The Importance of Rebirth, Initiations, Vows and Spiritual Teachers in Tantra

We can have some questions about the points we’ve just covered and then we can go on. Let’s keep our questions specific to this topic. In the afternoon, we can open it up to more general questions about tantra.

Questions and Answers

Strengthening Belief in Rebirth

You made the distinction between Dharma-Lite and the proper Dharma practice based on the understanding of rebirth. You also mentioned having this gut feeling of really believing in future lives and practicing that way. This is a challenge for many of us until we really have the realization of emptiness. That is way down the path until we get there. In the meantime, what would your recommendations be to strengthen that belief in future lifetimes, not just as a mental thing but so that we really feel it deep down? What can we do to make that stronger?

The approach that I used myself was to give it the benefit of the doubt. This means that we assume that this is correct and then see what follows from that. If we look at the ways of knowing as described in Buddhist epistemology, this is called “presumption.” We will presume that rebirth is correct, although we’re not really convinced. Then we see what follows from that. What follows is that past lives make sense of the laws of karma. They provide some explanation for what happens to us in this life, and this I found very powerful for myself. They explain what has happened in my own life. 

For example, I went to India at the age of 24 to study with the Tibetan community for writing my doctoral dissertation and instantly everything fell into place. Within one week of arriving there and having no plans when I arrived, somebody had given me a house to live in. I met the Tibetans who would be my teachers and arrange everything for me; I had a Tibetan monk who was living with me. In one week, it all fell in place, and I felt so comfortable. My whole life felt like it had been on a conveyor belt leading to this. It made absolutely no sense in terms of my background, my family, or in terms of anything. The only possible explanation would be previous life connections with all of this.

That helped me to feel that what was going on wasn’t crazy. Likewise, when we look at any of us, we are not born as completely blank slates. Even as infants, some of us are very gentle and easy to take care of. For instance, we didn’t cry except when we were hungry, etc. However, others come out of the womb angry and fighting all the time. Where does this behavior come from? Even identical twins can be very different from each other in disposition. 

It just starts to make a little bit of sense when we bring in rebirth. Then, we can look at other things that make sense, like the idea that everybody has been our mother. This is very difficult to actually consider. What is the benefit to bringing in rebirth here? Rebirth is relevant because without taking it into consideration, we might feel that we can only relate to other people who are like us. We can’t really relate to people on the other side of the world, let alone animals and insects. Maybe we can only relate to people of our own gender, religion and so on. Whereas, if we open this up in terms of past lives, the benefit of that is it allows us to relate to anybody, because nobody is set in the present form that they are in. 

Giving rebirth the benefit of the doubt, we can see what follows from it, and if that makes sense, then we can work with it. This, I think, is very helpful. Just as an amusing story, I remember that my favorite uncle died while I was in India. There was this fly that refused to leave my face. I was constantly shooing it away. I was trying to be a good Buddhist and I wouldn’t kill it or anything, but it kept on coming back and landing on my face. Then I started to wonder, who is this fly? Maybe it was my dear uncle who died and he’s this fly now. If I were reborn as a fly, instinctively I would have this connection with somebody and want to be with them. I would hope that my nephew wouldn’t just squash me but would welcome me. This also helped.

Close Relation with My Teacher in Two Lifetimes

But what really convinced me on a gut level was knowing my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, in two lifetimes. I had a close relation with him in his prior lifetime and now the close relation that I have had with him, coming from his side, started when he was four years old. This tipped me over the dividing line, and I felt that this must be for real. However, that’s not an experience that most of us can have.

Can you tell the story about that?

I was very close with Serkong Rinpoche. He basically trained me in everything. He felt the connection with me and, when I first started to visit him, he said to just stay there at his side and he would train me. I translated for him a great deal of the time. It wasn’t every day, but most days for nine years. 

At that time, Buddhism had degenerated in the Spiti Valley, a Tibetan region in India but on the border of Tibet. He reinstated it and started the monasteries in a better way. He died there and his rebirth, his “tulku,” was found there as well, exactly to the day nine months later. He wasn’t going to waste time hanging out in the bardo or anything like that. Because he was such a prominent teacher in the valley, most people had pictures of him in their houses. When he was old enough and could speak, he would point to the picture and say, “That’s me.” When his former attendants came around looking for children of the right age, born at the right time, he ran into the arms of one of them and knew him by name. It was that sort of classic recognition of a tulku, where it should come from the side of the tulku and not from the side of the people looking.

