Thursday, April 4, 2019

Empowerment and Initiation

Empowerment arises in the context of deity or yidam practice, which in turn has its roots in magic, in the sorcery cults of medieval India. Perhaps the first question to consider is "What is a yidam or deity in the context of Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism?"

Is a deity an actual spirit that we can invoke to act in our interests or evoke to enhance our abilities? Is a deity a nexus of energy that we can draw on in spiritual practice to transform how we experience life? Is a deity a symbol or archetype that we can connect with to put us in touch with spiritual or mystical aspects of the human psyche? Or is a deity all three, an immersion in the mystery of being? In Vajrayana, which in large measure is the application of sorcery and magic to mystical pursuits, the answer is all three.

In the ancient sorcery cults of India, some form of initiation was used to introduce the novitiate to the spirit or deity he or she intended to invoke and to connect them with each other. The word "yidam" for instance, is the elision of the words for mind (yid) and connection or bond (dam). As the experience of the novitiate matured, he or she would be introduced to deeper and more powerful methods of transforming how he or she experienced the world, but all of these would usually be based on his or her relationship with a deity.

What happens in an initiation, or what is meant to happen, is often shrouded in secrecy, but the essence of the matter is transmission. The teacher who is giving the initiation invokes the spirit of the deity. The power of the teacher's practice creates a field of energy. In that field, the teacher introduces the student to the deity's body, speech and mind and presents symbols that represent each of these aspects of the deity. The energy field suffuses the student, infusing the student with the spirit of the deity and a seed of experience is planted in the student. This is magic, pure and simple: the creation of an experience through a combination of energy, intention and ritual. In medieval India, people who had the power to create such experiences for others were called sorcerers.

We say we take an empowerment, or receive an empowerment, or a teacher gives an empowerment. Properly speaking, we are referring to initiation rituals. The empowerment itself is a shift in experience and the shift in experience is often referred to as "receiving the empowerment" or "attaining the empowerment." The shift in experience is what is important. The ritual is a means to that end. Yet when someone asks, "Have you received such and such an empowerment?" they are often referring to the ritual, not the experience. Tibetan uses the same word for both. To avoid confusion, I will use the word initiation for the ritual and empowerment for the shift in experience.

Over time, these sorcery methods evolved into mystical disciplines and these initiations were formalized and elaborated. In the Tibetan tradition, there are four principal empowerments: the vase empowerment, the secret empowerment, the wisdom-awareness empowerment and the fourth empowerment. They are sequential, leading the practitioner to deeper levels of experience. Each has an associated ritual in which the student is initiated into that particular aspect of the mystery.

The purpose of the initiation ritual is to plant a seed of experience that opens a door in the recipient to the corresponding shift in experience. Sometimes, depending on the teacher, the student, and their connection, the shift happens during the initiation ritual. More often the shift happens sometime later, through the accumulated momentum of practice. And sometimes it may have already happened and an initiation provides context and understanding for the shift.

As to the associated shifts in experience, the first empowerment, the vase empowerment, takes its name from the ritual of anointment, which is simultaneously a purification, an infusion of energy, and a transmission of power. You have received this empowerment when the spell of sensory experience is broken, that is, you no longer see yourself only as an independent entity that experiences and acts in the world. The second empowerment, the secret empowerment might more accurately be translated as the mystical empowerment because it reveals the mystical possibilities in ordinary experience. You have received this empowerment when the spell of emotions is broken and you are able to touch into and experience their mystical and transformative possibilities, both in emotional reactions such as anger, greed or pride and in such emotions as loving kindness and compassion. The third empowerment, the empowerment of timeless awareness that depends on a consort, takes its name from the transformation of sexual energy to induce similitudes of awakening. You have received this empowerment when the spell of such spiritual ideals as universal selfhood, purity, eternal life, and bliss is broken and you know that all experience, good or bad, patterned or free, is mind. And the fourth empowerment, also called the word empowerment, is often encapsulated in a single phrase that points to the nature and mystery of being. You have received this empowerment when the spell of practice is broken and you know, again experientially, that there is no doer and there is nothing to be done -- the same understanding that Buddha signaled when he touched the earth with his right hand as he sat under the bodhi tree.

As a translator, I have thought about how the initiation rituals associated with the four principal empowerments might look in today's world. How, for instance, might a student be connected with the spirit of a deity such as Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of awakened compassion, or Green Tara, the embodiment of compassion in action, or Hayagriva, the embodiment of the power that annihilates emotional reactions? What ritual or process would connect him or her with the energy of these deities? What ritual or process would give the student a taste of the compassion of Avalokiteshvara or the power of Green Tara?

Because empowerment is such a central element of Vajrayana, such questions have to be considered if these methods are going to be practiced and transmitted by Western practitioners. My purpose in this article has been to provide a context in which these questions can be raised.

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