In Tibet, people generally understand what vajra masters and empowerment are. However, many lay practitioners elsewhere are seriously misinformed about these two subjects. Not knowing the correct way, they blindly follow some Vajrayana teachers and receive empowerment indiscriminately; this relatively common phenomenon has led to unfavorable consequences.
The two main problems are: first, it causes major obstacles for Vajrayana followers in their personal practice; second, it has a negative impact on the whole of Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana, causing people from all levels of society, Buddhists or not, to misunderstand what Tibetan Buddhism is about. Therefore, we need to address these two subjects.
Firstly, are monastics from Tibet clad in maroon robes all qualified to be vajra masters? Does the title of Rinpoche or Khenpo automatically make them a vajra master? Not necessarily. What type of person qualifies as a vajra master? What are the prerequisites of a sutrayana master in Theravada and Mahayana?
Some may think that they do not need to know these qualifications since they are not going to be vajra masters themselves. You may not be a vajra master one day, but you will become a disciple of one and when you do, you should choose a genuine vajra master.
The Reason to be Selective of Masters
To establish a disciple-master relationship is a very important step for the initiates of Buddhist practice. Precious time will be wasted if you are led astray by improperly taking someone as a master. Life is short already. To encounter the Dharma within this short period of time is difficult; to encounter a truly qualified vajra master is more difficult; to be able to follow the vajra master and properly practice the Dharma afterwards is extremely difficult. As you can see, one may face mounting difficulties in the course of seeking the genuine Dharma. Nevertheless, if one wishes to learn the Buddhadharma, one had better learn the right teachings and take the right path.
Buddhism is like a supermarket with plenty to offer. The Guhyagarbha Tantra of the Nyingma tradition states that Buddhism can be divided into five vehicles (yanas): Human and Celestial Beings (vehicle of seekers of fortune and bliss in the human and god realm respectively), Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, Bodhisattvayana, and Vajrayana. Whatever and however one seeks to practice the Dharma, various modes of practice can be found in Buddhism to suit each one’s aspiration. As in a supermarket where one can pick and choose freely, there are different levels of practice in Buddhism, from the worldly to the sublime, up to the incomparable Great Perfection, available for selection at one’s own discretion. Although the wish of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is for everyone to practice for the attainment of liberation instead of worldly benefit, it is only a wish on their part. They will not force everyone to practice Vajrayana, nor Mahayana or Theravada for that matter, because sentient beings differ in their capacity. Is one method sufficient to bring all out of samsara? Apparently not. It is precisely for this reason that the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma three times, and transmitted eighty-four thousand teachings. There would be no need for all of these if one method alone could work its magic.
Humanistic Buddhism pioneered by Venerable Master Taixu does not epitomize all the Buddhist teachings either. It advocates the establishment of charitable organizations for social welfare, saving animals or helping needy people resolve problems encountered in daily life. These types of virtuous deeds are the practice of the Human and Celestial Beings Vehicle as well as the activities of the bodhisattvas. Not only do the bodhisattvas not oppose such acts, they highly praise all the activities that can benefit sentient beings, including but not limited to propagating the Dharma and inspiring others to practice. Whether these virtuous deeds are the activities of the bodhisattvas or that of a more worldly nature is determined solely by one’s motivation.
Nowadays, many lay people proclaim themselves to be students of the Buddha. But what of the Buddha have they learned? Most lay practitioners, ranging from intellectuals and business people down to the old ladies in the villages, practice the Dharma as a way of cultivating worldly blessings. Their motivation to practice, take refuge, and undertake the five precepts is to obtain good health, longevity, a smooth career, successful business, and so on for themselves, and a chance to enter a good university or get a promising job for their children. Are they following the way of the Buddha? The Buddha never did any of these. We all know that after the Buddha aroused bodhicitta, he never once sought worldly benefit for himself during the incalculable eons of three asamkhyeya kalpas. This mode of “learning the way of the Buddha” conforms more to learning the Dharma. The meaning of the Sanskrit word dharma encompasses all mundane and supramundane phenomena. In the context of practicing the right Dharma, dharma denotes an ability to deliver sentient beings from all suffering, and can be translated literally as “that which upholds.” It is in accord with the meaning of dharma if people practicing the Vehicle of Human and Celestial Beings enjoy the resulting blessings and take rebirth in the higher realms. Thus, undertaking virtuous deeds for the purpose of obtaining worldly benefits is not considered learning the Buddha’s way but learning the Dharma. Today, many self-proclaimed Buddhists maintain this kind of motivation.
