Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna – The Reviver of Buddhism in Tibet
Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana is a renowned Indian master who went to Tibet in 1042 to help in the revival of Buddhism and established the Kadam tradition. His text Light for the Path was the first lam-rim text.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Pala Empire
- 2 - Origin of Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana
- 3 - Vission of Tara
- 4 - Atisha Wedding Eve and Vajrayana goddess, Tara
- 5 - The Journey of Spiritual Teacher and Atisha
- 6 - Study about Tantric Hinduism
- 7 - Monk: Dipamkara Srijnana
- 8 - Sumatra and Tibet
- 9 - Books Written by Atisha
- 10 - Advice From Atisha’s Heart
- 10.1 - Atisha’s Advice on Attaining Enlightenment
- 10.2 - Atisha’s Advice on Practicing the Dharma
- 10.3 - Atisha’s Advice on Spiritual Guide
- 10.4 - Atisha’s Advice on Peace
- 10.5 - Atisha’s Advice on Time and Activities
- 10.6 - Atisha’s Advice on Devotion
- 10.7 - Atisha’s Advice on Overcoming Bad condition
- 10.8 - Atisha’s Advice on Attachment
- 10.9 - Atisha’s Advice on Compassion
- 10.10 - Atisha’s Advice for Seeking Truth in Life
- 10.11 - Atisha’s Advice on Loving all the creatures
- 10.12 - Atisha’s Advice on Liberation
- 10.13 - Atisha’s Advice on Giving
- 10.14 - Atisha’s Advice on Happiness
- 10.15 - Atisha’s Advice on being Honest
- 10.16 - Atisha’s Advice on Meaningful Conversation
- 10.17 - Atisha’s Advice on Meditation
- 10.18 - Atisha’s Advice on Greed
- 10.19 - Atisha’s Advice on Hattered
- 10.20 - Atisha’s Advice on Samsara
- 10.21 - Atisha’s Advice on Distraction and Concentration
- 11 - Death of Atisha
- 12 - Legacy
The Pala Dynasty was the ruling Dynasty in Bihar and Bengal India, from the 8th to the 12th century. Called the Palas because all their names ended in Pala, “protector”.
Atisha is a Buddhist teacher from the Pala Empire who, along with Konchog Gyalpo and Marpa, became one of the major figures in the establishment of the Sarma lineages in Tibet after the repression of Buddhism by King Langdarma (Glang Darma).
Atisha, a Buddhist monk credited with reforming Tibetan Buddhism, had a life similar to Shakyamuni Buddha, although he lived nearly fifteen centuries after Buddha. Born into a royal family in the city of Vikramapura, Southeast Bengal, Atisha’s parents groomed him to inherit the position of the emperor from his father. Vikramapura had been one of the early centers of Buddhism, serving as the center for Buddhist culture.
Although Atisha had a lengthy career as a teacher at the Buddhist college, Vikramasila, his life purpose led him to Tibet. After making a dangerous two-year journey over the Himalaya mountains to Tibet at an elderly age, Atisha spent the remaining years of his life reviving Tibetan Buddhism. He lived until seventy-two years old, having devoted fifteen years to his work in Tibet, dying in 1052 C.E.
Origin of Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana
Atisha, born in 980 C. toE. in Vajrayogini village, in Bikrampur, the northeastern region of Bengal located in modern-day Bangladesh, lived to the age of seventy-two.
The year 980 also saw a major power shift in Bengali politics as the resurgent Pala dynasty seized control of the region, disposing of the incumbent Kamboja rulers.
Atisha was born into royalty, his royal status possibly stemming from one of those two contemporaneous contending powers.
The city of Vikramapura, Atisha birthplace, served as the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Bengal, present-day Munshiganj District of Bangladesh.
Vission of Tara
When Atisha turned 11, he began receiving visions of Tara. On one such occasion, a blue utpala flower fell from the sky as he sat in his mother’s lap. The boy began to speak in the direction of the flower.
Some yogis later explained to his parents that the blue flowers were signs that Tara was manifesting before their son.
When Atisha came of age, his parents began looking for a suitable bride for him. But, Tara appeared before him with the following advice:
If you become attached to your kingdom, you will be like an elephant when he sinks into mud and cannot lift himself out again because he is so huge and heavy. Do not become attached to this life. Study and practice Dharma. You have been a spiritual guide in many of your previous lives, and in this life also you will become a spiritual guide.
