A Basic Guide to Buddhist Initiations

Or What to Expect when you’re Empowering

I was asked recently about what all goes into a Buddhist initiation, and thought I would share it here. I went into my first one ignorant, and it made for some awkward moments, and I know people who take semi-advanced initiations when they’re public without knowing the system, and bite off more than they can chew. Hopefully this will help clarify things. This isn’t so much to explain the process, how it’s done, and the like, but more what you should know and consider if you’ve never had an empowerment before.

This can only be a general guideline for what you could expect. Depending on what figure you’re getting initiated into there will be different things done. Different lineages will do things differently, as will different temples, and individual teachers. There are some general things though that are most likely across the board, but lots of little nuances.

First off, what do I mean by initiation here? While there are a few things that could be initiations in Buddhism most people only think of the one in terms of Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism. An initiation, also known as an empowerment, a wangkur (dbang bskur དབང་བསྐུར), or an abhisheka (Sanskrit), is when a person is “introduced” to a deity. I usually colourfully refer to it as having a god shoved into my head. A lama will connect you to the deity, as my lama says he will “plant the karmic seed,” this allows you to contact them and practice their rituals. There is disagreement (as there always is, and more so in the Western spheres) as to whether or not you need an empowerment to practice, or how “deep” you can practice without one. While there is no consensus I would say it is generally wise not to practice (or attempt to practice) advanced techniques (can’t believe I have to say that, but, I do…), or Wrathful deities. The Peaceful deities (especially Chenrezig, Tara, and Medicine Buddha) are more likely to be forgiving if you do things wrong in the practice, or if you weren’t supposed to contact them at all…Wrathful, might not be so forgiving. (It is also sometimes argued in terms of mechanics, that without empowerments and training your mind/energy/body can’t handle the practice and it can be dangerous) Basically an initiation into a figure lets you work with them, otherwise they’re not something you can, or should connect with.

What to do beforehand?

First off, think about if you need and want this empowerment. Almost all initiations come with some form of commitment. It’s not just “here have a wealth deity,” the commitments are part of your side of the bargain. In the more Peaceful and “basic” initiations, they may be very little: a requirement to say the mantra 3,7,21 times per day, and almost always living by the Buddhist precepts. (Don’t kill, don’t steal, avoid sexual misconduct (whatever that is), don’t lie, don’t use intoxicants.) On the other hand more serious ones might include many hundreds of mantras a day, performing their ritual daily, performing monthly feast offerings, always carrying ritual tools with you, never wearing certain things again, having to say certain prayers before every meal. The thing is, most people don’t think about commitments, and they’ll collect the initiations (which as addressed before I have issue with), but not follow through with the commitments. Granted you can argue that it’s their issue, they are the ones ruining their karma (and if you believe the system breaking these commitments can be more serious than you’d expect), but part of it is just not being aware, not taking it seriously, or being disrespectful. The issues compound especially after you have many initiations, because these stack. Saying a mantra 100 times a day isn’t that bad of a requirement, but what if you have six initiations, that’s six mantras 100 times a day, and that starts to add up time wise, and that’s just mantras, which are the quickest and easiest part of daily commitments. Or twenty minutes of practice a day, not bad, what about if you have six such practices? That’s two hours, or what if you have a practice that has timed commitments, so the ritual have to be done before dawn, or at midnight, then it’s not just having the time, but making it at unusual times throughout the day.

Alright, you’ve decided to take the initiation anyways. Wear something comfortable. If you’re physically able, you’ll be required to sit (generally on a cushion on the ground) and stand several times, but you might also be required to prostrate (bow) or stand on one leg for a while. So make sure it is something you can move in. I’ve never had the issue, but I’ve seen a woman fussing with a skirt that didn’t allow her to stand in a certain pose. Also while by no means required a lot of people dress in the colour of the figure they’re getting initiated into. Vajrapani is blue, wear blue, Green Tara wear green, Dzambala wear gold/yellow. Make sure you wear something easily washed too, occasionally empowerments require you to be marked with stuff, and you don’t want to stain a nice shirt. (That one is a lesson learned the hard way, thank you very much Vajrayogini.)

