This distinctive portrait of Atiśa originated from a Kadam monastery in Tibet and was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1933 by The Kronos Collections. In this graphic depiction, Atiśa holds a long, thin palm-leaf manuscript with his left hand, which probably symbolizes one of the many important texts he wrote, and he makes the gesture of teaching with his right hand.
Bikrampur, Bengal, Pala Empire
(now in Bangladesh)
(now in China)
|Known for||One of the major figures in the establishment of the Sarma lineages in Tibet.|
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Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna was a Buddhist teacher from the Pala Empire of Bengal. He was one of the major figures in the spread of 11th-century Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Asia and inspired Buddhist thought from Tibet to Sumatra. Revered as one of the great figures of classical Buddhism, Atisa was a key figure in the establishment of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
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The city of Bikrampur, the most probable place for Atiśa'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 Gautama Buddha, Atiśa 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 toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer) 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, Atiśa went by the name of Candragarbha during the first part of his life. In fact, it was not until he traveled to Guge and encountered King Jangchup Ö (Wylie: byang chub 'od, 984–1078) that he was given the name Atiśa.
For the first eighteen months of his life, Atiśa 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 Atiśa's potential as an extraordinary religious and spiritual leader initially emerged. People from all over the region gathered to witness his appearance. When Atiśa 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." Atiśa 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 Atiśa'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 Atiśa 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 favourable experience as a venerated prince and enlightened personality as a compassionate individual. Moreover, Atiśa'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 Atiśa'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, Atiśa'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.
Atiśa'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, Atiśa experienced a momentous encounter with the Bodhisattva Tārā, who would continue with him as a guiding spirit until the end of his life. Tārā 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, Tārā continued, then "as an elephant sinks deeply into the swamp, [he], a hero, [would] sink in the mire of lust." Essentially, Tārā's manifestation is symbolic for the prince's meaningful realisation 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, Atiśa 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 Atiśa made the acquaintance of the brahmin Jetari, a Buddhist recluse and renowned teacher. Jetari taught the young man two things: taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and bodhicitta, the mind-oriented aspiration towards enlightenment with the intent of benefiting all sentient beings. Upon educating the young Atiśa in the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, Jetari advised that he go to Nalanda, a Buddhist center for learning in northeastern India. In Nalanda, Atiśa received once again brief instruction regarding the Bodhisattva vows under the spiritual guide Buddhabhadra, who in turn advised him to seek out a teacher renowned for his perfect meditation of perceiving emptiness, Vidyākaukila.
Atiśa's acquisition of the wisdom to perceive emptiness is particularly significant. It is during this stage of study that Atiśa 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 Atiśa comes across a woman alternately crying and laughing. Confused with her behaviour, he inquires about her condition, and she responds: "[O]ne's own mind has been a Buddha from beginning less 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, Atiśa's realisation 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, Atiśa was advised to go study with Avadhutipa, a Vajrayana master. Though Avadhutipa consented to instruct the still young Atiśa, he required that the prince first consult the Black Mountain Yogi. The Black Mountain Yogi tested Atiśa in numerous ways. First, he cast a lightning bolt in Atiśa'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 Atiśa continue in his studies, 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, Atiśa'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, Atiśa'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, Atiśa's mother willingly gave her consent and approved her son's decision to pursue the Dharma. Atiśa'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, Atiśa 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, Atiśa's unnecessary pride was reduced to humbleness overnight and he continued towards the path of enlightenment.
One day, as Atiśa considered practising 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 endeavour to become a "spiritual seeker who has renounced family life", a monk. Therefore, in his twenty-ninth year, Atiśa was formally declared a monk under an ordination of the great Śīlarakṣita, and given the new name of Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna, meaning "He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp." One of his teachers was Dharmarakṣita, who is remembered as the reputed author of the Wheel of Sharp Weapons.
