Tibetan Buddhist empowerment may seem very mysterious and like a grand performance. And there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to receive an empowerment. We may have heard friends or relatives talk about going to receive many empowerments, but sometimes it is not clear at all what that means.
Traditionally in Tibetan culture, many people don’t follow the visualization as it is described by the lama or vajra master. This is often the case during larger, public empowerments. In these situations, most people are just there to receive blessed substances. They focus on sipping some holy water or wait to be touched on the head with ritual implements. Then, in common parlance, they say they have “received the empowerment.”
Empowerment or Blessings?
However, in the Vajrayāna tradition, we don’t say that is true empowerment. Instead, we say that the people received some blessings. But in Tibetan culture, many people say that they received empowerment. However, Phakchok Rinpoche notes that he follows his own teacher’s advice. His teacher said that when you don’t follow the visualization explanation given during empowerment, then what you receive is blessings. What do blessings mean?
Blessings are quite helpful and important, and we may feel confident that these do exist. When we discuss blessings, we speak of certain benefits. According to Phakchok Rinpoche there are three possible types of blessings:
- We can purify some obstacles and some bad karma
- Our health may improve, or our mind may become a little clearer and our devotion may improve
- Sometimes we may have a wish to achieve something—and through the blessings at an empowerment ceremony you may achieve that wish faster
Tibetan Buddhist Empowerment Has Many Meanings
In Tibetan terminology, we use the word dbang (pronounced wang). That itself is a translation of the Sanskrit abhiṣeka. This term contains several meanings. We can translate it as “pouring” or sprinkling, or cleansing, or ripening. In English, we primarily use the term “empowerment”.
How do we understand “pouring”? Phakchok Rinpoche uses the example of empowerment from the Tukdrup Barché Künsel. Phakchok Rinpoche received this empowerment directly from his teacher and grandfather, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Tulku Urgyen had received the empowerment from his teacher Samten Gyatso. Previously, Samten Gyatso received this from his teacher, Tsewang Norbu. And Tsewang Norbu received it directly from the great treasure revealer Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa. Chokgyur Lingpa revealed the treasure text from inside a mountain. Thus, Chokgyur Lingpa received the blessings directly poured down from Guru Rinpoche. And this is how we understand that these blessings continue to pour down through the masters.
The ripening aspect of empowerment refers to the fact that we all have Buddha-nature. We really need to understand that we all have this nature within us as a seed. But in order for the pure seed, our nature as Guru Rinpoche, within us to blossom, we need to “water” it with the showered blessings of empowerment. Please understand that we are not given anything we don’t already possess. Our natures are already pure.
So, in the empowerment, Rinpoche (or another vajra master) gives us the water—but as recipients, we also need to participate—we need to tend the watered seed. Phakchok Rinpoche sometimes uses the metaphor of a bonsai tree. In order for the tree to grow successfully, we must care for it.
Also, we don’t expect immediate results—we take some time to cultivate it, and we must put forth some effort. Similarly, when we receive an empowerment, we are given a representation of the deity. We receive a photo and a short prayer. That prayer, a supplication, is like a template. By reciting it and really taking the meaning to heart, we ourselves “pour” and water, or ripen, our pure nature seed every day.