As for the rest of the practitioners, some seek their own liberation. Although we all like to claim to be Mahayana practitioners, in reality, many of us only practice to liberate ourselves. Things like practicing the preliminaries, liberating animals, burning incense, and performing prostrations are all done for the purpose of accumulating merit for ourselves. These activities are not much different from working or handling family affairs: working is for our own living, not others’; practicing the five preliminaries and listening to teachings are for our own liberation, not others’ either. Everything is done for our own sake.
Only a small percentage of people are truly concerned with the welfare of others, not their own. One analogy in the sutras is as follows: Sow grains to reap grains, but straws need not be sown as it can be reaped without volition. (Sowing grains is likened to the bodhisattvas’ practice of the six perfections; grains, the welfare of sentient beings; and straws, the welfare of one’s own). Another analogy is: Make a fire to cook rice and have rice to eat, but smoke need not be attended to as it will arise naturally from the fire. (Making a fire to cook rice has the same connotation as sowing grains; rice, the same as grains; and smoke, the same as straws). What these analogies tell us is that although our capability is limited, if we can truly let go or set aside our own concerns—not just those in this life but also liberation in the future—and focus wholeheartedly and unconditionally on benefiting others, our own welfare will take care of itself.
Actually, the real issue is that we are not able to let go; if we can, things will work out by themselves in due course. There is a very good example to support this. We have been in samsara since beginningless time; whether we were born noble like Indra, the ruler of gods, or inferior like ants or earthworms, we have always worked to safeguard our own interest, never that of others. But how well have we done for ourselves? Not much really, since we are still struggling in the mire of samsara. When we die, we will leave this life empty-handed just like in previous lives, and continue to do the same in future lives. The Buddha, on the other hand, truly let go of everything and focused fully on the benefit of others. As documented in the extensive version of his biography, the Buddha gave his body, even his life, just to feed a hungry being, let alone other sacrifices. He completely ignored his own welfare, yet he attained buddhahood with perfect merit and wisdom. Therefore, being able to let go of selfish concern is like the Buddha; not being able to let go is like sentient beings of the six realms. Regrettably, among Buddhists, there are only a relatively few who can truly grasp the essence of Mahayana. However, this conclusion is just based on readily observable outward appearances and thus may not be accurate.
It is deemed the Theravadin path if the goal of learning the Dharma or doing good deeds is for the sake of one’s own liberation. If the goal is liberation for others, our actions, even those that appear unvirtuous, are meritorious deeds that lead to buddhahood. There are many such stories in the Buddhist sutras. We often participate in activities to liberate animals, undertake practice, and so on in our own interest. On the surface, we are doing all the right things, but in fact our actions are fundamentally flawed.
Are all actions undertaken for others in accord with the genuine Dharma? Not necessarily. There are indeed many good-hearted people in our society. Every time I hear about their endeavors, I feel ashamed of my own inadequacy. They are not Buddhists, nor do they proclaim their intention to attain buddhahood for the sake of liberating other beings. Yet, we can all see the good that they do. As for us Buddhists, we may try to renew our aspiration everyday by reciting over and over again: “I must arouse bodhicitta in order to deliver others from suffering.” But are we just paying lip service? Do our minds and actions correspond to our aspiration?
In short, only undertaking the altruistic actions that help sentient beings to liberation is deemed the right path for us, the path to enlightenment.
How should we take this path? We need the guidance of good spiritual friends (kalyanamitra) to successfully navigate the path to enlightenment. As an example, in our innumerable lifetimes we must have acquired knowledge of the world we live in many times over; just that we cannot remember it. Now even to learn one discipline, we still need the guidance of a teacher to master it. Not taking care of our own interests is something we have never done, thought about, or even dreamed about since beginningless time, whereas minding our own interest is what we have always done in every lifetime. The Buddha asked us to forsake what we are used to and accept what we have never thought about. Just imagine how difficult that can be! Only with the assistance of good spiritual guides can we possibly succeed in this endeavor. Therefore, it is particularly important to choose carefully one’s vajra master and spiritual guide.
