From the Snow Lion Newsletter Archive:
What actually happens when we receive an empowerment? Here, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche helps us to understand a little about it, in this adaptation from Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, a compilation created by Cortland Dahl.
The term “empowerment” derives from the Sanskrit word “abisheka.” Sanskrit is an exceptionally rich language, especially when it comes to the nuances of each individual word. Since one word can contain several levels of meaning, we can end up with different interpretations. That is the beauty of Sanskrit.
The term “empowerment” has two primary meanings. In Tibetan, we refer to these two meanings with the words torwa and lugpa, which can be translated as dismantling and pouring, respectively. In this case, “dismantling” refers to dismantling the cocoon, or shell, of ignorance. “Pouring,” on the other hand, refers either to pouring the blessings, or pouring/discovering buddha nature.
When it comes to understanding the implied meaning of empowerment, however, the terms we use can actually be misleading. To interpret the word “empowerment” to mean “pouring” and “discovering,” and even when we use the expression “receive an empowerment,” can inadvertently lead us to think we are being given a power that was previously not in our possession. The term “empowerment” almost has the connotation of conferring something, not unlike a knighting, for instance.
This interpretation is far from the true spirit of the tantric initiation. In being empowered, one is being introduced to something within oneself, albeit something that has gone unrecognized. Activating this recognition is what we mean by the term “empowerment.”
There are various empowerments with numerous divisions, yet according to the highest yoga tantra, there are four main types. Each of these four, referred to as the “four empowerments,” is designed to dismantle one of the four defilements. These four are the defilements of nadi, which relate to the veins, chakras, or channels; the defilement of prana, which coincides with speech, or wind-energy; and the defilement of bindu, which is a defilement of mind. There are two ways to explain the fourth defilement: one is to say it is the residue of the three combined or, in other words, something similar to alaya. Alternatively, it can be described as “the ground of everything,” but this second way of explaining it is quite difficult to understand.
The empowerment ritual utilizes symbolic implements and substances. First, the guru will place a vase on your head and then pour some liquid into your hand, saying, “Drink this saffron water.” Next, the guru will use a kapala, which is traditionally filled with nectar. This substance is actually a mixture of the father and mother consort’s essence. These days, however, most of lamas use Bordeaux or Chianti if the empowerment is given in Europe, or tequila if it is being given in America. With the third empowerment, the substance is related to the consort. Nowadays, lamas will flash a picture of a dakini or something similar. Finally, for the fourth empowerment, which is referred to as the word empowerment, a substance like crystal is sometimes used, though technically speaking this is no longer a necessity. The crystal symbolizes the nature of mind.