The great Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the pioneer teachers who brought Vajrayana and Tantric Buddhism to the West, defined initiation this way:
“What is initiation? It is the beginning of the experience of meditation and concentration, of penetration into the nature of the reality of all phenomena. Initiation leads us into the mandala of a deity and into the totality of the experience of that deity. It is an antidote to the dissatisfied, samsaric, fanatical, dualistic mind. During initiation we should completely let go of our preconceptions and fixed ideas of who we are, of our limited self-image. Instead, we need to identify with the wisdom-mind of the deity, which is our own perfect potential.” 
Lama Yeshe was discussig initiation in the context of the Six Yogas of Naropa — one of the most profound practices of Vajrayana — yet his definition applies to everyone: beginner through to the most accomplished. The heart of Vajrayana — defined as the “lightning path” (Vajra, lightning or thunderbold; Yana, vehicle) — is the guru-student relationship. It is the guru who brings fast progress to our meditations. It is the guru who gives us our Yidam to practice. And this begins with initiation, and continues with the all-important foundation practices — such as purification, refuge, and prostrations.
Can you make progress in Vajrayana without empowerment?
No, is the short answer. The great Lotus Born Buddha, Padmasmbhava, in a teaching to the Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal answered her direct question: “Withouth receiving empowerment from one’s teacher, will one attain accomplishment or not?” His answered was unambiguous:
“To exert yourself in study and so forth without attending a master and without having received the empowerments, you will have no result and your efforts will be wasted. Empowerment is the entrance to the Secret Mantra. To enter the Secret Mantra without the empowerments being conferred is pointless, since it will yield no result and your stream of being will be ruined.” 
Quality of initiation: “it’s serious business”
Lama Yeshe explains “quality of intiation”:
“The quality of the initiation you receive does not depend on the guru. It depends on you. The lama giving the initiation must have received the lineage of the initiation and done the basic retreats, but the important point is the disciple’s attitude. If you are motivated by the sincere wish to transform yourself so that you will be able to benefit others, you should receive the initiation. It is important to have a dedicated attitude. In fact, according to Buddhist psychology, unless you dedicate yourself to others, you will never be satisfied. Instead you will be bored and lonely. It is logical that dedication to others brings you the satisfaction that you crave. To receive an initiation in order to achieve some kind of power for your own ego is not good; but to do so in order to dedicate yourself to others and thereby achieve something for yourself is totally appropriate.
“Even though a hundred people might participate in an initiation, they do not all have the same experience. Each person experiences the initiation according to their own level of skill and personal development. Actually receiving the initiation depends on the person’s mind, not on their bodily participation. As I mentioned, it depends on their ability to let go of their limited self-image.
“Initiation is a serious business. Naropa had to wait twelve years and perform outrageous feats before Tilopa would give him an initiation. In ancient times initiation would not be given in public to large groups of people as they often are nowadays. Only a few people would be allowed to attend at one time. And the four initiations would not be given all at once as they are now. Disciples would receive the first part, then go away and digest it. When they had reached that particular level in their practice, they would then come back to receive the next level of the initiation. It is much easier for us to receive initiation nowadays.
Lama Tsongkhapa emphasizes that during initiation we should go slowly: penetrating, meditating, concentrating. We shouldn’t be too concerned if our meditation during an initiation seems to be only at the level of imagination and not the actual experience. Simply imagining the experience plants seeds in the field of our consciousness, and these seeds will slowly grow. It is just like the story of the hamburger: first someone had to imagine it, then gradually it manifested in the American culture.” 
The great Lotus Born, Padmasambhava, also emphasized gradual progress through the empowerments (initiations):
“You must progress gradually through the empowerments, being free from the fear of falling into samsara, like a prince ascending the royal throne.” 
The four initiations
Ultimately, if we aspire to accomplishments, we will seek all four of the intiations commonly offered. In ancient times, in Tibet, these might take years to fully accomplish. Here, in the west, many teachers — especially in the context of Highest Yoga practices — might provide all four in one initiation session. To receive all four, of course, comes with obligations.
Students who might begin with lower tantric practices — such as Green Tara, Medicine Buddha or Chenrezig — might only recieve, the one initiation.
