Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana (Bangla: অতীশ দীপঙ্কর শ্রীজ্ঞান) (982 - 1052 C.E.), a Buddhist teacher from the Pala Empire who, along with Konchog Gyalpo and Marpa, became one of the major figures in the establishment of the Sarma lineages in Tibet after the repression of Buddhism by King Langdarma (Glang Darma).
Atisha, a Buddhist monk credited with reforming Tibetan Buddhism, had a life similar to Shakyamuni Buddha, although he lived nearly fifteen centuries after Buddha. Born into a royal family in the city of Vikramapura, Southeast Bengal, Atisha's parents groomed him to inherit the position of emperor from his father. Vikramapura had been one of the early centers of Buddhism, serving as the center for Buddhist culture.
Although Atisha had a lengthy career as a teacher at the Buddhist college, Vikramasila, his life purpose led him to Tibet. After making a dangerous two year journey over the Himalaya mountains to Tibet at an elderly age, Atisha spent the remaining years of his life reviving Tibetan Buddhism. He lived until seventy-two years old, having devoted fifteen years to his work in Tibet, dying in 1052 C.E.
Atisha, born in 980 C.E. in Vajrayogini village, in Bikrampur, the northeastern region of Bengal (located in modern day Bangladesh), lived to the age of seventy-two. 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 born into royalty, his royal status possibly stemming from one of those two contemporaneous contending powers.
The city of Vikramapura, Atisha birth place, served as the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Bengal, present day Munshiganj District of Bangladesh. An early center of Buddhist cultural, academic, and political life, Vikramapura still celebrates its heritage today. Similar to Shakyamuni Buddha, Atisha had been born into royalty; the palace of his childhood 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 presided as the king of Bengal known as Kalyana Shri, and his mother named Shri Prabhavati. One of three royal brothers, Atisha went by the name of Chandragarbha during the first part of his life. When he traveled to Tibet and encountered the king Jangchub Ö (Byang Chub Od), he received the name of Atisha, a Tibetan reference to peace.
Traditional accounts often describe the prince’s birth as an auspicious or promising episode. For example, Atisha had been 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.” 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, the arrival of Atisha brought certain happiness to sentient beings. The 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, eight nurses in the royal palace of the capital city sheltered and attended Vikramapura Atisha. At eighteen months old, his parents brought him into public for the first time, on a visit to a local temple in Kamalapuri. 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 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 two critical components of Buddhist philosophy. The story conveys Atisha as a spiritually advanced and relatively enlightened individual at only eighteen months old. As such, the prince acquired enough merit through virtuous actions in previous lives to become a venerated prince and enlightened personality. Atisha’s kindness towards his subjects and non-attachment towards his family gives evidence of his state of enlightenment.
Mirroring the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, the young prince displays a natural capacity for swift learning 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. At eleven years old, surrounded with the luxuries and extravagance of royalty, Atisha’s parents sought to find a bride for the prince among the kingdom’s nobility.
Atisha’s response shows the youth's commitment to the pursuit of enlightenment. On the eve of his wedding, Atisha encountered the Vajrayana goddess, Tara, who continued to guide him throughout his lifetime. Tara explained to the prince that in his past lives he had been a devout monk. He should resist the pleasures in the world. If not, Tara continued, then “as an elephant sinks deeply into the swamp, [he], a hero, [would] sink in the mire of lust.” Tara’s appearance symbolizes the prince’s realization of his own karmic potential. With that revelation in mind, Atisha renounced his kingdom, family, and position to find a spiritual teacher. He gave his parents the excuse of going on a hunting trip.
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 attained the knowledge of emptiness and became aware of pure human nature. He learned of the freedom all sentient beings have, a freedom from 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 responded:
[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.
Having been a noble and wealthy, Atisha's attainment of freedom took on a greater challenge.
Upon completing his training for meditations on nothingness and emptiness, Atisha studied with Avadhutipa, a Vajrayana master. He required the prince to first consult the Black Mountain Yogi. The Black Mountain Yogi tested Atisha. First, he cast a lightening bolt in Atisha’s direction as he 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 formally renounce 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 that he renounced wealth and luxury in his life to repay his parents and fellow beings. Remembering the signs that accompanied the prince’s birth, Atisha’s mother willingly gave her consent, approving her son’s decision to pursue the Dharma. Atisha’s father proved harder to convince and, like the Shakyamuni Buddha’s own father, only agreed after a determined effort.
