Conservation and the Terma Tradition
In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche (not pictured above), also known as the 2nd Buddha, was very active in spreading Buddhism across Asia. He became the figure of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism and is still a highly revered figure in much of the Tibetan Buddhist world. Guru Rinpoche foresaw a time in which Buddhism would be suppressed, and therefore saw the need to hide various treasures (both physical and supernatural) that would be revealed at a later date (Hargens, 2002). This tradition of ‘hidden treasures’ has become known as Terma, and is particularly strong in Bhutan. Along with the hidden treasures, Guru Rinpoche foresaw the Tertön, or Treasure Seekers, who would reveal the Terma. Terma have been found in various features of the natural landscape as Tshewang et al. (1995) comment:
“The entire landscape bears marks and memories; the Terma could also be seen more generally as specific manifestations of the living landscape itself, of the forces available to those whose attitude to their environment is one of constant mindfulness and deep reverence” (p.13).
Hargens (2002) also notes:
“the Terma tradition illustrates that even common-place rocks, lakes, and tress can contain the highest spiritual truths. Indeed the Bhutanese landscape comes alive through the Terma and their beloved revealers” (p.67).
What is of particular interest is the connection of Terma to a conservation practice amongst Buddhist practitioners. With the understanding that Terma may be present in the landscape, it produces a reverence that motivates conservation-minded behaviour.
While the connection between spiritual practice and conservation is not a new finding, it is interesting to see how the Bhutanese tradition of Terma is currently evolving, and is very much in decline due to an ‘opening’ of sacred spaces. Spirituality, as a value, has become less important to the younger generation of Bhutanese who are more and more influenced by globalization and the hegemony of scientific discourse. As a result, the current generation of Bhutanese are an interesting case study to explore how societal values are in transition, as are motivators for conservation practice. Today in Bhutan, modern forms of conservation policy seem much more attuned to a neoliberal agent of the homo economicus nature, rather than a spiritually minded individual. More on this to come in the future.
Hargens, S.B.F. (2002). Integral Development: Taking ‘The Middle Path’ Towards Gross National Happiness. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6, 24-87.
Tshewang, P., Tashi, K.P., Butters, C., and Saetreng, S.K. (1995). The Treasure Revealer of Bhutan: Pemalingpa, the Terma Tradition and its Critics. Kathmandu: EMR Publishing House.