They brought him back to Dharamsala and he never cried once about wanting to go back home. It wasn’t that he hated his parents or that they were terrible people. They are wonderful people, but all he wanted to do was to go to Dharamsala. He said that he felt there was somebody very important that he needed to meet there. It was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He had been one of the teachers of His Holiness. That was all that he wanted. 

When he was four years old, I went to meet him for the first time and the attendants asked him, “Do you know who this is?” He said, “Don’t be stupid; of course, I know who this is.” From the very beginning, he was completely affectionate, warm and comfortable with me. That was that. From my side, I wanted to be quite skeptical, but from his side there was no problem. That sort of convinced me of what was going on with rebirth. There was no other explanation.

This is how we work with rebirth. We presume that it is true and then see what follows from it. If what follows from it makes sense, then maybe rebirth makes sense.

Thank you for the good advice. Just a follow-up question; my impression is that some Buddhist traditions do not believe in reincarnation. I remember my first encounter was with forest monks in Thailand and remember clearly that the monk was talking about just one lifetime and refuting different lifetimes but saying that this is the only thing we know.

Again, I would say that Buddha taught with skillful means. He was invited to different households, and, after the meal, he was invited to teach something to the head and the members of that household. He taught different things to different people because he recognized that different people were at different levels with different backgrounds and dispositions. Having been a translator and, in a sense, behind the scenes with great lamas when they explain things to different people, they are very different with each person. For example, with one person they may be very severe and with another very gentle. One person they will tell something to and to the next person tell something completely different. Just because the monk explained that to you doesn’t mean that it would be the way he would explain it to a Thai person, for example.

Also, we have to consider that Buddhism went from India, where part of the culture already had the idea of rebirth, to many other places, including China. In China, they didn’t have the concept of rebirth. They were into ancestors and showing reverence to them, as if they were still around after they had died. That was completely contradictory to Buddhism. Buddhism says they have taken rebirth and are now somebody else, so don’t get so attached to your ancestors. Nevertheless, we look at Chinese Buddhism or Vietnamese Buddhism with Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, which came from China, and they still have reverence for the ancestors. This is skillful means.

Individuality and the Gradient Approach Presented in the Tenet Systems

On this topic of Buddhism meeting the Western world, I have found that sometimes the idea of rebirth for us Westerners makes us more involved with what we were before or what we might become in the future instead of dealing with this life right here and now. That is one of the pitfalls that we sometimes fall into. The other one is the reification of the idea of “me.” I am something and this lump, this soul, is being reborn in the next life. We begin to think in an almost materialistic way about “me,” myself and my ego. 
One perspective that I have about rebirth is that life is reincarnating through “me.” It’s not that I am reincarnating but it’s life itself that is reincarnating, and I will not be the same “I” as I was. Life forms are changing over the history of this planet, so I think that life is reincarnating through me in many different forms in the future and in the past; it helps me from being so reified in this way. It also helps with bodhichitta, that since life is reincarnating through me, I can be a servant of consciousness becoming enlightened.

There are several points from what you said. The last point is that we have to be very careful that we don’t lose a sense of individuality, because that sense is the basis for taking responsibility for what we do. The point is that we experience the consequence of what we do. It is not that there is universal “life” or a universal mind, or a universal type of life. Buddhism certainly accepts individuality; it is not that we are all this one big soup. To think that we are like that is similar to some of the Hindu ideas that all the streams merge into the big ocean and we are all one with Brahma. However, it’s not like that according to Buddhism. 

If we look at the Indian Buddhist tenet systems, we see that they are presented in a progressive order. We don’t go immediately to the most advanced level. At first, they teach that there is some sort of solidity to the self. We want to gradually gain a deeper and more subtle understanding of how the self actually exists. 

