Sacred Place, Perception, and the Treasure Tradition
Out of the various Buddhist operations that were present on the Tibetan plateau during the Tibetan Renaissance, the concept of sacred place probably figured most prominently in the treasure (gter ma) movement.
If we examine the way in which sacred place within the context of the treasure tradition is perceived by Dudjom Rinpoche, Gö Lotsawa, and Ronald Davidson, we see that the very concept of “sacred place” is not only perceived differently, but can also be used to achieve very different ends.
In addition to the literal “earth treasures” such as sacred images, objects, and texts that are hidden in such places as the beams and pillars of ancient Tibetan temples, caves, and holes in the ground, Dudjom Rinpoche and the Nyingma tradition speak of the more metaphorically inclined “mind treasure.”
What is striking about the mind treasures is the metaphorical treatment of sacred space: the mind is a place from which “one hundred thousand doctrinal treasures will pour forth” if one has “confidence of certainty with respect to ultimate meaning” (748).
Dudjom Rinpoche’s discussion of sacred place in the context of the treasure tradition not only elegantly articulates a key Mahayana doctrine, but also attests to the creative and aesthetic inclinations of the Nyingma school.
Mentions of the treasure tradition in the Blue Annals are brief and rare (with the exception of the section on the Seminal Heart in the third chapter), but when Gö Lotsawa mentions the concealment or discovery of a treasure, he is sure to specify the precise geographical location.
For example, he specifies that Cetsun Senge Wangchuk (lce btsun seng ge dbang phyug) hides treasures in U Yug, Langdro Chepatag, and Jal gyi phu, and that Zhang Trashi Dorje (zhang bkra shis rdo rje) discovers Vimalamitra’s treasures at Chimpu (Blue Annals 191, 193).
If we consider the fact that Gö Lotsawa was writing this work in a time when the Tibetan national identity was being negotiated and solidified, it comes to no surprise that he is most interested in establishing the narratives associated with specific locations as well as the physical monuments that were built on the Tibetan landscape by important personalities.
If people develop their identities by relating to the places that they inhabit, and familiar landscapes become “the geography of the human imagination” (Sheldrake 14), Gö Lotsawa is interested in using sacred place as a way to articulate the mental geography of the Tibetan national and religious identity within himself and his readers.
Ever the historian, Gö Lotsawa is more interested in the concrete facts of the treasure tradition, such as the place in which treasures are discovered, rather than the soteriological implications or aesthetic considerations that are associated with it.
In his book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture, sacred place figures in his discussion of the treasure tradition in two ways. Firstly, Davidson argues that early terma descriptions are in fact based on descriptions of the temples and tombs of the Imperial Kings (224).
Secondly, Davidson points out that treasures revealed throughout the Tibetan plateau “validated the familiar cultural landscape” making Tibet the “authentic ground of the Buddha’s enlightened activity” and an “active partner in the Buddhist cosmos (231).
According to Davidson, discourse was powerful enough to initiate “a process that begins with the textualization of Songsten Gampo’s self ends with the landscape of Tibet inscribed as the self of the emperors” (243).
Thus, a phenomenon that seems as straight-forward as the hiding place of a treasure actually takes on many different forms when seen through the eyes of different people, adding an additional layer of complexity to the already fascinating tradition of terma. Sources