Yesterday, the Tibetan exile online news publication, Phayul, reported that the Tibetan exile government cabinet had issued a strong rebuke of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Tulku Orgyan Tobgyal, as being ‘regrettable’ and ‘wrong’, for stating that empowerments cannot be given or taken online. Although I have not heard or read the exact comments by this teacher, who is also a student of the famous lineage master, HE Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, it is clear from the Kashag cabinet statement that they took it as an indirect insult and slur to HH 14th Dalai Lama. who recently announced HH will confer a two-day Avalokiteshvara empowerment and teaching via live webcast. Phayul reported that:
The statement by the Kashag on Wednesday stated that the “derogatory remarks” made by the Tulku Orgyen Topgyal is “immensely regrettable and identify them to be wrong”. The statement said that the Dalai Lama has worked tirelessly in resurrecting Buddhism and Tibetan culture over the years resulting in many in the world including devotees from Mainland China express growing interest in Buddhism. The statement further said that giving teachings and empowerments by the Dalai Lama during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is “need of the time”.
Some Tibetan netizens also called for the resignation of cabinet minister for Religion and Culture Yuthok Karma Gelek who in a statement posted on the official page of his department on Tuesday said Tulku Orgyen Topgyal is usually an outspoken personality who speaks his mind and that he believes Tulku’s remarks are without any other intent or background. Yuthok further said that empowerments that are done virtually, cannot be conferred although it is undisputed that blessings are passed to anyone who receives it.
This short post is a discussion about this question of online empowerments based on the Buddhist view, the teacher, the person receiving the empowerment and also on my own personal experience of taking empowerments online.
The Buddhist view
Prior to online live streaming, the idea of giving and taking empowerments online would never have been an option. There is certainly nothing in the sutras about it! Nonetheless, the idea that a person has to be physically present during a Vajrayana empowerment to get it, is contrary to the Buddhist view of the nature of mind, and even with Tibetan histories of great masters who received empowerments, oral transmissions and discovered treasures of texts and so on, mentally from a deity or master. In fact, the Buddhist view is that mind is like space, and so if a master and student are able to connect at that level at the same time, then of course, the blessings of their mindstream and realisations via an empowerment and transmission could be given. The true nature of mind is beyond time and space, in fact the whole essence and basis of the extremely important Vajrayana Buddhist practice of guru-yoga is based on the idea that simply by calling the guru to mind with devotion and supplication, they will be immediately present, in a much more direct and powerful way than if they were physically right in front of you.
The ability of vajra master and vajra student
The question of the possibility of giving online empowerments is clear philosophically speaking, however, it would also depend on the mind and ability of the teacher giving it. There is no doubt that if a teacher has great realisations and realised the ultimate nature of mind, then they could give an empowerment and connect with a student watching and following the empowerment online. The only major difference is that such a person would not be able to receive the blessings of the objects normally passed round or consumed orally and so on.
In terms of whether the person watching it ‘gets’ the empowerment, the same rules apply as if they were physically there in person. HH Dalai Lama has often said that when he gives the Kālacakra empowerment only a few people actually ‘get it’. Why would that be? Because only a few people have also reached a level of practice and mind where they can follow the visualisations and have a good understanding of emptiness and devotion to the vajra master to get it. So in that respect, even giving an empowerment in person is not a guaranteed way to ‘get it’. So online or physical, such a person would only get the blessing imprint in their minds from it, which is still an extraordinary and excellent thing nonetheless!
Recently, I myself have taken online empowerments from HH Dalai Lama (Kalacakra), HH 17th Karmapa (Vajrasattva) and several from HE Garchen Rinpoche, who regularly gives online empowerments (even before the COVID-19 travel restrictions). Garchen Rinpoche has clearly stated that if a student with devotion and connection and ability to visualise etc. watches the empowerment live then they can get benefit and blessing from it. Certainly, in my own experience some of these live online empowerments have transmitted more blessings and power and so on, than ones I have attended in person by other well-known teachers. So one cannot categorically say, black and white, that online empowerments cannot be given or taken. The important and necessary factor would be that a person watches it livestream though, at the same time the vajra master bestows it. So in that respect, I personally agree with the Kashag statement that it would be ‘wrong’ to say such a thing.
Tulku Orgyan Tobgyal himself is no stranger to controversy either. I have never met this teacher but know several people who follow him and he has given many valuable and interesting teachings that are published on his website. However, last year, he wrote and published online (that was widely shared on social media) a four page letter publicly accusing a woman of spreading false and negative gossip about his own teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his conduct in relation to HH 17th Karmapa. Regardless of whether she was telling the truth or not, several online observers wrote that they found the letter to be ‘lacking compassion’, and bullying and intimidating a defenceless, lone woman by ‘naming and shaming’ her in such a public way. The letter contents also had the classic marks of what people term the DARVO response by denying the allegation, attacking the woman and reversing the victim status of a lone woman to that of a very powerful and influential person, his teacher. The letter quickly disappeared from view and a subsequent, more sober and diplomatic, letter was issued by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
Whatever one may think about this current personal issue (and it will be interesting to see if Orgyan Tobgyal issues a statement about it) at the moment, online empowerments and teachings by Buddhists are becoming increasing more common, particularly with the lockdown and travel restrictions of COVID-19. Shakyamuni Buddha gave 84 000 teachings during his lifetime to suit the different lifestyles and temperaments of sentient beings. Therefore, it is highly unlikely he would disapprove of such methods if they are done with love, compassion, bodhicitta and genuine realisations. In that respect, I think we can all congratulate HH 14th Dalai Lama, HE Garchen Rinpoche and HH 17th Karmapa for their kindness in doing these things, after all, HH and Garchen Rinpoche are both in their 80s!