How to Choose a Master
Qualifications for a Mahayana Master
What are the minimum criteria for a Mahayana master?
First, Mahayana masters must have uncontrived bodhicitta. According to the sutras, if a person has uncontrived bodhicitta, although he or she may not be perfect in every way, we can take this person as our master when no other teacher can be found. We become disciples in the hope of receiving from the master the wisdom and skillful means conducive to our liberation, nothing else. If the master has uncontrived bodhicitta, he or she will at the least instill something good into our minds. In other words, the master will not use us for personal gain, and will try to the extent possible to guide us. So we can learn something.
Second, it is not enough to just have bodhicitta. What can we learn from a teacher of excellent character yet poor knowledge? By the same token, the master may be as kind and loving as the buddhas and bodhisattvas, but lack what we need the most, the wisdom for enlightenment. How can we attain any wisdom if the master has none? So, on the basis of having uncontrived bodhicitta, a Mahayana master must, to a certain extent, be adept in both the sutric and tantric teachings and in particular possess knowledge of the actual practice that we need. A person without bodhicitta and wisdom may be a glib talker and a smooth operator, but is actually more concerned with his or her personal benefit than that of others. Such a person will likely use us for personal gain. Any conflict that arises, if not handled well, can create a lot of problems. In this case, it is best not to follow such a person.
Qualifications for a Vajra Master
To meet just the minimum criteria is not sufficient to qualify one as a vajra master. Jigme Lingpa, who received the entirety of Longchenpa’s teachings, was an accomplished master of the Nyingma tradition. His work, Treasury of Enlightened Attributes, compiled the many qualifications that sutra and tantra require of a vajra master. Later, he wrote in a stanza, “Because it is now the Age of Declining Dharma and sentient beings have barely enough merit accumulated, finding a perfect vajra master like the Buddha or a great bodhisattva is extremely difficult.” Thus he said, “Just leave this very high standard for now and see the less stringent requirements a vajra master must fulfill.”
§ The master must keep pure the pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and Vajrayana vows.
Pure pratimoksha vows—The vows of pratimoksha can be divided into two types: the lay and the monastic. From this perspective, a vajra master can either be a lay person or a monastic. A lay vajra master must first of all observe the complete lay precepts and not break them.
Pure bodhisattva vows—A vajra master must have generated bodhicitta in aspiration as well as bodhicitta in action. Regarding the bodhisattva vows, I need to point out a problem. Many Buddhists think that when the bodhisattva vows were transmitted in certain rituals they attended, it means they must have received the essence of the vows. Actually, it’s hard to say if they have. The question is what holds the key to actually receiving the essence of the vows. If we were to organize a grand ceremony and invite some eminent masters to transmit the bodhisattva vows, would we truly receive the vows? On the outside, the conditions seem to be perfect—the person transmitting the vows is a respectable practitioner who has taken the bodhisattva vows and knows how to transmit the vows; the ritual is accurately performed; we attend the ceremony; and the ceremony is splendid. However, the key to obtaining the essence of the bodhisattva vows lies in engendering the inner cause, not the outer conditions. The inner cause is whether or not bodhicitta has been aroused from the bottom of our hearts. For instance, after the ceremony, we should ask ourselves if our purpose is for self-benefit or the benefit of others. If it is for the benefit of others, we must have the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of delivering them from suffering. If this is the motivation behind most of our practices, we will receive the essence of the bodhisattva vows. Conversely, if everything is done for our own enlightenment, we do not even have bodhicitta, so how can we hope to receive the true bodhisattva vows? It is absolutely impossible.
Therefore, the first thing is to train the mind, that is, to practice the Four Immeasurables according to the teachings of the inner preliminaries, then generate bodhicitta. The Buddhist teachings have always placed emphasis on undertaking all practices from the mind.
