What Is an Initiation?

Tantric initiations are used in Tibetan Buddhism to awaken within us the potential we all have for Buddhahood, and to create a strong connection between the recipient and their teacher, as well as the Buddha-figure involved. Active participation in an initiation with a fully qualified teacher bestows permission to engage in certain practices that encourage the seeds of enlightenment to grow stronger and stronger, until the aim of full enlightenment is reached.

A tantric empowerment, also known as an initiation or a wang in Tibetan, is a ceremony that activates our potential to become a Buddha. It does this by stimulating our Buddha-nature factors – the basic working materials that we all have that can transform our ordinary body, speech, mind, actions and good qualities into those of a Buddha – helping them to develop further, and planting other “seeds” of potential. The factors that we all have include:

  • Evolving Buddha-nature traits – factors that can be stimulated to grow, like our networks of positive force or potential, and our deep awareness. These are often translated as our “collections of merit and wisdom.”
  • Abiding Buddha-nature traits – factors that always remain the same at all stages of our evolution, namely the voidness (emptiness) of our mental continuums, which actually enables the transformation. According to some traditions, the conventional nature of our mental activity is also included.

To receive an empowerment, we require not only a fully qualified tantric master, but we also need to be properly prepared and receptive, and actively participate in the proceedings. Proper preparation means that first of all we’ve put a safe direction in our lives (“taking refuge”), which means we’re actively going in the direction indicated by the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the highly realized Arya Sangha. Although the Dharma refers on the conventional level to the Buddhist teachings, on the deepest level it refers to what we attain through following those teachings. We attain the state in which all our sufferings and their causes have been totally eradicated forever from our mental continuums and all the realizations that bring about and result from those states fill our minds instead. The Buddhas are those who have in full on their mental continuums these true stoppings (true cessations) and these true pathways of mind (true understandings that lead to and result from these stoppings, “true paths.”) The Arya Sangha are those who have them in part.

In addition to this safe direction, we also need to have some level of “renunciation” – the strong determination to be free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). When we’re determined to be free of this, we’re absolutely willing to give up the true suffering and its true causes that make our bodies, speech, minds, activities and good qualities to be limited in each rebirth.

Further, to actually activate our Buddha-nature potentials, we need to have a basic level of a bodhichitta aim, where we focus on our own individual state of enlightenment which has not happened yet, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-natures. Our aim is to achieve this state and the reason for doing so is to best be able to help all others to gain liberation from their uncontrollably recurring rebirth and reach enlightenment too. Such an aim is based on having intense, equal love and compassion for everyone and taking universal responsibility to help them all.

Finally, we need an understanding of voidness (emptiness) – that we, others, samsara, liberation, enlightenment and so on are all “primordially” devoid of existing in impossible ways. None of them exist in isolation, existing independently of causes, effects, conceptual categories and everything else. We also need a basic understanding of how tantra will actually bring us to enlightenment, and have confidence in its methods and our master’s ability to guide us through them.

During an empowerment into any of the four classes of tantra, we take bodhisattva vows, and with the two higher classes, we also take the tantric vows.

  • Bodhisattva vows – to avoid behavior that would hamper us from being of best help to others
  • Tantric vows – to avoid behavior and ways of thinking that would hinder our success in the tantric practice.

In order to receive these vows, we must consciously accept them with the full intention to try our best to keep them all the way to our attainment of enlightenment. The basis for the ability to keep them is our training in ethical self-discipline gained through keeping some level of vows for individual liberation (pratimoksha vows), for instance lay vows to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, taking intoxicants, and indulging in sexual behavior inappropriate for gaining liberation.

The empowerment ritual contains many parts, each of which entails complex visualizations of our tantric master as a Buddha-figure (yidam), our environment as the mandala palace, and ourselves as various Buddha-figures representing our own future enlightened state that we are aiming to achieve with bodhichitta. Even if we cannot visualize these clearly, we need at least to feel that our tantric master, our surroundings and we are in these pure forms.

At each stage of the empowerment, we also need to imagine that we are experiencing a blissful state of mind focused on voidness. Although we may not be able to do this very well, we need at least to think that none of what is happening exists independently of having causes, effects, parts, and being what the words and concepts for them refer to. When we remind ourselves of this fact of their voidness, we need to feel happy that this is the case. This conscious experience of blissful awareness of voidness is what actually activates our evolving Buddha-nature factors, stimulates them to grow further, and plants more “seeds” of potential. Therefore, we need to try our best to generate such a state of mind. In this way, we will actually receive the empowerment, rather than merely witnessing it.

After receiving an empowerment into the practice of a particular Buddha-figure, we may further receive a ritual known as a “subsequent permission” (jenang). As my main teacher Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche used to explain, if an empowerment is like receiving a sword, the subsequent permission is like getting it sharpened. During this ritual, we reaffirm our vows and experience a further uplifting of our body, speech, mind and all three integrated together. In the Gelugpa tradition we can easily tell the difference between an empowerment and subsequent permission: the former is given on the basis of a representation of the mandala palace placed next to the tantric master, while the latter is given with a torma cone-shaped cake visualized as the Buddha-figure.

Having received an empowerment, we are empowered to imagine ourselves in the form of the Buddha-figure. According to Tsongkhapa, if we receive only a subsequent permission without ever having received a full empowerment before, we are only permitted to imagine the figure before us during our meditation practice. But if we have received an empowerment in the same class, or higher, as that of the Buddha-figure, then even if we have not received beforehand an empowerment for that specific Buddha-figure, we are still permitted to imagine ourselves in its form.

Whether we receive an empowerment or a subsequent permission, we happily take on whatever practice commitment our tantric master gives. After all, that was our intention for going! If we only attended as a neutral observer or for the so-called “blessings” or just to refresh our vows, and do not actively participate in the ritual procedures, we have no commitment to practice this tantra. However, if we are open-minded, we receive inspiration to be a kinder and wiser person in life.


No matter how obscured they may seem, we all have within us the very tools we need to attain enlightenment. In Buddhism, tantric initiations help to uncover these tools, and allows them to spread the seeds of our future enlightenment.

There are many different types of initiations, and each of the Tibetan Buddhist schools promotes certain deity practices, but their aim is the same: to create a strong bond between the recipient, the qualified teacher, and the Buddha-figure. Actively participating in an initiation is the start of a life-long commitment to improving oneself, and working to benefit all beings.