The explosive growth of the internet in the 1990's had a dramatic effect on many local and global industries and organizations: the automobile and newspaper industries are two examples that spring readily to mind. Traditionally secret esoteric practices, like those of Hindu and Buddhist tantra, have also been affected by the new ease of information exchange. Secrets that were once whispered by a guru into a close disciple's ear after many years of service and devotion are now spread indiscriminately across the World Wide Web for any mildly curious person to find. This seems to have had less of an effect among Western newbies than it has in cultures with an established tantric tradition, where the value of an obscure Sanskrit mantra is better appreciated. But it does raise the question of what the purpose of all the secrecy is and whether initiation is really all that necessary.
It's unfortunate that the more dedicated practitioners, who are perhaps four or five years along their chosen path, usually have little to say to newcomers beyond, “Ask a qualified lama (or guru).” The qualified Lamas, when you do ask them, are surprisingly relaxed about the prerequisites for practice. “It's beneficial to take the empowerment,” they'll say, but hardly the do-or-die, inflexible holy law that more conservative disciples will make it out to be. For example, the Tibetan Buddhist practice book I have used most over the past decade, The Buddha Path by H.E. Khenpo Choga Rinpoche, has this to say:
“It is important that practitioners receive oral transmission of this sacred text from an authentic Dzogchen Lineage Master. In cases where one cannot find such a qualified master, and oral transmission is not possible, practitioners are still encouraged to practice as best they can according to this book. In this case, one should obtain oral transmission and practice instructions as soon as possible.”
This seems to me like an excellent general rule of thumb. Yes, it is advisable to receive the diksha or empowerment of a sadhana (practice) before beginning it, but if this is not possible, it is okay to begin on your own as long as you make the honest intention to take the empowerment at the first opportunity. An obvious exception would be for practices that are clearly identified as restricted – if an online store, for example, says “This practice is restricted to those who have received the empowerment,” better to heed the warning.
In any case, some gurus have started offering dikshas from a distance, making it easier than ever to take initiations. I haven't experienced this yet, but would love to hear from anyone who has – you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Siddha Ashram -- http://www.siddhashram.org -- is one example of a Hindu ashram offering many dikshas from a distance. Yogi Madan is a guru with whom I have corresponded and who I respect, who offers shaktipat diksha (kundalini awakening) to disciples from a distance – he can be reached at email@example.com. As an additional option, consult the Adhyatmajyoti site at http://www.adhyatmajyoti.org.