Without bodhicitta or any foundational training of mind, what effect could possibly be expected simply by attending a ceremony bestowing the bodhisattva vows? Although the person transmitting the vows is highly respected, having perfect merit and wisdom, what use are these great qualities to us? He or she cannot forcibly turn us into bodhisattvas if we do not generate bodhicitta ourselves. If it were at all possible, the Buddha would have done so long ago. Therefore, it is not that easy to receive the bodhisattva vows. Once received, the vows must be observed.
Pure Vajrayana vows—To obtain the Vajrayana vows, one must receive genuine empowerment. We may say that we have received empowerment and hence the Vajrayana vows. But whether one has gotten the essence of the vows depends on three factors. First, the person conferring the empowerment must have the qualifications and the ability to do so. In other words, did he or she truly receive the Vajrayana vows? Second, is the receiver qualified to take empowerment? Third, is the ritual of empowerment properly conducted? If all three are satisfied, we may then say we have been initiated into Vajrayana. Otherwise, it is still questionable if we are indeed disciples of Vajrayana.
§ A vajra master must have extensive knowledge of the Buddhadharma.
There are some practitioners (like in the past certain old lamas practicing in the mountain caves) who are quite accomplished; they keep their vows pure, are very devout, and have great faith in their lamas. Intellectually, they understand the doctrines to some extent, but have difficulty teaching others since the Dharma is somewhat different from secular knowledge. For instance, even if one is proficient in only one branch of learning, one can already be deemed an authority in that particular field, which is not the case with the Buddhadharma. One is only able to truly comprehend the intent of the Buddha after having mastered the whole teachings. Just reading a few scriptures is insufficient, as the truth taught by the Buddha may be revealed either fully or partially in various texts. The Buddha always taught according to the capacity of the audience so that the teaching could best benefit them. He would not teach the real truth if it could not be understood. However, if the partial truth could be understood and accepted with joy, and this joy could eventually lead them to the path of enlightenment, the Buddha would first oblige them with rather expedient teachings just to please them. Was the Buddha lying then? No, the Buddha simply gave different teachings to suit the different capacities of his audience. What then is the real thought of the Buddha in all his teachings? It can only be grasped by immersing oneself in the vast amount of scriptures and becoming well versed in them. This is the difference between Buddhist teachings and other disciplines. Thus, one must be very learned in order to transmit the Dharma to others.
§ A vajra master must have great compassion.
A vajra master should receive sentient beings with compassion. Practitioners who keep their vows pure and are knowledgeable about both sutra and tantra, but are only willing to practice alone in mountain caves and reluctant to have any outside contact, do not meet the requirements of a vajra master, even though they may be real practitioners.
§ A vajra master must be proficient in the sadhana of both sutra and tantra.
Especially in Vajrayana, there are many activity-oriented practices undertaken to free sentient beings from suffering and dispel obstacles to practice. But these are all performed according to the sadhanas. If one does not know anything about them, one will lack many of the skillful means available for delivering sentient beings. This is why comprehensive knowledge of the sadhana is required of a vajra master.
§ A vajra master must have attained certain realization.
Take the example of the Guhyagarbha empowerment. It contains one hundred yidams, of which fifty-eight are wrathful deities and forty-two are peaceful deities. The person bestowing the empowerment must be able to visualize clearly each and every yidam, including the deity’s ritual objects, mudra, and adornments. If the person cannot do so, how can empowerment be conferred to anyone? Therefore, a vajra master must have succeeded in attaining realization. Likewise, to teach and transmit Dzogchen, one must have attained Dzogchen realization beforehand. It is like showing someone the way. One must know the way well before one can point out the right direction to others. If the guide is confused, how can others be led correctly? By the same token, if the master has not achieved realization, how can he or she explain the profound Great Perfection? Thus, the person who can transmit teachings such as the Great Perfection or the pith instructions must be a realized master.
Realization, in this context, does not signify the total eradication of all defilements or the attainment of perfect wisdom, just the ability to more or less eliminate defilements and gain certain wisdom. Here, wisdom denotes not worldly intelligence and discernment, nor knowledge gained from the books, but awareness realized through direct experience.
