Tantra: Questions about Initiations and Visualizations

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Questions about Initiations (Empowerments)

You said that after the preliminaries or preparation, then we take the empowerment. Does that mean that we have to have completed our ngondro before receiving an empowerment?

That’s a very good question. It depends on what level we want to do it at. Often we need to be a bit expedient, and so if there’s a great master and we’ve checked out that master, and it’s very important to check out the tantric master, not just take the empowerment because it’s being given – as Serkong Rinpoche said, not be like a hungry dog that will take any bone that it’s thrown – but check out the teacher. Not only does the teacher need to be qualified, but we need to find the teacher inspiring. It could be the most qualified lama in the world, but it doesn’t move us. That also is not so effective. If it’s a tantra system that we know a little bit about and, “This is something that I would like to get involved with,” not just anything that’s being given, then even if we haven’t completed the ngondro, or even started the ngondro, it’s not a bad idea to take the empowerment.

It all depends on the practice commitment, of course, but we can keep the minimal practice commitment and sort of table it until we’re ready, for example, or get involved in practice, but don’t forget about the preliminaries. In other words, we can do practice, but don’t expect to get very far without the preliminaries, or at least some preliminaries. You shouldn’t think that it’s a set course that we have to follow. The preliminaries can be molded in such a way to individual situation.

I used to always joke and say that – with Serkong Rinpoche, I was also his foreign secretary in addition to his interpreter and disciple, and so I used to have to write all his letters in English, and make all the arrangements for his tours, and telephone calls, and going to the embassies, and getting the visas, and do the logistics of all his travels – and I used to say that that was one of my preliminary practices, to make a hundred thousand telephone calls on his behalf, a hundred thousand letters with the aim of making him available so that other people could benefit from him. I was not doing it to please him, and he never thanked me, never. In all the time that I was with him he only said thank you to me twice, in nine years. That was very good, excellent for me. It might be very difficult on other people doing that, but for me it was perfect. Because, as he would say, why are you doing this? Are you like a dog and you’re doing it and then you want a pat on the head and you wag your tail – and then what? “Good boy. You got me the visa. Good boy,” pat you on the head and then you wag your tail, and then what? That is not the reason for helping our teacher. The reason is to benefit all beings – to work with “all beings” is usually too vague to have any emotional meaning – but to benefit the people that you know that this teacher can benefit by making more and more conducive circumstances for helping the teacher, so the teacher can do more work.

So in terms of these preliminaries, one tries to fit them in. They are important, at least some of them, and the spiritual teacher can specify them. I didn’t do the standard set. I was given a slightly different set of things to do, personally.

Sometimes we attend an empowerment and we don’t really know the teacher and we don’t know that there was the taking of vows, sometimes it’s all in Tibetan, or it’s not really explained to us, it goes so quickly. Then only much later do we find out that there was the vows or a practice commitment and we’re utterly freaked out with the prospect of vajra-hell awaiting us. Is it the case that we’ve really received the empowerment?

That’s an excellent question. I would say no. It’s very clear from the texts and the teachings that in order to have the vows, you have to consciously take them. To have the empowerment, you have to consciously feel that you have the empowerment. A baby or a dog that’s present doesn’t have the vows and doesn’t really have the empowerment. They can have what’s usually translated as “blessings.” What does that mean? It was an inspiring thing to be there, but they didn’t really get it. You have to very consciously accept these vows. If you don’t consciously accept them, because you don’t know what is going on, you haven’t taken the vows.

Similarly during the empowerment there needs to be some conscious experience – this is explained by one great master of the past – some conscious experience. The founder of the Drikung Kagyu tradition said that. Some feeling that there’s some basis there of an activation of the potentials. Not just sort of sit there and be totally lost. Sitting there and being totally lost, the best you can get is some inspiration from the thing, which is fine.

“Have I received the empowerment or not?” It’s hard to say. The point is, what does it mean to have received it? That is a very difficult question to answer. You can say some sort of conscious experience. Well, how qualified do you have to be? What level of conscious experience? How qualified does the teacher have to be to really be able to give the empowerment? Well, all of that’s relative. It’s all in degrees. The custom, of course, is to take the empowerments over and over and over again. It’s only when we’re really familiar with the empowerment ritual that we can even follow it, especially when it’s involving very complex visualizations. The first time off there is hardly a chance that we’ll be able to keep up and do all the visualizations, so you take it again and again. As a disciple our qualifications will hopefully increase over time.

Likewise, there are many people who have received empowerments from people who are not really qualified, either Tibetan or Western, and they ask, “Did I receive it or not?” Well, it depends on your state of mind. Do you think that you received it? If you have confidence that you believed it. Of course the teacher wasn’t optimal, but you weren’t optimal either, but it’s a basis to start to activate the seeds. Then you go back and do it again and again as you’re more qualified and with a more qualified teacher, and it can grow from that.

