Submitted by Shambhavi Sarasvati


The day I received samaya diksha was the happiest day of my life, at least I thought so at the time. Samaya diksha is the traditional first-level Tantrik initiation in both Trika Shaivism and Vajrayana Buddhism. Samaya means promise, and diksha means initiation. 

The purpose of such an initiation is to impart mantra, to receive the vows of the initiate, and to transmit to the student at least a glimpse of their real nature. This erodes our bondage to the conditioned experience of separation so that we can proceed in sadhana (spiritual practice) with a more embodied knowledge of the direction. 

I like to compare the experience of initiation to that of aliens visiting Earth. If the aliens don’t have knowledge of chocolate, they won’t know what to look for. But if they have a taste of chocolate before proceeding on their journey, a beacon has been set. 

The transmission of the natural state, living presence, or the nature of the Self is the essential job of the teacher in my two home traditions: Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen. Dzogchen teachers call this indispensable first step, “taking the fruit for the path.” We begin with a taste of the result to guide us.


After studying with a couple of eclectic teachers in my twenties, I was longing to find a lineage and a Guru. I haunted the dimly lit aisles of my university’s library, hunched over academic tomes related to North Indian Tantra.

I read whatever Tantras and commentaries from Kashmiri and other Indian Tantrik traditions I could find in English. Most of them offered prescriptions such as this: “That Dīkṣā without which there is no fulfillment even with a hundred worships, should be obtained with effort from a holy Guru for the success of the Mantra.”

I took this very literally. No sadhana could be successful without the imprimatur of a human teacher. My karmic habit pattern of attachment to traditionalism was playing out in full force. In one sense, this essay is about recovery from traditional-ism and recovery into the source of tradition. 

One day before I took samaya diksha, I went to my then-teacher with a small pile of sticks tied with red silk. 

“What’s this?” he asked rather warily. 

“I read in a book that you’re supposed to offer twigs to your teacher so he can burn them. Like burning your former self before initiation.”

I was naively surprised he didn’t already know about this.

“Burn them yourself,” he answered, and handed the bundle back to me.

Many initiations and decades later, I find my earnestness in making this gesture pretty hilarious, but I still feel the sincere longing that propelled it. 


You can be initiated into a mantra or other practice. You can be initiated into a lineage, or as the student of a particular teacher. Often a student is initiated into all three of these at the same time. Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen each offer various initiations, sometimes called “empowerments” in Dzogchen.

During many initiations, the teacher transmits both a main mantra or other practice and the accompanying instructions. For transmission to occur, the teacher must have done the practice and realized the fruit of the practice. Through their mind and their energy, a kind of alchemy can then occur. This causes the student to experience what is called in Hindu traditions the vidya shakti or wisdom energy of the practice. 

Such initiations are said to take the lid off of or pierce a practice. The student now has an experience of the fruit of the practice and can use this as a beacon to guide them. Initiation is functional.

Initiations into various sadhanas are always prefaced by what are called “View teachings.” View teachings impart the purpose of a practice, perhaps something of its history and relationship to cosmology, and let you know how you should orient yourself while practicing. This means that you have more possibility to gain realization. 

Despite the functional nature of initiation and dire warnings from various teachers and texts about practicing without formal initiation, if you have a sincere desire to practice, you should just start. Sincerity and consistency are key and can overcome many difficulties. 

Some people have little sincerity, much ego, and many initiations. These people will find it difficult to realize the fruits of their practices. 

It’s better to be a sincere person who practices in a simple, consistent way even without external initiation. And, as we will see, feeling the desire to practice even without a teacher or initiation is itself a sign of grace. 


In both Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen, a distinction is made between intellectual understanding and direct knowledge or direct realization. Direct knowledge is the embodied, felt, and usable revelation of the real nature of things. It is gained through the senses, including the mind. 

An adept teacher can create circumstances by which the wisdom that is always fully present in a student, but is temporarily obscured, can become accessible again. 

Abhinavagupta was one of the main codifiers, expounders, and siddhas of the tradition we now know as Trika Shaivism or Kashmir Shaivism. He lived at the cusp of the 10th and 11th centuries. 

In his encyclopedic tour of Trika, the Tantraloka, Abhinavagupta laid out the many levels and forms of initiation. These move from more gross and less direct means to the most subtle and all-encompassing means. Samaya diksha is a first-level form of initiation because one of its functions is to enforce convention, in the form of rules or vows, and to instill discipline in an ordinary sense. (Tantraloka, Ch. 15)

More subtle forms of initiation, accessible to more receptive students, include initiation by glance, touch, symbols (flowers, crystals, etc.), mind-to-mind transmission, and initiations given in visions and dreams, if these are true dreams and not the product of fantasy. 

