Atisha

From Buddha World

Atisha
Atisha
Atisha
Atisha

Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana (Bengali: অতীশ দীপঙ্কর শ্রীজ্ঞান Ôtish Dipôngkor Srigên) (980-1054 CE) was a Buddhist teacher from the Pala Empire who, along with Konchog Gyalpo and Marpa, was one of the major figures in the establishment of the Sarma lineages in Tibet after the repression of Buddhism by King Langdarma (Glang Darma).

Early life

Atisha is most commonly said to have been born in the year 980 in Vajrayogini village in Bikrampur, the northeastern region of Bengal (located in modern day Bangladesh). His homestead in the village is still known to the local people as the "Ponditer bhita" (the homestead of the Pundit - a learned man). The exact year of his birth and death is widely disputed. Some sources indicate that Atisha was born in 982 and died in 1054, while more recent studies contend that his life began in 980 and ended in 1052.[citation needed] In any case, it is unanimously recognized that Atisha lived to the age of seventy-two. It is noteworthy that, while no direct connections can be made to the birth of Atisha, 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 allegedly born into royalty, and it would be intriguing to know if his royal status stemmed from one of these two contemporaneous contending powers.

The city of Vikramapura, the most probable candidate for Atisha's birthplace, was the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Bengal. Though the city's exact location is not certain, it presently lies in the Munshiganj District of Bangladesh, and continues to be celebrated as an early center of Buddhist cultural, academic, and political life. Similar to Shakyamuni Buddha, Atisha was born into royalty; the palace in which he was raised, aptly named the Golden Banner Palace, "had a golden victory banner encircled by countless houses and there were great numbers of bathing-pools encircled by 720 magnificent gardens, forests of Tala trees, seven concentric walls, 363 connecting bridges, innumerable golden victory banners, thirteen roofs to the central palace and thousands of noblemen". His father was the king of Bengal known as Kalyana Shri, and his mother was Shri Prabhavati. One of three royal brothers, Atisha went by the name of Chandragarbha during the first part of his life. In fact, it was not until he traveled to Tibet and encountered the king Jangchub Ö (Byang Chub Od) that he was given the name of Atisha, a Tibetan reference to peace.

The prince's birth is often described in traditional accounts as an auspicious or promising episode. For example, it is said that as Atisha was born "flowers rained down upon the city [of Vikramapura], a rainbow canopy appeared, and the gods sang hymns which brought gladness and joy to all the people". This particular description is loaded with several themes distinctly typical of Buddhist literature. The image of flowers falling from the sky appears in the episode of Shakyamuni Buddha's attainment of perfect enlightenment, and the emergence of a rainbow canopy symbolizes the reincarnation of a Bodhisattva. Most importantly, however, is that the arrival of Atisha brought certain happiness to sentient beings. This effect of Atisha's birth corresponds directly with the Buddhist concept of dedicating one's life to the uplifting and enlightenment of all conscious beings.

For the first eighteen months of his life, Atisha was sheltered and attended to by eight nurses in the royal palace of the capital city, Vikramapura. At eighteen months old, it is said that his parents then brought him into public for the first time, on a visit to a local temple in Kamalapuri. It was here that Atisha's potential as an extraordinary religious and spiritual leader initially emerged. People from all over the region gathered to witness his appearance. When Atisha learned from his parents of the crowd's status as his own subjects, he prayed that they may "be possessed of merit like that of [his] parents, rule kingdoms that reach the summit of prosperity, be reborn as sons of kings [and] be sustained by holy and virtuous deeds." Atisha then proceeded independently to worship the holy objects both inside and surrounding the temple, renouncing his ties to the world and his family and committing himself to religious pursuit.

Such an interpretation of Atisha's first public appearance, found in Buddhist texts and historical accounts, strongly reinforces a couple of critical components of Buddhist philosophy. The story clearly gives an impression of Atisha as a spiritually advanced and relatively enlightened individual at only eighteen months old. As such, the prince is seen to have acquired enough merit through virtuous actions in previous lives such that it carried over to dictate both his favorable experience as a venerated prince and enlightened personality as a compassionate individual. Moreover, Atisha's spiritual proficiency at this point is demonstrated through both kindness towards his subjects and non-attachment towards his familial, social, and overall life situation.

Mirroring the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, the young prince is depicted as having a natural capacity for swift learning in multiple fields and the practice of Dharma at a young age. He had become "well-versed in astrology, writing and Sanskrit" by the age of three, "able to distinguish between the Buddhist and non-Buddhist doctrines" by the age of ten, and would eventually become a master of the teachings of Mahayana, Hinayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism under the guidance of over 100 different instructors. As time elapsed Atisha's wish to enter the religious life strengthened, but his parents identified him as the brightest of their sons and natural successor to power. Therefore, as he turned the customary age of eleven years old, surrounding him with the luxuries and extravagance of royalty, Atisha's parents commenced the decorative courtship and matrimonial preparations so that the prince might find a bride among the kingdom's beautiful young women of nobility.

