How to Receive Empowerment

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche
HITS( 17574)

After generating bodhicitta in tantra and receiving an empowerment, a person enters the door to tantric practice.

Bodhicitta is defined differently in tantra and sutra. Bodhicitta in sutra is the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the benefit of sentient beings through methods in sutra, but buddhahood is attained after three asamkhyeya kalpas. Bodhicitta in tantra is the aspiration to attain buddhahood in this lifetime for the benefit of sentient beings through methods in tantra. If that is not possible, one should attain buddhahood during bardo; if that is also not possible, one should vow to actualize buddhahood in the next life.

It is said in tantra a practitioner who upholds the tantric precepts will attain enlightenment no later than seven lifetimes.

A person who generates bodhicitta in tantra and takes empowerment the first time is formally a Vajrayana practitioner. Thereafter, he is not only a Buddhist but also a person on the path of liberation, not only a person on the path of liberation but also a person on the Mahayana path of liberation, not only a person on the Mahayana path of liberation but also a person on the Vajrayana path.

Hence, an empowerment is very important in Vajrayana practice. A person who has not received empowerment is not permitted to listen to and undertake the actual tantric practices. If one intends to practice Vajrayana, the first step must be to receive an empowerment.

Presently, however, there are two problems with empowerments:

First, practitioners do not know what qualifications the person conferring the empowerment and the person receiving the empowerment should possess, nor what is expected of them prior to and during empowerment. If the vajra master conferring the empowerment is not qualified, the empowerment will not be complete; it may even cause the person at the other end not to receive it. If the vajra master meets the necessary requirements, the person still cannot receive the empowerment if he himself is not qualified.

Second, practitioners do not know what is expected of them after the empowerment. Hence, they violate the tantric vows soon after receiving the empowerment. Basically, the tantric precepts and corresponding liturgies are given during empowerment; they are to be upheld after the ceremony. But many who have received empowerment over the years actually do not know taking empowerment indicates the acceptance of tantric precepts; not realizing these precepts have to be followed, they do not know they have violated the precepts, nor do they know how to repent. This is very irresponsible. We are careful about observing the five basic lay precepts, yet unconcerned with upholding the tantric precepts which, if violated, constitutes a far more serious transgression.

Here, I would like to remind everyone that, after the empowerment, we must study the fourteen root tantric precepts or the precepts that correspond with the empowerment, and keep our vows.

Of course, it is not essential to practice tantra to be a Buddhist; if we choose Pure Land or Ch’an in Chinese Buddhism, we do not need to receive an empowerment nor worry about breaking the tantric precepts. However, if we intend to practice tantra, it is necessary to be well informed. A discussion on empowerment can be found in the chapter “Vajra Master and Empowerment.” This topic shall be further developed below.


The Sanskrit term abhieka for empowerment, or initiation, has two kinds of meaning. One is to infuse. Our buddha nature does not require an infusion from outside, since it is naturally present, but on the surface an empowerment instills a certain power that awakens the buddha nature. The other is to destroy, to eradicate our desire, anger, delusion, and other obscurations.

Awakening the Buddha Nature

The ground (as in ground, path, and fruition expounded in tantra) is inherent in every sentient being. From the standpoint of tantra, the essence of our five poisons—desire, anger, delusion, arrogance, and doubt—is the fivefold wisdom of the five Buddha-families. Actually, the fivefold wisdom of the buddha and the five Buddha-families are one and the same. The fivefold wisdom of the buddha is the essence of the five Buddha-families. The five types of wisdom are also called the five Buddha-families; the five Buddha-families are the manifestation of the five types of wisdom. The fivefold wisdom is the state of buddhahood; to the bodhisattvas, this wisdom manifests as the five Buddha-families.

The five Buddha-families or five types of wisdom are the underlying nature of our mind. Prior to studying Buddhism and receiving an empowerment, our buddha nature is essentially dormant. The purpose of empowerment is to awaken our buddha nature and bring it into full play. Of course, at the fundamental level, the unconditioned buddha nature is beyond activation, but in terms of phenomena, the activation process exists.

There are three kinds of awakening:

At the highest level, one attains buddhahood immediately upon receiving an empowerment; the state of buddhahood is reached instantly without having to practice on the paths of seeing and meditation. But this is extremely rare, since there are only one or two such examples of Indian siddhas in the history of Vajrayana Buddhism. In the history of Tibetan Buddhism, there are instances of sudden enlightenment but not of buddhahood.

