The practice of esoteric Buddhism depends on establishing the proper relationship with an authentic vajra master. This requires that a karmic affinity exists between the master and the disciple. A disciple must carefully choose his or her master and the master must select the disciple as well to determine whether or not the potential disciple is a suitable vessel to receive and understand the teachings of Buddhism. An unqualified disciple is not allowed to receive the great tantra. Once the relationship between a disciple and a vajra master is established, the disciple must respect his or her master as a Buddha throughout his or her lifetime. Once you have found an authentic master, you should begin to learn the teachings in a fully committed, whole-hearted way. If there are Bodhisattva masters present, you should learn from them. The rules of the dharma require that you must learn from your vajra master in order to attain accomplishment.

It is critical in practicing esoteric Buddhism that you envision the master as being capable of developing the fundamentals and that you rely on this master for your liberation by faithfully establishing your actions, speech, and thought to be the same as your master’s. Paying utmost and sincere respect to your master is essential to the way of becoming a Buddha. This is because when the master is treated with respect as a Buddha, you are learning from a Buddha and only a Buddha can liberate you. If you cannot see your master as a Buddha, how can he or she confer the special blessings of a Buddha that can enable you to become enlightened? If you view your master as an ordinary person you will definitely only receive the results of an ordinary person, no matter what level of realization the master may have.

You must know that your three karma gates (conduct, speech, and thought) must correspond to the three karmas of your vajra master. However, it is essential to clearly evaluate and verify the qualifications the master possesses. If the master does not have an understanding of the sutras, possess the realizations of Buddha-dharma, or is able to perform two or three of the five vidyas that are beyond the ordinary person’s abilities and powers, the master is not qualified. This so-called master is an ordinary person and is not qualified to be considered a master. Corresponding to the three karmas of a unqualified master can lead you to being guilty of the most heinous crimes.

The three steps of showing respect to a vajra master are:

1.  Do your best to serve and please your master.

2.  Have complete confidence in the teachings of your master.

3.  Treat your master and the Buddha as one and the same.

There are many different types and levels of masters:

  • The refuge master
  • The conditional or basic master (sometimes referred to as a doctrine master)
  • The vajra master

Your refuge master is the one from whom you receive the refuge vows and precepts and who teaches you how to practice the refuge state.

The conditional or basic masters, who may or may not also be your refuge master, are kind and dignified Buddhist teachers who are very knowledgeable and compassionate. This is the master that you listen to for his or her interpretation of the sutras or discourses. These discourses are according to the teachings of sutra-pitaka. When the conditions are right, you may study or learn from such a master. Even a great vajra master or dharma king may serve as your conditional master or even your refuge master.

On the other hand, the vajra master teaches the tantra and confers the tantric initiation. Your vajra master is the master who transmits the Buddha-dharma to you and initiates you in the Buddha-dharma. The disciple follows the doctrine of this master in the practice of the disciple’s yidam. The vajra master also teaches and transmits the doctrines of exoteric Buddhism. The high level vajra masters have acquired liberation from the cycle of birth and death and have already obtained the dharmakaya themselves.

The highest of all is the dharma king master who represents the highest accomplishments of all with an understanding of the Tripitaka and tantras that is equal to the Buddha, who is able to conduct all of the inner tantra initiations, and who has the highest level of achievement in all of the five vidyas. Such a being has direct contact with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and can exhibit supernatural powers both in the mandala and in other ways.

A disciple may take refuge with any vajra master who can meet the qualifications listed below and who can arrange that the disciple will receive the appropriate inner tantra initiations when the disciple is ready to receive them, either by conducting them or by having his or her vajra master conduct them. This means that a beginning vajra master must have as his or her master an authentic inner tantra master or a dharma king or Buddha who will serve as the disciple’s “Grand Master” and give the highest initiations. If you want to achieve liberation, you should not take as your master one who does not meet these standards.

