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The Vajrayana Initiation
Dr. Peter Della Santina

With this chapter, we come to a rather important topic in any introduction to the Vajrayana path. Over the half century or so that Vajrayana has been known in the West and the world at large, it has been liable to a great deal of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The element that has probably been the cause of the greatest misunderstanding is the institution of initiation. Many have objected to initiation being a component of a path in the Buddhist tradition.

As mentioned in Chapter 27, there is nothing formally different in the Vajrayana initiation that sets it apart from other rites of passage which play an important role in the Buddhist tradition. It is hard to understand why people can accept the refuge ceremony and the rite of monastic ordination but have difficulty with the idea of a Vajrayana initiation. I hope that, by indicating the contents of Vajrayana initiation and its role and function within the tradition, some of the misinterpretation and misunderstanding will be dispelled.

Let us first look at the meaning of the Sanskrit term abhishekha, which has been translated as 'initiation,' 'consecration,' and even 'empowerment.' None of these is a literal translation of the original term, which in fact means 'sprinkling' or 'watering'--specifically, sprinkling water on an area of earth, such as a field.

We can begin to learn something about the nature of Vajrayana initiation if we consider why the term abhisheka was chosen for this ritual. The answer is that we have here a ceremony the purpose of which is to enliven or quicken the disciple's progress toward enlightenment. Just as we might sprinkle water on a field in which seeds have been sown, and by that sprinkling enliven and quicken the growth of the seeds, so in the Vajrayana initiation we enliven and quicken the growth of the seed of the disciple's spiritual potential.

We have here references to ideas that are already well developed in the Mahayana tradition--namely, the notion of the Buddha nature, or the potential for enlightenment, that all living beings possess. The process of growth and fruition of this spiritual potential is quickened by abhisheka, or 'sprinkling'--a clear indication of the function of that sprinkling, or initiation. Although it is inconvenient to translate abhisheka as 'watering' or 'sprinkling,' it is important to remember that the term refers to a process rather different in its purpose and intention from what we might think if we took it at face value, regarding it as a sort of initiation into a secret society or the like.

Let me try to expand on this very fundamental and linguistic definition of initiation in the Vajrayana tradition. Vajrayana initiation means introducing the disciple into the mandala, the sacred or magic circle, of one of the tutelary deities of the Vajrayana pantheon--deities who are special esoteric forms of the Buddha, meditation on whom can bring about enlightenment. In Chapter 27, we saw that the mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe. In the context of an initiation, it represents not the universe as we know it, from an unenlightened point of view, but the sacred or pure universe that we achieve on the level of enlightenment, when our vision is purified of unwholesome tendencies.

Much of what I said in Chapter 26 about the transformation of the five aggregates into the five celestial Buddhas is applicable to this notion of the purified or transformed universe. Therefore, when we say that the Vajrayana initiation introduces a disciple into the mandala of one of the tantric tutelary deities, what we mean is that it introduces him or her to the purified universe of one of these deities.

The Vajrayana tutelary deities can be divided into four classes of ascending power or efficacy in bringing about the transformation from an unenlightened mode of existence to an enlightened and sacred mode of existence: (1) the kriya class, (2) the charya class, (3) the yoga class, and (4) the anuttarayoga class. Initiation is the introduction of a disciple into the sacred universe of the tutelary deity of one of these classes of tantra. The kriya class refers to a group of tutelary deities and practices primarily concerned with externalized rituals and practices. Kriya means 'action,' 'ritual,' 'ceremony.' The tutelary deities who belong to this class are associated with practices that are, by and large, external and ritualistic. Practices associated with the kriya class of tantra often involve vegetarianism, regular and even ritual bathing, and ritual offering.

In contrast, the tutelary deities of the charya class of tantra are associated with practices that have to do primarily with the internal attitudes, intentions, and conceptions of the practitioner. Whereas kriya tantra practices are external, the practices associated with the charya tantra class are usually internal, to the exclusion of the external practices. Practitioners of the charya class often present a much less sociable appearance than those of the kriya class of tantra.

The third class, the yoga class of tutelary deities, is associated with a combination of practices belonging to the kriya and charya classes. Practices associated with the yoga class seek to arrive at a balance between the external and internal practices. This balance, or union, between the internal and external practices is reflected in the term yoga, which means 'combination' or 'union.'

