On the Nature of Empowerment, Illusion, and the State of the Vajra
“When one truly understands the meaning of Abhisheka, only then have they received the Abhisheka.” - Kyopa Jigten Sumgon
“Mostly, I straddle reality and the imagination. My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane.” - Tom Waits
Recently, I was asked to prepare a presentation for the Buddhist Conference held by the Universidad del Salvador in the Eastern Studies department. This presentation was entitled “A Rain of Flowers: The Adaptability of Transmission from the Siddhas to Social Media.” It largely concerned the method of giving empowerment (Abhisheka) in the Vajrayana tradition, and the way that this method has met and continues to meet the needs of students throughout time.
The audience for this presentation had to meet some academic rigor, while still being presentable and understandable to a general audience, much of which was scholastically and not practically concerned with the subject matter. Around the time of this presentation several of my newer students had the question of both my position on online empowerments and any textual basis for my position. On the first point, the fact that I give online empowerment makes my position clear. On the second point, if any person tells you they have a textual basis in the Tantras for the efficacy of online empowerment, than their skills at necromancy should draw you more into their qualifications as a teacher than any claim to scholastic attainment.
In any case, since the research is directly in front of me, and since it offers an opportunity to present it to a slightly different audience, here are some short notes on the topic. I will divide this into three smaller sections: 1. The Nature of Transmission in Vajrayana in Comparison to Similar Traditions. 2. The Adaptability of Transmission. 3 The Vital Point of Cooperation.
1. The Nature of Transmission in Vajrayana in Comparison to Similar Traditions
All of the Indic traditions born in Nepal, Northern Pala, and Oddiyana were trading methods and ideas for many hundreds of years. Nearly all of those traditions developed some aspect of Tantra, that is a closed tradition with a transmission based authorization in dependence upon a Guru relationship.
Since all of these paths of Sanatana Dharma, Buddha Dharma, Jain Dharma, and Bon Dharma involve ritual methods, deities, mandalas, the importance of a Kula and the Guru, and methods of liberation and relative practical sorcery- what is that which distinguishes Buddha Dharma in its presentation of Tantra that makes it a unique expression of these sorts of teachings? All of these paths possess a View, and it is the View that differentiates the path. The View of the Buddha Dharma is that of interdependent emptiness, and the four seals remain at the root of Vajrayana, the Buddhist Form of Tantra.
As Nagarjuna states, and is later prolifically quoted by Chandrakirti:
“Genuine realization is the Middle Way. The Middle way does not create phenomena as empty through the idea of emptiness, it shows that all things are already intrinsically empty.”
This means that the Dharma does not create an idea and reduce objects to another philosophical position by means of posturing, but that everything in the Buddha Dharma is to show the real nature of phenomena as it is- how it arises, abides and ceases.
This means that while all these Tantric traditions may have deities, the nature of the deity in Vajrayana is not an intrinsically separate and definitive reality, but a method to show a student their real nature. It shows that while all of these traditions may have mandalas and pure lands, the real point is not that these places exist as permanent states of better existence, but as relative places to put the Buddha's teachings into practice, and ultimately to show the nature of the ever changing five elements.
Most importantly for this discussion, while all these paths have ritual methods of conferring empowerment, in most of these the Jinlap, or the blessing, is something external that is brought to the student. Much like the realization of emptiness itself, the Jinlap of Vajrayana shows that the same blessing realized by the Mahasiddhas, the realization of the nature of Samsara and Nirvana, is also the intrinsic condition of the student. Everything in Vajrayana is only present to point this out, and nothing more is added or given that isn’t already possessed within the student’s capacity.
This is made vibrantly clear within the Brilliant Expanse Tantra, which states:
“The person enthroned must unmistakably be of royal birth, and yet until she is established on the throne she is only called 'princess,' never 'Queen.' Once she has been enthroned and has been conferred with rulership of the kingdom, she becomes Queen in actuality."
The nature of a royal is not given at the time of the coronation, rather, one is a part of a royal family from the moment they are born. The coronation is the acknowledgement of this reality. The empowerment points toward the real nature of the student, and rather than some external acknowledgement, through the blessing of the Teacher, the student sees, realizes, and gains confidence in their condition.
Still, to deny these methods entirely and rely on the teaching of the ultimate nature without respect and understanding for cause and effect is a grave error. As Longchenpa states:
“To give up all methods by saying, “It is mere concepts” is an idiotic way to proceed. This is what the immature do. Stay away from this.”
Therefore, like all the instructions beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha, the methods of giving empowerment shows both the relative and ultimate truth. Any saying that creates some definitive external principle, something separate that relies on physical implements and is implanted through ritual hasn’t understood a single world of the Vajra Tantras.
Further, those teachers who are claiming that the Vase is the necessary physical tool that keeps one from being able to receive online empowerment do not understand the distinction between the descent of blessings (Jinlap) and the Vase empowerment (bum wang).
