The Meaning of Tantra and Initiation
The word tantra means an everlasting continuum. There are three levels of such continuity:
- The basis everlasting continuum is the individual mental continuum (mind-stream) of each limited being (sentient being), with all its Buddha-nature factors that enable enlightenment.
- The pathway everlasting continuum is the continuity of bodhisattva practices with Buddha-figures (yidam, tantric deities). These practices can be sustained without end, since Buddha-figures never grow tired or old, and never die.
- The resultant everlasting continuum is the unending continuity of the enlightening corpuses (bodies) of a Buddha.
Practice of a pathway continuum purifies fleeting stains from a person’s basis continuum so that it transforms into a resultant continuum. The texts that discuss these topics are also tantras.
The Tibetan term wang, usually translated as “initiation,” literally means an empowerment. An empowerment is a ritual, entailing complex visualization, for awakening the potentials of our Buddha-natures. It empowers us to visualize ourselves as Buddha-figures – in this case, as the Buddha-figure Kalachakra.
The most important factors for awakening our potentials during the empowerment are receiving inspiration (blessings) from the tantric master and experiencing certain states of mind and insights in accordance with the ritual.
The Necessity for Receiving the Empowerment
Receiving the Kalachakra empowerment enables success in our practice of this Buddha-figure by
- establishing a close bond with a tantric master, as a living source of inspiration;
- linking us with the living tradition, which traces back to the Buddha;
- conferring the bodhisattva and tantric vows, which we need to keep purely for correctly shaping our behavior and practice;
- purifying various blocks and obstacles;
- activating the factors of our Buddha-natures;
- enhancing those factors by planting “seeds” through the conscious experience of specific states of mind and insight during the ritual – such as blissful awareness of voidness in Gelug or of our Buddha-natures in non-Gelug.
What Must Occur for Actually Receiving the Empowerment
We do not actually receive the Kalachakra empowerment unless we
- have respect for and confidence in the tantric method, optimally by having some understanding of it;
- have full confidence, based on indisputable evidence, that our tantric masters have the ability to lead us correctly on the tantric path;
- feel greatly inspired by our tantric masters;
- take and promise to keep the vows that are conferred;
- actively participate in the visualization process, as best as we can;
- gain conscious experiences of the specific mental states or insights described by our tantric masters during the ceremony, to whatever level we are capable at the time.
Motivations for Attending the Empowerment
The benefit we receive from attending a Kalachakra empowerment depends on our motivations. In Buddhism, motivation means our aim or goal: what we wish to gain from doing something.
- We may come as non-Buddhist interested observers and gain general inspiration, especially from the preliminary teachings, to be a kind person. Thus, as in the description of King Manjushri Yashas conferring the empowerment on the population of Shambhala, we may attend to reaffirm our commitments to follow the ethical teachings of our own traditions. We may also find the empowerment ritual itself inspiring.
[See: Attending a Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace]
- We may come as Buddhists who are not yet ready to take bodhisattva and tantra vows, or who are not yet sufficiently prepared to practice tantra. In this case, we may gain inspiration to follow the sutra path. We may also aim to learn about tantra during the empowerment, with the intention to engage in it in the future when we are prepared.
- We may come to take for the first time or to reaffirm out bodhisattva vows, but without being ready yet to take tantric vows.
- We may come to reaffirm our tantric vows that we took at previous empowerments, but we do not wish to engage in Kalachakra practice, and so do not wish actually to take the Kalachakra empowerment. If we have never taken tantric vows before, we may not take them for the first time without actually also taking the empowerment.
- We may aim to take the vows and the empowerment, but not to practice Kalachakra immediately. We wish to plant seeds for future practice, later in this lifetime or in future lifetimes. Many Tibetans take the empowerment with this motivation or aim.
Although, as observers, we gain some inspiration and this leaves an impression on our minds that may ripen in the future into interest in taking the empowerment, we do not receive the empowerment and plant actual seeds from it unless we take both the bodhisattva and tantra vows, with the full intention to keep them as best as we can. We do not receive vows by merely attending the ritual. To receive vows, we must consciously take them and promise to keep them.
- We may aim to take the vows and the empowerment and, subsequently to try to study and practice Kalachakra as best as we can. If we take the empowerment, we need to practice six times each day for the rest of our lives The Six-Session Yoga, as the Gelug commitment from taking tantric vows. We do not need necessarily to engage in specific Kalachakra practice.
[See: Abbreviated Six-Session Yoga – Literal Translation]
Prerequisite Sutra Background
The practice of Kalachakra requires a stable background in the bodhisattva sutra practices. Tantra, in fact, is a method for combining and simultaneously practicing them all. Most fundamental is an understanding of and conviction in the Four Noble Truths. In other words, we need conviction that it is possible for us to achieve a true stopping of true problems and their true causes, and for us to gain a true pathway of mind that will bring this about.
On this basis, the sutra practices include:
- safe direction (refuge),
- determination to be free (renunciation),
- ethical self-discipline,
- discriminating awareness of voidness (emptiness),
- love and compassion,
- other far-reaching attitudes (perfections), such as generosity, patience, and joyous perseverance.
Trying to practice tantra with any of these prerequisites missing may lead to serious mistakes and problems. The minimum requirement is an artificial state of each – which means the ability to generate a sincerely felt level by relying on a line of reasoning.
Kalachakra practice also requires at least a certain amount of special preliminaries to purify negative potentials and build up positive ones. The special preliminaries most often entail a hundred thousand repetitions of
- prostration, together with a verse for taking safe direction and reaffirming bodhichitta;
- the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, for purification;
- mandala offerings, symbolic of giving everything toward the attainment of enlightenment and the benefit of others;
- the verses or mantra of guru-yoga, for integrating our bodies, speech, and minds with those of the spiritual masters, who are Buddhas for us.
In the Gelug tradition, we need not have completed the special preliminaries before receiving the Kalachakra empowerment. However, if we wish to engage more deeply in the actual practice of this tantra, we need at least the sincere intention to complete these preliminaries in the near future.
[For a more detailed discussion of all the above points, see: The Main Features of Tantra]