It’s like the question, “Can you receive an empowerment via the Internet, if it’s broadcast on the Internet?” The Kalachakra initiation in Graz was broadcast on the Internet. What is the difference between receiving it on the Internet and the hall was too full and you weren’t able to get in, so you watched it on the video screen in another room? Those are interesting questions and of course a lot depends on one’s state of mind during the empowerment and the intention of the teacher conferring the empowerment.

Why is it essential to have a qualified teacher giving the empowerment? What is the role of the teacher?

One role of the teacher is to inspire – this is the main role of a teacher in general – to give us inspiration. Actually being in the presence of the teacher is important – even if you can only see the teacher on a video screen, because you’re sitting so far back, or whatever – as a source of inspiration. You’re not just reading it from a text and doing it yourself. Also for lay and tantric vows, you need to receive the vows from a master. With bodhisattva vows there’s a way of taking them by yourself, but for lay and tantric vows you need a spiritual master to confer them.

One important thing during the empowerment is seeing the teacher as a Buddha on the tantra level. What that means is seeing Buddha-nature in the teacher. It doesn’t mean at all that the teacher actually is enlightened and, as I always joke with people, therefore the teacher is omniscient, therefore the teacher knows the telephone number of everybody on the planet. The teacher certainly doesn’t know the telephone number of everyone on the planet; it doesn’t mean that. A Buddha would know. You know why a Buddha would know? Because a Buddha knows karma completely, so a Buddha would know what was the karmic impulse and the causes for you to apply for that telephone number at that particular time when you would get that particular number. So as a consequence of a Buddha’s complete knowledge of karma, a Buddha would know everybody’s telephone number. Anyway, perhaps that’s being too cute.

It’s very important to see the teacher as a Buddha and what that means is in terms of Buddha-nature Now we go back to what we were discussing before in terms of inseparable samsara and nirvana. If we can see the teacher as inseparable from the yidam, what does that mean? The word “inseparable,” remember, if one is the case, so is the other. So if there’s this ordinary appearance of the teacher, there’s also the appearance of the teacher as a yidam, as a Buddha-figure. The subtlest energy, all the potentials, can manifest in those two aspects and they’re both equally valid. In those terms, we focus on the nirvanic aspect of the teacher and see the teacher is a Buddha – not see the teacher as a Buddha, serving as a Buddha for me because it’s convenient as a skillful method – but is a Buddha. That doesn’t mean enlightened; but there is this Buddha-level, quantum level, there.

If we can have a conscious experience of that during the empowerment, that together with a conscious blissful awareness of voidness – that all of this is on the basis of voidness, no one is inherently existent as a Buddha, there’s not something inside me that makes me a Buddha by its own power – that is what activates the Buddha-nature potentials, to see that we ourselves have these two levels, so that I can validly label myself a Buddha, in terms of these yidam practices of visualizing myself as a Buddha-figure, without it being a lie and also without it being that I’m fully enlightened. I’m not fully enlightened, but there is that quantum level that the energy of my mental continuum can vibrate at. So I choose to emphasize that, activate that, so that hologram appears. You have to see that in the teacher, and seeing that in the teacher inspires us to be able to see that in ourselves.

That is how it works. So the teacher is very crucial. It’s very essential that the teacher be inspiring for us personally. If it’s somebody who’s coming to a center that you’ve never met, you’ve never heard of, well, find out the person’s biography, learn about them, read about them. If they’ve written anything, take a look at that. Hopefully the empowerment is not the first event that the teacher does. Hopefully there’s enough time in the visit to be able to check out the teacher, at least by going to some talk before taking an empowerment. Much better, of course, is to have had a longer exposure, but often that’s not possible. But in most cases when His Holiness gives Kalachakra initiation, for instance, there are several days of preliminary teachings, so you can check him out.

If a teacher displays so-called magical powers – extra-sensory or extra-physical powers – just as a way of attracting students, impressing people, is that a red flag, a warning sign that there’s something peculiar about this teacher’s qualifications?

We look for guidelines for this from the bodhisattva vows. One of the auxiliary vows is not to avoid using your extra-sensory powers, if you have them, in times of need. So the converse of that implies that when there is a time of need, you use them, but if there’s no time of need of it, you don’t use them. To use them just to impress people, that’s like praising yourself and belittling others, “Look how great I am.” It really depends. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, certainly had extra-sensory and these sort of powers and abilities. I saw it several times, but he only displayed them basically when there was a need, some purpose.

