Essential Characteristics of Vajrayana – empowerment & guru yoga

question & answer session with

Ngakma Shardröl

Q Empowerment is sometimes described as ‘permission to practise.’ Is this accurate?

Ngakma Shardröl: In a way. But I would say it is more like an invitation to practise, or an opportunity to take on a particular practice.

Q Is that in fact a function of empowerment?

Ngakma Shardröl: You mean ‘the permission’?

Q Is it the only function?

Ngakma Shardröl: No.

Q What happens if I practise a practice without empowerment?

Ngakma Shardröl: Some practices, like certain mantras such as Om Mani Peme Hung, can be practised without empowerment. They have been made available. For others for which you are supposed to have an empowerment, practising without it would probably make the practice less effective or ineffective.

Q Does lack of permission mean I go to hell?

Ngakma Shardröl: No. That sounds more like Christianity to me.

Q Or does lack of empowerment merely make the practice ineffective?

Ngakma Shardröl: That is more like it.

Q How does empowerment change the student in a way that makes the practice effective where otherwise it wouldn’t be?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well, in the case of yidam practice, ideally the empowerment should give the student an opportunity to meet the yidam face to face and to be given the practice by the yidam. That ought to imbue it with a certain je ne sais quoi

Q If the student doesn’t have the appropriate experience during empowerment, is the practice then ineffective?

Ngakma Shardröl: No, the experience was still there, even if the student did not perceive it. It could come up spontaneously later. It is like a seed.

Q Is it then a waste of time to do the practice, or does the practice makes enough experiential sense on its own that the student could usefully do the practice and eventually achieve the result anyway?

Ngakma Shardröl: The empowerment is like a kick start, but the result is realised through actually practising.

Q Then why is empowerment essential?

Ngakma Shardröl: To make the direct connection with the yidam, for one thing. And as such it is another opportunity to experience enlightened Mind in yet another form.

Q If the critical aspect of empowerment is transmission of enlightened Mind, why is a separate empowerment required for each practice? (Presumably all Vajrayana practices have the same enlightened Mind as their fruit.)

Ngakma Shardröl: Because each one is a separate method and may just happen to be exactly what is needed for some particular person at some particular time and place. Yidams are all different forms of the same thing, but as forms they connect to the different forms of deluded mind.

Q Is it accurate to say that during empowerment, the Lama becomes the yidam, and the Lama / yidam magically transmits to the student the ability to do the practice?

Ngakma Shardröl: Yes, the Lama arises in the form of the yidam, but there does not need to be ‘magic’ involved. The idea is that the student could meet the yidam, if he or she were open enough. This is actually possible. The yidam is nothing other than a particular form of enlightened Mind so what we are being given in an empowerment is an opportunity to experience that. Then we have a connection to this particular form of practice that was not there before.

Q How does that work?

Ngakma Shardröl: Magic. Just kidding. If you meet enlightened mind directly, you may experience something unusual. There is that opportunity. One day a form may appear that is just perfect for you and something may happen that you did not think possible.

Q How does empowerment relate to transmission? (Sometimes the words are apparently used interchangeably, but that seems incorrect.)

Ngakma Shardröl: All empowerments are transmissions but not all transmissions are empowerments. An empowerment is a ritual transmission.

Q So all empowerments are transmissions?

Ngakma Shardröl: Yes.

Q Or are they occasions on which transmission may occur, depending on the capacity of the student?

Ngakma Shardröl: Something occurs, even if the student does not perceive it.

Q Is transmission always transmission of rigpa?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well, transmission of the enlightened state, if that is what you mean.

Q What exactly is guru yoga?

Ngakma Shardröl: Lama’i Naljor – Unifying with the Mind of the Lama.

Q …and what exactly is ‘unifying my mind with that of the Lama’?

Ngakma Shardröl: Not ‘unifying my mind with that of the Lama’ but ‘unifying with the Mind of the Lama’. If you unify with the Mind of the Lama, in that moment ‘our’ mind and the Mind of the Lama are not separate; there is only Mind. What it means is to experience in the same way as the Lama experiences.

Q How can I know whether ‘unifying with the Mind of the Lama’ is happening?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well I guess it could be fantasy, but that is probably useful too. You can always ask the Lama about it.

Q I know several practices, all of them described as guru yogas. These have no obvious similarities in terms of what you are instructed to do. Are these all guru yogas only in virtue of their common aim, or is there some non-obvious common structural feature?

Ngakma Shardröl: They all involve unification with the Mind of the Lama; that is what they have in common.

Q Is there any way I could know that a practice was a guru yoga other than being told so?

Ngakma Shardröl: If you can find a way to view it as unifying with the Mind of the Lama, it can be Lama’i Naljor. Like when I polish my Western boots I can hark back to watching Ngak’chang Rinpoche polishing his Western boots and him giving me the transmission (showing me how to polish Western boots). And when I actually do the practice, for that period of time I can sometimes almost experience myself as him.

Q If I found that some practice had the function (for myself) of unifying my mind with that of the guru, would that make it a guru yoga (for myself)?

Ngakma Shardröl: Sure. And it could be just about any practice, as I am sure you have realised.

Q It is said that all Vajrayana practice is fundamentally guru yoga. That being the case, why are some practices explicitly designated as Lama’i Naljors?

Ngakma Shardröl: Well, because they are blatantly specifically and obviously guru yoga rather than practising whatever-it-is with the view of Lama’i Naljor.

Q My experience of self-arising practice is quite similar to my experience of guru yoga (in terms of the effect, not the form of practice). Should the experience of self-arising be different from that of Lama’i Naljor?

Ngakma Shardröl: No reason why it should be. The yidam is a manifestation of the Mind of the Lama.

Q If not, how is self-arising practice different from Lama’i Naljor (other than in form)?

Ngakma Shardröl: That is it, just the form.

Q If there is no difference other than form—and guru yoga is identified in terms of result rather than form—wouldn’t that make self-arising a type of guru yoga?

Ngakma Shardröl: Certainly.

Q Since the aim of guru yoga is to unify oneself with the guru visualised as the yidam, and the aim of self-arising is to unify oneself with the yidam (who is actually the guru in disguise)– isn’t this distinction rather subtle?

Ngakma Shardröl: It is not really a distinction; they are just different ways of approaching the same thing. Some people find one route easier or more fun than another, that is all.

Q It is said that only practitioners with very great devotion are able to practice guru yoga using the image of their own flesh-and-blood teachers. Since the goal of the practice is to unify with the Mind of the Lama, I am puzzled about why this would be. It seems arbitrarily asymmetrical to say that it is necessary to visualise one’s Lama as the yidam, but prohibited to visualise the yidam as one’s Lama. Are they the same, or not?

Ngakma Shardröl: Yes they are really the same but the practice of guru yoga using the image of one’s own actual human guru only works to the extent that one can experience that person as a true manifestation of the enlightened state. If one gets hung up on his or her ‘flaws’ and such, it would not work as a practice.