The Proper Way to Take a Tantric Initiation


Attaining enlightenment through the sutra path takes a very long time, three zillion eons, and if our bodhichitta is really, really strong, then we want to find a method which is going to build up this positive force more efficiently and quickly. This would mean that we would need to engage in anuttarayoga.

(60) If, however, through actions such as pacifying, stimulating, and so forth, attained from the force of mantras and through the power as well of the eight great actual attainments and so on, such as actualization of an excellent vase and so forth,

These are all methods for building up a tremendous amount of positive force very quickly.

(61) And through a blissful awareness,

that’s yet another method for building up great positive force

you wish to fully complete the enlightenment-building networks,

In other words, through all of these things we want to build up this tremendous positive force to be able to break through unawareness and these habits and so on that would normally take three zillion eons – we want to do that.

and if you wish also to practice the actions of the secret mantras discussed in the kriya, charya, and so forth classes of tantra,

So we want to be able to follow all the procedures of tantra which will bring us enlightenment more quickly. So, if we want all of that and so we want to follow the tantra path, the highest tantra path,

(62) Then, in order to be conferred the (vajra) master empowerment, please your hallowed guru by all such things as respectful service, giving him precious substances, and so on, and doing what he says.

For practicing tantra we need an empowerment, which is usually called “initiation,” which basically is to activate our Buddha-natures. There are many, many different parts of a tantric empowerment. For the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, there are four empowerments: vase empowerment, secret empowerment, deep discriminating awareness empowerment, sometimes called wisdom empowerment, and the fourth empowerment. The vase empowerment has two basic parts, the vajra disciple empowerments – there’s five of them – and the “vajra master empowerment.”

The first class of tantra, kriya, has only the first two of the five vajra disciple empowerments; charya tantra, the second class, has all five vajra disciple empowerments; yoga tantra has the vajra master empowerment as well, so it has the complete vase empowerment; and anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class, has all four empowerments, the complete vase empowerment and then the other three as well. It’s only when we receive the vajra master empowerment that we take and receive the tantric vows – so that’s only with yoga tantra and anuttarayoga tantra, the two highest classes.

Now remember, Atisha was teaching at a time where people were practicing tantra very wildly with a great deal of misunderstanding. So he put a big emphasis on keeping vows and following the vows if one is going to practice either the Mahayana sutra path of bodhisattvas or the tantra path – the tantra path is also Mahayana bodhisattva path. So he emphasized you have to keep one level of the pratimoksha vows, individual liberation, a huge emphasis on the bodhisattva vows, and here, by pointing out the vajra master empowerment, he’s putting the emphasis on the tantric vows as well.

So indirectly he’s saying that if you really want to achieve enlightenment through tantra, really you need to take the tantric vows and that’s with the vajra master empowerment. That’s why he specifies that specific empowerment out of all the stages of empowerment.

Now, in order to have success on the tantric path, we absolutely need the guidance of a fully qualified tantric master and the main reason for that is that the tantric master not only guides us in our practice, but provides the inspiration which will awaken the Buddha-nature and which will continue to cause that Buddha-nature to grow and grow through our practice. That inspiration from the spiritual teacher is absolutely essential. And so it’s very important to have a very pure, close bond with the tantric master.

That word “close bond” is the Sanskrit word samaya or the Tibetan word damtsig (dam-tshig). To have that close bond it’s important to “please” the teacher and so what pleases the teacher is “respectful service,” in other words, you help the teacher in whatever way that you can. And you make offerings to the teacher so the teacher doesn’t have to go out and work a regular job in order to make money; the teacher is supported so that the teacher can spend full time in teaching and helping others. And the main way to please the teacher is “to do what the teacher says” in terms of our practice; it doesn’t mean to become a mindless slave like in the army.

(63) By being conferred the complete (vajra) master empowerment from having pleased your guru, you will purify yourself completely of all negative forces and, in nature, become endowed with the proper share to achieve the actual attainments.

When we’ve established that close bond with the teacher – by thoroughly examining the teacher, we’re fully convinced that the teacher has all the qualities of a tantric master, they’re fully qualified, and we’ve established a close bond with that teacher and then we receive the empowerments, then that empowerment will help us to “purify negative forces” and to gain the activation of our Buddha-nature, which will allow us “to achieve the actual attainments,” not only the ones along the way that are mentioned earlier with the excellent vase and so on, but the greatest supreme actual attainment of enlightenment.

Remember, in Tibet there was a great deal of abuse of tantra, misunderstanding of tantra, by taking the sexual imagery literally, particularly in terms of monks who have vows of abstinence, of celibacy. And in anuttarayoga tantra, after the vase empowerment, we have the secret and the discriminating awareness or deep discriminating awareness empowerments.

In anuttarayoga we are trying to generate a blissful awareness, an extremely blissful state of mind, through an inner yoga dealing with the energy channels within the body, because that blissful awareness is a state of mind that is conducive, that’s helpful for making the energy winds of the body more and more subtle, which then is going to help us to be able to bring those energy winds into the central channel to dissolve them so that we’re able to manifest the most subtle level of consciousness – that’s called clear light – which is far more subtle than any conceptual mind and so it’s the level of mind that is the most efficient for gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

So, this blissful awareness that we want to generate is something which is generated, as I said, through an inner, very sophisticated, unbelievably difficult yoga with the energies of the body. That blissful awareness is represented by sexual bliss and sexual bliss can stimulate or help to bring on this blissful awareness. But it’s not something which is actually practiced literally, particularly not by those with vows of celibacy, monks and nuns.