Though not required, it’s good to have a mala and khatak. A khatak is a silk scarf given as an offering to the lama (and often given back), any Tibetan store has them, some temples sell them, but at very least when you’re there most people will let you borrow theirs when it is your turn.

Empowerment prep:

Some temples/events have an entrance fee, usually listed as a “suggested donation,” this is separate from the dana (offering) you give to the lama later. It is traditional (and arguably a requirement) to give an offering to the lama for the initiation, and now in the West, when temples are not, and haven’t been on the same spot for centuries, and have to pay mortgages and electricity bills many will ask for a donation to get in to help run the temple.

When you arrive it is traditional to do full body prostrations to the shrine, but if you don’t feel comfortable don’t feel forced into that just because everyone else is doing it. Either when you come in, or at a time before the ritual starts you’re required to purify yourself. You’ll be given a handful of saffron water to rinse out your mouth, and then spit out. Then you’re given a second handful, this you drink, and then rub your damp hands on the crown of your head. (This isn’t always explained)

When the lama comes in it is again traditional to do the full body prostrations, again don’t feel forced to do it, but you should at least do the bow, just watch what other people do.

Generally you will have some form of preliminary prayers. Some temples provide handouts or booklets with them, other ones just expect you to know them. (My first initiation I was expected to know them, so there was a good 15 minutes at the beginning of the ritual where I’m trying to mouth something that makes it look like I knew what was going on) If you want to know what you’re to say, you could try asking beforehand, send an email, ask the organizers if they know. Chances are the main things will be a Refuge Prayer (Palden Lama dampa namla…), a Mandala Offering (Sashi pushu…), and the Vajrasattva mantra (Om Vajrasattva samaya…). You’ll probably say more than those, but I’ve found those to be the most common.

Empowerment proper:
Depending on the temple/teacher, the empowerment might be the lama reading Tibetan at you (not really to you) for an hour or more, other times they’ll talk a bit about the myths of the figure, why you practice, how to practice, and in between sections they’ll read the Tibetan.

Often you’ll be blessed multiple times in the empowerment, at least three for Body, Speech, and Mind. These will often involve such things as the lama touching your head with a plate containing a ritual cake, touching their mala to you, sprinkling you with holy water or the like. Sometimes you’re anointed with an oil or coloured substance, or given something to eat or drink, but that’s less common.

When it’s all over you’ll go up to the lama one last time. You’ll be given an envelope some point to put your offering in. Place it in front of the lama and hand them your scarf, generally they’ll put the scarf over your head, to return the blessing to you, sometimes they keep it though.

As with the entrance it’s customary to prostrate when the lama leaves the room.

Most communities are pretty understanding if you don’t know a prayer, or mess something up, and they’ll explain things (usually, but not always) as you go along, these are just a few of the issues I thought people might not know or need to consider beforehand to make their first empowerment go smoothly.


4 Responses to A Basic Guide to Buddhist Initiations

  1. elnigma says:

    I really like most of this post – well said.
    I am told through my teachers I can keep my samaya (promises to those who don’t know) by keeping to any samaya. Buddhas in essense all have the same nature, and are not jealous.
    ex. if you do Vajrasattwa every day, Tara won’t be angry. Or Tara, instead of Manjushri, etc. You won’t go to hell as a liar.. that’s not how it works. I’m a “bad buddhist”, but it’s a different bad, and something I may work out eventually.
    Empowerments are not magickal Pokemon training (though that sounds interesting), it’s learning techniques, so you have them available at need. And learning from teachers in person and from sangha, an experience that can’t be replaced at home. And some things aren’t learned at once by all, but 5 years later on, or longer
    The reason I’m touchy about this isn’t actually defensiveness, it’s a bad experience with the creepy Buddhist group saying “don’t be a “spiritual materialist”, :read this book by Chogham Trunghpa”, “don’t go collect empowerments” when that really was unfortunately- control -if they left them and did -they would have met someone- uh. better..
    The really nice, open one having a teacher who said flat out the first day “My students – I want you to learn and read (from everywhere), and you should see these other teachers should they come by”. it’s like I’ve samaya being a seeker. I’m good with this, though I’m not necessarily good at it all.