Atisha's response to his parents’ proposal as documented in Buddhist biographical texts evidences the level of commitment the young prince had for religious pursuit and enlightenment. On the eve of his wedding, Atisha experienced a momentous encounter with the Vajrayana goddess Tara, who would continue with him as a guiding spirit until the end of his life. Tara explained to the prince that in his past lives he had been a devout monk. Accordingly, he should not be overwhelmed by the lure of ephemeral pleasures in the world. If he should acquiesce, Tara continued, then "as an elephant sinks deeply into the swamp, [he], a hero, [would] sink in the mire of lust." Essentially, Tara's manifestation is symbolic for the prince's meaningful realization of his own karmic potential. The deity's metaphor is illuminating: as an elephant's enormous weight prevents it from escaping the mud, so the prince's wealth and extravagance would prevent him from spiritual awakening. With this revelation at the forefront of his consciousness, Atisha renounced his kingdom, family, and social status in order to find a spiritual teacher—or as he told his parents—to go on a hunting trip.

Buddhist sources assert that, while feigning a hunting trip, an adolescent Atisha made the acquaintance of the brahmin Jetari, a Buddhist recluse and renowned teacher. Jetari taught the young man three things: 1) taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, 2) Dharma and Sangha and 3) bodhichitta, described as the mind-oriented aspiration towards enlightenment with the intent of benefiting all sentient beings. Upon educating the young Atisha in the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, Jetari advised that he go to Nalanda, a Buddhist center for learning in northeastern India. 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.

Atisha's acquisition of the wisdom to perceive emptiness is particularly significant. It is during this stage of study that Atisha became aware of pure human nature and the fundamental freedom inherent to every sentient being's existence; a freedom exclusive of physical attachments and mental bondage. Buddhist narratives recount one story in which Atisha comes across a women alternately crying and laughing. Confused with her behavior, he inquires about her condition, and she responds: "[O]ne'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." Coming from a background of nobility and material wealth, Atisha's realization of value as a freely determined product of perception represents a relative challenge and an alteration of life principles with substantial ontological ramifications.

Upon completing his training for meditations on nothingness and emptiness, Atisha was advised to go study with Avadhutipa, a Vajrayana master. Though Avadhutipa consented to instruct the still young Atisha, he required that the prince first consult the Black Mountain Yogi. The Black Mountain Yogi tested Atisha in numerous ways. First, he cast a lightening bolt in Atisha's direction as he first approached. He then granted the prince thirteen days of instruction, teaching him the Hevajra lineage and bestowing him with the code name Indestructible Wisdom. Finally, the Black Mountain Yogi insisted that before Atisha continue in his studies that he gain permission from his parents to be formally acquitted of royal responsibility, summoning eight naked yogis and yoginis to escort the prince back to Vikramapura.

Returning to the royal palace, Atisha's parents and subjects believed he had gone mad during his jungle refuge. He explained to his parents, however, that his pursuit of Dharma was for the greater benefit of all sentient beings and that "if [he] had become a king [he] would be with [them] only for this life. In future lives [they] would never meet, and this life, for all its luxury and wealth would have been for nothing" . Essentially, Atisha's motivation in renouncing the wealth and luxury in his life was to repay his parents and fellow beings. In understanding his reasons and remembering the religious signs that accompanied the prince's birth, Atisha's mother willingly gave her consent and approved her son's decision to pursue the Dharma. Atisha's father, on the other hand, was much harder to convince and, like the Shakyamuni Buddha's own father, only conceded after multiple requests.

Driven forth by his parent's approval, Atisha went back to Avadhutipa to continue his studies, learning the Madhyamaka middle way and various tantra practices. At one point, he assumed a slight amount of pride in his accomplishments. Such an assumption was immediately met with a reminder that he knew relatively little through the visit from a dakini in a vision. Consequently, Atisha's unnecessary pride was reduced to humbleness overnight and he continued towards the path of enlightenment.

One day, as Atisha considered practicing his tantra with all the energy he could summon until he achieved his full potential he was confronted by a contending voice. The Black Mountain Yogi appeared to him in a dream, and advised him to take his time through steady practice in order to achieve the enlightenment he was seeking. 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. Therefore, in his twenty-ninth year, Atisha was formally declared a monk under an ordination of the great Shilarakshita, and given the new name of Dipamkara Srijnana, meaning "He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp."

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, as he was circumambulating the great stupa there, had a vision consisting of two materializations of Tara. One asked the other what the most important practice for attaining enlightenment was, and the other duly replied that "the practice of bodhichitta, supported by loving kindness and great compassion is most important." Atisha thenceforth dedicated himself to refining his understanding and practice of bodhichitta. Thus, at the age of thirty-one, the monk arranged for a perilous journey, traveling for thirteen months to Sumatra in order to study under the reputable Suvarnadvipi Dharmakirti, soemtimes called Dharmarakshita and known in Tibetan as Serlingpa (Wylie:Gser-gling-pa), a supposed master of bodhichitta. Under the guidance of Dharmarakshita, Atisha remained on the island of Sumatra for twelve years studying bodhichitta and exclusive mind training techniques of oral origination. Finally, after over a decade of intensive training, Dharmarakshita advised Atisha to "go to the north. In the north is the Land of Snows." Dharmarakshita was referring to Tibet, a region with a Buddhist tradition forever changed after the arrival of Atisha Dipamkara Srijnana.

