Can Vajrayana Empowerments Happen Online?


Buddhist Studies Institute

Dear Dharma Friends,

I have been studying Buddhism for a long time, first when I was a girl and then as I grew up I ended up dedicating my whole life to Buddhist service. So when the questions about transmissions online where raised I also was swept into the doubts. For some the core issue is – can Vajrayana empowerments happen online? Empowerments are the most sacred, intimate, and personal aspect of Vajrayana education. The represent a ritual, oral, and explanatory introduction to the practices of entering buddha-nature. In empowerments, the Lama does the yidam practice themselves. So if it is a Troma empowerment, then we are receiving the empowerment from the Troma aspect of the Lama. That is something very sensitive, especially because Lamas stake their lives on these practices, they have used their whole life to understand the meaning of that Troma practice. They have put their feelings and experiences on that altar. I know first hand, because of course, I am a Lama and a long time Troma practitioner.

So the question stood for me what makes transmission possible? For some people it is a question that is not really interrogated intellectually, because it is in the domain of sacred experience beyond concepts. Also, because it relates to something that has been happening in a certain way for more than a thousand years. However, you should know that empowerments happen differently in different contexts. I remember many times in Nepal or Tibet, being in an empowerment that was so large that I was sitting outside in an overflowing crowd. Sometimes none of us could hear even though there were loud speakers, sometimes none of us could see even though there were tv screens outside, because we were positioned so far away in a huge crowd. And this was still considered transmission. I compare this to when Drupon Rinchen Dorje Rinpoche came to give us the Vajrayogini empowerment online. We could see him so close up. When he meditated, we saw when his eyes fell closed in feeling. When could hear every word he said. He could see every one of our faces as we came on screen and made offering prayers in our beautiful robes. And afterwards, in the private meetings I do with retreatants after most retreats, I talked to every one of the students. The direct contact with the Lamas was palpable. And for me, in that moment, I knew for the first time with total conviction, that yes, transmissions can happen online.

When I first came around to this idea it had been with Garchen Rinpoche, witnessing how radically generous he is with the dharma. I was at a Mahamudra teaching with him and he had printed these little Mahamudra books and was passing them around, saying – give these away to your friends. Like he actually wanted people to realize the nature of mind. Without any fear, greed, elitism or exclusion. He just wants everyone to be liberated. And of course since that time all of us have seen so many of his generous teachings online. That has been a model for me. It changed what I thought was possible. And I remember him saying to us, it depends on the motivation, if the student has bodhichitta (the altruistic enlightened intent) then it can be even stronger online.

In Vajrayana we have the paradigm of the five certainties. This is the notion that for a transmission to properly take place it depends on the teacher, the teaching, the audience, the time, and the place. All of these factors need to be right for a transmission to properly happen. That day, with Drupon Rinpoche was the same time that the horrible events surrounding George Flyod, the murder, and the following week of the video circulating and the eruption of protests. One of the students that took that Vajrayogini empowerment did the whole retreat with a helicopter flying outside her window while hundreds of people had flooded the streets below her apartment shouting. Another was in a tent in her back yard. Others far far away from the chaos. But the teacher, the teaching, the audience, the time, and the place were all only fortified, because we were together and with the Lamas. We prayed together, we practiced together, and we became Vajrayogini together, even while our nations greatest wounds were ripped open. That timing had a deep personal meaning for me, being an indigenous woman, as a direct experience of refuge. And I wasn’t alone. I remember the overwhelming feedback of transformation that people experienced and I remember that the people who attended that empowerment told me they had waited for years, some for decades,  to receive Vajrayogini empowerment.

And it was true for me personally as well, the five certainties were there. I remember during that empowerment hearing the words like I had never heard them before. “The buddhas do not wash away peoples karma with their hands. They do not transfer their enlightenment to others. Beings are released through the teachings of the truth, the final reality. Therefore I will liberate those not liberated. I will release those not released. I will relieve those not relieved and set living beings in nirvana.”

And so it was that transmission happened. If transmission refers to a conferral of the understanding of practice, insight into the nature of mind and reality, if it refers to a pure connection with the Lamas and sangha, if it refers to the making of vows, and changing of minds, and the passing on of Vajrayana traditions, then yes, transmission can absolutely happen online. Empowerments are so righteously powerful, technology only amplifies that for those who know how to use the platform in that way.

Yet I believe we are all correct, that there is more than one right way. Diversity is beautiful. I respect each of us finding our different ways into the future of dharma. For people who hold the conviction that Vajrayana empowerments should never be online – they never should be. For people who know how to make use of those platforms they should do it – for the benefit of beings. We should all follow the highest integrity of dharma service that we can. We come up with different answers, but the intention, of bodhichitta is what matters the most.

For me these questions are about the generative exploration of how online technology can help bring Buddhist resources into people’s lives. How can we use technology, phones, computers, and whatever tools come just like that prayer? “… to liberate those not liberated, to relieve those not relieved and set living beings in nirvana….?”

It is a question that me and my team are deeply embroiled in and one that we hope to answer in better and better ways with your help. This year our fundraiser is aimed at our wish to revamp and uplevel our technology. We can’t do this alone, we will rely, as we always have, on individual donations. Any amount helps, and every donation makes a huge difference as an encouragement, as a sense of camaraderie and support and as the practical help that is the crucial key to making this next step possible.

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We have currently raised $8,000! Thank you to all who donated!

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My very best to you always,

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