I suggest that the translation of the Book of Mormon was Joseph Smith’s alchemical Magnum Opus, or “Great Work,” a transmutation of his own base desires for materialistic gold and treasure into the highest spiritual realizations of human atonement in God consciousness, and a realization or awakening of eternal life in his Self, even theosis, which he continued to preach for the rest of his life. His revelation of the Book of Mormon is similar to the ancient Buddhist tradition of tertöns who reveal terma texts through inner mystical union.
I was raised as a Mormon, and so I know well the traditional stories of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr. It’s a fantastic tale of angels, visions, magic instruments, translating ancient languages, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Christians, and more, much of which is unbelievable for many people outside the LDS Church. Additionally, in recent years, it has become more apparent that many of the things even Mormons thought they knew about these stories is different than they thought. New narratives of Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism are emerging which make more sense of the evidence, and which I perceive place Joseph Smith among some of the most gifted mystic-prophets and spiritual revelators.
One of those things that is coming into better light is about the nature of Joseph’s experience with the “gold plates” and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the traditional narrative, Joseph Smith was led by an angel to a nearby hill where he lived in New York, and there he uncovered a buried text written on gold plates and which contained the Christian history of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. This he translated and published as the Book of Mormon. It has been found that this story remarkably parallels an ancient Buddhist religious tradition known as terma, meaning “hidden treasure.”
These parallels have been suggested before briefly by Grant Underwood in his paper “Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith.” It was also referenced in passing by Royal Skousen in his introduction to The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. Elizabeth Quick also noted the parallels in suggesting that Emma Hale acted as a kind of tantric consort to Joseph in her 2008 Sunstone paper “Emma Smith as Shaman.”
In this Eastern tradition, terma are considered spiritual teachings which are esoterically hidden, sometimes in the ground, to be discovered and translated by other spiritual adepts known as tertöns, or “treasure revealers.” The tradition states that these terma may be physical objects, including texts and other ritual objects and implements, buried in the ground or various other locations, to preserve them for a time in the future when a tertön rediscovers them and translates them for the edification of all. (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, is one such terma, “translated” or “revealed” by the tertön Karma Lingpa. Donald S. Lopez discusses the connection between this book and Joseph’s Book of Mormon in his study entitled The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography). This directly parallels Joseph’s Smith’s story, as noted above, the “gold plates” and the text on them (as well as other objects he said were with them) being a kind of terma, and Joseph being a kind of tertön.
Thondup writes about why the terma teachings were hidden in the East:
In order to prevent the deep teachings and sacred objects of tantra from becoming mixed, diluted, or lost in the distant future, and in order to maintain their blessing powers afresh for future followers, [they] concealed them. They are discovered at the appropriate time by realized masters through their enlightened power.
This kind of teaching preservation is also what Joseph described in the Book of Mormon, and why it was hidden away in ancient times purportedly by Mesoamerican prophets to come forth again in the future to instruct posterity and humanity.
Such terma were also considered “sealed” after their preparation. Joseph Smith also said that the gold plates were “sealed,” or at least a portion of them.
Wikipedia notes this about the terma text: “If the concealed or encoded teaching or object is a text, it is often written in dakini script, a non-human type of code or writing that only a tertön can decipher.” Likewise, Joseph claimed that the text on the “gold plates” was written in a script he called “reformed Egyptian,” but such a script has never been found elsewhere. The characters that were transcribed do not match any script we know of today. They seem to have been characters that look similar to Egyptian, but which only Joseph could decipher.
Freemantle notes this about terma:
Occasionally, full-length texts are found… and they are encoded in symbolic script, which may change mysteriously and often disappears completely once it has been transcribed.
The Book of Mormon was a definitely a full-length text, 531 pages, and took 60-75 days to “translate.” Accounts of the translation process say that Joseph could see the symbols on the seer stone (or in the mind’s eye), as well as their translation, and would then dictate them to a scribe who transcribed them. Once they were written down, the symbols would disappear, and new symbols would appear to be translated, just as described for the terma.
This all sounds quite supernatural and unbelievable that such texts would be buried in the Earth, somehow found again, and then translated from unknown mysterious scripts. There are examples of recovering ancient texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but there are literally hundreds of these “terma” that were supposedly so hidden and recovered again through mystical insight. I think there is something of a different nature going on here than the simple burying of texts and their discovery again in an archaeological fashion.
