The Proper Way to Take a Tantric Initiation

The Importance of Vows in Tantra 

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 that is going to build up this positive force more efficiently and quickly. This would mean that we would need to engage in anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class.

(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,

which is 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.

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

We want to be able to follow all the procedures of the highest tantra path that will bring us to enlightenment more quickly. 

(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, usually called an “initiation,” which is done 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 are 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 also has the vajra master empowerment, so it has the complete vase empowerment; finally, anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class, has all four empowerments, the complete vase empowerment and 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 when people were practicing tantra very wildly with a great deal of misunderstanding. Thus, he put a big emphasis on keeping 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 a Mahayana bodhisattva path. He emphasized that we have to keep one level of the pratimoksha vows of individual liberation, he put 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.

Indirectly, he’s saying that if we really want to achieve enlightenment through tantra, we need to take the tantric vows, and that’s done with the vajra master empowerment. That’s why he points out that specific empowerment from among all the stages of empowerment.

The Tantric Master

Now, 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 that will awaken our Buddha-nature factors and continue to cause those factors to grow and grow through our practice. That inspiration from the spiritual teacher is absolutely essential. 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 what pleases the teacher is “respectful service”; in other words, we help the teacher in whatever ways that we can. We make offerings to the teacher so that the teacher doesn’t have to go out and work a regular job to make money; the teacher is supported so that they can spend full time in teaching and helping others. 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 – since 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 − then we receive the empowerments. That empowerment will help us to “purify negative forces” and to gain the activation of our Buddha-nature factors, 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.

Restrictions in Terms of Celibate Behavior

Remember, in Tibet, there was a great deal of abuse and misunderstanding of tantra by taking the sexual imagery literally, particularly in terms of monks who have vows of abstinence, of celibacy. 

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 and helpful for making the energy winds of the body more and more subtle. This is going to help us 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 – called “clear light” – which is far more subtle than any conceptual mind. It’s the level of mind that is the most efficient for gaining non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

This blissful awareness that we want to generate is something generated through an inner, very sophisticated, unbelievably difficult yoga with the subtle 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. However, it’s not something that is actually practiced literally, particularly not by those with vows of celibacy, monks and nuns.

Obviously, in Tibet, monks and nuns were taking all of this literally and indulging in various sexual types of behavior, particularly during empowerments. That occurs specifically in the secret and the discriminating awareness empowerment. The secret one 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. 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, Indonesia.

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

He’s making it very, very clear. The secret empowerment, 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 yogurt and tea. In the discriminating awareness empowerment, in which the disciple is instructed to have his or her own experience of blissful awareness, this is done in terms of visualization of being in union, but 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 celibacy, 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.

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. The way that it’s practiced actually is that this is not only the case for those with vows of celibacy but also for everybody. None of this is ever to be practiced in a literal fashion. Atisha says this quite specifically, saying that when we receive this in a nonliteral fashion, don’t think that we 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 during which we visualize, we imagine, that we’re embracing a partner, from that point, the implication is that we’re keeping the tantric vows. The empowerment is conferred there, so we visualize that embrace “and are aware of actuality”; in other words, through the whole process of the empowerment one is working with the understanding of voidness. It’s the combination of the understanding of voidness with a blissful awareness, and if one is doing that on the basis of this process being nonliteral, a visualization and so forth, then one has actually received the empowerment.

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

Conclusion of the Text

Then, the conclusion of the text is:

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 Ö, 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.

Here, it says, 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.

Concluding Remarks

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, afterward, I also listened to teachings on this text from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’m really very happy and appreciative for this opportunity to meet with you and to offer you this explanation. Even if there are things in this that we might not understand yet, particularly in terms of the teachings on voidness, this is a start; 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. 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. 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 we avoid that. When we know what’s helpful, we practice that.

Just as we don’t take the appearances of inherent existence literally, even though things appear that way to us, but we instead 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 the various teachings. Whether we’re talking about the sexual imagery in tantra or the 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 in reality and being realistic, we can follow the path to enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Read and listen to the original text “Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” by Atisha.