Much could be said about the possible translations of this term. Mostly in use are ‘consecration,’ ‘initiation,’ and ‘empowerment.’ The first, ‘consecration,’ is certainly the most literal of these translations — at least from the perspective of the Sanskrit term — since abhisheka means “anointing, inaugurating or consecrating (by sprinkling water), inauguration of a king (…) religious bathing, ablution” etc. 1 “Inauguration of a king” may seem strange to some of you, but one aspect of inauguration ceremonies of ancient India was indeed the sprinkling of water over the head of the prince by ministers and brahmin priests, 2 and the same term was in fact used for both the king’s inauguration and the ritual for introducing the tantric adept to the mandala. This fact, however, demonstrates also the limitation of the literal translation ‘consecration,’ because it shows that while it does fit well the tantric vase-abhisheka, it does not fit well with the remaining three abhishekas of the highest yoga tantras, namely the secret, the wisdom, and the word (or fourth) abhisheka, which employ other tools and images than the vase abhisheka.
‘Initiation,’ though vastly popular as a translation for abhisheka, is problematic, since the term, having undergone an enormous inflation in ethnography, is used for so many different phenomena that it has lost all its distinctive functions. Its use for abhisheka may be more confusing than helping to convey the meaning of the term.
The Tibetans have decided to go for ‘empowerment’ (dbang), which is usually described as a process of removing impediments (sgrib pa gtor ba), pouring in wisdom-power (ye shes kyi nus pa blugs pa), and planting the seeds (sa bon gdab pa) of the four resultant Buddha bodies (‘bras bu sku bzhi) and initiating the process of their maturation (smin par byed pa). 3 It must be borne in mind, however, that the conceptions and images that are evoked by such a terminology happen on the surface level of truth, since, according to mahahyana philosophy, in the true sense nothing from the outside is really placed in the mental continuum that has not already been there. Therefore it is said in the Guhyasamajatantra (17.50):
In short, the five psycho-physical constituents of the person (skandha)
are well known as the five Buddhas (…),
and in the Samputi Tantra (D fol. 78v):
One’s own body is the Buddha himself —
the Buddha does not exist anywhere else!
Obscured by ignorance [some] hold
Buddhahood to be something different from their body.
Taking these teachings of the highest yoga tantras into consideration, the term ‘empowerment’ appears to be quite appropriate, as it also allows for an understanding where the adept receiving the empowerment is in fact empowered to awaken and cultivate until full maturation the inherent seeds of the Buddha bodies through gradual practise. I think that the term ‘empowerment’ does in fact convey both levels of understanding, namely that of outer ritual activities such as invocation, worship, and transference of powers from master to disciple, and the level of an inner process that in truth occurs only in the adept’s own mind. The existence of a few adepts who awaken to Buddhahood all at once when they receive empowerment is no dent in the above explanation, since for Jigten Sumgön even ‘all at once awakening’ is always based on gradual cultivation in former lifetimes. In sum one might say that empowerment is in essence an awakening of the practitioner’s potential, involving both a complete purification of impediments and a complete transformation and cultivation of the inherent potential.
The question therefore arises, how one can know that empowerment has been successfully received. Many writers stress in their discussions the correct procedures of the ritual and the appropriate qualifications of the vajra master and the disciple. Thus, for instance, the minimum requirement for a vajra master is according to Rinchen Jangchub that “entering the stages of cultivation in a state of clear and stable awareness, [he] has obtained stability on the stage of cultivation and has obtained ‘warmth’ on the stage of completion.” The marks of the disciples to be empowered, too, must be at least that “they have purified their mental continua through [practices] starting with taking common refuge [up to] the preliminaries, have supplicated the vajra master three times, and have abandoned adverse conditions.” Yet, Rinchen Jangchub says, even though someone with those qualities may have undergone the correct ritual as prescribed and presided over by a qualified master may think “[now] I have obtained the empowerment,” can ritual correctness and certain qualifications alone cause the meaning of the empowerment to really arise in the mental continuum? He provocatively states: “Sometimes merely the ritual has been performed!” In the same manner Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa summarises the most problematic point of the general opinion by stating that people believe that if all conditions are fulfilled, then “thereby the meaning of tantric empowerment must arise.” Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, maintains with this regard that “[tantric empowerment] is [only] obtained when the [true] meaning of tantric empowerment arises in the mental continuum” (dGongs gcig 5.2).
Only when the complete result of purification and transformation arises in the mental continuum is the understanding of empowerment complete, and this may occur only after a long process. Rinchen Jangchub and Dorje Sherab state the example of Geshe Putowa Rinchen Säl (1031-1106), who was fully ordained already for thirty years when he said: “Today the disciplined conduct of renunciation arose in me. My preceptor is that layman at Radreng.” This refers to his master Dromtön Gyalwe Jungne (1005-1064), indicating that the meaning of ordination (similar to the meaning of empowerment) may only arise long after the ritual has been performed, and independent from the usual conditions, as here the preceptor is said to be Dromtön, who actually cannot confer ordination, as he was only a layman (and he was also not alive anymore at that time). Likewise Gampopa obtained the full realisation of empowerment only after “practising, based on the teaching of Jetsün Mila, for six years in the Nyälgyi Sewa valley without leaving his seat.” Therefore, true empowerment is obtained when the realisation that evolves from the blessing of practising the pith instructions of the authentic guru and from the disciple’s own devotion and practise arises. In such a case vase empowerment is obtained when a strong conviction arises that the five constituents of the personality (skandha) and the six senses, their objects, and the six sensory perceptions (dhatu, ayatana) are the five Buddhas and so forth. Secret empowerment is obtained when the samadhi arises that is endowed with the joy of the purification of the eighty innate thoughts 4 as dhatu. The empowerment of discriminating knowledge is obtained when one experiences clear light through the stages of the four naturally inborn joys, namely the ‘surface level bliss of melting’ (kun rdzob zhu bde). 5 The fourth empowerment is obtained when the actual gnosis of mahamudra—the vajra yoga endowed with the seven limbs—arises. 6
1 The definition is taken from Monier Williams’ dictionary.
2 See Ronald Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhsm, p. 123.
3 The elements of this definition can be found in the Tibetan-Chinese-Tibetan dictionary Yisun (1985).
4 rang bzhin brgyad cu’i [kun] rtog pa’i sems: These eighty thought patterns are rooted in aversion, attachment and delusion. Cf. Lati Rinbochay (1979: 38 ff.: “eighty indicative conceptions”).
5 As Kongtrul states, except for in the Kalacakratantra great bliss is considered to be relative because “it must be realized by relying on the method of bliss from the melting of the relative [vital essence]. It is therefore considered relative owing to its connection to the relative” (Guarisco 2008: 134).
6 This topic is further discussed in vajra-statement 5.4.