Reflections on the Initiation Vase

by Punyamala


The recent college meeting was rich, multifaceted and felt significant in several ways. In particular, during this meeting, Saddhaloka stepped down as chair and Ratnadharini became the fourth chair of the college. We also welcomed 3 new Public Preceptors from the US and Mexico so the college is becoming more international. It was interesting to discover that of the current active Public preceptors only about half were ordained by Bhante and, of course, Ratnadharini was not ordained by Bhante. My impression is that the college is growing and changing in new ways.

I was pleased that the significance of the vase of initiation that we use in the public ordination ceremony emerged during the meeting. When I first became a Public preceptor I didn’t have an initiation vase. It felt very significant when I obtained one because it gave me a tangible symbol of having taken up this responsibility. My beautiful vase sits on my shrine when it is not in use and provides a focus for reflecting on my work. My vase was blessed by Bhante and that was also important. I vividly remember him taking the vase from me and examining it with great care and saying it was very fine. He kept it for a time and when it was returned I felt not only had the vase been blessed and the work it would do, but so had I. 

We held a simple, elegant ceremony to ritually mark the handover of chair from Saddhaloka to Ratnadharini. Subhuti, the first chair of the college, set the scene and talked about the significance of the initiation vase. The vase that was used for the handover ceremony used to belong to Bhante, before he passed it on to Parami. It is a simple, small vase without much ornamentation and it has lost its top. I found it moving to reflect that this was the vase used in my own ordination in 1987 and those of many of us ordained by him. It is the vase he used in the West and he used it at the first ordinations. Saddhaloka lifted the vase off the shrine with care and reverence, offered it to Ratnadharini who accepted it with grace and beauty; she then replaced the vase on the shrine, they both made light offerings and Ratnadharini became the new chair of the college. 

The vase is the tangible symbol of being a Public preceptor and it is used during the public ordination ceremony to sprinkle a few drops of water on the crown of the head of the ordinand. This aspect of the ordination ceremony is rich in symbolism. I think of it as symbolising the initiatory aspect of ordination in general. One’s spiritual energies are activated, the energy inherent in the act of deeply and wholeheartedly Going For Refuge to the Three Jewels is sparked off and one’s deepest spiritual energies are released.  

Water has many associations. It is necessary for life and it is cleansing and purifying. I think of the drops of water purifying the whole of one’s being so, at that moment in the ceremony, body, speech and mind are completely pure. The drops of water also symbolise the blessings, the nectar, of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha working through one, shaking one up and transforming one in all ways. They water the seed of one’s spiritual aspiration, the seed of bodhicitta which has been planted in the soil of the heart of the ordinand. 

During his talk, Subhuti said the fundamental duty of a public preceptor was to ensure that the vase is used properly. My understanding of this is that I, as a Public Preceptor, have a responsibility to ensure a common understanding of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels in our tradition and to nurture conditions for the bodhicitta to arise. This can only happen by creating conditions for trust, harmony, kalyana mitrata, faith and deepening of our Going For Refuge to the Three Jewels. 

As some of our older Public preceptors are starting to ‘retire’, a lovely tradition is emerging. Earlier this year, Dhammadinna handed on her vase to Santavajri in a simple, private ceremony. At the college meeting, Subhuti handed on a vase of his to Nagapriya, who he ordained, which will be used in Mexico. A lineage is unfolding quite naturally and organically.

I think all of us at the meeting were inspired by reflecting on the initiation vase. The women public preceptors are going to be using it as the symbol for our next preceptors retreat. We shall be exploring aspects of the ordination ceremony, deepening our understanding of the meaning of ordination and using the initiation vase as our focus because it encapsulates the essence of the ordination ceremony – purification, receptivity and the transforming influence of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha on our lives.