At the intermediate level, one attains sudden enlightenment upon receiving an empowerment. In any initiation of Dzogchen, the Dzogchen view is explained. Realization is not possible if one does not understand the language and translation is not available. However, if the conditions are right—the translation is available and relatively accurate, the vajra master possesses the merit, and the disciple is spiritually mature, that is, he has unwavering faith in tantra and the Three Jewels, and has already completed the outer and inner preliminaries—it is possible for a person, given the blessing of the vajra master, to attain enlightenment upon receiving an empowerment, especially the precious word empowerment, the fourth level and the highest empowerment in tantra. Actually, in Chinese Buddhism, there are people who attained sudden enlightenment under special circumstances; for instance, the sixth patriarch Hui Neng became enlightened when the fifth patriarch explained a verse in the Diamond Sutra to him. But this kind of realization is only considered the early stage of enlightenment, not buddhahood. Within the five paths to liberation in sutra and tantra, it is part of the path of preparation, not even the first bhumi level on the path of seeing, let alone the eighth or tenth bhumi.

At the lowest level, one attains neither buddhahood nor enlightenment; one may not even feel anything special. However, the practice of the vajra master, the power of the initiation, and the visualization practice of the disciple come together and serve as conditions that can activate the latent buddha nature in the person’s mind, and propel him or her swiftly toward eventual enlightenment.

Granting Permission

If a person practices tantra without first receiving an empowerment, nothing of substance will come of it. Not only that, he will be committing a transgression of stealing the Dharma by not observing the rules.

After the empowerment, the practitioner has the right to study the tantric texts, undertake the practice, recite the deity mantras, and propagate tantra. Naturally, there are several levels of empowerment; some initiations allow the person to practice but not expound the teachings, others allow the person to practice as well as propagate the teachings.


Requirements of a Vajra Master

The person granting the empowerment is called a vajra master. The scriptures, especially tantric writings, clearly prescribe many qualifications of the vajra master; everyone can refer to the Dzogchen texts such as Longchenpa’s Finding Rest in the Nature of Mind and The Words of My Perfect Teacher. In tantra, a person can take an empowerment only from a qualified master; otherwise, receiving the empowerment is the same as not receiving it.

To be a vajra master, there are also special requirements:

  1. One must not have violated the tantric precepts, resulting in the loss or contamination of the essence of the vows.
  2. One must have achieved meditative concentration in the generation stage and completion stage practices, although a high level of accomplishment, like the first bhumi and up, is not necessarily required.
  3. One must have successfully completed the practice of the main deity of the empowerment in rigorous retreat. Although how much time should be devoted to the practice is not stipulated, one must have perfected the recitation of the deity mantra in strict compliance with the practice.
  4. One must have a good command of the initiation liturgy from beginning to end.

To confer an empowerment, it is essential for the vajra master to satisfy these four conditions; a person cannot otherwise receive the empowerment.

Nowadays, self-proclaimed living buddhas, khenpos, accomplished masters, yogis, and dakinis abound everywhere; a person who cannot discern true from false can easily be fooled. When the great master Atisha went to Tibet, it was a period of turmoil following the persecution of Buddhism in the country (during the persecution, Tibetan monks and nuns were defrocked; monastics were nowhere to be seen. But many lay tantric practitioners kept a low profile, preserved the monastic precepts and traditions, and subsequently propagated the teachings in their entirety. If not for them, there would be no Tibetan Buddhism today). Many Indian so-called masters and adepts also went to Tibet at the same time, but primarily because there was plenty of gold in Tibet. Some absconded with money; others transmitted uncanonical teachings that left a negative influence on many practitioners.

When Atisha was about to enter parinirvana, he repeatedly exhorted: “Follow the teachings in the sutras; do not seek teachings from Indians who look for gold.” Sakyamuni Buddha also said to his disciples in his final moment: “Follow the precepts.” Similarly, we should rely on the precepts and the written words in the sutras, even though not all self-proclaimed living buddhas and khenpos are swindlers. When we pass judgment on monastics and practitioners in general, we are committing a transgression. If we do not seek the teachings, there is no reason to judge or examine them. We ought instead to respect all who wear the monastic robes, whether they keep the essence of the precepts intact or not; this is one of the requirements in taking refuge. However, if we intend to receive empowerment or teachings from a person, we must first undertake a critical examination of the person.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, a person is required to observe a master for a period of twelve years before taking refuge with him. What if we do not have that much time? Personally, I would advise students to follow those recognized masters from the older generation in Tibet, who have gone through much hardship and are highly accomplished in their practice as a result. This is not to imply there are no young masters around, but with no way of evaluating the person, it would be safer to follow my recommendation.

