Initiations and Initiates in Tibet

Initiations and Initiates in Tibet

by Alexandra David-Neel

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Nestled amid the high peaks and eternal snows of the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, Tibet is home to a centuries-old Buddhist tradition, rich in mystic rites and rituals aimed at helping adherents achieve spiritual bliss. In this fascinating volume, a noted authority delves into the nature and sources of Tibetan mysticism, providing readers with a wealth of


Nestled amid the high peaks and eternal snows of the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, Tibet is home to a centuries-old Buddhist tradition, rich in mystic rites and rituals aimed at helping adherents achieve spiritual bliss. In this fascinating volume, a noted authority delves into the nature and sources of Tibetan mysticism, providing readers with a wealth of information regarding Lamaic rites of initiation and the teachings given to initiates, both during and after the initiation ceremonies.
The author first defines Tibetan mysticism and examines the role of the spiritual guide and the choice of a master. This is followed by a discussion of the nature of the esoteric doctrines and traditional oral instruction. Madame David-Neel then recounts in detail the various kinds of initiations and their aims, including initiations with and without “activity,” the “Mani” initiation, and the different meanings of Aum mani padme hum! Also covered are the magic rites known as dubthabs, the “gymnastics” of respiration, daily spiritual exercises, the contemplation of sun and sky, the dalai lamas, different kinds of morality, and many other topics.
Alexandra David-Neel was a historian of religion and a resident of Tibet for 14 years. As a practicing Buddhist, she participated in many of the spiritual rites and practices described in this book, which gives her account a special immediacy and authenticity. Lucid, objective, and highly readable, Initiations and Initiates in Tibet is a treasury of fact and lore offering valuable insights and information to students of religion and Tibetan Buddhism in particular.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books On The American Indian
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Dover edition
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5.40(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.51(d)

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Initiations and Initiates in Tibet

By Alexandra David-Neel, Fred Rothwell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1993 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17127-2



TO present to Westerners a perfectly clear and complete idea of the mysticism of the Tibetans is almost impossible. There is a wide gulf between the various religious and philosophical conceptions which they accept and those which serve as basis for the meditations of the ascetics of the "Land of Snow." The very word mysticism, which I have used in a previous book and which I shall continue to use in this because I can find none better, must be understood, when dealing with Tibet, in a sense altogether different from the one we are accustomed to give it.

In the West, a mystic is a devout person,—of a very superior type, granted, but always essentially a believer, the worshipper of a God.

On the contrary, the Tibetan mystic will probably be regarded by many Occidentals as an atheist. If we call him by such a name, however, we must guard against attributing to the term those feelings and ideas which it connotes in Western lands.

In countries under Christian influence the atheist, for centuries past, has been a rare exception, a kind of demoniacal character appearing in the flock of faithful believers. Even in these days he appears before the imagination of many as a rebel confronting Faith and Religion in a theatrical attitude of denial and challenge. There is nothing like this in Tibet where the idea of a supreme personal God has never held sway.

Among the numerous deities in the Lamaistic pantheon, there is not one that occupies the rôle of an eternal omnipotent Being, the creator of the world. These deities are regarded as belonging to one of the six species of conscious beings recognised by popular belief. The abodes assigned to them are not always situated outside of our earth. Besides, when their habitual sojourn is allocated to other regions of space, these latter, so the Tibetans believe, are sufficiently near the earth to enable the gods to intervene at every turn. And so prudence enjoins one to live on neighbourly terms with the less important of these gods, to enlist the favour of the more powerful and to receive clemency or neutrality from those of evil disposition, even to resist them.

This religion, compounded of an exchange of good services, testimonies of respect, and a lion-tamer's cunning, has nothing in common with the love that inflames certain Christian saints, still less with the passionate transports—so promptly degenerating into sensuality—of certain bhaktas of India.

Sprung from such an environment, dominating it though retaining the impression it has made upon his nature, the Tibetan contemplative is giving way to no sentimental impulse when he leaves the society of men and withdraws to the desert. Still less does he imagine that he is doing anything in the nature of a sacrifice.

In contradistinction to the Occidental who frequently enters the cloister after doing violence to his deepest affections, with tear-stained face painfully tearing himself away from what he still designates as the "good things" of this world, the Tibetan ascetic, like the Hindu sannyâsin, envisages renunciation as a happy deliverance.

Buddhist writings contain many passages descriptive of this state of mind:

"Home life is strict slavery, freedom consists in leaving home."

"In the eyes of the Tathâgata, the splendour of a king is no more than spittle or a speck of dust."

"Full of charms are the lonely woods. Those who are freed delight in things that do not attract the populace."

No "rapture" awaits the sober thinker in his hermitage, his hut or cave, amid the immensity of Tibetan solitudes. Ecstasy, however, will be his for him to plunge himself therein. What will keep him in a state of attentive immobility day after day, month after month, and year after year, will be the contemplation of the working of his thought in self-analysis, effacing its own functionings according as they are discovered to be untrue, until the time comes when reasoning ceases because it has been replaced by direct perception.