    • Kalagni says:

      I’m not sure if I agree about the jealous statement. I mean, when there is overlap, they won’t all ask for the same things. Several of my practices require me to do tsok feasts twice a month, but I can do the feast for everyone, each one doesn’t need their own. I don’t think I’d support the idea that non-overlapping samayas are equivalent. So if I need to do chöd everynight, it’s chöd, and Tara won’t get the job done.

      The “evidence” I have here is looking at lamas in the temple system. There are lamas who get up before dawn to do practices, then do dawn practice, then morning practices, because all of these practices have different times and need to be done on their own. Now you can argue that the temple system is wrong or too strict (and I often do), but that’s not the way it’s usually represented. I’m worried that if people think they can do that (assuming it’s not allowed and is actually a breach of their samaya) they’ll just collect because they just need to do their daily Vairochana, and that satisfies all their needs with everyone else. Which if wrong, is really detrimental to their practice and karma. I feel that’s something that someone should “realize” after doing their practices for a while, rather than going into it.

      While there is definitely a part of these practices being skills, they’re also relationship. So while I might not be jealous when a friend spends time with someone else, if they don’t spend time with me our connection will weaken. It could be like that.

      Now to be honest, I’m not sure. Maybe it does work how you say, but from my training, and my studies it doesn’t look like that’s the case, positing that the temple system is 100% correct (which I don’t, but this area I haven’t come to disagree with…yet).

      • elnigma says:

        I’m just going to give my opinion. I have what I was told repeatedly,since its a question almost always asked regarding samaya. Lamas know that most people are not going to be nuns or monks who live in temples and it’d be harmful for many if they tried. I think focus on getting a practice regular and complete is important, but I think it helps in every way to know which ones light their fire, something they don’t know without having learned them and tried them, also in practicality, lots of them aren’t given empowerments for that often. You mention Chod which is one of the best and is certainly complete, so yes, for many if they never do anything else, they’d have an all-in-one right there. Except actually a lot of people don’t seem to jive as strongly with Chod, as sole practice, and it’s a bit different than dzogchen. There’s just a lot of things valuable to learn, and there’s also Sanghas which aren’t that often interacted with except when a lama’s around. Many lamas and laypeople have had tons of empowerments generally from multiple teachers and lineages. Even little kids get empowerments, even though they’re unlikely to do the practices, they’re taken then as a blessing.
        My experience views it a “red flag” if a teacher (of any stripe of religion/philosophy) discourages in some way going to learn from other teachers (or limit that), and instead wants to isolate their students. k.

        • Kalagni says:

          I wonder though, going back to the spiritual material idea, why people who like you said aren’t going to be nuns/monks then feel the need to take on practices like them? It’s hypothetical, but still. Perhaps in part because most Western Buddhists don’t actually know what is entailed by the practices?

          As for which ones connect/resonate with them, isn’t that ideally what the lama is for? They attend teachings, do their readings, and can say what they feel called to, or have the lama suggest a practice for them.

          Lamas do their practices, one assumes, it’s lay people that could be a concern there, heh. Empowerments can be given as blessings without a commitment to practice, that’s not a problem, it’s when people take them with a commitment and don’t stick with it.

          I agree (mostly) about the red flag. I’m lucky, my primary lama encourages me to train with other lamas, has tossed me at a few before, and even encourages my ceremonial practice. On the other hand, if you buy into the guru-student relationship, and the wisdom of the lama they could validly have reasons for discouraging specific practices or teachers. I know with my Rinpoche, there was another teacher in town and one of his students asked if he should go see them, and Rinpoche said no. I went, and two other students went, frankly we all agreed the teachings sucked. So there can be valid reasons to discourage other teachers/teachings.

          Plus different forms have different nuances in their currents and symbolism, and I’ve seen people say that when they get serious they have to stick with one teacher for fear of confusing the path. I don’t buy that, cause I believe in the ability to symbol swap with understanding, but I can see how it could be an issue if people are too literal.

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