Atisha developed a strong desire to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings after this encounter with Tara. He knew that he would have to leave his comfortable surroundings behind and that he had to tell his parents about his reluctance to marry.
There is no difference for my mind between this palace and a prison. There is no difference between beautiful, expensive clothes and the torn cloth in the garbage. There is no difference between delicious food and dog meat and pus. There is no difference between princesses and mara women — devil women.”
Younger Atisha’s Compassion
Atisha’s response shows the youth’s commitment to the pursuit of enlightenment. Atisha also displayed compassion from a very young age. During a temple visit, Atisha pointed to a crowd of people who were trying to catch a glimpse of him. His parents explained to him that they were his subjects. Compassion immediately arose in his mind, and he made a prayer:
May all these people enjoy good fortune as great as my own.
Atisha Wedding Eve and Vajrayana goddess, Tara
On the eve of his wedding, Atisha encountered the Vajrayana goddess, Tara, who continued to guide him throughout his lifetime.
Tara explained to the prince that in his past lives he had been a devout monk. He should resist the pleasures in the world. If not, Tara continued, then “as an elephant sinks deeply into the swamp, a hero, sink in the mire of lust.”
Tara’s appearance symbolizes the prince’s realization of his own karmic potential. With that revelation in mind, Atisha renounced his kingdom, family, and position to find a spiritual teacher. He gave his parents the excuse of going on a hunting trip.
The Journey of Spiritual Teacher and Atisha
Atisha knew that he needed qualified teachers to guide him on his spiritual journey, so he began to seek them out. Thanks to his intelligence and perseverance, Atisha was able to master the teachings given to him. His teachers referred him to others who could help him further his studies and improve his knowledge. Atisha is said to have studied with more than 150 teachers during his lifetime. Here are a few of them:
The Brahmin Jetari
Atisha made the acquaintance of the brahmin Jetari, a Buddhist recluse, and renowned teacher. Jetari taught the young man three things:
- Taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha,
- Dharma and Sangha, and
Described as the mind-oriented aspiration towards enlightenment with the intent of benefiting all sentient beings.
He also gave the prince Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. In Nalanda, Atashi received once again brief instruction regarding the Bodhisattva vows under the spiritual guide Bodhibhadra, who in turn advised him to seek out a teacher renowned for his perfect meditation of perceiving emptiness, Vidyakokila.
The Bodhisattva vows by Bodhibhadra
In Nalanda, Atashi received once again brief instruction regarding the Bodhisattva vows under the spiritual guide Bodhibhadra, who in turn advised him to seek out a teacher renowned for his perfect meditation of perceiving emptiness, Vidyakokila.
Buddhist narratives recount one story in which Atisha comes across a woman alternately crying and laughing. Confused with her behavior, he inquires about her condition, and she responded:
one’s own mind has been a Buddha from beginningless time. By not knowing this, great complications follow from such a small base of error for hundreds of thousands of sentient beings…. Not being able to bear the suffering for so many beings, I cry. And then, I laugh because when this small basis of error is known—when one knows one’s own mind—one is freed.
Atisha asked Bodhibhadra to teach him how to achieve the state beyond sorrow, so Bodhibhadra taught him how to generate Bodhicitta.
From Vidyakokila, Atisha received the complete instructions on the profound and vast paths. Vidyakokila then sent Atisha to the great Vajrayana master, Avadhutipa.
From Rahulagupta, Atisha received the secret name of Janavajra (Indestructible Wisdom) and the initiation of the Hevajra Tantra. Rahulagupta also advised Atisha to seek permission from his parents.
Atisha complied by visiting his parents and telling them:
If I practice Dharma purely, then, as Arya Tara has predicted, I shall be able to repay your kindness and the kindness of all living beings. If I can do this my human life will not have been wasted. Otherwise, even though I may spend all my time in a glorious palace, my life will be meaningless. Please give me your consent to leave the kingdom and dedicate my whole life to the practice of Dharma.
Atisha’s father was initially reluctant, but his mother remembered the auspicious signs of Atisha’s birth. She gave Atisha her permission and blessings, and the king followed suit.
With the blessings of his parents, Atisha finally went back to Avadhutipa with whom he spent seven years receiving instructions on Secret Mantra.
