Within the vast and numerous mahayana teachings which Buddha gave to his disciples, we can distinguish two categories: the way of the perfections (the common path) and the way of the mantras (often called the vajrayana).
These are two ways to travel to the same destination of buddhahood with the same altruistic motivation of bodhichitta. That is why, at the beginning of any vajrayana initiation, we make the bodhisattva vow in an abbreviated form.
Permission Initiations and Empowerments
Initiation is the gateway to vajrayana practice. An initiation confers upon one the requisite power to accomplish buddhahood through meditation upon a particular Buddha deity. The lama who bestows the initiation must himself have previously received the initiation from an unbroken lineage and have completed either a major retreat on the deity of the initiation or a major deity practice from the particular order of tantra to which the initiation belongs. A major retreat is one in which the full number of mantra recitations required in a particular deity practice is accomplished.
Though people in general use the term ‘ initiation ‘ or ‘ empowerment ‘ quite loosely nowadays, there are actually different kinds of initiations bestowed in vajrayana. One should distinguish between permissions (rjes-snang) and empowerments (dbang-skur) both of which are found in all four orders of tantra: kriya, charya, yoga and anuttara yoga.
In a permission the lama blesses our body, speech and mind so that we can cultivate identification with these three aspects of the buddha-deity of the initiation. Common examples of this are the initiations of Manjushri and Chenrezik-mahamudra. In an empowerment the actual power or energy of the deity is conferred upon us through the ritual objects of the initiation. In an anuttara tantra empowerment one is led into a mandala , the palace of the buddha-deity, and then the four anuttara empowerments – named ‘vase’, ‘secret’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘fourth’ – are conferred upon us. Common examples of this are the initiations of Hevajra and Chakrasamvara. In the Sakya tradition, the blessing-initiation (byin-rlabs), authorising us to meditate on the buddha-goddess Vajrayogini, may be bestowed subsequent to such major initiations.
Although there is such a difference between various kinds of initiation, it is still possible to indicate at least the general outlines of an initiation.
Firstly the lama must make his own preparations for the initiation. Then, having purified ourselves by rinsing our mouths, we enter the shrine room and prostrate three times to the lama. We are then given rice to use later in making symbolic offerings. Once we are seated, the lama will instruct us to generate the intention to receive the initiation for the benefit of all beings and will then proceed to relate the history of the initiation’s transmission lineage and the benefits of the initiation itself. Following this one makes an offering of the entire universe as represented by rice, in order to receive the initiation. We then repeat the prayer requesting the granting of the initiation and the seven-limbed prayer which includes the taking of refuge and the Bodhisattva vow.
The main part of the initiation is structured differently depending upon whether it is a ‘permission’ or an ‘empowerment’ initiation and according to the level of tantra to which it belongs. Throughout this phase of the initiation we must maintain the conviction that the teacher is identical with the initiation-deity.
In the concluding part of the initiation, we declare our commitment to accomplish the practice of the deity and promise to carry out the instructions of the lama. We then offer once more a symbolic mandala of the universe to demonstrate our gratitude. The initiation subsequently finishes with the whole assembly making the prayers of dedication of merit.
As we leave the shrine room we make an offering to our lama which signifies our appreciation of his kindness and willingness to support him. This offering is a direct reflection of the value we place upon the initiation and we should make the greatest offering our means permit.