In the case of the anuttarayoga tutelary deities, we have a transcendence or dissolution of the barriers that define the first three classes of practice (external, internal, and the combination of the two). Anuttara means 'transcendence,' in this case, a transcendence of external and internal practice alike. Thus the anuttara class of tutelary deities and practices is the most highly developed within the Vajrayana tradition. It is at this level that we achieve, in its fullest sense, complete integration of experience into the Vajrayana path, integration that leads spontaneously to the transformation of being. This is the ideal I referred to in Chapter 24, when discussing the purpose of the methodology of the Vajrayana--namely, complete integration of experience into the path.

Initiation itself can be of three varieties. The first of these is the major initiation, which has a kind of comprehensive, all-encompassing function. To use a rather prosaic analogy, a major initiation might be likened to a license empowering you to drive all kinds of motor vehicles, or to the broad powers that a government might give a special envoy to take up all decisions regarding a particular set of questions. A major initiation is a kind of complete empowerment that usually requires two days. The first day is given over to preparatory practices, which in general have to do with the purification of the disciple.

The second day is reserved for actually introducing the disciple into the mandala of the particular deity involved.

The second kind of initiation is the subsidiary initiation, which might be likened to a license that empowers you to handle a rare, specialized class of practices, which are nonetheless important and highly efficacious.

The third class is even more limited in scope, consisting of rather simple initiations, often very brief in terms of the time required to bestow them, that enable one to engage in relatively simple practices associated with subsidiary deities belonging to a larger family to whom one has already been introduced by means of the appropriate initiation. These are sometimes termed 'subsequent initiations,' because they are traditionally given subsequent to major or subsidiary ones.

Vajrayana deities are also divided into families (not related to the four classes of tutelary deities mentioned a moment ago) that are associated with the Buddhas of the Five Families--Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Akshobhya. For example, the tutelary deity Hevajra is associated with the Vajra family headed by Akshobhya, while Chakrasamvara is associated with the Buddha family of Vairochana.

A major initiation can be likened to the purchase of a season ticket for a whole series of events. The season ticket entitles you to participate in any or all of the events, although whenever you do you will naturally have to produce your ticket and perhaps have it stamped. Similarly, a major initiation entitles you to receive a whole series of subsidiary and lesser initiations, although, when receiving each initiation, you will still have to participate in the appropriate ritual.

Traditionally, it is the major initiation that provides the disciple with access to the whole range of Vajrayana deities and practices. In recent years, however, because of the growing demand for tantric initiations, Vajrayana masters sometimes choose to give one of the lesser, subsequent initiations first, since the practices associated with them are simpler. This has sometimes been found to be useful, in that it serves as a kind of trial exposure to Vajrayana practice, just as one might be given a license to drive a motor scooter before obtaining a license to drive all kinds of motor vehicles.

All these initiations must be given by a qualified Vajrayana preceptor. There are two types of qualification the preceptor may have. In the first case the preceptor, having achieved a very high level of mental development, receives direct empowerment from the deity concerned. This type of qualification is typified by the cases of the men of great attainment, or Mahasiddhas, in India, and also, less commonly, in Tibet.

The second type of qualification is much more common. In this case the preceptor receives the empowerment of the deity from a qualified master. He or she must also perform the required meditational practices--the retreats and so forth--stipulated by the tradition, so as to secure a sufficiently intimate association with the deity to function as a go-between with the power to introduce others to the mandala of the deity concerned. It is important that the Vajrayana initiation be received from a preceptor who has at least the second type of qualification.

In the course of the Vajrayana initiation, the disciple regards the preceptor as identical with the tutelary deity into whose sacred circle he is being introduced. Similarly, he regards the environment, the situation of the initiation, as identical with the sacred universe of that tutelary deity. In the course of the initiation, he is introduced to and identifies both with that tutelary deity (in the form of the preceptor in the initiation) and with the sacred universe, which is symbolized by the situation of the initiation itself.