§ A vajra master must know the four ways of gathering disciples.
These are the means by which the bodhisattvas bring sentient beings to the truth taught by the Buddha. Not knowing these methods would make the task of freeing sentient beings from samsara impossible.
The six points above are the basic requirements of a vajra master. Those fulfilling all six requisites are deemed qualified masters. But there is a saying in Tibet: “It’s hard to distinguish between a thief and a buddha.” Among all the people on the streets, which ones are thieves? We don’t know. The same goes with the buddhas. There must be manifestations of the buddha among those people, but the word “buddha” is not inscribed on any of their foreheads. So we cannot identify a buddha or a thief simply from their appearance. In that case, how should we choose and follow a vajra master? Three ways to observe a vajra master are specified in the tantras of Vajrayana.
First, before approaching the potential master, we can ask people living in the neighborhood since they might know more about this person. This is to observe from a distance. Second, a closer observation can be made by monitoring the behavior of this person nearby, without any contact still. But to do so for only one or two days is not enough because a disguise can easily be put on for a short period of time. Third, we can establish contact with and carefully observe this person for some time, say six or eight years. If at that point we feel that this person has met the six requirements of a master, we can then become his or her disciple.
People in modern society are constantly occupied with work and what not. How can it be possible for them to spend seven or eight years observing a master? On the other hand, it is a prerequisite that a vajra master have the right qualifications in order to confer genuine empowerment or the pith instructions on Vajrayana practices. What should we do then? In this case, accomplished masters like H. H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and others would be our best choice because they have been examined over a long period of time and approved by many other distinguished practitioners. So it should not take us too much effort, in terms of evaluating their qualifications, to follow such masters. For masters not in this category though, the checking process is necessary.
These are the minimum criteria in Vajrayana for a master. One cannot be a vajra master if one is unable to meet them. But whether someone can be a vajra master is really not our concern, to become a disciple or not is. As mentioned earlier, regarding the current situation in many places, people tend to receive empowerment from anyone from Tibet wearing a red robe and having a self-proclaimed title of tulku or khenpo, without knowing much about this person’s background or the terms for receiving empowerment. All they know is that empowerment and vajra masters are good for them. It would be all right if they never were to lose their faith in the master after becoming disciples. However, this is usually not the case. For instance, when a master draws a large crowd by giving an empowerment, one week later, people may start making accusations—“We were wrong about him; he has not attained any realization nor kept his vows, and does not even have good character”; or they may argue among themselves by saying, “Your master is inferior to mine; my lineage is superior to yours; my sect is better than yours”; and so forth. These are some of the problems that lay practitioners have nowadays.
Qualifications for a Theravada Master
Briefly speaking, to be a Theravada master, one must first, keep precepts pure, meaning a sramanera (or sramaneri) should keep his or her respective precepts, and a bhikkhu (or bhikkhuni) his or hers; second, be thoroughly proficient in the knowledge of precepts; third, pay close attention to his or her disciples. There are many other qualifications, but only these three are pointed out here.
Of all the masters, the requirements for a vajra master are the most rigorous, particularly the attainment of realization as it is not easily achievable. Vajrayana absolutely forbids a person to blindly take someone as a master. It strictly requires one to observe a master over and over again before becoming a disciple and subsequently receiving teachings and empowerment from the master.
More importantly, one should never lose faith in the master thereafter, no matter what fault may be found in him or her. Whether the master has merit or not, one should remain faithful and follow the master conscientiously; if not, one may commit negative karma again. Nowadays there are many qualified vajra masters as well as unqualified ones. Hence, we must observe well and choose carefully.
What if we are unable to make this observation? Actually, whether they are monastics or lay people, all are practitioners; the monastics in particular all have some merit—this is for sure. The Buddha also said the monastics who resume secular life and subsequently violate the precepts are like the remains of a musk deer, while the non-practitioners are like a dog’s dead body. From a dead musk deer, a useful substance, musk, can still be harvested, whereas nothing valuable can be salvaged from a dead dog (the view of ancient Indians); it is just a body. In other words, a monastic with however little merit accumulated is still somewhat better off than a lay person under normal circumstances. What lay people should do is to respect, out of one’s faith, all the monastics and refrain from counting their faults. If we intend to take a monastic as master, we must repeatedly observe this person beforehand; if not, it is unnecessary to keep watching the person for possible violation of disciplines. Because no one can tell if these monastics have merit or not from their appearance. Some of them may very well be the manifestations of bodhisattvas.