With his parent’s approval, Atisha went back to Avadhutipa to continue his studies, learning the Madhyamaka middle way and various tantra practices. During his training, he had a slight of pride in his accomplishments. His teacher reminded him that he knew relatively little through the visit from a dakini in a vision. Atisha's humility returned overnight and he continued towards the path of enlightenment.
Atisha studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of his time, including teachings from Vishnu, Shiva, and Tantric Hinduism. He also studied music and logic by the age of twenty-two. 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 number foremost among Buddhist lineages he studied, practiced and transmitted.
Another time, a contending voice confronted Atisha as he prepared to practice his tantra. The Black Mountain Yogi appeared to him in a dream, advising him to take his time through steady practice to achieve the enlightenment. 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. In his twenty-ninth year, the great Shilarakshita ordained Atisha a monk. He received a 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, while walking around the great stupa there, he had a vision of two materializations of Tara. One asked the other to name the most important practice for attaining enlightenment. The other replied that “the practice of bodhichitta, supported by loving kindness and great compassion is most important.” Atisha dedicated himself to the understanding and practice of bodhichitta from that time.
At the age of 31, the monk arranged for a perilous journey, traveling for thirteen months to Sumatra to study under the reputable Suvarnadvipi Dharmarakshita, known in Tibetan as Serlingpa (Wylie:Gser-gling-pa), a master of bodhichitta. Under the guidance of Dharmarakshita, Atisha remained on the island of Sumatra for twelve years studying bodhichitta. After over a decade of intensive training, Dharmarakshita advised Atisha to “go to the north. In the north is the Land of Snows.” Dharmarakshita referred to Tibet, a region with a Buddhist tradition forever changed after the arrival of Atisha Dipamkara Srijnana.
Before journeying to Tibet, Atisha returned to India. He earned fame as a debater, on three occasions 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 received appointment 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. Atisha’s influence contributed to those developments. As Dharmarakshita had predicted, Buddhism in Tibet desperately needed 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. A new king by the name of Lha Lama Yeshe Yod proved a strict believer in Dharma, sending his disciples to learn and translate some of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. Nagtso, who studied Sanskrit Vikramasila college, numbered among them. He pleaded with Atisha to come teach the Dharma in his homeland.
Atisha declined the offer to come reintroduce the Buddha’s teachings in Tibet. He considered himself too old for the rigorous trip and had much unfinished work at the monastic college. On the evening after he turned Atisha down, Tara appeared to him saying that his trip to Tibet would be astoundingly successful. He would greatly honor and assist the Tibetans, find a dedicated disciple, and further contribute to the spread of Dharma. He would live in the task until seventy two years old.
In truth, Atisha’s undertaking in Tibet had never been in doubt. Prophecies of his departure began with Dharmarakshita in Sumatra, following Atisha to 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 referred, whether he knew it or not, to Avalokitesvara's continual assistance throughout his trip to Vikramasila. Atisha’s two-year journey to Tibet may be interpreted within the Buddhist tradition as a fulfillment of destiny.
In Tibet, Atisha first took residence in Ngari. The King supported his work to bring Buddha's teaching to the people. During the three years Atisha spent in this town, he wrote what became the main body of his teaching, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and met the disciple 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."
After staying for thirteen years in Tibet, Atisha died in 1052 C.E., 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 June 28, 1978, and placed in Dharmarajika Bauddha Vihara.
Atisha wrote, translated and edited more than two hundred books. He discovered several Sanskrit manuscripts in Tibet and copied them. He translated 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 survived. Seventy-nine of his compositions have been preserved in Tibetan translation in the Tengyur (bstan-sgyur). His most notable books follow:
Atisha stands as 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). He conveyed that teaching through A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and other texts. Atisha established the primacy of bodhichitta for the Mahayana tradition in Tibet. Atisha lived his teaching.
Second, after King Langdarma’s intolerant reign, the monastic Buddhist tradition of Tibet had been nearly wiped out. Atisha’s closest disciple, Dromtönpa, became the founder of the Kadam school, which later evolved into the Gelug, one of the four main school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kadam/Gelug proved central to monasticism and the lojong teachings, incorporating into the other three schools—-the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya—-as well.
Third, Atisha mobilized his influence in India to reform corrupt practices and to reform Buddhism, the native country of the Shakayumi Buddha.
For those reasons, Atisha remains a central figure in the history and religious study of Buddhism.
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