Then, the storms raised by thought-creating theories and speculations having calmed down, the ocean of the mind becomes tranquil and smooth, without a single ripple disturbing its surface. In this faultlessly smooth mirror things are reflected without their image becoming distorted—and this is the starting-point of a series of states which originate neither in ordinary consciousness nor in unconsciousness. This is the entrance into a sphere different from that in which we habitually move; hence, after making a certain number of reservations as to the meaning of the term, we may speak of Tibetan "mysticism."

Whatever be the goal at which they aim, the most striking peculiarity of Tibetan mystics is their boldness and a singular impatient desire to measure their powers against spiritual obstacles or occult foes. They seem animated by the spirit of adventure and, if I may use the term, I should like to call them "spiritual sportsmen."

Indeed, this strange name suits them better than any other. Whatever branch of the mystic highway upon which they venture, the enterprise is an arduous and a perilous one. The sporting way in which they regard the fight is no ordinary religious attitude, and for that very reason it merits our attention.

Still, it would be erroneous to look upon as a hero each of those who desire acceptance as the disciple of a gyud lama, and demand his damngag.

Amongst the candidates for the preliminary initiations, specially original or otherwise remarkable individuals form a small minority ; most of them are simple monks. Large numbers of them, before seeking more esoteric teaching, have not even attempted to acquire the instruction given in the monastic schools.

The cause of this neglect may be a lack of faith a priori in the value of this official science ; nevertheless, it is quite possible that the regular study of the books may simply have been deemed too arduous for a considerable number of those who turn away.

Instinctive tendencies to contemplation and the sheeplike imitation of the examples set by others are the origin of the vocation of many a naldjorpa.

The man thinks only of "making religion," as it is called in Tibetan, without his having the faintest idea where the path upon which he has entered may lead him.

All the same, he who was a mere simpleton at the outset of his mystical career is not condemned to remain one always. Unexpected miracles are frequent on the "Short Path." Here the blind man becomes clairvoyant and the clairvoyant loses his eyesight. Disciples of torpid intellect sometimes become transformed into far-seeing investigators, whereas brilliant intellects sink into a condition of dull stupor.

The tremendous speed with which the mental, moral and even physical worth of an individual changes is amazing to behold. And yet the Tibetan mystics remain unperturbed. The germs to which these apparently incoherent transformations are due, they assert, exist in the various individuals. Hitherto there had simply been lacking the conditions favourable to their growth and fructification.

The aspirant after mystical initiation must, from the very outset, cultivate discernment and the power to assume the attitude of a calm and detached observer, capable of complete mastery over natural inclinations and fleeting appetites. No ordinary skill is required to follow successfully the perilous training imposed on some disciples—a training which consists in the full experience of various passions. Here it is a question of entering fire and not being singed. The tests to which certain disciples submit on the advice of their spiritual guide or impelled by the desire to prove their powers are extremely original and the result of them is scarcely credible, especially as regards the mastery of carnal instincts.

The disciple is also recommended to observe the acts he performs, the awakening within himself of thoughts and sensations, attractions, and repulsions, to endeavour to discover their causes, then the causes of these causes, and so on.

In the opposite direction, consideration must be given to the chain of effects susceptible of following the various material or mental acts.

From all this it is easy to see that, under the name of esoteric or mystical methods, Lamaists really include a positive psychic training. Indeed, they look upon salvation not as the gift of a deity but rather as an arduous conquest and the means of attaining salvation they regard as a science.



CONSEQUENTLY, just as we go to a professor when we wish to learn mathematics or grammar, Tibetans naturally have recourse to a master of mysticism when they desire to be initiated into spiritual methods.

The Sanskrit word guru is the name given to the spiritual guide, and the Tibetans have admitted this foreign word into their literary vocabulary. In conversation, however, they generally say: "My Lama," the possessive adjective being understood as indicating the relation between a master and a disciple.

Although the Tibetans pay for the knowledge communicated to them by the utmost respect and material assistance, it is rare to find in their country that blind worship of the guru which is so common in India.

Milarespa, the anchorite poet, was an exception. Examples of such fervour as he manifested, his admiration for and devotion to his master, are exceedingly rare.

In spite of many hyperbolical expressions used in their speech to or concerning him, the veneration of a Tibetan disciple is really given to the knowledge of which the master is the guardian. With few exceptions, the disciples are fully aware of the shortcomings of "their Lama," but respect keeps them from confiding to another their discoveries in this direction. Besides, many things which would appear reprehensible to a Westerner do not shock them in the least.

Not that the Tibetans, speaking generally, are destitute of moral principles, but the latter are not necessarily the same as those practised in our own countries. Polyandry, for instance, which is often so sternly judged in the West, does not appear to them culpable in the slightest; on the other hand, marriage between relatives—even between cousins far removed—seems to them abominable whereas we see in it no harm whatsoever.