There were once eighty mahasiddhas (great adepts) in India. How did they manifest themselves? If we were to see them today, we would surely adopt an unwholesome attitude toward them. There were hunters, prostitutes, and butchers among them. In short, they were people of the lowest caste, yet they were also the manifestations of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Thus, from the perspective of faith, we ought to cultivate the habit of respecting all monastics, as we have nothing to lose. This is the right view that lay practitioners should hold.
There are some serious problems regarding empowerment nowadays. Everyone wants to receive empowerment because they think empowerment is something extraordinary. Some are told that without empowerment they are not allowed to read the Vajrayana texts. In order to satisfy their curiosity about these texts, they receive empowerment. Others do so because it makes them feel special to have the right to read Vajrayana texts. Not only that, they are often not serious about observing the Vajrayana vows afterward. This happens in the big cities in China, as well as in other countries and some places in Tibet.
Also, many people think that by attending the empowerment ceremony, listening to the teachings, partaking some food from the tsok offering, and having a buddha statue touch their head, they will thus receive empowerment. In fact, it is not like that at all.
Three conditions must be satisfied if one is to receive empowerment. First, the person conferring the empowerment must be a qualified vajra master. Second, the recipient must have the qualifications to receive empowerment. Third, the way the empowerment is bestowed must be accurate. If one of these three is not fulfilled, we cannot truly receive empowerment. In the future when we plan to receive empowerment, we must check first if these three conditions are fully met.
Now let us discuss what empowerment means. Many lay people and some Chinese monastics as well do not know what empowerment really is. Some believe that receiving empowerment will greatly improve their practice and enable them to swiftly attain accomplishment. Others think that it signifies a permission to read the texts which they would not be allowed otherwise. It must be clarified that to attain buddhahood shortly after receiving empowerment is impossible for most people nowadays. There were some exceptions in the past, but they were people of exceptional faculty. For ordinary people, even to make progress right after receiving empowerment is questionable, much less to attain buddhahood.
Then, what exactly is empowerment? It is a high-level bestowment of precepts. For instance, there are respective sadhanas for bestowing bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, and bodhisattva precepts. There is one for empowerment as well. More specifically, to receive empowerment is to take Vajrayana vows. For example, the Guhyagarbha empowerment contains five root vows and ten branch vows. We should check first if we can observe all of them. If so, we can go ahead and receive the empowerment; if not, we cannot take empowerment, or we may break the vows afterward. All empowerments denote the bestowal of Vajrayana precepts, only the number of precepts varies. Some of the precepts may be rather difficult for ordinary people to observe, but with permission these can be substituted. There are also precepts that regular people are able to observe, but we monastics cannot. Therefore, the proper way to receive empowerment is to know the precepts pertaining to the particular empowerment and whether one can observe them before receiving the empowerment.
When receiving empowerment, if one does not know it is the same as receiving Vajrayana precepts, and the master does not point this out, one could remain ignorant of the precepts for many years. After reading the texts of Vajrayana precepts much later, one will discover either the essence of the precepts was never received or the precepts were violated long ago. The reasons are twofold: first, one did not think clearly in advance about one’s suitability to receive empowerment; second, the person bestowing the empowerment neglected to explain the proper steps.
It is stated in the Vinaya that when bestowing bhikkhu (bhikkhuni) precepts, the person transmitting the precepts must first explain clearly what one can and cannot do from then on. The Buddha said that it is surely a great fault to give a butcher a sharp knife to kill, but not as grave a mistake as to transmit precepts to someone without explaining fully what they are.
Some people may question, “Isn’t it a good thing to bestow precepts and empowerments? How can there be any fault?”