At one point, Atisha began to feel arrogant, thinking that he probably knew more about Secret Mantra than anyone else in the world. However, his arrogance vanished after he dreamt of dakinis who showed him scriptures that he had never seen before.
Atisha originally aspired to become a lay practitioner like Avadhutipa. He decided to become a monk after having a dream in which he was following a procession of monks in the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha who wondered why Atisha had not been ordained. Another account credits his teacher, Rahulagupta, for encouraging him to become ordained. At 29 years of age, Atisha was ordained by Shilarakshita and was given the ordination name Dipamkara Shrijñana.
From Dharmarakshita Atisha learned the teachings of the Hinayana. He received instructions on the Ocean of Great Explanation and the Seven Sets of Abhidharma, two works that were written based on the philosophical views of the Vaibhashika system.
Study about Tantric Hinduism
He also studied music and logic by the age of twenty-two. The Lineage of the Profound Action transmitted by Maitreya, Vasubandhu; the Lineage of Profound View transmitted by Manjushri, Chandrakirti; and the Lineage of Profound Experience transmitted by Vajradhara, Naropa number foremost among Buddhist lineages he studied, practiced and transmitted.
Monk: Dipamkara Srijnana
Another time, a contending voice confronted Atisha as he prepared to practice his tantra. The Black Mountain Yogi appeared to him in a dream, advising him to take his time through steady practice to achieve the enlightenment.
Rather than extend all his powers at once, the Black Mountain Yogi warned, he should endeavor to become a “spiritual seeker who has renounced family life,” a monk. In his twenty-ninth year, the great Shilarakshita ordained Atisha a monk. He received a new name of Dipamkara Srijnana, meaning “He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp.”
Once, when Atisha was traveling near the Nagarjuna Caves, he heard the Buddha statues say:
Train the mind in love and the compassionate thought, Bodhicitta.
Pilgrimage to Bodhgaya
Even as a monk, Dipamkara Srijnana yearned for the fastest and most direct means of attaining perfect enlightenment. He made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and, while walking around the great stupa there, he had a vision of two materializations of Tara.
One asked the other to name the most important practice for attaining enlightenment. The other replied that “the practice of bodhicitta, supported by loving-kindness and great compassion is most important.” Atisha dedicated himself to the understanding and practice of bodhicitta from that time.
On another occasion, as Atisha was circumambulating the holy Bodhgaya stupa, the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha spoke to him.
If you wish to attain Enlightenment quickly, you must gain experience of compassion, love, and the precious Bodhicitta.
Journey to Sumatra
At the age of 31, the monk arranged for a perilous journey, traveling for thirteen months to Sumatra to study under the reputable Suvarnadvipi Dharmarakshita, known in Tibetan as Serlingpa, a master of bodhichitta.
Under the guidance of Dharmarakshita, Atisha remained on the island of Sumatra for twelve years studying bodhichitta.
After over a decade of intensive training, Dharmarakshita advised Atisha to “go to the north, in the north is the Land of Snows.” Dharmarakshita referred to Tibet, a region with a Buddhist tradition forever changed after the arrival of Atisha Dipamkara Srijnana.
Sumatra and Tibet
Before journeying to Tibet, Atisha returned to India. He earned fame as a debater, on three occasions defeating non-Buddhist extremists in the debate.
When he came into contact with what he perceived to be a misled or deteriorating form of Buddhism he would quickly and effectively implement reforms. Soon enough he received an appointment to the position of steward, or abbot, at the venerable Buddhist college Vikramasila, established by the King Dharmapala of Bengal.
Atisha’s return from Sumatra and rise to prominence in India coincided with a flourishing of Buddhist culture and the practice of Dharma in the region. Atisha’s influence contributed to those developments.
As Dharmarakshita had predicted, Buddhism in Tibet desperately needed resuscitation. Some Tibetans, for example, believed that
Ethical self-discipline and tantra were mutually exclusive and that enlightenment could be achieved through intoxication and various forms of sexual misconduct.
The King Lha Lama Yeshe Yod proved The Dharma Believer
The politically unstable rule of King Langdarma had suppressed Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings and persecuted its followers for over seventy years. A new king by the name of Lha Lama Yeshe Yod proved a strict believer in Dharma, sending his disciples to learn and translate some of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. Nagtso, who studied Sanskrit Vikramasila college, numbered among them. He pleaded with Atisha to come to teach the Dharma in his homeland.