When Tibetans sometimes pay lavish homage to a man whose imperfections are evident, in many cases this attitude is not caused by blindness to his defects.

To understand it we must remember how different are Western ideas concerning the "ego" from those held by the Buddhists.

Even when they have rejected belief in an immaterial and immortal soul regarded as their true "ego," most Occidentals continue to picture to themselves a homogeneous entity which endures from birth to death at least. This entity may undergo change, may become better or worse, but it is not supposed that these changes must follow one another from minute to minute. Thus, failing to observe the manifestations which break the continuity of a person's habitual aspect, we talk of a man who is good or bad, austere or dissolute, etc....

The Lamaist mystics deny the existence of this "ego." They assert that it is no more than a concatenation of transformations, an aggregate whose elements, material and mental alike, act and react upon one another and are incessantly being exchanged for those of the neighbouring aggregates. Thus the individual, as they see him, is like the swift current of a river or the many aspects of a whirlpool.

Advanced disciples are able to recognise, amid this succession of individuals showing themselves in their master, the one from whom useful lessons and counsels may be obtained. In order to profit thereby, they tolerate the inferior manifestations which appear to them in the same Lama, just as they would patiently await the passing of a sage in a crowd of people.

One day I related to a Lama the story of the Reverend Ekai Kawaguchi who, desirous of learning the Tibetan grammar, had applied to a famous master. The latter belonged to the religious Order and gave himself out to be a gelong. After staying with him a few days, the pupil discovered that his professor had transgressed against the law of celibacy and was the father of a little boy. This fact filled him with such profound abhorrence that he packed up his books and belongings and took his departure.

"What a booby!" exclaimed the Lama on hearing the anecdote. Was the grammarian less skilled in grammar for having given way to the temptations of the flesh? What relation is there between these things and in what way did the moral purity of his professor concern the student? The intelligent man gleans knowledge wherever it is to be found. Is not that man a fool who refuses to pick up a jewel lying in a dirty vessel because of the filth adhering to the vessel?

Enlightened Lamaists regard the veneration shown to their spiritual guide from the psychic point of view. Indeed, they regard worship of every kind from the same standpoint.

While acknowledging that the instruction of an expert in spiritual matters is extremely valuable and useful, many of them are inclined to make the disciple himself largely responsible for the success or the failure of his spiritual training.

Here we are not concerned with the zeal, the power of concentration or the intelligence of the neophyte. The usefulness of these is self-evident. Another element, however, is deemed necessary, and even more potent than all others. This element is faith.

Not only the mystics of Tibet but numerous Asiatics believe that faith is a power in itself. It works independently of the intrinsic value of its object. The god may be a stone, the spiritual father an ordinary man, and yet the worship of them may awaken in the devotee unsuspected energy and latent faculties.

External testimonies of respect, in the worship of the guru as in all other worship, aim at nourishing and intensifying faith and veneration.

Many novices who would never have dared to venture along the mystic path, had they not believed that they were sustained and upheld by the mental or magical power of their Lamas, have, in reality, been relying only upon themselves all the time. Nevertheless, the confidence they reposed in their master has produced an effect similar to that which might have been derived from external assistance.

There are stranger cases. Some occasionally give themselves up to devotional practices or other similar functions, though quite convinced that the object of their worship is non-existent. Nor is this insanity, as one might be tempted to believe, but rather the proof of a profound knowledge of psychic influences and of the power of auto-suggestion.

Certain Catholics extol a method which, at first sight, appears analogous. This consists in inducing an unbeliever to practise all the rites of their religion in order to bring him within the fold.

One may imagine that the "unbelief" of the man who lends himself to this practice, with the object of eventually coming to believe, is not very serious and that he is lacking in deep conviction; hence the success of a stratagem which he himself wishes to succeed.

Among the Lamaists, it is totally different. They do not try to believe. The gymnastics they practise tend simply to produce in them certain states of consciousness which the believers imagine to be due to the goodwill of their God or their guru, whereas they are a result of the practice itself, the physical act influencing the mind.

The mystic Masters of Tibet have minutely studied the effects upon the mind of bodily attitudes and gestures, of facial expression, also the influence of surrounding objects. A knowledge of these methods is part of their secret science. They utilise it in the spiritual training of their disciples. This science was known to the great Catholic "gurus." It may be found in the spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.


Those who desire to place themselves under the direction of a spiritual guide are strongly recommended by the learned doctors of Lamaism to appeal to their utmost powers of discernment in choosing the master best suited to them.

To the mind of a Tibetan, erudition, sanctity, and profound mystical conceptions are no guarantee that a Lama's counsels will be alike profitable to all his disciples. Each one, according to his character, must be directed along a different path by a master who has either traversed it himself or at all events studied it with sufficient minuteness to have acquired complete knowledge of the ground.


Excerpted from Initiations and Initiates in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, Fred Rothwell. Copyright © 1993 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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