If the recipient did receive the empowerment, but subsequently violated the tantric vows because he or she was not told specifically what they are, the recipient will end up in vajra hell. In this case, is the empowerment beneficial or detrimental to the recipient? Of course, the master, not the recipient, should take responsibility. But the fact is the vows have been broken, and even though the recipient is not accountable, he or she is ultimately the victim. Therefore, it must be understood that to bestow empowerment is effectively to bestow Vajrayana precepts. Although one will be permitted to read the Vajrayana texts after receiving empowerment, and can thus gradually and indirectly obtain some wisdom as well as reduce certain negative karma, empowerment is primarily the bestowal of precepts.
Now let us turn to the prerequisites for receiving empowerment.
Only when all six causes and conditions—two causes and four conditions—are present can one actually receive empowerment.
The first is the congruent cause (samprayuktakahetu). It refers to the winds (prana), channels (nadis), essences (bindu), and other elements of the human body. A person with all six sense organs intact would basically satisfy this requirement. Therefore, it should not be a concern for most people. The second is the acting cause (karanahetu), which refers to the ritual objects to be used for empowerment such as a vase, a statue, sacred nectar, and so forth.
Does a vase with a peacock feather inserted become a ritual object? No. Among the many factors that contribute to the making of a ritual object, the blessing of a vajra master is indispensable. The so-called master’s blessing means a person of certain power confers that power on an object. For example, the water that we drink normally is either tap water or mineral water that can only quench our thirst, while blessed water has the power to clear karmic obscuration and increase wisdom. What is the source of this power? Does it come from reciting a sutra? No. If so, all those who have learned how to read should be similarly empowered. The source of blessing is actually a certain level of realization attained by a practitioner. Only such a person can bless the ritual objects intended for empowerment.
These days, anyone with money can buy nicely adorned gold or silver vases. The fillings for the vase, such as herbal medicine, can also be obtained at the specialized farmers market. But gold is just gold; it should not have any blessing power, right? Similarly, the buddha statues and sacred nectar also need to be consecrated and blessed. The imperceptible power contained within the visible objects comes about through the consecration by and the blessing of vajra masters. A qualified vajra master must have this capability. If we choose one such master, the acting cause would not be an issue.
The first of the four conditions is the direct condition (hetupratyaya), which denotes the requirements that all Vajrayana disciples must meet. What are the requirements? One is deemed to have met this condition if one has unshakable faith in Vajrayana, attends the empowerment ceremony, is able to hear the master’s words and the reading of the sadhana, and can visualize as instructed at the ceremony. If one does not have much interest in Vajrayana or receives empowerment purely out of curiosity, one can neither meet the direct condition nor receive genuine empowerment. Some who may have certain faith in Vajrayana but are inattentive at the initiation ceremony do not meet the causal condition either.
The second is the predominant condition (adhipati-pratyaya), which is what vajra masters must meet. The importance of vajra masters has been discussed earlier. Many people have been to Larung Gar (in Serthar, Sichuan Province) and received teachings there. So this should not be a problem for them. However, in other places lay people, though very devout, are rather ignorant because they do not have the opportunity to hear the teachings and thus lack the necessary understanding of Vajrayana. As a result, they do not know what a qualified vajra master is and how to choose one, which eventually causes a series of problems.
If a vajra master does not have the ability to bestow empowerment, no one at the ceremony can receive any empowerment. If all it takes is the ability to recite one sutra, anyone can bestow empowerment. But this cannot be farther from the fact. The master must be well versed in the Vajrayana scriptures and has attained certain realization, particularly realization of the generation stage and completion stage, to be qualified to bestow empowerment. Only an empowerment given by such a master is deemed in accordance with the Dharma; all others are just look-alikes. When empowerment is not bestowed properly, the only merit thereof would be to hear the readings of the relevant texts as they are also considered the vajra words of the tantras. But nothing more can come out of it. Like a pot without a ladle, how can anything be taken out of the pot? Therefore, it is very important to observe and choose one’s master carefully.