Presently, there are people who use Vajrayana Buddhism as an excuse to eat meat, drink alcohol, extort money, and break up other people’s families; these are all signs of a degenerate time. In Tibetan Buddhism and in Chinese Buddhism as well, some people also pass themselves off as members of the monastic community. These undesirable elements exist in any community, so we must be very careful! If someone professes to have supernatural power, and claims he has a special past connection with a person and that person can attain liberation by undertaking the yab-yum practice with him, he is definitely a fake. At the same time, it should be very clear to us this is a problem with the individual, not with tantra. If we allow ourselves to be deceived so easily, it is then our own problem. Tantra is nothing like this; in fact, it strongly opposes these practices. It is said in tantric literature that actions taken in the name of tantra such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying are far more serious than ordinary actions of like kind!

Hence, prior to examining whether a master possesses the necessary qualifications, a person must not blindly receive an empowerment; he could otherwise regret it for life. Tantric rules cannot be disregarded or taken lightly.

Requirements of a Disciple

  1. Renunciation. If the purpose of studying Buddhism is only to realize long life, wealth, and status, one cannot receive empowerment at all. Because tantra is established on the basis of bodhisattva and pratimoksha vows; bodhisattva vows are established on the basis of bodhicitta; pratimoksha vows are established on the basis of renunciation. If any one factor is missing, our objective cannot be achieved.
  2. Bodhicitta. Tantra is firstly Mahayana Buddhism. Without bodhicitta, it cannot be called tantra, nor can emptiness be realized.
  3. Faith in the tantric teachings. Even with renunciation and bodhicitta, it is best to defer the empowerment if confidence in the tantric teachings is absent. It is safer to take empowerment after strong faith is generated in tantra.
  4. Comprehension of the teachings in the initiation and ability to visualize the deity and mandala during the initiation.
  5. Ability to uphold the tantric precepts after the empowerment. The fourteen root vows in Vajrayana Buddhism are explained in this book and other books on the precepts. Prior to empowerment, one should understand these precepts and examine whether they can be upheld. If a person feels certain he can maintain the vows, he can receive empowerment; otherwise, he should not consider it.

Among the fourteen root vows, there is not one that cannot be completely upheld. Even the precept which is relatively easy to break that forbids Vajrayana practitioners from condemning or physically harming their fellow brothers and sisters. When an occasional confrontation between fellow practitioners leads to unpleasant words, a person can instantly apologize, vow to mend his way, and purify the transgression through repentance. The Buddha laid down the precepts on the premise and certainty these precepts could be followed by ordinary people. Generally speaking, if a person has deep faith in tantra and genuine desire for the teachings, he is more likely to maintain the vows without breaking them.

A person who has these five prerequisites is deemed a worthy Dharma vessel for tantra and thus qualified to receive the tantric precepts and initiations.


Ground, Path, Fruition

The first empowerment in a person’s life is called the ground or causal initiation. After the first empowerment is the path initiation which is given either by the vajra master or received through one’s own Guru Yoga practice. The final empowerment is given by the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, when the person is at the tenth bhumi just prior to entering the eleventh bhumi; it is called the fruition or initiation of the resultant state. These phases of empowerment are also discussed in the sutras.

From our standpoint, the causal initiation is the most important of the three phases of empowerment. This is because in order to receive an authentic and standard causal initiation, a person must be able to find a vajra master endowed with merit. The path initiation can be received through one’s own practice, so the effect is the same with or without a vajra master. As for the initiation of the resultant state, there is even less reason for us to worry.

Four Levels of Empowerment

In Tangmi (Tang Dynasty Esoterica) and Shingon Buddhism, or outer tantra, the empowerment conferred is the first level only. In Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, the empowerment consists of four different levels; it is called inner tantra because of the more profound nature of this type of empowerment.

The view, practice, and empowerment in outer tantra lie somewhere between sutra and inner tantra. The higher levels of empowerment do not appear in outer tantra because sentient beings are not as advanced spiritually. When practitioners of sutra mature spiritually, they can first practice outer tantra, then inner tantra. If the preliminaries are completed successfully, practitioners can also reach a level of maturity which allows them to skip outer tantra, and go directly to inner tantra. The empowerments that are usually given, such as Vajrasattva, Amitabha, Chenrezig, and Vairocana, belong to outer tantra; the empowerments that comprise four different levels belong to inner tantra.

  1. The first level of empowerment is the vase initiation.

The first function of the vase initiation is to give the disciple permission to listen to, study, and practice the tantras and commentaries related to the generation stage. The second function is to transform the channels of the body and our physical body into the buddha body. Those who do not attain realization upon receiving the empowerment can rely on the power conferred during initiation and the practice of the generation stage to achieve the transformation swiftly. The third function is to purify the negative karma produced by our body. The fourth function is to generate the cause for attaining the nirmanakaya, one of the four bodies of the Buddha, and bring it to maturity.