Here is a key point about terma: It is unlikely that there was literally any physical ancient text that was being recovered from the ground in these cases,
“the teachings associated should be understood as being ‘concealed within the mind of the guru’, that is, the true place of concealment is in the tertön’s nature or essence of mind.“
Likewise, I believe that the text of the Book of Mormon emerged from out of Joseph’s mind, that the teachings were “concealed” deep within his consciousness, his nature, or essence of mind. There were likely no real gold plates, but Joseph discovered the text within his own mind and self, just like the tertöns.
What about the plates that witnesses say they saw? I think Joseph may have made a set of plates that mirrored plates he saw in vision, and these helped inspire him in his translation. Freemantle notes:
[The earth-terma] are simply the material supports that act as a trigger to help the tertön reach the subtle level of mind where the teaching has really been concealed… It is the tertön who actually composes and writes down the resulting text, and so may be considered its author.
So it may have been for Joseph. The plates many say he had in his possession may have been his own creation made of “common tin,” and served as a kind of earth-terma, reminding and inspiring him of the teaching deep in his mind, perhaps similar to how a talisman or amulet is created to symbolize deeper spiritual realities and be a source of inspiration. From his folk magic and Hermetic tradition background, he may have wanted to alchemically transmute his tin plates into real gold, or “materialize” them through his faith (as Ann Taves’ theory).
As is noted in another place about terma, sometimes the translation process requires “rituals designed to achieve the necessary state of mind known as bliss-emptiness. It is in this state of heightened awareness and lucidity, that the tertön experiences his or her visions and is able to first receive and then translate the revelation in question.”
Similarly, I think Joseph discovered the “gold plates” in himself, in his mind and heart, often referred to in alchemy as the Philosopher’s Stone, a kind of enlightenment in the mind, and is associated with heavenly bliss, perfection, gnosis, and eternal life. His use of the seer stone was a meditation object, in my view, and the ritual means he used to enter into that heightened state of awareness and lucidity, and retrieve the text from his mind.
In this way, the Book of Mormon was also a kind of mind-terma, or “a teaching concealed as an intention treasure appear[ing] directly within the mind of the tertön in the form of sounds or letters to fulfill the enlightened intention,” or “realizations achieved in meditation which connect the practitioner directly with the essential content of the teaching in one simultaneous experience.” All terma are considered mind-terma in a sense, “since the teaching associated is always inserted in the essence of the mind of the practitioner; in other words the terma is always a direct transmission from the essence of the mind of the [deities] towards the essence of the mind of the tertön.”
Thorndup writes more about how the supposed concealers of the terma transmitted the text:
While transmitting esoteric teachings to his realized disciples in Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava concealed many teachings with the blessings of his enlightened mind stream in the nature of the intrinsic awareness of the minds of his disciples through the power of “mind-mandated transmission”… thereby the master and disciple became united as one in the teachings and realization. Here, the master has concealed the teachings and blessings, the esoteric attainments, as [terma] in the pure nature of the minds of his disciples through his enlightened power, and he has made aspirations that the [terma] may be discovered for the sake of beings when the appropriate time comes.
And so we get a sense here that the terma may not be an actual transmission from one person to another, but may be found within the intrinsic awareness and purity of the mind itself, in human consciousness, in the “pure nature of the mind,” when the mind is united “as one,” or what we might call oneness, atonement, or nonduality. This, I believe, is where most prophet-mystics have discovered what is known as “ancient wisdom,” or “perennial wisdom,” not within any book or teaching from another source, but deep within the mind and heart of the mystic themself. They uncover something eternal within the human mind and human nature that is present in all humans, throughout all of history, and they then share their intuitions about this deep eternal Truth with others. This perennial wisdom is rediscovered repeatedly throughout history by the mystics, in the Life within themselves.
The Book of Mormon may have come from Joseph’s own deeper nature or essence of mind, which I believe demonstrates far more than the traditional narrative just how gifted he was as a spiritual adept and prophet-mystic. Rather than simply translating the words that others had already written, they were his inspired words, his revelation, from his mind, like a Buddhist tertön (translator revelator adept), a reflection of his deepest spiritual nature, even his Divine nature, the Divine nature of Humanity itself, his consciousness in pure at-one-ment with God that exists within all of Life, all beings, all people, and which we may also come to realize in ourselves, and know directly.