As a minimum, any master must have very high moral achievement; must understand the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and have command of sutra and tantra; is conversant in the five vidyas; can continue the dharma lineage by having sufficient merit to disseminate the Buddha-dharma to liberate all sentient beings; and have received the Vajra Acarya Initiation or other form of certification from someone who possesses the qualifications to bestow it. A vajra master must also have the other four virtues of always obeying his or her master’s orders; not violating any of the esoteric or exoteric precepts; expounding the Correct Dharma; and having equal compassion for all believers, never giving up on them, and loving everyone—even his or her enemies. In addition, a vajra master should diligently practice the principles explained in “What Is Cultivation?,” perfect the six paramitas, and be able to manifest at least two of the five vidyas. They must also have the approval of their vajra master to enter a mandala and perform empowerments and initiations for disciples. You can count on following such masters to reach liberation.

An inner tantra master, in addition to the above conditions, must possess the mandala power to confer at least one of the inner tantra initiations. The disciple must be able to see evidence that the dharma protecting deities have actually come to the mandala. (In this context, mandala refers to the sacred altar area where initiations are given.) An inner tantra master must be able to document that he or she has met the qualifications for giving inner tantric initiations. A dharma king must possess all four divisions of the inner tantra initiations and the supreme secret inner tantra initiations in addition to all the criteria stated above and greatly excel in all five vidyas. In short, a dharma king must be able to communicate directly with the saints or great holy ones (Buddhas and Bodhisattvas). A true holy dharma king also possesses a vajra dharma wheel (dharmachakra) that can make decisions concerning who should receive which inner tantra initiations as well as perform other miraculous functions.

There is also the Holy Form of Inner Tantra Initiations that is even more rare and will not be discussed here. Read H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III for more information on this very high form of practice. There are very few people in the world today who can perform it.

You should never be confused by outer appearances. Do not misconceive the false as the true and mistake outer tantra initiation as inner tantra initiation. Most empowerments or initiations given today are only outer tantra initiations. The inner tantra initiation is for people with the utmost Mahayana’s faculty to enter Buddhahood in their current lifetime and not for regular practitioners. Moreover, the saint who can confer an inner tantra initiation is very rare; it is hard to find one in 10,000 great rinpoches. However, you should never look down upon outer tantra initiation and its practices that were also handed down by the Buddhas and also possess the tantra blessing power. If you correspond your three karmas with the teachings of your master and practice accordingly, then you can get out of reincarnation by means of outer tantra initiation.

Practitioner Mi-Kong in How to Recognize the Vajra Tantra states:

“Tantra provides a shortcut for achievement and for the highest level of attainment (that is, for one who practices unexcelled yoga, Supreme Tantra enables one to become a Buddha in the current life, make the whole body transparent, transform miraculously at one’s will and be the same entity as the universe). Hence, many practitioners have devoted their entire life to seeking the utmost tantra since Adharma Buddha (the Adi-Buddha) started teaching tantra. I have studied tantra for decades in Tibet and have seen an enormous amount of tantra—similar to a deep ocean—that is immense, concise and wise. Many great virtuous ones throughout Tibet have achieved Nirvana based on tantra. Consequently, a number of normal Buddhism teachers and false practitioners pretend to be rinpoches or khutukhus and claim themselves to be vajra masters. They teach false tantra. Innumerable innocent people have been deceived and learned nothing but rather wasted time and effort; even worse, some have entered the wrong paths and become the devil’s offspring. Especially during the current degenerate period, it is difficult to distinguish between a Buddha and a devil, and there are more false masters than can be counted. Sentient beings are easily bewildered by false dharma and deceiving masters.”

The United International World Buddhism Association Headquarters has developed a system for determining the qualifications and levels of accomplishment of various masters. You should refer to their public announcements on how to determine the level of any master so that you will not be misled. You should also know that until any master reaches a very high level of non-regression, he or she can devolve into an ordinary being even though he or she was once a true vajra master. Reading the 128 Evil and Erroneous Views and listening to dharma discourses given by H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III are essential in knowing what to look for in a vajra master.