An outstanding example being when we were in Dharamsala and we were driving up to Tushita, which is a meditation center above McLeod Ganj. We were in the jeep approaching the center and Rinpoche said, “Hurry up, go quickly, there’s a fire starting in the gonpa.” There’s no way that he could have seen that from the car down the road. Somebody ran in and, sure enough, a candle had fallen and a curtain had caught on fire. The fire was about to break out. In those situations they do that.

Or His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was present: His Holiness was giving an empowerment in South India and a swarm of hornets flew into the temple, a big swarm of hornets. Tibetans are pretty cool, this was the Lower Tantric College, so these people kept pretty calm about the whole thing, but I got stung. They came in and His Holiness stopped the ceremony, and he looked at them, and he obviously did something, and the whole swarm turned around and flew right out. I saw that with my own eyes. When there’s a time, a need, yes. When there’s no time of need...

The classic example is Naropa with Tilopa, Tilopa eating the fish and then laying the bones down and snapping his fingers and the fish comes back to life – not to impress Naropa, that wasn’t the point to impress, “Gee, Tilopa, you’re so great.” “I’ll pay my money and follow you, join your center.” It wasn’t like that – but in order to help Naropa develop confidence in Tilopa. Naropa, after all, was the abbot and the most learned scholar of the greatest monastery of India. He was no beginner when he met Tilopa. So it was very helpful for putting down his arrogance. So there was a need.

In those situations, yes, it’s ok. In other situations, I would be suspect. Teachers always praising themselves, “How great I am,” and so on, “How clever I am.” One should be careful. Now, of course, it also says in the texts that, given a list of ten qualifications, it’s going to be very difficult to ever find somebody who’s fully qualified. So out of those, we try to find somebody who has more positive qualities than negative qualities. This comes into the whole teachings on how to develop a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher – I wrote a book on that called Relating to a Spiritual Teacher – and what is explained in the texts is that – the Fifth Dalai Lama makes a point of this – you don’t deny the shortcomings of the teacher, but to focus on those shortcomings is not going to be of any benefit, and complaining about it is not going to be of any benefit at all. It’s just going to “bum you out,” if we can use the colloquial expression, depress you.

Without denying them, don’t be naive about it, just put that to the side and focus on the good qualities, because that’s what’s inspiring. If it’s done without naivety, “Oh gosh, you’re so perfect,” but, “OK, I recognize what your shortcomings are,” then we can find great inspiration from that person. This is great advice, not only for relating to a spiritual teacher in a healthy way, but relating to anybody – our partners, our family members, our friends. Of course they’re going to have negative qualities as well as positive qualities. Complaining and getting aggravated over the negative qualities isn’t going to help, but we can be inspired by their positive qualities without denying the negative ones. You have to check out the whole picture of the teacher, what their qualifications are. But showing off and arrogance, one has to be very careful.

Questions about Visualization

How do you visualize?

It’s difficult for many of us. First of all, throw out the word “visualize.” That is too limiting. It implies visual, seeing something. Instead “imagining,” what we’re doing is imagining. We’re imagining not only sights, but we’re also imagining sounds, and smells, and tastes, and physical sensations, and who we are, these sort of things.

I remember there was this one friend of mine who said that she had a great difficulty in visualizing or imagining, and I went on a long, dusty bus ride with her, and it was very hot. After several hours on this hot, dusty bus, I said to her, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had some oranges? That would be so refreshing. It would taste so delicious to have an orange when we’re so hot and thirsty.” And she said, “Stop torturing me!” And I said, “Aha, you can visualize!” We are able to imagine things. Imagine what your house looks like. Imagine what your best friend or your closest relative looks like. Most people can imagine what they look like. We are capable of imagining, even in terms of imagining ourselves in a certain form; well what does it feel like?

In the process in tantra, it always talks about having the clarity and the pride of the deity, two terms that are a little bit misleading. Clarity – remember, we were discussing in the definition of mind, of mental activity – it’s an activity, we’re not talking about it being in focus. That’s not at all what the word “clarity” means here; what it means is “appearance-making.” What we try to do is to make some sort of appearance. That means imagine, to some level. Tsongkhapa always said, try to get a general image; don’t worry about the details, don’t worry about the focus; just get something vague and general going. Then the clarity of the details is a function of concentration. People get really hung up in these visualizations about the jewelry, and what it looks like, and what color eyes, and all these tiny little details. When it’s taught with the main emphasis on all these details, then that reaffirms our inadequacy, for many people, and that’s unfortunate. The thing is not on the details. We need to know the details eventually, but the main thing is just to get some general, vague image.