Studies

According to Tibetan sources, Atisha was ordained into the Mahasamghika lineage at the age of twenty-eight by the Abbot Shilarakshita and studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of his time, including teachings from Vishnu, Shiva, Tantric Hinduism and other beliefs. He also studied the sixty-four kinds of art, the art of music and the art of logic and accomplished these studies until the age of twenty-two. Among the many Buddhist lineages he studied, practiced and transmitted the three main lineages were the Lineage of the Profound Action transmitted by Maitreya/Asanga, Vasubandhu, the Lineage of Profound View transmitted by Manjushri/Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and the Lineage of Profound Experience transmitted by Vajradhara/Tilopa, Naropa. It is said that Atisha had more than 150 teachers.

Preaching in Sumatra and Tibet

Before journeying to Tibet, however, Atisha first returned to India. Once back, the increasingly knowledgeable monk received much attention for his teachings and skills in debate and philosophy. On three separate occasions, the monk Atisha was acclaimed for defeating non-Buddhist extremists in 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 was appointed 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, and in many ways Atisha's influence contributed to these developments. As Dharmarakshita had predicted, however, Buddhism in Tibet was in desperate need of 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 politically unstable rule of King Langdarma had suppressed Tibetan Buddhism's teachings and persecuted its followers for over seventy years. According to the Blue Annals, new king of the Western Tibetan kingdom of Guge by the name of Lha Lama Yeshe Yod, however, was a strict believer in Dharma and so sent his academic followers to learn and translate some of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. Among these academics was Nagtso, who was eventually sent to Vikramasila college to study Sanskrit and plead with Atisha to come teach the Dharma in his homeland.

At first, Atisha declined the offer to come reintroduce the Buddha's teachings in Tibet. He believed that he was getting too old for travel and had much unfinished work at the monastic college. On the evening following his declination, however, he received a vision in which his tutelary guide Tara informed him that his trip to Tibet would be very successful: not only would he greatly honor and assist the Tibetans, but he would also find a dedicated disciple and further contribute to the spread of Dharma. In exchange for these benefits, however, he would only live to seventy-two years.

In truth, Atisha's undertaking in Tibet was never in doubt. Prophecies of the impending departure begin with Dharmarakshita in Sumatra and follow Atisha's story up until 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 was referring, whether he knew it or not, to the numerous assistances provided by Avalokitesvara throughout his trip to Vikramasila. As such, it seems as though Atisha's two-year journey to Tibet is interpreted within the Buddhist tradition as a fulfillment of destiny.

Once he arrived, Atisha grasped very quickly the Tibetan peoples’ enthusiasm for the Dharma, but relative lack of comprehension. At Ngari, he was very impressed with the king's request for "a teaching of the people […] had [Atisha] been asked for advanced empowerments into tantric deity systems […] he would have been far less pleased" . It was during the three years Atisha spent in this town that he compiled his teachings into his most influential scholarly work, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and encountered the disciple forecast by Tara, Dromtonpa.

According to Jamgon Kongtrul, when Atisha discovered the store of Sanskrit texts at Pekar Kordzoling, the library of Samye, "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."

Death

As he grew old, Atisha moved on from Ngari and accepted an invitation from Dromtonpa to explore Central Tibet. In Nyetang, a town near Lhasa, Atisha spent nine years during which he discovered Tibetan libraries with impressive collections written in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. The venerable monk moved around the region for another five years before passing away in 1052 at the prophesied age of seventy-two. He was enshrined near his last permanent home in the town of Nyetang.

After staying for thirteen years in Tibet, Atisha died in 1052 CE 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 28 June 1978 and placed in Dharmarajika Bauddha Vihara.

Legacy

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 school 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.

Writings

Atisha wrote, translated and edited more than two hundred books, which helped spread Buddhism in Tibet. He discovered several Sanskrit manuscripts in Tibet and copied them himself. He translated many 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 are extant now. Seventy-nine of his compositions have been preserved in Tibetan translation in the Tengyur (bstan-sgyur). Following are his most notable books:

  • Bodhi-patha-pradipa or Bodhipathapradīpa (Tib. Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma)
  • Charya-sanggraha-pradipa
  • Satya-dvayavatara
  • Bodhi-sattva-manyavali
  • Madhyamaka-ratna-pradipa
  • Mahayana-patha-sadhana-sanggraha
  • Shiksa-samuchchaya Abhisamya
  • Prajna-paramita-pindartha-pradipa
  • Ekavira-sadhana
  • Vimala-ratna-lekha

Vimalaratnalekha is a Sanskrit letter to Nayapala, king of Magadha. Charyasamgrahapradipa contains some kirtan verses composed by Atisha.

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