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.
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.
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.