Like this, when we look where the topic of rebirth comes in the graded order of the teachings, it is in the context of cause and effect. If we act in a certain way, we are responsible and we will experience the consequences. Even if we don’t experience them in this lifetime, it is not that they expire and become invalid. We will continue to experience consequences. Even if we think of this in terms of a solid “me,” to get this basis of ethics is essential on the Buddhist path. That is another point.

The further point that I wanted to mention is in response to your point about the danger of becoming too focused on the past. We might become really curious about who we were in a previous lifetime. So what? Even if we knew, then what? As for who we will be in a future lifetime, we tend to always think human and not a chicken or cockroach. I forget the reference, but one master said if we look at our body, it will give some indication of what our previous lives were, and if we look at our mind, it will give an indication of what our future lives will be. In other words, we need to look at our bodies and what physical situations we experience during our lives – as in my example of getting to India and staying there 29 years and never having a visa problem when everybody else had problems with visas. Where did those conditions come from? There had to be some previous cause for them. Things don’t come from no cause. Good luck or the gods smiled on me? No, it’s not like that. 

If we look at our minds, at what type of thoughts we have going on all the time, then it gives some indication of what lies ahead in the future. I always use the amusing example: if our mind is flitting all over the place and we can’t stay focused on anything, what does that indicate? This is the mentality of a fly that never stays in one place and always flits around here and there. Animal images are used so much in the Tibetan teachings because they are very helpful. 

Serkong Rinpoche always used to use this image of our acting like a dog waiting to be patted on the head after we do something helpful for our teacher or anybody. Are we waiting for someone to say, “Good boy, good girl?” Then, do we wag our tails? His point was we shouldn’t do nice things for a thanks or a pat on the head, or to wag our tails. We do nice things to benefit others. These images can be very powerful and help us to remember.

With past and future lives, we can get fascinated and absorbed into what was and what will be, but it can also be used as a way of understanding what is happening to us now and what causes we are building up for the future.

Initiation or Empowerment

OK. Now to get back to our topic, tantra. Whether we practice tantra in a “light” version or in a real-thing version with rebirth, we still need to receive an initiation or empowerment in order to get into actual tantra practice. Literally, the Tibetan word for an initiation, wang, means to empower, and the Sanskrit word, abhishekha, means to sprinkle, to sprinkle seeds that will grow, though we need to water them so they actually will grow. In order to actually receive an initiation or empowerment, we need to keep vows. Sakya Pandita, a great Tibetan master, said that without the vows there is no initiation. 

Taking Vows

We haven’t consciously taken the vows if we are just there like a pet dog or baby someone brought with them; or we are just there and have no idea what the vows are or what we are doing but just repeating Tibetan words that we don’t understand and therefore they have no meaning to us. We are just going “blah, blah, blah.” Then, we haven’t received the initiation. It is as simple as that. The vows are essential. 

Atisha, another great Indian master, who helped to bring about the new period of Tibetan Buddhism, said that, as the basis for bodhisattva vows, we need some level of the pratimoksha vows. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be a monk or a nun, but we do need at least the five precepts. If we look in abhidharma, at least one of the five precepts is required. We don’t have to take all five, but something, as the basis for the bodhisattva vows. If we don’t at least vow to stop killing others, for instance, how can we vow to work for the benefit of all beings. Then further, there are no tantra vows without the bodhisattva vows. 

Therefore, in all classes of tantra, as part of the initiation, we take the bodhisattva vows. In the two higher classes of tantra, yoga tantra and anuttarayoga tantra, there are, in addition, the tantra vows. It’s very important and essential to maintain them as best as we can. That means to not consciously transgress them. If we transgress them, which inevitably happens, at least don’t be happy about it. Don’t say it was stupid to take the vows and have no intention to keep them. 

There are a number of factors that need to be present in order to fully lose the vows. Otherwise, all we do is weaken them. They can be re-strengthened or re-invigorated with regret through Vajrasattva practice and these sorts of things, but better not to weaken them in the first place. We can also retake the vows as part of a daily practice to reaffirm our vows. There has to be, though, an ethical basis for our practice of tantra.  

