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Atisha was a great Indian Buddhist master who revitalized Buddhism in Tibet. Here is some of his story...

Atisha mastered the teachings of both Hinayana and Mahayana and was held in respect by Teachers of both traditions. When non-Buddhists debated with him and were defeated they would convert to Buddhism. Atisha was like a king, the crown ornament of Indian Buddhists, and was regarded as a second Buddha.

Before Atisha’s time the thirty-seventh king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen (AD circa 754-97), had invited Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, and other Buddhist Teachers to Tibet, and through their influence pure Dharma had flourished; but some years later a Tibetan king called Lang Darma (AD circa 836) destroyed the pure Dharma in Tibet and abolished the Sangha. Until that time most of the kings had been religious, but it was a dark age in Tibet during Lang Darma’s evil reign. About seventy years after his death Dharma began to flourish once again in the upper part of Tibet through the efforts of great Teachers such as the translator Rinchen Sangpo, and it also began to flourish in the lower part of Tibet through the efforts of a great Teacher called Gongpa Rabsal. Gradually, Dharma spread to central Tibet.

At that time there was no pure practice of the union of Sutra and Tantra. The two were thought to be contradictory, like fire and water. When people practiced Sutra they abandoned Tantra, and when they practiced Tantra they abandoned Sutra, including even the rules of the Vinaya. False teachers came from India wishing to procure some of Tibet’s plentiful gold. Pretending to be Spiritual Guides and Yogis they introduced perversions such as black magic, creating apparitions, sexual practices, and ritual murder. These malpractices became quite widespread.

A king called Yeshe Ö and his nephew Jangchub Ö, who lived in Ngari in west Tibet, were greatly concerned about what was happening to the Dharma in their country. The king wept when he thought of the purity of Dharma in former times compared with the impure Dharma now being practiced. He was grieved to see how hardened and uncontrolled the minds of the people had become. He thought ‘How wonderful it would be if pure Dharma were to flourish once again in Tibet to tame the minds of our people.’ To fulfill this wish he sent Tibetans to India to learn Sanskrit and train in Dharma, but many of these people were unable to endure the hot climate. The few who survived learnt Sanskrit and trained very well in Dharma. Amongst them was the translator Rinchen Sangpo, who received many instructions and then returned to Tibet.

Since this plan had not met with much success Yeshe Ö decided to invite an authentic Teacher from India. He sent a group of Tibetans to India with a large quantity of gold, and gave them the task of seeking out the most qualified Spiritual Guide in India. He advised them all to study Dharma and gain perfect knowledge of Sanskrit. These Tibetans suffered all the hardships of climate and travel in order to accomplish his wishes. Some of them became famous translators. They translated many scriptures and sent them to the king, to his great delight.

When these Tibetans returned to Tibet they informed Yeshe Ö, ‘In India there are many very learned Buddhist Teachers, but the most distinguished and sublime of all is Dhipamkara Shrijnana. We would like to invite him to Tibet, but he has thousands of disciples in India. When Yeshe Ö heard the name ‘Dhipamkara Shrijnana’ he was pleased, and became determined to invite this Master to Tibet. Since he had already used most of his gold and more was now needed to invite Dhipamkara Shrijnana to Tibet, the king set off on an expedition to search for more gold. When he arrived at one of the borders a hostile non-Buddhist king captured him and threw him into prison. When the news reached Jangchub Ö he considered ‘I am powerful enough to wage war on this king, but if I do so many people will suffer and I shall have to commit many harmful, destructive actions.’ He decided to make an appeal for his uncle’s release, but the king responded by saying ‘I shall release your uncle only if you either become my subject or bring me a quantity of gold as heavy as your uncle’s body. With great difficulty Jangchub Ö managed to gather gold equal in weight to his uncle’s body, less the weight of his head. Since the king demanded the extra amount, Jangchub Ö prepared to go in search of more gold, but before he set out he visited his uncle. He found Yeshe Ö physically weak but in a good state of mind. Jangchub Ö spoke through the bars of the prison, ‘Soon I shall be able to release you for I have managed to collect almost all the gold. Yeshe Ö replied ‘Please do not treat me as if I were important. You must not give the gold to this hostile king. Send it all to India and offer it to Dhipamkara Shrijnana. This is my greatest wish. I shall give my life joyfully for the sake of restoring pure Dharma in Tibet. Please deliver this message to Dhipamkara Shrijnana. Let him know that I have given my life to invite him to Tibet. Since he has compassion for the Tibetan people, when he receives this message he will accept our invitation.

Jangchub Ö sent the translator Nagtso together with some companions to India with the gold. When they met Dhipamkara Shrijnana they told him what was happening in Tibet and how the people wanted to invite a Spiritual Guide from India. They told him how much gold the king had sent as an offering and how many Tibetans had died for the sake of restoring pure Dharma. They told him how Yeshe Ö had sacrificed his life to bring him to Tibet. When they had made their request Dhipamkara Shrijnana considered what they had said and accepted their invitation. Although he had many disciples in India and was working very hard there for the sake of Dharma, he knew that there was no pure Dharma in Tibet. He had also received a prediction from Arya Tara that if he were to go to Tibet he would benefit countless living beings. Compassion arose in his heart when he thought how many Tibetans had died in India, and he was especially moved by the sacrifice of Yeshe Ö.

Dhipamkara Shrijnana had to make his way to Tibet in secret, for had his Indian disciples known that he was leaving India they would have prevented him. He said that he was making a pilgrimage to Nepal, but from Nepal he passed into Tibet. When his Indian disciples eventually realized that he was not going to return they protested that the Tibetans were thieves who had stolen their Spiritual Guide!

Since it was customary in those days, as it is today, to greet an honored guest in style, Jangchub Ö sent an entourage of three hundred horsemen with many eminent Tibetans to the border to welcome Atisha and offer him a horse to ease the difficult journey to Ngari. Atisha rode at the center of the three hundred horsemen, and by means of his miracle powers he sat one cubit above his horse’s back. When they saw him, those who previously had no respect for him developed very strong faith, and everyone said that the second Buddha had arrived in Tibet.

When Atisha reached Ngari, Jangchub Ö requested him: ‘O Compassionate Atisha, please give instructions to help the Tibetan people. Please give advice that everyone can follow. Please give us special instructions so that we can practice all the paths of Sutra and Tantra together.’ To fulfill this wish Atisha composed and taught Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. He gave these instructions first in Ngari and then in central Tibet. Many disciples who heard these teachings developed great wisdom.

While he had been in India Atisha had received a prediction from Arya Tara, ‘When you go to Tibet, a layman will come to receive instructions from you, and this disciple will cause Dharma to flourish far and wide. This prediction referred to Atisha’s foremost disciple, Dromtonpa. At first Atisha taught Lamrim mainly to Dromtonpa, and to other disciples he gave instructions on Secret Mantra. When Dromtonpa asked him ‘Why do you give Lamrim mainly to me and not to others?’ Atisha replied that he was especially worthy to receive Lamrim teachings. After Atisha’s death Dromtonpa was regarded as his representative and respected as his equal. Dromtonpa taught Lamrim extensively in Tibet.

(from ‘Joyful Path of Good Fortune’, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) © Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the New Kadampa Tradition 1990, 1996, 2001