Monday, April 6, 2015

Five kinds of transmission: great empowerment

In the last two newsletters, I discussed command transmission (བཀའ་) and spoken transmission (ལུང་) and I've posted these comments on my blog musings. These are the first two of the five kinds of transmission in Tibetan Buddhism. This week I'm going to jump to the other end of the spectrum and talk a bit about empowerment or initiation.
In tribal societies, initiation is a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. The initiate usually goes through a ritualized death process in which the comfort-seeking child is killed. The young adult is born and by going through the trials of the initiation ritual, demonstrates that he or she is worthy of being an adult. He or she is then invested with the privileges of life as an adult and assumes the corresponding responsibilities.

dakiniThe great empowerments (དབང་ཆེན་) in the Tibetan tradition contain many of these elements. In the empowerment ceremony, you are lead through a process of ritual death. You leave behind the life of society and are reborn as a deity, a being of timeless awareness. Your body is an expression of timeless awareness. Your new home is a palace (the mandala of the deity) in which every architectural feature and decoration is an aspect of awareness. Through various symbols, you are empowered with the understandings, powers and capabilities of the deity. Everything you are given or shown introduces you to some aspect of timeless awareness. While there are numerous divisions and subdivisions of the empowerment ritual, broadly speaking you are initiated into four mysteries: 
  • the mystery of how sensory sensations are experienced as emptiness-appearance, 
  • the mystery of how emotional reactions are transformed into awareness,
  • the mystery of how the generation and transformation of bliss and other high energy states open up possibilities of direct awareness, and 
  • the great mystery of awareness itself, the utter groundlessness of all experience.
During the empowerment ritual, you practice under the guidance of your teacher. Ideally, the field of energy that he or she generates and your own efforts in practice combine to create the conditions that bring about at least a sense of what it is to be the deity - what form-emptiness, sound-emptiness, awareness-emptiness mean experientially. This is the essence of transmission. The seeds of experience planted during the empowerment are then nurtured through your subsequent practice until they blossom in your own experience.
How does this transmission take place? For this, I find two analogies helpful. The first is resonance. When you have two tuning forks that vibrate at the same frequency, if you sound one of the tuning forks, the other will start to vibrate. The master who is giving the empowerment is like the first tuning fork. You, as the student, are like the second turning fork. By following the instructions given during the empowerment ceremony, you attune to the field created by the master and a seed of experience may arise in you. The second analogy is lighting one candle with another. The heat of the lit candle melts the wax in the wick of the unlit candle. As the wax heats up, it breaks down into lighter and lighter molecules until it bursts into flame. Now the second candle is lit and burns on its own. In either case, there is a transmission, but what exactly is transmitted is a mystery itself.Much changes when you receive an empowerment of this kind: 
  • Your life as a person in society and convention is over. That person has died. You have been born into the life of a practitioner, one who lives awareness. 
  • You have been shown a world of new possibilities, a world that is different from the conventional understanding of what it means to be human. Nothing will ever be the same. 
  • You have taken on the responsibilities of this new life and all that that means in terms of developing understanding and abilities you need to engage it. 
  • You have committed to living a new life in new body in a new world.
Unlike tribal initiations, the empowerments in vajryana are not about your role in society. These empowerments take you out of a life based in society, out of the horizontal dimension, and introduce you into a life based in awareness, the vertical dimension. Your priorities change and with those changes in priorities, your commitments change. Many people think that commitment means doing the practice every day, however cursorily, along with a certain number of mantra repetitions. However, these assignments are just means to an end, the ongoing cultivation of the abilities the deity represents. Vajrayana is essentially a path of faith and devotion. Thus, commitment in this context is really a matter of loyalty -- loyalty to awareness itself and loyalty to the teacher or master who introduces you to that awareness. 

Loyalty here does not mean blind belief or abnegation of personal responsibility. Quite the contrary. Loyalty is present all through Buddhist practice, particularly the bodhisattva vow and vajrayana practice. Without it you have no path and you run the risk of following nothing but your own projections. But this is a separate topic and I'll take it up in a subsequent newsletter.

No comments: