Atisha

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Atisha


One who neglects the branches of tranquillity (shamatha),
Even though he struggles mightily to meditate
For millennium upon millennium,
Never will attain concentration
(samadhi).

When the tranquillity of yogins is attained,
So too are the transcendental faculties
(abhijna).
Nonetheless obscuration is not destroyed
Without the perfection of insight
(prajnaparamita).

Sacred texts teach that bondage arises when
Insight
(prajna) is severed from means (upaya),
And means is cut off from insight as well.
Therefore, never neglect this union.

Bodhipathapradipa ATISHA

Repachan, the grandson of Trhisong Detsen, was the last Buddhist king of Tibet. His devotion to Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha is alluded to under his informal name, which refers to the matted locks (re-pa) of ascetics. Like Ashoka a thousand years before him, Repachan developed a foreign policy centered upon peace. Having defeated the Chinese in a lengthy battle, he drew up a permanent peace treaty which invoked as protectors the Three Jewels, the host of arhats, the sun, moon, planets and stars. Earlier, peace had been made with the great caliphate to the west, and both treaties held firm until the fall of the monarchy. At the same time, Repachan inaugurated a revision of the Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts. Since the original translators had devised a technical Tibetan vocabulary to accommodate the subtleties of Sanskrit, even literate Tibetans could read the sutras only with great difficulty. Repachan commissioned translations which were both accurate and in ordinary language, and it is said that he was responsible for half the texts in the Kangyur and Tengyur, the vast Buddhist canon in Tibet.

Though Buddhadharma spread across Tibet during the reign of Repachan, and though he was sufficiently popular and powerful to keep opposition out of his councils, the aristocracy saw its independence threatened. Those who were not followers of Buddha by conviction joined forces with the Bon priesthood, and eventually they found in the king's younger brother someone whom they could use for their own ends. Sometime around A.D. 840 Repachan, already considered by many to be the incarnation of Vajrapani, was assassinated. His queen, whose honour was mercilessly slandered, committed suicide, and his son, already a monk, was banished. Then the throne was taken by Lang Darma, who was sympathetic to Bon.

Though allied with an aristocracy which saw in the rise of monks and monasteries the diminution of its own wealth and power, Lang Darma seems to have been a passive supporter of the anti-Buddhist movement during the first years of his rule. Buddhist nobles and monks could not exonerate him from the persecution they experienced, and after a few years they managed to depose him. Returning to the throne a year later, Lang Darma launched a violent retaliatory offensive. Monks were dispersed, translators killed or banished, shrines attacked and the Buddhist aristocracy routed. Though he ruled for only a year after the persecution began, he managed to destroy the structure of the Tibetan Sangha. Ironically, the disruptions caused by this forceful reassertion of Bon produced exactly those results which the Bon priests had prophesied if Buddhadharma were allowed in Tibet. When Lang Darma died, the monarchy collapsed along with Tibetan unity. Descendants of the royal line and petty chieftains seized territories for themselves, imperial territories revolted, and China looked again to the possibility of conquering Tibet. Only those rulers who migrated to Western Tibet near Mount Kailas remained faithful to the Teachings of Buddha. But until King Khorre of Ngari abdicated in favour of his brother and took the monk's robe as Lha Lama Yeshe , the Buddhist tradition in Tibet would not experience its first great renaissance. When Yeshe sought to purify and renew the Good Law in Tibet, he discovered that Atisha alone possessed the training, dedication and energy to undertake the enormous task of reform and dissemination.

Atisha was born in 982 to King Kalyanashri and Queen Shriprabha of Zahor in Bengal. Tibetan authorities hold that he was born in Vikramapura to the royal lineage which had produced Shantarakshita two centuries earlier. The middle of three sons, he was called Chandragarbha and enjoyed the duties and privileges of royalty. He received an education suitable to a prince, married five wives while still young and fathered nine children. One day he went hunting in a local forest and happened upon the ascetic Jetari. When he showed him homage, the ascetic surprised him by rebuking him for his pride. Rather than take offence, Atisha declared that he wished to renounce the world and become a disciple of Jetari. The ascetic recognized Atisha's potential but, instead of accepting him as a disciple, instructed him to go to Nalanda. By the tenth century the tantric tradition had so infused Indian Buddhist institutions that the preceptor who welcomed Atisha to Nalanda soon sent him to the Black Mountain for tantric initiation under Rahulagupta. Although the early portion of his life as a Buddhist is not well chronicled, it is evident that he rapidly became an enthusiastic initiate whose knowledge served him well in his later work. His skill in tantra did not weaken his mental agility, and after a few years he sought the metaphysical and spiritual knowledge without which such practices and rituals tended towards meaningless excesses and psychic delusion.

According to Tibetan historians, Atisha was associated with the four great monastic centres of his day. Having mastered the tantras at Uddiyana and finding them lacking, he became a novice at Nalanda and was eventually ordained under the name Dipamkara at Odantapuri or Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya). Though he learnt both Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, mastered the Tripitaka and the sutras and studied under the best teachers of his time, he was dissatisfied with what he found. Some scriptures had already been lost, the tradition of study was waning and few individuals cared for anything but tantric practice. Indian Buddhist tradition had strayed so far from the pure Mahayana teachings that the few disciples who wanted them had to go elsewhere for instruction. Like them Atisha turned to the Far East. At that time, the greatest Buddhist scholar was Dharmakirti, the namesake of the illustrious Indian logician, who resided in Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra). Many of the eminent Buddhist teachers of Atisha's time had studied under him, and Chinese monks travelling to India were advised to stay with him for two years, since they would learn Sanskrit more thoroughly there than they could hope to do in Buddhist India.

Atisha set out on the difficult journey to Suvarnadvipa, and it took him almost a year to arrive there. He was delighted to find that Dharmakirti was a brilliant exponent of the Mahayana, firmly rooted in the tradition of Nagarjuna, Maitreya and Chandrakirti. During the twelve years he remained with Dharmakirti, Atisha mastered the abstruse and arcane doctrines of the Mahayana and cultivated a mature insight into the pure forms of practice and the Bodhisattva Path. Though he never rejected tantra, he discerned numerous ways in which its expressions had obscured Buddhadharma, and he longed for a radical reform that looked improbable in India. He knew that Muslim incursions into his homeland, the decline of the monastic communities and the growing disinclination to meditate upon the sutras meant that the path of Buddha was disappearing in India. Nonetheless, despite the natural enticement to remain in the golden glow of Sumatra, he took leave of his beloved guru and returned to work in the monasteries as Dipamkara Shrijnana, renowned teacher and scholar.

Atisha was over forty years of age when he returned to India. Though he was entitled to retire with a few of his best disciples to a quiet life of teaching, he launched a programme of monastic renewal. King Nayapala of Magadha invited Atisha to become high priest of Vikramashila and he spent most of his time there. He wrote a philosophical treatise at Nalanda and assisted in administrative functions at Odantapuri and Somapuri. During the fifteen years he devoted to these activities, he became known as the greatest Indian monk and scholar of his time. The remarkable combination of dialectical and administrative skills with a synthesis of sutra and tantra gave him an authority far beyond that of the offices he held. He collected texts threatened with destruction, wrote commentaries, trained monks, established criteria for tantric practices and even expelled dubious monks and unregenerate tantrists. These activities brought Atisha to the attention of the devout King Yeshe .

Although Yeshe had abdicated in favour of his brother and had entered the Sangha, he remained the real ruler of Western Tibet. Convinced that the pot-pourri of Buddhist practices around him were impure and debased, he sent twenty-one carefully selected young men to India to learn the pure doctrines. Yeshe did not know that Vajrayana had almost totally eclipsed Mahayana, and he was surprised when the two sole survivors of the mission returned with new tantric practices. Nonetheless, seeing that the new tantra was superior to the old forms, he supported the tremendous reorganization launched by Rinchen Sangpo, one of the two survivors. After a number of years, however, Yeshe decided to seek out an Indian teacher who could promulgate the purest doctrines. When he decided to invite Atisha to Tibet, the great scholar was around sixty years old, and Yeshe sought to amass a great quantity of gold with which to persuade Atisha to undertake the arduous journey into the Land of Snows. During one of Yeshe's sojourns near Lake Manasasarova, he was captured by some dynastic enemies and held for ransom. When his nephew offered to make the gold already collected available for this purpose, Yeshe refused and begged him to take the gold to Atisha instead. Atisha eventually heard of Yeshe's self-sacrifice, and he was so deeply moved that he renounced his natural reluctance to undertake a dangerous mission to Tibet. He agreed to go there for three years.

