Atisha Dīpaṃkara

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Atisha Dīpaṃkara b.982? - d.1054

Name Variants: atisa; atisa dipamkarasrijnana

Atisha Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna was said to have been born the second son of a royal house in eastern India, given the name Candragarbha at birth. His father was Kalyana the Good and his mother Prabhavati the Radiant. After experiencing a vision of Tārā at the age of eleven, on the eve of his marriage, he entered a religious path, initially practicing Hevajra in the company of tantrikas.

Atisha was said to have studied with a number of the Indian Mahāsiddhas, including Jetari, Kāṇha, Avadhūtīpa, Ḍombipa, and Nāropa, and it is reported that he received the bodhisattva vow at Nālandā from Bodhibhadra. He later dreamed that the Buddha himself urged him to ordain, and, at the age of twenty-nine, he did so, in a monastery in Bodh Gaya. According to Tibetan hagiographies, for two years Atisha studied at Odantipuri with Dharmarakṣita, the author of an important Lojong (blo sbyong) manual, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons (theg pa chen po'i blo sbyong mtshon cha 'khor lo). Historians have called this into question, however.

He voyaged to Sumatra where he trained in bodhicitta with the monk Guru Suvarṇadvīpa, residing on the island for twelve years. Returning to India at age forty-five, he sequestered himself at the great monastery-university Vikramaśila.

The story of the Purang (pu hrangs) kings' invitation to Atisha is one of the great Buddhist legends of Tibet. According to the story, towards the end of the tenth century, the king of Purang, Lha Lama Yeshe O (lha bla ma ye shes 'od, d.u.), a descendent of the Yarlung kings whose dynasty ended with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in 842, was dismayed at the state of Buddhism in Tibet. Monasteries had closed, and tantric practices that had previously been tightly controlled by the state-sponsored religious institutions were proliferating among the Tibetan laity and merging with native practices.

Yeshe O sent twenty-one young Tibetans to Kashmir with the aim of reviving the religion in his kingdom; only two survived to return to Tibet, one of whom was the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (rin chen bzang po, 958-1055), who established many important monasteries in Wester Tibet and what is now Ladakh. It is reasonable to consider that with their sponsorship of Buddhism the Purang leaders hoped to model their kingdom on the great Empire of their ancestors. Jangchub O (byang chub 'od), Yeshe O's nephew and successor, even contemplated a restoration of Samye, the center of Tibetan Imperial religious display.

Returning to Purang, Rinchen Zangpo told the kings about Atisha, whose fame was then known across the Buddhist world. In the 1030s Jangchub O sent a first mission of nine men to India headed by Gya Lotsāwa Tsondru Sengge (rgya lo tsA ba brtson 'grus seng ge, d.u.), with a sizable offering of gold. Gya Lotsāwa's eight companions did not survive the journey, and, unable to bring Atisha, Gya Lotsāwa's stayed on in India. 

According to legend, while collecting more gold to hire Atisha's services, Yeshe O was kidnapped by an ardently anti-Buddhist Qarlug Mongol ruler. The Mongolian demanded a ransom of all the wealth intended to be offered to Atisha, but Yeshe O told Jangchub O to leave him to his fate, that it was far more important that Atisha be brought to Tibet.

The next mission to India was headed by the Tibetan monk Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa (nag 'tsho tshul khrims rgyal ba, 1011-1064), who left in 1037, accompanied by several companions. The leadership of Vikramaśila is said to have refused to allow the Tibetans to take Atisha away, and the hagiographies make much of the subterfuge employed to prevent the success of their mission. Nevertheless, Atisha, said to have been urged by Tārā herself to accept the Tibetan invitation, and engaged in some deception of his own in order to obtain permission from his abbot: he told his abbot that he was going to show the Tibetans the pilgrimage sites of India. The abbot, Ratnakara, saw through the deception, but permitted Atisha to leave on the condition that he return in three years.

In 1040 Atisha and Naktso set out for Tibet, accompanied by Gya Lotsāwa, who had aided them at Vikramaśila, serving as translator. Gya Lotsāwa did not survive the journey, passing away en route to Nepal. There, according to some, Atisha met Marpa, whom he asked to become his translator. Marpa declined. After two years of travel they reached Tolung (stod lung), the capital of the Purang Kingdom.

Atisha resided in Tolung for three years, giving teachings that gave birth to his masterpiece, the Bodhipathapradīpa, or Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. The short text, in sixty-seven verses, lays out the entire Buddhist path in terms of the three vehicles: Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna, and became the model for subsequent texts in the genre of Lamrim (lam rim), the Stages of the Path. There he also met the man who would become his closest disciple, Dromton Gyelwa Jungne ('brom ston rgyal ba 'byung gnas).

Having grown close to Naktso, Atisha next traveled to Naktso's homeland, Mangyul, where he stayed for a year, prevented from returning to India by a war in the region. Atisha is said to have sent a letter to his abbot requesting permission to stay in Tibet for the rest of his life.

The two next traveled to U and Tsang, where Atisha received invitations to visit temples and give teachings. They arrived in Tsang in 1046, and Samye in 1047. Although it is commonly said that Atisha revived the monastic ordination in Tibet, in reality he was not involved in any ordinations. The Vinaya in Tibet had survived the so-called Dark Period that followed the collapse of the Empire, preserved by the so-called Eastern Vinaya monks, who fled to Amdo and maintained the tradition. The Eastern Vinaya tradition had already brought the Vinaya back to Tibet by the time Atisha arrived, and, because Atisha's ordination was Lokottaravāda rather than the Mūlasarvāstivāda ordination that Tibetans had followed ever since the days of the Empire, he was not involved in any ordinations. There is evidence that many Tibetan communities of monks opposed Atisha's presence, and that he was largely forbidden from teaching in the manner to which he was accustomed. In addition to Samye, he visited were Samye and Tangpoche (thang po che), founded by Khuton Tsondru Yungdrung (khu ston brtson 'grus g.yung drung, 1011-1075), the disciple of the Eastern Vinaya monk Lume (klus mes).

Atisha spent five years at Nyetang, in the southern Kyichu valley south of Lhasa. A temple was built there a year after Atisha's death, where his body was embalmed. The next year, in 1056, Dromton established Reting Monastery (rwa sgreng), initiating the Kadam tradition.




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Alexander Gardner
December 2009