The third is the co-operative condition (alambana-pratyaya). In addition to a qualified vajra master, our faith, and the fully blessed ritual objects, there is still one more condition to be met. When bestowing empowerment, the master will ask us to do various visualizations. If we do not comply, we will not be able to satisfy this condition. Therefore, we must listen very carefully to the text being read during the empowerment ceremony and do every visualization as asked. Only then can we receive the empowerment. Quite often, our body is present at the empowerment ritual while our mind is not. If this is the case, there is no chance we can receive real empowerment. Many of you have been to Larung Gar to receive empowerment. There, qualified vajra masters are some of the best you can find anywhere; the ritual objects and sadhana used in the empowerment ceremony are also impeccably well prepared. Nevertheless, if you are absent-minded and do not follow the instructions of the master while attending the ceremony, the empowerment so received would still be an imperfect one.
The fourth is the immediately antecedent condition (samanantarapratyaya), which means the bestowal of empowerment must follow the specified order, that is, the preceding and the subsequent empowerments must not be mixed up. However, this concerns only the vajra master, not us.
In conclusion, when receiving empowerment, our job is first to observe and choose a qualified vajra master, then go to the empowerment ceremony, listen attentively, and follow the master’s instructions to visualize accordingly.
As stated clearly in the texts, if any one of the two causes and four conditions is lacking, one will not receive empowerment. An analogy in the text can further elucidate this point. In the old days, a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart would not be able to function at all if one wheel was missing. Likewise, no empowerment can be successfully received if one of the six causes and conditions is missing. Hence, we must strive to fulfill all six requirements in order to receive true empowerment.
An even more important matter that needs urgent attention after the empowerment is to observe the Vajrayana vows. To receive empowerment is to accept the samaya vows. All the vows made at the empowerment ceremony must be followed, or they may be broken, taking the violator down to vajra hell. This would be an extremely dangerous prospect for both the violator and the master, unless the master has attained buddhahood or the high-level realization of a bodhisattva as such a person is no longer affected by causality. Can ordinary people bestow empowerment? Possibly. Those who have reached the advanced level on the path of preparation are qualified to bestow empowerment, but they can also descend into the hell realm if they break their vows. If it is possible for such vajra masters to be reborn in the hell realm, the followers who receive empowerment from them are just as likely to meet the same fate, if not more so. Therefore, the first thing that needs to be done after receiving empowerment is to understand in full detail the Vajrayana precepts and observe them strictly. This is of vital importance.
Nowadays, the logic behind many decisions is all wrong. For example, if the five precepts for lay practitioners are first explained clearly before everyone is asked to observe the complete set of vows, many people will voice their concern, “I cannot comply; some of the five precepts are not suitable for me.” However, when the subject matter is empowerment, their attitude is different. As soon as they hear of a bestowal of empowerment, they all want to attend. If people have doubts about keeping even the five precepts for lay practitioners, how can they handle the tantric vows? This indicates that people receive empowerment without first evaluating their own suitability of accepting the vows. Actually, the five precepts are not very stringent, nor are the qualifications of the master transmitting these precepts; the requirements of the recipients are also relatively lax. Even so, many people still feel that they are not up to keeping them. Yet, they do not have this feeling when it comes to receiving empowerment. If a Dzogchen empowerment is to be given, all Vajrayana practitioners upon hearing the news will surely attend without any hesitation. But, should they? As discussed earlier, even if the ritual objects, the proceeding of the ceremony, and the master are all perfectly present, it is still possible one may not be in the position to receive empowerment. Dzogchen empowerment entails the observance of many vows. One must consider one’s own ability to keep these vows. If people are so cautious about accepting the five precepts for lay practitioners, they should be much more serious when considering the acceptance of the Vajrayana vows.
The merit of properly receiving empowerment and observing the Vajrayana vows is much greater than that of the pratimoksha vows, but so is the danger of violating the Vajrayana vows. Nonetheless, as long as one seriously follows the teachings of Vajrayana to abide by the precepts, keeping the Vajrayana vows is not as difficult as it might seem. This is because Vajrayana is not meant for the realized bodhisattvas or buddhas to practice, but for ordinary people like us. From this perspective, we should not be discouraged since the Vajrayana precepts that the Buddha laid down are vows that we can handle. We just need to know the correct way to observe them. To be able to receive empowerment is certainly very auspicious if everything can be done according to the Dharma.