Atisha delayed his journey long enough to secure peace in the conflict between his friend King Nayapala and the Hindu King Karma. Both were permanently reconciled and became friends of Atisha. He dispersed the gold he was given among the monasteries and made arrangements for their good management. Then, after a visit to Bodh Gaya, he set off for Tibet sometime around 1040. He spent about a year in Nepal and gradually made his way northwest from Katmandu, past Annapurna and Dhaulagiri to Jumla. From there he made his way to the Karnali River and along it to Khocharnath and Taklakhar; then he turned north to Manasasarova and followed the Sutlej River to Toling ('high flying') Monastery. Despite the enormous hardships of the journey, Atisha remained cheerful and even optimistic, as if he felt himself entering upon his real work in life. It is said that Atisha so enjoyed his first cup of Tibetan tea that he declared, "So excellent a beverage must have originated from the moral merits of the monks of Tibet." Tibetans still possess a poem he is alleged to have written in praise of tea.

Atisha was received with a joy and warmth that surprised him. Though he found the rituals and practices of the western Tibetans degenerate, he discovered an unusual willingness to learn and an openness to reform which had been sadly absent in his homeland. Only Rinchen Sangpo, who had brought the new tantra to Tibet and was now eighty-five years old, was a little annoyed at Atisha's devaluation of tantra. Atisha visited him at his own residence at Toling and spontaneously composed an exquisite verse for each of the deities represented in the shrine, and he taught Rinchen Sangpo the magic mirror of Vajrayana, in which all the tantras can be mystically synthesized in a single meditative practice. Rinchen Sangpo recognized that Atisha's proposed reforms were not based on any prejudice against tantra, but rather represented a diamond-like penetration of its true essence in the light of the best teachings. At once he became Atisha's devoted disciple and, despite his great age and seniority, threw himself into Atisha's projects of translation and instruction in the Mahayana.

Amidst the hectic activity inaugurated at Toling and around Mount Kailas, Atisha found time to compose his seminal Bodhipathapradipa (Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment), consisting of a quintessential presentation of the path to Enlightenment in sixty-eight eloquent verses and a detailed auto-commentary filled with statements from Mahayana sutras and great Teachers. By weaving monastic practice and the Bodhisattva ideal into a seamless garment dyed with the pure colours of the exalted mystical Vajrayana, Atisha created the model for Tibetan spiritual literature. These lam-rim instructions or aids in the gradual steps on the Bodhisattva Path became the foundations of the Kadampa Order, which was organized by Atisha's chief Tibetan disciple and of which Atisha was the founder. When Tsong-Kha-Pa initiated his great reform, he based the 'new Kadampa' or Gelukpa Order on his own vast lam-rim teaching which repeatedly invoked Atisha's message. Kadampa means 'instructed by the word' rather than by ritual and stresses the need for understanding and mental and moral purity in the unfoldment of spiritual potentials and powers in human beings.

Atisha began the Lamp with obeisance to the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. In the dedicatory verse of his commentary, he paid homage to Tara (Kwan-Yin) and Manjushri, Chakrasamvara (a tantric deity) and Lokeshvara (who is Avalokiteshvara and Shiva), and to the gurus Maitreya, Asanga and Dharmakirti of Suvarnadvipa, as well as Manjughosha, Shantideva and Bodhibhadra. "The instruction I give here", Atisha wrote, "came like drops of honey and nectar to me from the holy gurus Dharmakirti and Bodhibhadra.... I am going to gather up those drops of individual guidance I received and follow what my gurus gave me and what the sutras and texts teach." Atisha divided all human beings into three distinct types. The inferior individual "seeks but the pleasure of Samsara" and is therefore wholly egotistical. The mediocre individual renounces wrongdoing and is indifferent to pleasure, but is concerned with his own peace of mind. The superior individual "seeks a complete end to the entire suffering of others because their suffering belongs to his own samtana, stream of consciousness". Since only the latter type possesses the purity of consciousness required to sustain an authentic aspiration for highest Enlightenment, Atisha addressed his instructions to superior individuals.