The original intention of the Vajrayana empowerment was to give a direct introduction to the real nature of the student and to bring the student to Buddhahood immediately at the conferral of the ritual. Because this is rarely possible, subsequent practice and instruction (Agama and Upadesha) exist to return to the student to the realization shown, not given, at the time of the receipt of empowerment. This is also why the Agama and Upadesha (lung and tri) cannot be given outside of empowerment. They are meant to return the student to the state given at empowerment, and without it, cannot help the student whatsoever.
The Jinlap section of empowerment creates the interdependent tendril with the line of teachers going back to Vajradhara and Samantabhadra, which helps the student to realize the method of pointing out given at the time of empowerment. The Vase empowerment is a seperate section from the conferral of Jinlap. The Vase shows the student the liberated nature of physical form, called the Nirmanakaya.
Nirmanakaya means “body of illusion” and shows that the aggregates of physical form are empty of any inherent existence. Due to this, by definition, the Vase empowerment cannot show or give something concrete or real, since it is pointing out illusion itself.
As Jigme Lingpa states through a Terma teaching revealed by him:
“Through the Vase empowerment, I pray that all grasping to outer appearances be perfected through Mudra of the body of the deity!”
Clinging to a particular method or object as being real and definitive, and the substance of empowerment as being external and tangible, is not the path of Buddha Dharma.
Qualified Vajracharaya, trained and given the ordination by their teacher, would not confuse these points, and therefore students must scrutinize well the validity of the source they trust and derive their information regarding Vajrayana.
Vajrayana is unmistakably Mahayana, and Mahayana is the great Vehicle proclaimed by the Buddhas.
2. The Adaptability of Transmission
As shown in the previous section: empowerment, transmission, and personal instruction is a relative teaching, a method in time, which is itself not ontologically definitive and ultimate. It points toward the ultimate, but like all language and form, cannot encapsulate it entirely.
Due to this, even though the Tantras arise from the Body, Speech and Mind of liberated beings as the Trikaya, they are temporary to beings of a particular time. Just like the sutras describe the dissolution of the pure land of Sukhavati, eventually, all of these methods and deities will dissolve back into the Dharmadhatu, the sphere of emptiness itself.
Because of this, the methods of the Tantras adapt in both form and function over time. While certain fundamentals like the Three Kayas stay relatively stable, since beings continue to have bodies, voices, and thoughts, other aspects of the day to day existence of beings shift, and so the bridge of ritual and ceremony shifts with it.
From the time of Tsangnyon Heruka, who told his students when and what to contemplate as he gave empowerment from a different location, to modern pioneers of transmission such as Garchen Rinpoche and Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, who have used everything from VHS tapes in the1980’s to the earliest forms of webcast, the method of showing students their real nature continues to improve and adapt.
This is because the methods themselves are inseparable from emptiness and Bodhicitta. As the Mahasiddha of our time, Garchen Rinpoche states in his teachings on empowerment:
“When the vase is placed upon your crown, this is the outer aspect of Abhisheka. The inner aspect is generating oneself as the deity. The ultimate aspect is realizing one’s own nature.
Cultivating Bodhicitta is the same as cultivating the deity, so in doing this, you will genuinely receive the empowerment over the internet.”
This particular translation exists online in many places, but I have translated it myself here. The reason I have done this is because I understand Tibetan and am a translator of these texts on a day to day basis. It has become popular for many self proclaimed teachers to say “Oh, this teacher really meant (whatever they themselves have accepted as truth).” But rarely do these teachers speak the language themselves. And so it has become common in our time to proclaim what a teacher ‘really meant’. The best thing one can do to remedy this is learn the language and ask that particular teacher. The next best thing is find a translator that one can rely upon accurately. Garchen Rinpoche’s meaning here is unconfused. He is not just encouraging online empowerment so students will come to the Dharma, while secretly holding the opinion that some aspects must be done physically in person. When he says that one will genuinely receive the empowerment, the Tibetan indicates ‘without confusion’ and that one can have real confidence that this has occurred if they have given rise to Bodhicitta.
Further, there are many different types of empowerments, some of which do not require implements even when given in person, such as the ripening method of the three Thal within the Donwang of Anuyoga. This is why Norbu Rinpoche offered the Donwang, or meaning empowerment, so many times.
His Holiness the current Dalai Lama, in describing the situation of some Tibetans who wanted to take the Vajrabhairava empowerment when he was visiting Mongolia helped make this possible by relying on the traditional texts, and understanding of the Mahasiddhas who also accomplished this, stating:
“Recently, in Mongolia, I gave Vajrabhairava. There was a group of Tibetans that could not access this, even by streaming. I advised them how to receive the empowerment, without any kind of video, because they were devoted."