My Dzogchen teacher, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, loved to tell the story of how he met his root teacher, Changchub Dorje. It was an encounter between a proud, conventionally-educated young man and a traditional Tibetan doctor and siddha who lived simply in a remote area and had given up all teachers other than direct experience.

For some days, Rinpoche repeatedly asked Changchub Dorje for a formal, ritual initiation. The young student had traveled a great distance, only to discover that the doctor was not adept at the ritual, and it was even difficult for him to read the ritual texts. Eventually, Rinpoche encountered and understood the real meaning of Dzogchen via powerful direct transmissions of wisdom from the man who became his root teacher.

This does not mean that institutions and formal initiation rituals should be discarded. The usefulness of all kinds of initiations, and even casual exposures to spiritual life and teachings, are extolled in both Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen. It does mean that, whatever the vehicle, the central point is the direct transmission of wisdom and the erosion of the experience of separation. 


What makes initiation real is the revelation or remembrance of the nature of the Self, a.k.a. the natural state or base state of reality, in the person undergoing initiation. This remembering of the nature of reality might not be consciously recognized immediately. But if the teacher is qualified and the student is a little bit receptive, it will unfold over time

Shaktipat is most often translated as the “downcoming” of grace. This understanding is a residue of transcendentalism, or the belief that there is a fundamental difference between matter and spirit with matter being on the “lower” end of things. 

In Trika Shaivism, grace, or the possibility of the direct revelation of the nature of reality in all circumstances at all times, overflows unstoppably from the heart of reality everywhere. There is no downcoming as grace is always here, immanent to all of life. Yet we humans are generally not so receptive to that due to the natural limitations of our perceptions. 

This alive, aware reality in its infinite mercy and playfulness orchestrates “special” arrangements—temples, pilgrimages, teachers, and teachings—to lovingly trick us into noticing what has been there all along. Initiations are such merciful arrangements: a natural gift, prasad (divine nourishment) for sincere disciples of wisdom. 

Most beautifully and broadly, Abhinavagupta and earlier practitioners of Shaiva Tantra taught that we receive shaktipat directly from wisdom (Lord Shiva) and that the evidence of this is our own desire, our own longing to know who we are and to receive teachings and initiation.

In fact, shaktipat and the upsurge of desire to do sadhana and to seek teachings and teachers are for all practical purposes, synonymous. Our longing is the voice, the Shakti of God compelling us to play the game of waking up. It is our best friend and evidence of the primordial Guru’s grace. 

When the desire for self-realization is weak, this indicates that shaktipat has been only partially experienced. In rare cases of an extraordinarily powerful experience of grace arising spontaneously from the heart of a natural disciple, the reception of grace and the revelation of knowledge of the nature of the Self are simultaneous. 

Coming and Going

But what if we take initiation and pledge ourselves to a teacher and then, at some point, find that we want to leave?

Many Hindu lineages warn about breaking initiations and leaving teachers. Tibetan Vajrayana teachers and texts even threaten students with being sent to hot and cold “hells.” Of course, this might mean that you just feel really, really badly. 

My root teacher, Anandamayi Ma, had a more clear-sighted approach.

It suffices to receive from a person whatever little bit one is destined to receive from him. Incidents take place according to that. Also, after taking initiation from a Guru, one may feel repentant afterwards; one may not like it anymore—that is also possible. In that situation it is said that whatever little bit the disciple was destined to receive from the Guru, he has got just that much. . . . It is possible that the primary school is unable to quench your thirst for knowledge; but it is the education received at that very school which kindles in you a desire for higher education; – therefore, nothing is wasted.

Sometimes we outgrow a teacher or a tradition. But Anandamayi Ma also taught that if a teacher is abusive, any initiations never really took place.

I’ve pondered this teaching and have come to realize that, at some point, the desire and the possibility to intentionally manipulate and abuse other beings completely dissolves. Anyone who does not embody this has not immersed themselves in natural presence and cannot truly give introduction to the natural state regardless of what they say about themselves or what others say. In either circumstance, having accomplished and gained clarity, we should feel free to leave. 

When I left the teacher from whom I received samaya diksha, I took my initiation malas and some other accoutrements to a river. I did Ganga puja and put my bits and bobs into the water with a prayer that the energy would be recycled and put to use for the benefit of others. That felt complete.