Now comes a problem with Dharma-Lite, because if we look at the vows, one of the transgressions of the bodhisattva vows is forsaking the sacred Dharma by denying that any of the scriptural teachings derive from the Buddha, which would include the teachings on rebirth. If we say, for example, that rebirth is stupid and we don’t need that in Buddhism, or that Buddha didn’t really talk about that, we would be violating our bodhisattva vows. This is something that we need to keep in mind. That is why I said that it is important to at least keep an open mind and say that it is there in Buddhism and not deny that it is a part of Buddhism. We can admit that we don’t understand it yet but are willing to look into it in the future when our understanding increases. This is fine and no problem. Then, we haven’t broken our bodhisattva vows.

Another transgression of the bodhisattva vows would be to hold a distorted antagonistic attitude. This is usually translated as “false views,” but that sounds like being a heretic and isn’t really the flavor of what we are talking about. It is not only denying one of the basic core Buddhist teachings − like refuge or enlightenment or denying that there is any value in being constructive, and we would have to include denying rebirth here as well − it is also being antagonistic about it. It would be thinking to argue and be very stubborn with everyone, saying that they were wrong and stupid for their belief. There is a whole list of attitudes that go with this in order to be a complete downfall. It would involve being really hostile, negative, argumentative and confrontational about it. Therefore, that means that we would need to at least be agnostic about this whole issue of rebirth even if we are taking these vows on the basis of Dharma-Lite. 


It’s very clear from the bodhisattva and the tantric vows that we lose them if we give up bodhichitta, and here all the accompanying factors, like having no regrets, don’t even have to be complete. Giving up bodhichitta means that we have already developed it to a certain extent, doesn’t it? We can’t give up something that we haven’t developed. 

It is very clear, then, that we need to have at least some level of bodhichitta. A lot of people confuse compassion and bodhichitta. They are not the same. Compassion is the basis for bodhichitta. As the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, compassion is the support for bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta is supported by love and compassion and the exceptional resolve that we are going to take universal responsibility to help bring everyone to enlightenment. It is not that somebody else is going to do it, but we are going to take responsibility to actually help everybody. It is not that we are only going to help little old ladies to cross the street, but to help everyone overcome deepest suffering, which is uncontrollably recurring rebirth or samsara, and then lead them to enlightenment. It is not just to help liberate them from unhappiness or, yes, ordinary happiness. 

In order to generate a state of mind that is very clear, we need to know what it is focused on and how the mind is taking that object. What is it doing with respect to that object? We can’t meditate on anything unless we know what the state of mind is that we are trying to generate and what it is aimed at. What is bodhichitta aimed at? It is aimed at our own individual enlightenment. This is not Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment or general, vague enlightenment but, for each of us, our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. 


This becomes an interesting point when we talk about time. Excuse me for bringing in a side topic, but I think it is relevant. In Buddhism, we don’t speak in terms of past, present and future. We speak in terms of not-yet-happening, presently-happening and no-longer-happening. If we speak in terms of these, from the point of view of today, tomorrow is not yet happening. However, is there such a thing as tomorrow? Yes, there is. We can validly plan for it. And, from the point of view of today, yesterday is no longer happening. Is there such a thing as yesterday? Does it exist? We can remember yesterday, so yes, it exists; however, it is not happening now. 

Therefore, don’t think in terms of “my future enlightenment.” This can get into a weird irrelevant way of thinking, as if the future exists somewhere out there and if we go faster than the speed of light we will get to the future and all of that. Nonetheless, we are talking about something that has not yet happened but that can happen. How can it happen? It happens on the basis of the causes that can bring it about. 

Therefore, that not-yet-happening individual enlightenment is what we are aiming for way down the line in our mental continuum. What is the way that our minds take this? It is that we want to achieve that enlightenment. What pushes us toward it is love and compassion. When we speak about motivation in Buddhism, the word implies something that is driving us. We have to have a goal, an aim, and we have to have an emotional basis that drives us to that goal. We also need to have a purpose. What are we going to do once we have achieved that goal? That is a motivation. 

For example, “I am going to achieve better future lives because I really don’t want to be reborn as a cockroach and I dread that. I am confident that there is a way to achieve better future lives. What am I going to do with a better future life? I am going to work further toward liberation and enlightenment to help others. I will make positive use of my future life. That’s why I want to attain it, so that I can continue on the path.” 