One makes aspiration practical through worship, which begins with images to which offerings can be made but soon passes into meditation. The first phase of meditative adoration is sevenfold, including homage, offering pleasing objects, admission of faults and wrongdoing, rejoicing in the virtues, desiring the Doctrine, seeking the blessing of Buddha, and offering whatever merit one has attained to others. The second phase of meditation "is contemplation with prajnaparamita, perfection of insight: there is no object of worship, no worshipper, no substances for worship". Atisha repeated Buddha's words in the Prajnaparamita Sutra:

Whoever sees me as form or knows me as a voice, that person sees me falsely. He does not see me. The Buddhas are the Dharmakaya, the vesture of Truth, and those who are guided have studied that Truth. Yet its true nature is not to be seen, and no one can be conscious of it as an object.

When one nurtures a mind that does not turn back, the heart of Enlightenment is reached, for that heart is the essence of Truth. According to the Gaganaganja Sutra, "The Heart of Enlightenment is Space; Enlightenment has the characteristic of Space." If one has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, one is prepared to engender the thought of love.

Because the thought of love
For all creatures is essential,
One looks upon the whole world,
Suffering in death, in transmigration,
And in rebirth in the triple evil destiny.

Beholding that suffering, one suffers,
And whosoever, to liberate the world
From the very cause of its sufferings,
Must beget the thought of Enlightemnent
That is pledged never to turn back.

This pledge can be realized only if one follows the inner disciplines of the monk, which include self-restraint, self-forgetfulness and service. But such discipline is possible only if one is willing to take vows which embody the possibility of progress towards perfection. When that is done, one is prepared for the Bodhisattva Vow.

One takes the Vow from a good guru
Who has the requisite characteristics.

One who knows the rites of the Vow,
And lives the Vow he has taken,
And in compassionate forbearance
Will impart it – he is the good guru.

If one is truly ready to take the Bodhisattva Vow, even if one cannot find a proper guru, one can take the vow in one's heart, where the inner guru is always available to hear and to instruct the disciple. When one meditates upon the Bodhisattva Vow and the vast array of correlates it entails, one will nurture and perfect sambhara, virtue and knowledge, the equipment needed to attain Enlightenment.

When one is strong in self-mastery, one-pointedness of consciousness and unconditional love, one can safely use the six abhijnas or transcendent faculties to speed one's way towards Enlightenment. Divine sight, divine hearing, awareness of others' thoughts, remembrance of one's previous lives, supernormal powers, and overcoming all obscurations are valuable to the yogin who is faithful to the Bodhisattva Vow, but they are a menace to all others. Shamatha, calmness, must be cultivated, and it will allow one to develop all transcendent faculties save the last: to overcome obscurations, one must nurture prajnaparamita, the perfection of insight. Thus prajnaparamita must be fused with upaya, skilful means, which include dana, shila, kshanti, viraga, virya and dhyana. Prajna, insight, is distinct because it recognizes shunyata, the voidness of all things.

Not to perceive some intrinsic nature
In any phenomena whatever
Is to contemplate its anatman.
The same is contemplation with prajna.

The world of change springs
From conceptual thought, its very nature;
The uttermost removal of such
Thought is the supreme nirvana.

Only when one's feet are firmly set on the Path and one is well advanced in the union of virtue and knowledge, means and insight, can one practise the Mantrayana and Vajrayana. For that, however, one must be initiated by a guru who knows the initiations, and he will bestow his blessing and guidance only on one whose mental and moral nature is purified to the degree of "falling snow".

Towards the end of his third year in Tibet, Atisha made plans to return to India. But a brief war on the Nepalese frontier prevented him from crossing over the border, and Atisha read the karmic indication that he should accept invitations he had received to visit other areas of Tibet. He journeyed to Lhasa and was pleased to find some followers of Buddha there. When he visited Samye Monastery, founded by Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, he was delighted to find a few monks in residence, but he was amazed to discover Sanskrit sutras and Tibetan translations of texts which had been lost in India. Atisha realized that Tibet would continue to revere what it had received from Mother India long after the subcontinent had let these treasures perish. Altogether he spent eighteen years in Tibet, carrying his reforms across the entire land. He died near Lhasa when he was well into his seventies, and the place of his death remains to this day a centre of pilgrimage. Atisha, whom the Tibetans also called Joborje, the Noble Lord, renowned in India, became the most illustrious of Indian teachers in Tibet. He is praised even as he taught others to invoke Buddha:

O Omniscient One, epitome of wisdom,
Purifier of the Wheel of Life,
I have no refuge in any Lord,
Except at your lotus feet.
O Hero of creatures! May the Mahaguru
Bestow his kindness upon me.
May that Holy One grant to me
The supreme thought of Enlightenment.