Even as a monk, Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna 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 materialisations of Tārā. 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." Atiśa 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 Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti, (Tibetan: Serlingpa Chökyi Drakpa; Wylie: Gser-gling-pa chos kyi grags pa), a supposed master of bodhichitta. Under the guidance of Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti, Atiśa 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, Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti advised Atiśa to "go to the north. In the north is the Land of Snows." Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti was referring to Tibet, a region with a Buddhist tradition forever changed after the arrival of Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna. From his Master, Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti, Atiśa learnt one meditation that became one of Tibetans fundamental meditation techniques, i.e., tongleng, a meditation that transforms negative energy into loving and healing energy.
According to Tibetan sources, Atiśa was ordained into the Mahāsāṃghika lineage at the age of twenty-eight by the Abbot Śīlarakṣita and studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of his time, including teachings from Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Tantric Hinduism and other practices. 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 Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, the Lineage of Profound View transmitted by Nagarjuna and Candrakīrti, and the Lineage of Profound Experience transmitted by Tilopa and Naropa. It is said that Atiśa had more than 150 teachers, but one prominent teacher above all else was Dharmakīrti from Sumatra, Indonesia.
Preaching in Sumatra and Tibet
Before journeying to Tibet, however, Atiśa 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 Atiśa 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 Vikramaśīla University, established by Emperor Dharmapala.
Atiśa'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 Atiśa's influence contributed to these developments. As Dharmarakṣita 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, a new king of Guge by the name of Ye shes Od sent his academic followers to learn and translate some of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. Among these academics was Nagtso, who was eventually sent to Vikramaśīla to study Sanskrit and plead with Atiśa to come teach the Dharma in his homeland.
At first, Atiśa 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 Tārā informed him that his trip to Tibet would be very successful: not only would he greatly honour 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, Atiśa's undertaking in Tibet was never in doubt. Prophecies of the impending departure begin with Dharmarakṣita in Sumatra and follow Atiśa's story up until his vision of Tārā. During his travels across the perilous Himalayas, the Tibetan scholar Nagtso "vaguely realised that […] miraculous manifestations assisted me in an uninterrupted flow." Nagtso was referring, whether he knew it or not, to the numerous assistances provided by Avalokiteśvara throughout his trip to Vikramasila. As such, it seems as though Atiśa's two-year journey to Tibet is interpreted within the Buddhist tradition as a fulfilment of destiny.
Once he arrived, Atiśa 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 [Atiśa] been asked for advanced empowerments into tantric deity systems […] he would have been far less pleased" . It was during the three years Atiśa 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 Tārā, Dromtön. It was this disciple who furthered Atiśa's work after he died.
According to Jamgon Kongtrul, when Atiśa 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."
Following are his most notable books:
- Bodhi-patha-pradipa or Bodhipathapradīpa (Tib. Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma)
- Shiksa-samuchchaya Abhisamya
- "Portrait of Atiśa [Tibet (a Kadampa monastery)] (1993.479)". Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. October 2006. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
- Maha-Bodhi Society, The Maha Bodhi, Volume 90, p. 238.
- Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen, Snow Lion Publications, pages 154-186
- Blue Annals, Chandra, Lokesh (Ed. & Translator)(1974), International Academy of Indian Culture, New Delhi. This edition is a reproduction from block prints kept at Dbus gtsang Kun bde gling Monastery, Lhasa. The colophon (Chandra 970; Chengdu 1271; Roerich 1093) was composed by Rta tshag 8 Ye shes blo bzang bstan pa’i mgon po (1760-1810).
- Ringu Tulku & Ann Helm, The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet, pg. 74, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2006
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Atisha.|
- Advice from Atiśa's Heart
- Banglapedia Article on Atiśa Dipamkara
- Tibetan Biography of Atiśa
- English Translation of Lamp to the Path of Enlightenment (by Dr. Alexander Berzin)
- Atiśa Dipankar Srijnan: Eye of Asia by Deba Priya Barua
- Atiśa's work in India and Tibet
- Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen, Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury, Snow Lion Publications
- Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Atiśa's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Snow Lion Publications
- Dilgo Khyentse, Enlightened Courage, Snow Lion 1993. ISBN 1-55939-023-9
- Ringu Tulku, The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet, ISBN 1-59030-286-9, Shambhala Publications