Atisha declined the offer to come to reintroduce the Buddha’s teachings in Tibet. He considered himself too old for the rigorous trip and had much-unfinished work at the monastic college.
Prophecies of Tara
The next evening, Tara appeared to him saying that his trip to Tibet would be astoundingly successful. He would greatly honor and assist the Tibetans, find a dedicated disciple, and further contribute to the spread of Dharma. He would live in the task until seventy-two years old.
In truth, Atisha’s undertaking in Tibet had never been in doubt. Prophecies of his departure began with Dharmarakshita in Sumatra, following Atisha to his vision of Tara.
During his travels across the perilous Himalayas, the Tibetan scholar Nagtso “vaguely realized that miraculous manifestations assisted me in an uninterrupted flow.”
Nagtso referred, whether he knew it or not, to Avalokitesvara’s continual assistance throughout his trip to Vikramasila. Atisha’s two-year journey to Tibet may be interpreted within the Buddhist tradition as a fulfillment of destiny.
First Residence of Atisha in Tibet – Ngari
In Tibet, Atisha first took residence in Ngari. The King supported his work to bring Buddha’s teaching to the people. During the three years Atisha spent in this town, he wrote what became the main body of his teaching, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and met the disciple Tara, Dromtonpa.
He said that the degree to which the Vajrayana had spread in Tibet was unparalleled, even in India. After saying this, he reverently folded his hands and praised the great dharma kings, translators, and panditas of the previous centuries.
He stayed 13 years in Tibet,
Books Written by Atisha
Atisha wrote, translated and edited more than two hundred books. He discovered several Sanskrit manuscripts in Tibet and copied them.
He translated books from Sanskrit to Tibetan. He also wrote several books on Buddhist scriptures, medical science and technical science in Tibetan.
Dipamkara wrote several books in Sanskrit, but only their Tibetan translations survived. Seventy-nine of his compositions have been preserved in Tibetan translation in the Tengyur. His most notable books follow:
- Charya-sanggraha-pradipa; contains some kirtan verses composed by Atisha.
- Shiksa-samuchchaya Abhisamya
- Vimala-ratna-lekha: a Sanskrit letter to Nayapala, king of Magadha
- Lamp for a path to Enlightenment
- The wheel of Sharp Weapons
- The Lamp for the Path & Commentary
- Lamp for the Path
- Indian pandits in the Land of Snow (1893)
- Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet (1902)
Advice From Atisha’s Heart
Friends, since you already have great knowledge and clear understanding, whereas I am of no importance and have little wisdom, it is not suitable for you to request advice from me.
However, because you dear friends, whom I cherish from my heart, have requested me, I shall give you this essential advice from my inferior and childish mind.
Atisha’s Advice on Attaining Enlightenment
Friends, until you attain Enlightenment the Spiritual Teacher is indispensable, therefore rely upon the holy Spiritual Guide.
Therefore listens closely to the precept of the teacher. Merely understanding the Dharma is not enough to become enlightened, you must practice constantly.
Go far away from any place that is harmful to your practice; always stay in a place that is conducive to virtue. Clamour is harmful until you obtain a firm mind; therefore stay in an isolated place.
Abandon friends who increase your fettering passions; depend on friends who cause you to increase virtue. Bear this in mind. There is never an end of things to do, so limit your activities. Dedicate your virtue day and night, and always be mindful.
Atisha’s Advice on Practicing the Dharma
Since you cannot become a Buddha merely by understanding Dharma, practice earnestly with understanding.
If from your heart you practice in accordance with Dharma, both food and resources will come naturally to hand.
Avoid activities that are said to be meritorious, but which in fact are obstacles to Dharma.
If you practice like this you will delight me, and you will bring happiness to yourself and others.
Atisha’s Advice on Spiritual Guide
Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.
Because you have received advice, whenever you are not meditating always practice in accordance with what your Spiritual Guide says.
Atisha’s Advice on Peace
Avoid places that disturb your mind, and always remain where your virtues increase.
Until you attain stable realizations, worldly amusements are harmful, therefore abide in a place where there are no such distractions.
Avoid friends who cause you to increase delusions, and rely upon those who increase your virtue. This you should take to heart.