Though it is impossible to confirm any reality merely by consensus, when so many well qualified and even liberated teachers are now giving online empowerment, such as:
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, The 41st Sakya Trichen, Both confirmed Karmapas, many leaders of the Six Nyingma Mother Monasteries, Garchen Rinpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, His Holiness the Drikung Chetsang, the late Dudjom Yangsi, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Lama Migmar Tsetsen, Guru Goshir Gyaltsab, Drikung Khenpo Chopel, His Eminence Trisab Gyabra Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Nyinma, Drupon Tsering Rinpoche, Lopon Tenzin Namdak, both Chenga Gurus, Lama Sonam, Kunsang Lama to just name a small selection of lineage heads, pandits, Yogins, monks and Ngakpas-
One can come to the conclusion that adaptability is the rule rather than the exception.
3. The Principle of Cooperation
At the heart of Vajrayana is interdependent cooperation. As Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche stated:
“The main principle of empowerment is cooperation between the student, the teacher, and the Vajra siblings."
The truth is that there is no textual source from a 12th century master confirming the viability of internet transmission. In lieu of finding some old DM’s of Nagarjuna hidden by the Nagas, it is up to the Kulas of our time, with the permission and blessing of the Dharmapala, to consider, reason and employ methods that use modern technology.
Then, through analysis and reasoning, teachers should closely watch the progress of many students to see if Bodhicitta arises, and if the five poisons are becoming wisdom.
Since the view of emptiness, together with Bodhicitta moistened by a heart filled with devotion is the gateway of all Vajrayana transmission, and since methods of distance empowerment have been tried for nearly one thousand years, with technology for about 30, and the internet for about 10, we can say that there is a large pool of dedicated students that we can observe and see the results of this cooperation.
And what is that result?
That slowly many have experienced the blessing of seeing their nature unfolding, the transformation of Samsara into Shambhala, and the diminishing of the Mara of grasping. The only consideration is that posited by Dujom Lingpa:
“When scrutinizing one’s practice, see if the cave of illusion has collapsed.”
And that given by Khenpo Munsel, who suffered in a labor camp and still managed to find liberation:
“Until the bones of our practice crack upon the hard rocks of lived experience, we cannot know if we are really practitioners.”
In our own practice we have blind spots, so even if I analyze and say "From my root Guru I perceived no difference in the experience of online versus in person empowerment", I am not qualified to come to conclusions through the lens of my perceptions, which may deceive me.
But now many teachers have also received online empowerments themselves. Norbu Rinpoche personally told me that he observed no difference from the online empowerment of Kalachakra from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and one in which he attended in person, as a single of many examples. I cannot help but trust them implicitly and without reservation.
And in the lives of my students I have certainly seen the practice and experience meet, and I have seen them come out with genuine wisdom, radiating with the blessings of the lineage. I have also observed this in the lives of the students of other teachers who offer online empowerment.
As Shakyamuni stated:
“In the future, whatever is well spoken and produces virtue, this also accords with my teaching.”
With these things in mind, the nature of empowerment, the adaptability of transmission, and cooperation with the teacher and Kula, can it be definitively said that whoever attends an online empowerment receives it?
No. Certainly not.
Just as it cannot be said that those who go to a physical empowerment are certain to receive it.
They will receive the ritual, and they will have the seed planted to do the practice, but will they all understand the meaning and produce Bodhicitta, seeing their real nature? This is highly unlikely.
Further, the Tantras themselves are specific regarding the conditions of the student and teacher in order to receive empowerment. As Jigten Sumgon states:
“It is widely believed that even with an unqualified Guru, one can give rise to the qualities of Liberation; but here the teaching is that liberated qualities cannot be cultivated with an unqualified Guru."
There is no benefit at all in just going to a teaching because one wants a particular empowerment to suit their spiritual narrative, without analyzing or knowing the teacher at all, and collecting these experiences one after the other. In many cases like this, the student is wasting their precious time, and has never actual received a single empowerment.
However, when a student has the right capacity, with devotion, understanding the View, and most importantly giving rise to Bodhicitta; and the teacher has been trained, done the necessary accumulations and received the Vajracharya blessing from their teacher, and they cooperate in a spirit of the four immeasurables- then there is no distance that can hamper or block the realization of Buddha nature.
As the Sakya Pandita so eloquently states:
"For empowerment, which is the ripening factor, one ought to seek out and take the four empowerments from a master whose lineage of vows is intact, who totally understands the rituals, who knows how the inner and outer meaning is explained, who is able to plant successfully the seeds of the four Buddhakayas, and who acts in accord with the Buddhas teachings. From this kind of teacher, one will truly attain the Three Sets of Vows."
In all of this, we must respect the relative and the ultimate. If a student needs to go physically to an empowerment for it to work, that is their particular condition. They should not tell others that this is impossible for them due to their own limitations. If one is studying under a teacher that doesn’t allow online empowerment, this is their condition. They should follow with devotion, and not tell the students of other teachers this is impossible for them. Nor should those with a teacher endorsing online methods of empowerment cajole or otherwise ridicule these students.
In all these things, keep grounded in relative and ultimate Compassion, never abandoning one’s vows, and truly cultivating the heart of Rime. Doing this, there will be no confusion regarding Abhisheka.
And as the meaning of the word indicates, one will truly purify old concepts, and all experiences that pour into the body, speech and mind will arise as Wisdom.
- Lama Sherab