I came into this life with a natural love of working with teachers. I also have carried the karmic baggage of attachment to traditionalism. The former has grown to a deep appreciation akin to voiceless wonder. 

The attachment to traditionalism has only moderated. Now it lives somewhere between respect for the earned knowledge of streams of practitioners and their cultures and still a bit of attachment.

When I was studying with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, I had this terrifying dream. 

Rinpoche was teaching a large crowd of students. I wasn’t in attendance, but when I arrived unexpectedly, he paused and kindly motioned me aside. He sat down with me at a desk. Many protector beings were hovering around him in their subtle bodies. Rinpoche looked straight at me and said, “You are only interested in the Pure Buddha practice.” 

I immediately took this to mean that it was time for me to let go of my attachments to certain trappings of spiritual life and anything about my traditional approaches that might be dogmatic. I didn’t feel ready. 

Some time later, I wrote to Rinpoche and asked him what he meant by “the Pure Buddha practice.” He confirmed my interpretation, and my fears. 

Since then, I’ve been working on entering more fully into the simple, unadorned practice of becoming more consciously and continuously immersed in living presence. 

The real circumstance we find ourselves in is that connection to lineage, grace, and diksha are possibilities that exist everywhere, in every moment. As Thinley Norbu writes: “Essence lineage is the unbreakable natural connection with continuous pure and natural energy.” 

And yet, we have obscurations or limitations. We are distracted from God, from the vast intelligence of all of life. We are lost in fantasies of past, present, and future. Our desires run in many different directions with only a small percentage going toward waking up. 

Do I need to be initiated? 

The simple answer is yes. Yes, if you want to realize and if by initiation you mean the opportunity to enter into a usable relationship with living wisdom that is not conceptual or intellectual. Without this, we have no thread to guide us out of the maze of our conditioning.

In the U.S., we suffer from huge deficits of clarity and modesty coupled with the on-going catastrophe of a fanatical attachment to the fantasy that we are self-willed, independent creatures. This individualistic orientation is a catastrophe for the entire planet and every being on it. 

Despite the continuous revelation of abuses by (mostly) male spiritual teachers, nondual spiritual traditions are about regaining the wisdom of continuity, alliance, interdependence, and improvisational self-expression. Before we can play freely in this zone of improvisation, we need to learn to follow

Individual abusive teachers and their enabling lineages and students are aspects of limitation. The vidya shakti, the wisdom energy that we address ourselves to and follow as the primordial Guru, is not affected by this. 

The Guru principle or element is not subject to the vagaries of impermanence. We can still contact it in the freshness, clarity, compassion, friendliness, playfulness, devotion, and vast intelligence showing up as a human teacher, a circumstance, or the promptings of our own wisdom heart. This impulse to wisdom, this goodness, this tenderness, this Friend is the thread that we are following in whatever form it takes.

From the perspective of the direct realization streams of teachings and teachers such as Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen, we need guidance. We need reflection so that we can see our obstacles. We need transmission. We need help. Initiation is help. 

However help arrives, in whatever form, throw out any speck of fantasy, self-aggrandizement, exaggeration, or lies, and address yourself to the initiatory wisdom in whatever form that actually speaks to and guides you. Try not to be discouraged or fall into skepticism due to passing circumstances. The rediscovery of living wisdom is your birthright. It is already the air you breathe, your heart-of-hearts, and the Friend waiting to welcome you home with open arms.

  1. Ram Kumar Rai. Kularnava Tantra. Varanasi: Prachya Prakashan. (1983: 276).
  2.  I am recounting this from my memory of live teachings with Rinpoche. You can find a written account in Chogyal Namkhai Norbu. Dzogchen: The Self-perfected State. Ed. Adriano Clemente. Transl. John Shane. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. (1996: Kindle Locations 534-76). Kindle Edition.
  3. The procession of shaktipat, levels of desire, and initiations is described at length in Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, and in the Malinivijayottaratantra. For a readable deep dive into the relationship between shaktipat, initiation, and devotion in Trika Shaivism, check out this dissertation: Alberta Ferrario. Grace in Degrees: Śaktipāta, Devotion, and Religious Authority in the Śaivism of Abhinavagupta (2015). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1711.
  4.  Anandamayi Ma, “Sri Sri Ma’s Utterances,” Ananda Varta 34.1, January 1987, Sri Sri Anandamayee Ma Sangha, Banaras, India: 4-5.
  5. Thinley Norbu, Magic Dance. Boston and London: Shambhala. (1998: location 132, Kindle Edition).