That is what motivation is talking about. We want to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha, our own not-yet-happening enlightenment. We want to achieve it, and the driving force is love and compassion and taking universal responsibility. It is all based on equanimity, that we have an equal attitude toward everyone and not just for helping our friends. We can see the equality of everyone; we recognize that everyone wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy. What are we going to do once we reach enlightenment? We aren’t just going to hang out in some Buddha-field, but rather work to benefit as many beings as possible who are receptive to our help. The sun can only shine on those that come out into the sun. For example, if someone goes into a cave, the sun can’t really reach them. 

It is this sort of bodhichitta that we are talking about. To give it up, we have to have generated it at least a little bit intellectually and, at least, know what it is and have some sort of feeling for it. If we say that bodhichitta is too hard or ridiculous, and think that we can never get there, or that we can’t really help this horrible person over there that has done such awful things, so therefore we aren’t going to work toward enlightenment to benefit everybody, then we have really given it up. 

When we say in the teachings how horrible it is to give up bodhichitta, or to give up refuge or safe direction, or the close bond with a teacher, this can be understood on so many levels. But at the most basic level, refuge, bodhichitta and our spiritual teacher each show us the way to the enlightened state of a Buddha. If we give that up, it is described that we go to some horrible hell. What does that mean? We can take it literally of course; however, we can also take it, as I was explaining with safe direction or refuge, that we have given up putting a positive, meaningful direction in our lives. 

So many of us experience that our lives are meaningless and going nowhere. Every day is the same and we question what we are alive for. Is it just to watch more TV programs, go to more movies and eat more food? So many teachers like to use very graphic examples such as that we are just using this human body as a factory for producing waste – urine and feces; that is our job in life. We put food in, and we manufacture and produce this waste. Is that all that we are using our precious human life for? Hopefully, it is something more than this manufacturing plant of waste.

If we give up this aim of bodhichitta − what we are aiming for and the direction that we are going in − and we also say that there really isn’t anybody, no teacher, who represents having bodhichitta, then we are thrown into a meaningless life again, and that is a hell. Life is going nowhere and has no meaning. How horrible that is. Therefore, we don’t want to give up bodhichitta. However, we have to have generated it before we can give it up.

Tantric Vow to Meditate on Voidness Continually

The most difficult of the vows and one that we need to be especially aware of is the tantric vow that we would transgress by not meditating on emptiness or voidness continually. This is the way that it is expressed in the vow. We give up the vow if we don’t do that. We promise to do that every day, and the usual custom is three times in the morning and three times in the evening. That just means really being mindful of voidness or emptiness. That means we have to have some understanding of it. If we don’t have some understanding, then we really go into some sort of weird schizophrenic trip that we are actually Tara or Chenrezig. There can be this big, inflated ego and there can be very serious psychological problems based on that. 

Therefore, this understanding of voidness and continually reminding ourselves during the day and evening of what is actually going on are essential. This isn’t just in our tantric practice but also in our ordinary lives as well. This is probably the most difficult of the tantric vows to keep, and one shouldn’t take it lightly. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, when we go to these initiations, we can go as what he calls a neutral observer. We Westerners usually call this “going for the blessings,” borrowing a Christian term. It is inspiring and uplifting to go to an initiation like that, but we are not really taking the vows, especially if there is a practice commitment that requires us to do a long practice every day for the rest of our lives. We are not really ready to do that either.

It is perfectly fine and wonderful to attend for the inspiration. Go there as a neutral observer. However, to actually take the initiation means we have to take the vows and participate in the procedures of the initiation consciously and be serious about keeping the commitments.

One of the Drikung Kagyu masters pointed out about empowerment or initiation that, coming from the Tibetan word, it means “sprinkle”; it sprinkles seeds in two senses. One is that it sprinkles and thus nourishes the seeds of our two networks of positive force and deep awareness to transform and grow. We have to have some understanding of emptiness or voidness, some understanding of bodhichitta with a blissful state of mind, and be really happy to be there, and at least have some degree of a conscious level of these during the empowerment. If we have these, then the empowerment causes these seeds that are already there in Buddha-nature to be activated and bring about this transformation. Also, through the experience of receiving the empowerment, it plants more seeds and reinforces the networks that way as well. That is what is going on during an empowerment or initiation. 