This process of introduction and identification takes place through the use of symbols. These symbols are both specific and general. The specific symbols are best represented by a variety of ritual objects. These ritual objects are associated with, and stand for, the elements or actors who participate in this sacred drama, who inhabit this sacred universe. In our discussions of the symbols of the Vajrayana and of the five archetypal Buddhas of the Five Families, we spoke of a number of symbols that have particular meanings (see Chapters 25 and 26). We spoke of the five Buddha families being represented by symbols such as the vajra, the crown, the bell, and so forth. In the Vajrayana initiation, these objects function as specific symbols by means of which the disciple can be introduced to the sacred universe and then identify himself with that sacred universe, that pure experience of an enlightened mode of being. In the course of the initiation, the disciple is given a vajra and bell to hold, a crown to wear, and so forth. These symbolic actions function to bring about (a) the introduction of the disciple to the sacred universe, and (b) an identification of the disciple with that sacred universe.

In addition to these specific symbolic objects, there are also the more general and dynamic symbols of identification. These are the symbols of light and water, which we also encountered in our discussion of Vajrayana symbolism (see Chapter 25). In the course of the initiation, light and water are used as a way of identifying the disciple with the tutelary deity and with the sacred universe. Light is used as a medium for identifying the disciple with the preceptor, who, in the context of the initiation, is identical with the tutelary deity. Similarly, water is used as a symbol for identifying the disciple with the various levels of understanding of the sacred universe. In the initiation, both light and water form a kind of bridge by means of which the two initially different modes of being--namely, the distinction between the disciple and the preceptor in the form of the tutelary deity, and that between the experience of the disciple and the experience of the sacred universe--are identified and made one. The disciple is asked to participate in the process by visualizing light and water as media of identification with the purified universe portrayed in the Vajrayana initiation.

The initiation is a vehicle for transformation or, to put it more crudely, for rebirth, or regeneration. This is indicated by the fact that in a major initiation the disciple is given a new name, just as a new name is given when one becomes a Buddhist in the ceremony of the taking of refuge, or when one is ordained. The bestowal of the new name stands for the regeneration of the disciple in a new form, by virtue of his introduction to and identification with both the form of the tutelary deity and the experience of the sacred universe.

The initiation is important not only because it is itself an introduction to and identification with the sacred universe, but also because it supplies the disciple with the methods, or keys, with which he can later reintroduce, re-identify, and reintegrate himself with the sacred universe first encountered during the initiation. These methods or keys are (i) the vision with which he is supplied in the context of the initiation, when he sees for the first time, in symbolic form, the sacred and purified universe; and (ii) the mantra appropriate to the tutelary deity that he is given in the course of the initiation.

By means of this vision and this mantra, the disciple can recreate the sacred vision, reintroduce himself to the sacred experience, and re-identify himself with the sacred universe. This will occur subsequent to the initiation, in the practice of the meditation appropriate to the particular tutelary deity whose initiation the disciple has received. In the context of this meditation, he will use the keys received during the initiation--the vision and the mantra--to recreate, reintroduce, and re-identify himself with the sacred experience on his own. He will then no longer need the support, the external environment, of the initiation. Rather, he will be able to recreate, reintroduce, and re-identify himself with the pure experience represented by the initiation by means of the elements he received there. This is the primary role and function of the Vajrayana initiation.

Like other initiations, the Vajrayana initiation brings with it certain commitments that must be respected and preserved by the disciple. Prosaic cases, such as licensing to drive motor vehicles or to practice medicine, also bring with them a commitment to respect certain codes or rules of action and intention. Similarly, in the Buddhist tradition as a whole, rites such as taking refuge and ordination into the monastic order bring with them certain commitments the disciple is expected to fulfill.

In very general terms, there are three sets of commitments in the Buddhist tradition--those appropriate for individual liberation (the pratimoksha vows), those appropriate for the resolve to liberate all living beings (the Bodhisattva vows), and those appropriate to Vajrayana practice (the Vajrayana vows). In brief, the essential quality of the commitments appropriate for individual liberation is the avoidance of injury to others; the essential quality of the commitments of the Bodhisattva is to benefit others; and the essential quality of the Vajrayana commitments is to regard all living beings as part of the

pure vision, as deities of the sacred universe which the disciple has appropriated through the Vajrayana initiation.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 253-261].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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