For higher practices, such as Six Yogas of Naropa, Heruka and Vajrayogini, Hayagriva yabyum, we would ask our teacher for the four initations: vase, secret, wisdom and word. Lama Yeshe explains in the context of Six Yoga’s of Naropa:
To practice the Six Yogas of Naropa, we need to receive the four complete initiations— vase, secret, wisdom, and word— of a great initiation of Highest Yoga Tantra. Merely receiving an oral transmission of a practice is not sufficient. 
But to practice some deities, an initial oral transmission is a perfect beginning. One could receive either a full initation — for example of Green Tara — which would come with the obligation to say a certain number of mantras (and sometimes a short sadhana) daily, or we could ask for “Lung” for the mantra alone. Lung, is permission to chant the mantra in your meditation.
Lama Yeshe explains the four initations:
“As you come to understand the process of tantric initiation, you will discover the real meaning of tantra. The initiation process, in fact, embodies the actual experience of the stages of tantric realization, from the beginning right up to the stage of mahasiddha attainment. The vase initiation emphasizes evolutionary yoga practice, the secret initiation emphasizes the illusory body, the wisdom initiation emphasizes clear light wisdom, and the word empowerment emphasizes the unity of the fully developed illusory body and clear light. The Six Yogas of Naropa explain exactly how to approach this realization of the word empowerment, which is the experience of full enlightenment.” 
The teacher from whom you receive this initiation becomes your guru, and although you can have many gurus, this — of course — requires diligent review by both teacher and student. It’s a lifelong relationship — simply because most practices are lifestime practices if one hopes to achieve realizations.
What does initiation actually do?
Lama Yeshe, in the The Bliss of Inner Fire: Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa, explains:
“Initiation does not mean that a guru gives you some incredible power. You already have the qualities of profound wisdom and great bliss within you; initiation simply activates them.
The quality of the initiation you receive does not depend on the guru. It depends on you. The lama giving the initiation must have received the lineage of the initiation and done the basic retreats, but the important point is the disciple’s attitude. If you are motivated by the sincere wish to transform yourself so that you will be able to benefit others, you should receive the initiation.”
It is critical that we take initation seriously. Without dedication, without staying true to our commitments, nothing can be accomplished other than occassional peace-of-mind or insights.
Initiation for practice versus initation for blessing
Often a great teacher such as the Dalai Lama or H H Sakya Trizin comes to town for large initations. H H the Dalai Lama has many times delivered large group Kalachakra inititaions. H H Sakya Trizin often delivers Vajrikilaya (a form of Vajrasattva).
H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, during an interview with Buddha Weekly (part 2) explained:
“Or, often, the Lama will say “You can take this initiation as a blessing.” Some initiations you can do that. For example, Green Tara initiation or Medicine Buddha Initiation you can take as a blessing without commitment, which means you take initiation only for the blessing, make a connection, but at this point maybe you’re not serious enough — or you don’t have time — to do the practice. Then, later on, when you are more serious, or have more time, you can take initiation as a commitment. You can make your own commitment.”
Unlike other higher yoga practices in Tibetan Buddhism, thousands of people attend Kalachakra empowerments to simply receive the blessings. If the attendee doesn’t take on the commitment, it can be considered a very wonderful blessing — without any obligation. Tens of thousands of people attend the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra teachings, even though the majority will not be actively practicing the sadhana.
The Dalai Lama explains: “It is a way of planting a seed, and the seed will have karmic effect. One doesn’t need to be present at the Kalachakra ceremony in order to receive its benefits.” One reason it is considered acceptable for large crowds to attend the initiations is it is a practice considered vital in the current “degenerate age.”
How do you know which you are taking?
You are only taking a practice commitment or Yidam commitment or Guru (usually all three) if you take a refuge vow, and if you take on the commitment. If you simply attend, and receive a blessing, this is not necessarily a practice initiation. In Tibet, many people attend initiations simply for the blessing, without the intention to practice.
For example, Kalachakra is a Highest Yoga Tantra. It would only be a full practice initation if you received both the initiations (all four) and then the oral practice instructions, which will also have the Sadhana to practice. If you simply attended a big event and felt moved and blessed, but received no instructions — you took a blessing, basically.
 Yeshe, Thubten. The Bliss of Inner Fire: Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa (p. 49). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
 Ppadmasambhava guru Rinpoche. Dakini Teachings (p. 60). Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Kindle Edition.
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.