. And against expectations, there were no treasure troves to be dug out (as would an Indiana Jones) from centuries of oblivion which, of course, was only proper in the Bhutanese context. So, for now, the legend of the Choekhor Deb remains just that, a legend. 
However, it is yet too early to write off archeology. There is a large void in our understanding of ourselves as a nation. There was a life before the pre-Buddhist period of the 7th Century. Little is known about our times then. This gap could well be bridged by modern excavation sciences and it is well known, that archeology is best justified in prehistoric times because then the accuracy level of the science seems most acceptable when the period in consideration spans million of years. In any case, we will be willing to take anything on a subject that we would have otherwise no hope of ever being enlightened on.
@ densore

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