Certainly, when speaking of the processes of transforming, purifying, and ripening, it pertains to only what is on the surface. Actually, none of these is necessary since the nature of all phenomena is already pure. Nevertheless, the appearance is after all impure and immature; hence the processes need to take place.

  1. The second level of empowerment is the secret initiation. Actually, there is nothing secret about it; it is only labeled as such.

The first function of the secret initiation is to give the disciple permission to listen, study, and practice the tantras and treatises related to the elementary completion stage (also including the generation stage above). The second function is to allow those who do not attain realization upon receiving empowerment to rely on the power conferred during initiation and the practice of the generation and completion stage to ripen their speech quickly and transform it into the speech of the Buddha. It is also to eliminate any obstruction of the wind-energies (tantra maintains that the winds, channels, and essences that make up the body are impure at the superficial level and can be transformed through practices of the generation and completion stage into pure form). The third function is to purify the negative karma produced by our speech. The fourth function is to generate the cause for attaining the sambhogakaya and bring it quickly to fruition.

  1. The third level of empowerment is the wisdom-knowledge initiation. This is not to say there is wisdom only in this empowerment; the first two empowerments also include elements of wisdom, but this level contains the highest wisdom, the wisdom of Dzogchen.

The first function of the wisdom-knowledge initiation is to give the disciple permission to listen to, study, and practice the tantras and treatises related to the final completion stage. The completion stage is divided into two parts: the initial stage can be practiced after the second initiation is granted; the high level completion stage like the Kalacakra can only be practiced after the third initiation is granted. The second function is to transform the essences (tiklé) of the body and our mind into the buddha wisdom. Those who do not gain realization upon receiving empowerment rely on the power conferred during initiation and the practice of the generation and completion stage to ripen the mind swiftly and transform it into the wisdom of the buddha. The third function is to purify the negative karma produced by our mind. The fourth function is to generate the cause for attaining the dharmakaya and bring it to maturity.

  1. The fourth and highest level of empowerment is the precious word initiation, which is also the Dzogchen initiation. This empowerment contains not only the ultimate level in the inner tantras, the state of Dzogchen, but also the entire body of teachings in tantra.

The first function of the word initiation is to give the disciple permission to listen to, study, and practice the tantras and treatises related to the initial stage of Dzogchen, such as the Guhyagarbha Tantra, but not all the practices in Dzogchen. In the Nyingma tradition, it is essential to receive Dzogchen’s own empowerment to undertake the practice. The second function is to generate the cause for quickly attaining the svabhavikakaya. The dharmakaya and the svabhavikakaya are two aspects of the buddha’s extraordinary merit; the clear light aspect is the dharmakaya, the emptiness aspect is the svabhavikakaya. The third function is to eliminate the overall obstruction of the winds, channels, and essences of the subtle body, including the afflictive and cognitive hindrances at the subtlest level. The fourth function is to purify the negative karma in the alaya consciousness produced collectively by our body, speech, and mind.

The four empowerments have their respective functions; in the past, tantric practitioners in Tibet would carefully consider their circumstance prior to receiving empowerment. They would seek only that initiation that corresponded with their own capacity. Nowadays, tantric practice is very common in Tibet, so the four initiations are usually conferred at the same time whenever the empowerment ceremony is conducted, regardless of the suitability or readiness of the individual’s capacity. This practice deserves to be reviewed and deliberated on.

Over and above these empowerments, there is also a vajra master initiation. This is given to a disciple who after receiving the four empowerments has the ability to assume the responsibility of a vajra master. Only after receiving this empowerment can the person grant empowerment to others and transmit the tantric teachings. In the past, this initiation would not be conducted in the open. However, a person who has received the vajra master initiation must still examine whether or not he himself is qualified to grant empowerment and expound the teachings. This is utmost in importance.


Preparing for Empowerment

To prepare for the empowerment, one must:

  1. Understand what is involved in receiving an empo-werment.
  2. Practice the preliminaries. This includes the four outer preliminaries (precious human birth, impermanence, etc.) and the inner preliminaries (taking refuge, generating bodhicitta, etc.). Empowerment is required to practice Vajrasattva and Guru Yoga; although not essential, it is best if empowerment is also conferred for the Mandala Offering practice.