Avoid all haughty, conceited, proud, and arrogant minds, and remain peaceful and subdued.
Atisha’s Advice on Time and Activities
Since there is never a time when worldly activities come to an end, limit your activities.
Dedicate your virtues throughout the day and the night, and always watch your mind.
Atisha’s Advice on Devotion
If you practice with great devotion, results will arise immediately, without your having to wait for a long time.
Friends, the things you desire to give no more satisfaction than drinking sea water, therefore practice contentment.
Since the happiness, pleasure, and friends you gather in this life last only for a moment, put them all behind you.
Atisha’s Advice on Overcoming Bad condition
Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.
Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.
Atisha’s Advice on Attachment
Have no hatred for enemies and no attachment for friends.
You will have to depart leaving everything behind, so do not be attached to anything.
Atisha’s Advice on Compassion
Generate compassion for lowly beings, and especially avoid despising or humiliating them.
Atisha’s Advice for Seeking Truth in Life
Always keep a smiling face and a loving mind, and speak truthfully without malice.
Since future lives last for a very long time, gather up riches to provide for the future.
Do not be jealous of others’ good qualities, but out of admiration adopt them yourself.
Do not look for faults in others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.
Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.
Being under the influence of wrong views you do not realize the ultimate nature of things, therefore investigate correct meanings.
Atisha’s Advice on Loving all the creatures
See all living beings as your father or mother, and love them as if you were their child.
Atisha’s Advice on Liberation
Atisha’s Advice on Giving
Distracting enjoyments have no essence, therefore since practice giving.
Atisha’s Advice on Happiness
If the things you desire do not come it is due to karma created long ago, therefore keep a happy and relaxed mind.
Since all the happiness and suffering of this life arise from previous actions, do not blame others.
All happiness comes from the blessings of your Spiritual Guide, therefore always repay his kindness.
Always keep pure moral discipline for it leads to beauty in this life and happiness hereafter.
Atisha’s Advice on being Honest
Beware, offending a holy being is worse than dying, therefore be honest and straightforward.
Atisha’s Advice on Meaningful Conversation
If you talk too much with little meaning you will make mistakes, therefore speak in moderation, only when necessary.
If you engage in many meaningless activities your virtuous activities will degenerate, therefore stop activities that are not spiritual.
It is completely meaningless to put effort into activities that have no essence.
Atisha’s Advice on Meditation
Meditate according to the advice of your Spiritual Guide and dry up the river of samsaric suffering.
Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.
Atisha’s Advice on Greed
Since you will definitely have to depart without the wealth you have accumulated, do not accumulate negativity for the sake of wealth.
Atisha’s Advice on Hattered
Atisha’s Advice on Samsara
You remain in samsara through the power of laziness, therefore ignite the fire of the effort of application.
Atisha’s Advice on Distraction and Concentration
Since this human life is wasted by indulging in distractions, now is the time to practice concentration.
Lastly, Atisha said:
You should consider this well because it is not just words from the mouth, but sincere advice from the heart.
I who am ignorant request you to take this advice to heart.
Death of Atisha
Atisha died in 1052 C.E., in a village called Lethan, near Lhasa. The site of his last rites at Lethan has turned into a shrine. His ashes were brought to Dhaka, Bangladesh on June 28, 1978, and placed in Dharmarajika Buddha Vihara.
Atisha remains an important figure in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for several reasons. First, he refined, systematized, and compiled an innovative and thorough approach to bodhichitta known as “mind training” (Tib. lojong), in such texts as A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and established the primacy of bodhichitta to the Mahayana tradition in Tibet. In this sense, Atisha not only dictated a scholarly model for bodhichitta but acted as a living human example.
Second, after King Langdarma’s intolerant reign, the monastic Buddhist tradition of Tibet had been nearly wiped out. Atisha’s closest disciple, Dromtönpa, is considered the founder of the Kadam school, which later evolved into the Gelug, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Although monasticism and the lojong teachings were of greatest centrality to the Kadam/Gelug, they were incorporated into the other three schools–the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya–as well.
Finally, Atisha mobilized his influence in India towards the goal of reforming the impurities and redirecting the development of Buddhism there, in the native country of the Shakayumi Buddha. For these reasons and more, Atisha remains a central figure in the history and religious study of Buddhism.