Then the pride of the deity is to actually feel that that’s me; it’s to label “me” in terms of that. It’s like for instance, when we talk about mental labeling, there’s a basis of labeling, which would be each moment of the mental continuum, and then there’s the label “me,” which is just a word, or a concept, an abstraction; we are not a word. We’re not the sound of some syllables that are arbitrarily given a meaning, but the word refers to something on the foundation of that basis for labeling. So what does the word refer to? It refers to “me,” the conventional “me.”

So, if you think about it, all that’s happening at any time is the present moment, which is rather ephemeral; it’s changing all the time. Once the next moment is happening, all we can speak of is the moments passed that are already gone and the moments not yet come, neither of which is happening now. It is not as though passed moments never existed or that moments that have not yet happened will never exist. It’s just that they are not happening now. Nevertheless, no-longer-happening moments and not-yet-happening moments are existent phenomena and can be objects of valid cognition. We can validly know them by inferential cognition, for example.

Although all that is happening now are the everchanging moments of the present, still a stream of continuity can be validly labeled on a continuum of no-longer-happening, presently-happening, and not-yet-happening moments of something. And then we can label something on the basis of that stream of continuity, for example a movie. Even if the movie is not yet finished playing, still we can validly say that “I am watching the movie” and that is a correct statement. Similarly, we can validly label “me” on a stream of continuity of everchanging no-longer happening, presently-happening, and not-yet-happening moments of five aggregate factors of experience.

If we use myself as an example, with the name “Alex” in this particular lifetime, then the moments of my life as Baby Alex are no longer happening, but those moments are valid bases for labeling “me.” It was me – without there being a solid me – and the Alex now and the Alex that is not yet come in terms of the old man Alex, if I happen to live long, that also would be a valid basis for labeling “me.” Likewise, going all the way down the line with our mental continuum, that point where it will be a Buddha, a Buddha will be manifest, that also is a valid basis for labeling “me.” “Me” covers the whole span. In tantra, the pride of the deity is to imagine that now I’m in this form of the Buddha-figure. I’m not there yet, but I’m imagining it, because it is a valid basis for labeling “me.”

That’s why bodhichitta is essential in tantra, because that’s what we’re aiming for, our own enlightenment. Without bodhichitta it doesn’t work, aside from the energy of helping all beings, which also we need. In the visualization, what you need is the appearance-making, some image, so-called “clarity,” and the pride the deity, which is labeling “me” on it. What does it mean from an experiential point of view to label “me?” From an experiential point of view it means to feel that. Reflect for a moment, what does it feel like to be a human being? What does it feel like to be male or female? What does it feel like to be American, or German, or Chinese? What does that feel like?

It’s an interesting exercise, isn’t it? Hard to say what it feels like, hard to put into words. But it’s talking about something. That’s holding the pride of the deity. What does it feel like to be Chenrezig? What does it feel like to be Tara? That’s labeling “me” on it – the pride of the deity. You don’t have to go around and say “male, male,” “female, female,” “human, human” all the time. You could carry a flag around, “American” or “German,” but that’s a bit much. It’s like a feeling of who I am. When we try to hold the pride and appearance of the deity all-day long in tantra, it’s sort of a feeling of who I am; and some sort of appearance, not identifying with this limited appearance that we have now, that may be short, fat and ugly, old, or whatever; or young, and handsome, and slim, and all these sort of things. That’s ephemeral.

That’s dealing with self-image when we deal with the appearance-making. That’s what it’s talking about, our self-image and the feeling of who I am. That’s what we’re working with in tantra, if we put it in Western psychological terms. It’s very important to realize that our energy can vibrate on different levels: a samsaric level and a nirvanic level of self-image and who I am – inseparably. If one is true, so is the other. If one is the case, so is the other. If the energy can vibrate on one level, it can vibrate on two levels. It’s important not to be intimidated by visualization and think that we have to become technically perfect and win the Olympic gold-medal in visualizing. It’s basically imagining, and the details will come with concentration.

Even being in a mandala, I always tell people to do this exercise of, “What does it feel like to be in a room with four walls around you?” Can you be aware that there are four walls around you? Can you be aware that there’s a front, and two sides, and a back of your head? Yes, it’s not so difficult. You don’t actually see it; we’re not talking about seeing it. Like being Kalachakra with four faces. Well, that’s not so difficult, actually, because we can be aware of the front, two sides, and the back of our heads, that they exist. What does it feel like to have a face on the front of your head? Interesting. You probably weren’t asked that before. Imagine what your face looks like, not looking at it from outside in, but just having a face. If you have a face over here on the front of your head, you can also have two on the sides as well, why not? And one on the back. Put your hand on the top of your head, please. Now take your hand off. Can you feel the top of your head? Yes. That’s how you visualize something “on the top of your head.” It’s just “Something is there,” it’s a feeling. So there are all sort of tricks that one can use to train in visualization. That’s what Buddhism is all about, training, methods.