Spiritual Teachers

So, there are vows and some conscious experience during an empowerment, plus, of course, we make a close connection with the spiritual teacher conferring the initiation. But we need to have checked out this person very well beforehand. Even if we don’t receive individual personal guidance from this teacher, that is fine. There are so many different types of teachers that we can have. 

What is the criterion for somebody being our actual spiritual master? If we look at the texts, it is somebody from whom we receive vows. Then, we actually establish a connection with the person. However, we can also have an instructor. We can have somebody who gives us a lot of information. We can also have somebody that we work out with in a sense, like in a gym, who teaches us the rituals and all the details. Let’s not get into seeing the teacher as a Buddha and all of that, which is yet another level, but, at the least, this teacher represents to us what we are trying to achieve. In addition, we make a serious commitment and connection with him or her.

This word damtsig, samaya, is hard to actually translate. It is a connection, something that connects us. It can connect us to the practice or connect us to a vow. The way that it is often used is in connection to the teacher. Having damtsig, what I call a “close bond” with a teacher, we have a deep connection that is based on incredible respect from both sides. It is based on each of us respecting Buddha-nature and the potential in each other. How could we act like an idiot in front of this person? How could we sit there and pick our nose or do all sorts of ridiculous things like lose our temper?

I’ll give an example. One of my teachers was Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche. He was the head of the Gelug tradition and the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was a very formidable person, and most people were terrified of him. He was the incarnation of Ra Lotsawa, the one that brought Yamantaka, Vajrabhairava, this really strong energy, to Tibet. He was extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. When he would give an initiation, he would just point to all the features in the mandala building around him as he was describing the mandala. He was this type of teacher. 

I used to go to see him and sit in his room. Tibetans have these low sorts of couches that people sit on. He was on one side and I was on the other side, and all of a sudden there was a scorpion on the floor right in front of us. Ling Rinpoche said in a very dramatic way, “Oh, a scorpion; oh, my goodness.” He looked at me and asked, “Aren’t you afraid?” I said to him, “How can I be afraid in front of you?” “You are Yamantaka, Vajrabhairava, how can I be afraid in front of you?” He laughed and then the attendant came in and put a glass over it and a piece of paper under it and took it out as if the whole thing had been staged. It was very funny.

Another incident was with the young Ling Rinpoche, the reincarnation. There is a certain biscuit or cookie that I am very fond of. They are McVities Digestive Biscuits, a British cookie. One day I went to visit Ling Rinpoche as a little child in South India and the attendant came in with tea and a package of my favorite biscuits. Ling Rinpocher just looked at me and laughed with an I-know-who-you-are type of look. This is Ling Rinpoche and this is damtsig, this close connection in which we have so much respect for the person that we couldn’t possibly freak out because there is a scorpion in front of us. 

It is this type of thing that we at least try to establish and have the intention to establish with the teacher who is conferring the empowerment and gives us the vows. This is really important in terms of keeping the vows. With so much respect for the teacher, we aren’t going to break the vows. If we feel that there are certain things, for example, with pratimoksha vows that we can’t keep, we are not just going to give up and say, “The hell with it.” Even with bodhichitta vows, we don’t want to give them back. This is forever and we need to be very serious about that.

Therefore, we really check out the teacher to see if we can have this connection with him or her. Are they someone who is really going to inspire us, or is it someone that just happens to be there, and everybody is going because it is a big-name lama? If that is the case, better to be a neutral observer than commit to a deep relationship with the teacher. Even if we don’t spend a lot of time with them, they need to be an inspiring person to us. That is what empowerment is all about.

Whether we are practicing tantra as a Dharma-Lite practitioner to improve this lifetime, or we are really hoping that we are going to be the one in trillions that is going to attain enlightenment in this lifetime, the lucky one, and will get there within this one lifetime, or whether we think that we are there for the long term, knowing that this will take a long time and won’t be easy considering how completely messed up our mind is − regardless of what level at which we are going to enter this adventure of tantra, the preliminaries, initiation, vows and the relation with a teacher are essential.