Entering the Mandala

An initiation given in Tibetan should be translated; practitioners would otherwise not know how to attain a proper empowerment. That is unless the master is highly accomplished and can through his inconceivable power ensure the empowerment is received. Additionally, there are steps to be followed:

  1. At the ceremonial site prior to the empowerment, everyone should recite the Hundred Syllable Mantra together to purify negative karma.
  2. Offer a mandala if there is one; otherwise visualize offering the mandala and other objects like flowers, water, and incense. In Tibet, it is customary to present a khata along with other objects. Imagine these encompassing all the wondrous offerings in the one billion world-system and all our virtuous roots in the past, present, and future, and visualize offering them to the vajra master conferring the empowerment.
  3. During the course of empowerment, the refuge vows, bodhisattva precepts, and tantric precepts are explained; in front of the vajra master, pledge to uphold the refuge vows.
  4. Next take the bodhisattva vows.
  5. Then take the tantric vows that correspond to the empowerment. At this time, the attendees are given water to drink which represents the pledge to uphold the tantric vows.
  6. Ask the vajra master to confer the empowerment. This sequence is explained in the liturgy and must be completed by everyone. It is also the tradition in sutra to grant transmission only to a person who accepts the teachings, not to someone who does not. This step implies the participant has faith in the practice and is willing to accept it.
  7. Request permission from the vajra master to enter the mandala. One must complete these procedures which are required of all empowerments, even if translation is not given.
  8. To know one’s yidam, each person is given a flower during the empowerment; one first prays in front of a flower tray which represents the mandala, then throws the flower into the tray. Whichever deity the flower lands on is one’s yidam.
  9. After the yidam is identified, imagine welcoming the deity to descend from the buddha field into your heart. With the flower tray placed on your head, visualize the yidam dissolving in your heart and becoming one with you.
  10. During the empowerment, each person’s eyes are covered with a red cloth; after a while the cloth is untied to allow the participants to see the mandala. The implication here is that prior to studying tantra, we perceive all appearances to be impure; it is likened to looking at the world through colored eyeglasses and not seeing its true reality, so a piece of cloth is used to cover the eyes. When the cloth is untied, the vajra master introduces the mandala to the recipients of empowerment. The main point is to introduce the five Buddha-families in the mandala, which represent the manifestations of the five wisdoms. This is to inculcate an understanding that the entire world is also pure like the mandala of the buddhas. Although on the surface, the mandala may appear as a configuration made from colored sand, a hand-painted thangka, or a picture, all these forms represent the mandala of the five Buddha-families. The pure buddha field is the original face of this world.
  11. To introduce the mandala, the vajra master will use a vajra scepter to point to the palaces and deities in the mandala, and one by one, give an explanation.

Visualization Methods

The visualization methods are basically not explained to people who have not received empowerment. However, if they are not first explained, a person will not know the methods; not knowing the methods, he cannot receive the empowerment, nor will he ever be able to receive it. Of course, teaching the methods to a person who has faith in tantra should not be a problem either, especially when there is nothing in the methods that must be kept secret.

Vase Initiation

Most of the vase initiations can be classified into seven types:

  1. Water empowerment of Aksobhya—this initiation is generally conferred with a vase containing nectar. The person receiving the empowerment should visualize the vase as the palace of the five Buddha-families, namely the mandala of all the buddhas in the inner tantras—the shape resembles the mandala at Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Institute. Then visualize the five Buddha-families inside the vase; the deities, like ice, subsequently melt away and become water in the vase. During the initiation, a recipient is generally required to drink the water in the vase; at this point, the recipient should imagine the five Buddha-families have dissolved into water with which one is bathed. The aggregate of consciousness of an impure ordinary person, whose nature is actually the five Buddha-families, is thus purified and manifests as Aksobhya Buddha; space amongst the five elements is purified and manifests as the female buddha Vajra Datvishvari; anger amongst the five poisons is purified and manifests as mirror-like wisdom.
  2. Crown empowerment of Ratnasambhava—visualize the crown as Ratnasambhava Buddha. When the vajra master places the crown on the disciple’s head, the disciple should visualize: the aggregate of feeling is purified and manifests as Ratnasambhava Buddha; water is purified and manifests as the female buddha Mamaki; arrogance is purified and manifests as the wisdom of equality.
  3. Vajra empowerment of Amitabha—when the vajra master places the vajra scepter in the disciple’s right hand, the disciple should visualize: the aggregate of perception is purified and manifests as Amitabha Buddha; fire is purified and manifests as the female buddha Pandaravasini; desire is purified and manifests as the wisdom of discernment.
  4. Bell empowerment of Amoghasiddhi—when the vajra master places the bell in the disciple’s left hand, the disciple should visualize: the aggregate of volition is purified and manifests as Amoghasiddhi Buddha; wind is purified and manifests as the female buddha Samayatara; jealousy is purified and manifests as all-accomplishing wisdom.
  5. Name empowerment of Vairocana—when the vajra master bestows a name that corresponds to the yidam, the disciple should visualize: the aggregate of form is purified and manifests as Vairocana Buddha; earth is purified and manifests as the female buddha Lochana; ignorance is purified and manifests as the wisdom of dharmadhatu.
  6. Vajra practice empowerment—the vajra master places the vajra and bell, symbols of the oneness of wisdom and skillful means, in the disciple’s hands and urges the disciple to undertake the tantric practice that realizes the inseparability of dharmadhatu and wisdom.