And obviously in Tibet, monks and nuns were taking all of this literally and indulging in various sexual type of behavior, particularly during empowerments. And so that occurs specifically in the secret and the discriminating awareness empowerment. The secret one is one which involves something that’s done on the part of the teacher, and in the discriminating awareness something that’s done on the part of the disciple. And so Atisha says:

(64) Because it has been strictly prohibited from The Great Tantra of the Primordial Buddha,

That’s referring to the Kalachakra Tantra that Atisha studied in Sumatra when he went there, in Indonesia.

The secret and discriminating awareness empowerments are not to be (conferred or) received (in a literal fashion) by those who are abstinent.

He’s making it very, very clear. The secret one, where the disciples have a taste of the blissful awareness of the teacher, is not to be done in a literal fashion and so it’s represented by tasting a little bit of yoghurt and tea. And in the discriminating awareness empowerment, in which the disciple is instructed to have his or her own experience of a blissful awareness, this is done in terms of visualization of being in union, not literally being in union with somebody. If one were to do these things in a literal fashion, particularly if one were a monk or a nun with vows of celibacy, then that would be completely improper, so Atisha says:

(65) If you were to take these empowerments so conferred

in other words, in a literal fashion

while living according to the ascetic practice of abstinence, you would be committing prohibited actions and because of that, your vows of asceticism would degenerate.

(66) In other words, as a practitioner of tamed behavior you would contract the downfalls of total defeats and since you would definitely fall to one of the worse rebirth states, you would never have any attainments.

So, he’s saying very strongly that this is not to be done in a literal fashion at all. This would be completely violating all the vows. And the way that it’s practiced actually is that this is the case not only for those with vows of celibacy, but for everybody. None of this is ever to be practiced in a literal fashion. And Atisha says this quite specifically, saying that when you receive this in a nonliteral fashion, don’t think that you haven’t actually received the empowerment.

(67) However, if you have received (in a nonliteral fashion) the conferral of the (vajra) master empowerment and are aware of actuality, there is no fault in your actions of listening to all the tantras, explaining them, performing fire pujas, making offering pujas, and so forth.

Starting with the vajra master empowerment in which you visualize, you imagine that you’re embracing a partner, from there – the implication is that you’re keeping the tantric vows, it’s conferred there – so if you do that “and you’re aware of actuality,” in other words, through the whole process of the empowerment one is working with the understanding of voidness and so it’s the combination of the understanding of voidness with a blissful awareness – if one is doing that on the basis of this being nonliteral, visualization and so forth, then one has actually received the empowerment.

As a result of that, “then there’s no fault in” doing all the things that the empowerment qualifies us for, which he lists here, “listening to the tantras, explaining them, performing fire pujas and offering pujas, and so forth.”

Then, the conclusion of the text:

I, the Elder Shri Dipamkara,

That’s Atisha’s name.

having seen (everything to be) as is explained from the Dharma teachings of the sutras and so on, and having been requested by Jangchub Wo, have composed this abbreviation of the explanation of the path to enlightenment.

This concludes A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment composed by the Great Master Dipamkara Shrijnana. It was translated, edited, and finalized by the Indian Abbot himself (Dipamkara Shrijnana) and the Tibetan translator monk Gewey Lodro.

In other words, Atisha helped to translate it into Tibetan.

This Dharma (text) was composed at the Toling Temple in Zhang Zhung.

In other words, in West Tibet, where Atisha was invited and where he went.

So, that concludes the teaching on this text, requested by Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. I myself studied this text first with my main teacher Serkong Rinpoche and then, afterwards, also I listened to teachings on this text from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’m really very happy and appreciative, in fact, for this opportunity to meet with you and to offer you this explanation. And even if there are things in this which we might not understand yet, particularly in terms of the teachings on voidness, this is a start and it gives us a general idea of the graded stages.

As we’ve seen, one of the main things that Atisha is emphasizing throughout the text is ethical self-discipline – this is very, very important – in other words, if we want to make progress and eliminate problems in our lives, we need to take control of what we do, how we speak, and how we think and use our human ability to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And when we know from our own experience and from the experience of the great masters of the past and the Buddha what is harmful, what causes harm and suffering to ourselves and others, then to avoid that. And when we know what’s helpful, to practice that.

Just as we don’t take the appearances of inherent existence literally, even though things appear that way to us, but we try to understand more deeply how things actually exist, similarly in Buddhist writings, particularly in tantra, we don’t just take the appearance of things literally in terms of various teachings. Whether we’re talking about the sexual imagery in tantra or we’re talking about amazing stories from the biographies of great masters and so on, we need to look more deeply to see what actually is the meaning behind all of this, so that with our feet firmly on the ground, based on reality and being realistic, we can follow the path to enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Read and listen to "Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment" by Atisha.