Tertön (Tibetan: གཏེར་སྟོན་, Wylie: gter ston) is a term within Tibetan Buddhism meaning a person who is a discoverer of ancient hidden texts or terma. Many tertöns are considered to be incarnations of the twenty five main disciples of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), who foresaw a dark time in Tibet. He and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal hid teachings to be found in the future to benefit beings. A vast system of transmission lineages developed. Scriptures from the Nyingma school were updated by terma discoveries, and terma teachings have guided many Tibetan Bon and Buddhist practitioners.
The Termas are sometimes objects like statues, and can also exist as dharma texts and experiences. Tertöns discover the texts at the right time and place. The teachings can be relatively simple transmissions as well as entire meditation systems. Termas are found in rocks, water and the minds of incarnations of Guru Rinpoche's students.
According to generally accepted history, the rediscovering of terma began with the first tertön, Sangye Lama (1000–1080). Tertöns of outstanding importance were Guru Chowang (1212–1270), Rigdzin Gödem (1307–1408), Dorje Lingpa (1346–1405), Ratna Lingpa (1403–1478), Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), Namchö Mingyur Dorje (1645–1667), and Jigme Lingpa (1729–1798), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Orgyen Chokgyur Lingpa (1829–1870).
The 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje of the Karma Kagyu Lineage was a tertön. There was a prophesy from Yeshe Tsogyal that he should take tantric consorts. Initially he wished to stay a monk, but his health was failing. Meditation masters told him he would die if he didn't fulfill his functions as a tertön. In 1892 he was convinced to marry when he was 20 years old. By the time the 15th karmapa died, he had accumulated 40 boxes of termas, texts and objects.
The "seal" of all tertöns is said to have been Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892). In one of his visions, he could clearly see all the terma that were hidden throughout Tibet and other countries. He was the only master in Tibetan history to have not only received, but also transmitted the "seven transmissions" (bka' babs bdun), that are the canonical teachings, treasures taken from the earth, reconcealed treasures, mind treasures, recollections, pure visions, and aural transmissions received in visions. (Ricard, undated).
Throughout the centuries many more people were known as tertön. Five of them were widely recognized as very important ones and called the "five tertön kings:"
Consorts, with whom they practice sexual yoga or karmamudra to accelerate and enhance their capacity for realization, are thought to be very important to tertöns. Fremantle (2001: p. 19) states that:
One of the special requirements for the discovery of termas is the inspiration of the feminine principle, just as it was necessary for their concealment. The great majority of tertöns have been men, and generally they are accompanied by their wives or female companions (who need not necessarily have a sexual relationship with them). Alternatively, something representing the tertön's complementary energy, whether male or female, must be present.
Although the authenticity and value of a terma may be questioned or debated, tertöns are exempt from being judged according to their behavior and lifestyle, with Guru Rinpoche having cautioned that “hidden enlightened beings appear in uncertain form” and, by contrast, “fool-deceivers are great hypocritical mimics of the dharmic practitioner”.