The six empowerments above are given to the disciple.

  1. Vajra master empowerment—this empowerment is conferred to a special group of people who possess the faculties to free sentient beings from samsara.

After receiving these empowerments, we can quickly actualize the five Buddha-families; that is, the five Buddha-families and our five aggregates become one and the same. Whether it is negative karma of the body or obstruction of the channels, all are purified and brought to maturity. At the same time, the seed of the nirmanakaya is attained.

Although there are some differences in the empowerments, most of the vase empowerments follow this pattern of visualization. In receiving an empowerment in the future, even without translation, you can visualize this way; it is otherwise very difficult to receive an empowerment if you merely drink water from the vase and do not understand anything.

Secret Initiation

The secret initiation is usually conferred with a kapala containing nectar. When receiving empowerment, visualize the nectar first filling the throat chakra, then spreading to the heart, next to the navel, finally to every chakra and every part of the body, and visualize having realized the nature of mind. Although in appearance the kapala is only filled with water mixed with herbs, it symbolizes realization of the second level of empowerment. Thus, at the time of drinking the nectar, visualize you have realized emptiness through the power of the initiation, eradicated the obscurations of speech, and implanted the seed of the sambhogakaya. The second empowerment can be received as you drink and visualize at the same time; thereafter, you are qualified to listen to and practice the first half of the completion stage.

If you attain realization at the ceremony, that is the mark of a perfect empowerment; if you do not feel anything special at the ceremony but have completed the visualization in accord with the standard, you have at least sowed the seed for gaining enlightenment quickly.

Wisdom-knowledge Initiation

The wisdom-knowledge initiation is usually conferred with the image of a dakini. In the yab-yum image, the male yidam symbolizes the clear light aspect of tathāgatagarbha, the female yidam, or dakini, symbolizes the emptiness aspect of tathāgatagarbha. During the initiation, touch the image of the dakini with your finger and visualize, by way of this connection, you have swiftly attained the wisdom of realizing emptiness. The wisdom-knowledge initiation can be received this way.

The second half of the completion stage, called completion stage without marks, is the most complete practice. Through the third level empowerment, conducted with the thangka of the dakini, and the practice of emptiness, we can actualize the union of bliss and emptiness of the completion stage without marks, eradicate the obscurations of the mind, and implant the seed of the dharmakaya.

Precious Word Initiation

The precious word initiation, the highest level of empowerment, is usually conferred with natural crystal. Crystal in its natural state is basically transparent; it has no obscurations and symbolizes the tathāgatagarbha within. When light shines on it, the crystal displays brilliant rainbow-like colors; however, when there is no light outside, the rainbow colors do not manifest even though the crystal has this hidden capability. Similarly, when we still have afflictions and abide in ignorance, there is no way of experiencing the buddha wisdom or the luminous mind; when we have eliminated our afflictions and realized emptiness, the luminous mind manifests. This is clearly elucidated in the texts related to the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, such as the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, as well as In Praise of Dharmadhatu by Nagarjuna, and Uttaratantra Shastra by Maitreya.

 If we understand what tathāgatagarbha is and have some level of realization, we can abide in the state of realization when the empowerment is conferred, even though there is nothing really to receive since the mind already encompasses all wisdom. In the absence of realization, placing the crystal in our hand and on our head merely symbolizes a connection with the practice. During the empowerment, visualize we have through the power of the initiation eradicated the obscuration of body, speech, and mind at the subtlest level, and implanted the seed of the svabhavikakaya. The precious word initiation can certainly be received this way.

Some of the empowerments are followed by auxiliary initiations which utilize the five Buddha-families, five Buddha-crowns, bell, vajra, etc.; these make up the more extensive empowerments but not the most important. The most important are the four empowerments.

Having this knowledge, everyone can then understand what level of empowerment he or she is receiving at the initiation. During the course of the initiation, it is essential to listen carefully to the teachings and follow the corresponding visualization. This is very important; otherwise, the empowerment cannot be received.

Final Steps in the Empowerment

At the end of the empowerment, there are three other steps: one, offer the mandala; two, vow to uphold the tantric precepts; three, follow the teachings and practice with diligence.

  1. We perform the mandala offering to bring joy to the vajra master. The highest form of mandala offering one can make to the master is to put his teachings into practice; this is also called offering of Dharma. We should not think, in the absence of practice, the mandala offering can be completed just by offering the master money or material goods. If the teachings are received but not practiced, the buddhas and bodhisattvas cannot be pleased, however expensive the goods may be. If the master conferring the empowerment takes great interest in the material goods we offer, but not in how well the disciple is undertaking the practice, he is clearly not a person who fits the role of a vajra master.

This requirement is the same in sutra and tantra. For example, in taking the bodhisattva precepts, flowers and incense are also offered to accumulate the blessings that are necessary to receive the vows. Similarly, because an empowerment is a sacred event, the mandala offering is performed beforehand to generate great blessings needed to receive empowerment; after the empowerment, it is necessary to repay the kindness of the master. The best way to do so is to practice seriously, then propagate the dharma and help beings.

  1. Concurrently, a person who has received all four empowerments must uphold the fourteen root precepts and some branch precepts; if the root vows are broken, the transgression is very serious.

Thus, immediately after the empowerment, a person must study and follow the tantric precepts. If the tantric precepts are broken to varying degree for whatever reason, the person can also repent.

It is said in tantra: when the four opponent powers are in place, the way to repent is to recite the Hundred Syllable Mantra 100,000 times, or the Vajrasattva mantra Om Benza Satva Hum 400,000 times; negative karma can be purified completely this way.

For tantric practitioners, the expectations are high, the risks are also great; the result may be vajra hell if things go wrong. But if a person abides strictly by the rules and practices diligently, he or she can also attain buddhahood in this lifetime. Relatively speaking, the expectations in sutra are not as high, but the path to buddhahood is very slow.

At the same time, tantra also has its advantages. As an example, there are many precepts in Hinayana Buddhism; special exemptions are never made; once broken, it is always a transgression. In Mahayana Buddhism, the situation is much more open. Mahayana maintains that as long as the action benefits others and is selfless, allowances can be made for killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and drinking in specific instances. In the case of Vajrayana Buddhism, our first empowerment must be conferred by a vajra master. Thereafter, if the precepts are broken, we can immediately undertake the Vajrasattva practice of reciting the deity mantra 400,000 times and repent. After the repentance, we can visualize receiving the empowerment ourselves according to the Guru Yoga practice presented in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. If the visualization is clear, the result is exactly the same as receiving the empowerment directly from the vajra master. Through this method, the tantric precepts can be restored. Whereas in Hinayana Buddhism, the precepts can never be reinstated; in the sutra system, a person can take the bodhisattva vows himself only if a qualified Mahayana master cannot be found to confer the precepts.

Thus, we should not be afraid to receive empowerment for fear of descending into vajra hell; excessive worry and apprehension will only become obstacles to the practice.

In tantra, it is clearly stated: if the tantric precepts can be maintained, a person can attain buddhahood within seven lifetimes. How can we not take up the precepts just because they are very exacting, like not eating for fear of choking or not seeing a doctor so as to conceal an illness?

  1. After the empowerment, the disciple must make this pledge in front of the master: I will from now on listen to and follow the teachings of the vajra master.

This also means hereon we should follow the master’s instructions to cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, practice the generation stage and completion stage, study and practice earnestly, and uphold the tantric precepts.

With the dedication in the end, the entire empowerment process comes to a close.

The above is a simple introduction to the four levels of empowerment in tantra. After understanding these principles, whether or not we received our previous empowerments in compliance with the rules, we must ensure that any empowerment we obtain in the future accords with the standard.


After entering tantra, we need to understand and practice the generation stage and completion stage. The writings on this area of tantra are substantial. Among them is the Nyingma text Guhyagarbha Tantra which we must study; like The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way in Madhyamaka and Commentary on Valid Cognition in Logic, it is the principal tantra in the Nyingma school. There are many commentaries on the Guhyagarbha Tantra, among them Essence of Clear Light by Mipham Rinpoche, which Khenpo Sodargye has already translated. All students of tantra should study and understand the entire tantric process from beginning to end, as well as the view, conduct, precepts, etc. in tantra. Thereafter, the person can listen to and contemplate the teachings, then undertake the actual practices.

Tibetan Buddhism has very detailed and complete practices directed at people of different capacities; although many have not yet been translated, they can still be transmitted orally. In the tradition of masters in the past, Dzogchen practitioners were not permitted to read the texts before the practice. If the emphasis is only on reading the liturgy, not on the actual practice, the practitioner has merely acquired conceptual knowledge and familiarity with the terminology in Dzogchen; this could actually make it more difficult for him or her to experience the real thing during practice. Hence, Dzogchen is like Ch’an; neither espouses the use of words. Although the state of Dzogchen cannot be described with words, the masters nonetheless also recognized the possibility of different views emerging in the future which would be troublesome if there were no standard or reference to go by; thus, in the end they left behind many texts on Dzogchen. Among those translated into Chinese are Great Perfection of Manjusri—Enlightened Wisdom in Hand by H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, Seminal Quintessence of the Lama (from Seminal Quintessence in Four Parts) by Longchenpa, and the like. In terms of the pith instructions on Dzogchen practice, Seminal Quintessence of the Lama comes first on the list.

The deity practice of the generation stage can be of great benefit to us by removing obstacles on the path and accelerating the process toward our final attainment.

The completion stage practice is divided into two kinds: one, completion stage without marks; two, completion stage with marks.

In the completion stage with marks, the practitioner works with the winds, channels, and essences of the body; the practice is relatively complex but produces results very quickly. At the same time, because it is complex, we must have a qualified teacher to guide us, or things can easily go wrong; people in general need not undertake the practice for this reason. In Tibetan Buddhism, the practice of working with the winds, channels, and essences of the subtle body is quite common, especially in the Jonang school that places great importance on the Kalacakra practice.

In the completion stage without marks, neither the practice of working with the winds and channels of the subtle body nor the generation stage practice is necessary; the most sacred practice at this stage is Dzogchen, followed by Mahamudra. One can practice Dzogchen right after completing the outer and inner preliminaries. This is a safe and swift path which requires the student to have faith in the master and in Dzogchen; without adequate faith, nothing can be attained.

There are strict requirements to be followed at Dzogchen teachings, that is, no more than seven people can attend at a time. However, nowadays the teachings are open to the public; so-called “Dzogchen practitioners” are everywhere in town. Nevertheless, H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche used to say if the audience is not qualified, even seven would be too many; if the audience is qualified, one to two hundred people would not be a problem.

Sutra and tantra are different only in method and technique; the final result is the same. In the end, all methods are superfluous. Like washing our hands and taking a bath, the soap and bath gel have to be washed off; whatever method is used in sutra or tantra must ultimately be relinquished.

Tantra is very rich in methods. There are practices for the living and practices in bardo for the dead; there are practices during the waking state, after falling asleep, even during the dream state; we can all find a path that suits us. With a firm foundation, we can attain realization quickly through the tantric practices. Thus, tantra is also called the vehicle of skillful means. If we remain indefinitely in the outer and inner preliminaries stage, we are shutting out other practices and impeding our progress on the path. That would be our own biggest problem.

With no prior experience in initiations nor bias against tantra, a person can first read up on the tantric system of thought; this accords more with the standard of receiving an empowerment after some knowledge is acquired. Many people nowadays do not understand tantra and have preconceptions about the practices, which is quite normal. Even the great masters Hung Yi and Xu Yun had their doubts at one time; upon deeper understanding, they acknowledged tantra is not only true Dharma but also a swift path to realization. Not knowing the symbolism behind some of the ritual implements and images of tantric deities, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion. Different views and methods take time to assimilate or break in. When Buddhism was first introduced into China, it faced similar problems; through mutual understanding and integration, the different traditions eventually reached common ground.

In the early days when tantra arrived in Tibet, some masters would hide the thangkas of the yidam to keep them out of view; the implements like vajra, bell, and drum were also locked in a chest. This was done for two reasons: one, to prevent misconceptions; the other, to keep the practices secret. An important factor in the success of those masters was that they kept their practice to themselves.

Another point to keep in mind: even if taking meat and alcohol no longer affects one’s practice, as in the case of some siddhas in the past, we should still protect the virtuous roots of sentient beings and set the right example, especially in front of a crowd; to engage in wrong conduct that causes others to develop the wrong view and descend into the lower realms is irresponsible.

In The Parable of a Black Snake, it is said although all attachment must be relinquished in the end, there is also a process of letting go. Tantra uses relatively powerful methods to subjugate our discriminating mind that distinguishes purity from impurity. The difference between sutra and tantra is likened to the difference between traditional therapy and surgery. Although conservative treatments are also a cure for sickness, they take a long time. Surgery is very effective, but only a person in good physical condition can undergo surgery. Similarly, when our minds are closed and not ready to accept anything different, it would be better to set aside the advanced tantric practices for now, first study the sutras or common preliminaries in tantra, generate bodhicitta, and practice the Middle Way; this is a long but safe path to liberation. Taking the safer path would ensure nothing goes wrong. When our mental faculties mature and our ability to adapt to uncommon situations reaches a certain level, only then can we accept the Vajrayana methods which, like fighting fire with fire, are very powerful in subduing the mind.