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Biography: Atisha Dipamkara

Atisha Dipamkara. 982-1054 (?), was said to have been born the second son of a royal house in eastern India, given the name Chandragarbha at birth. His father was Kalyana the Good and his mother Prabhavati the Radiant. After experiencing a vision of Tara 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 Mahasiddhas, including Jetari, Kanha, Avadhutipa, Dombhipa, and Naropa, and it is reported that he received the bodhisattva vow at Nalanda 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. For two years Atisha studied at Odantipuri with Dharmarakshita, 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). In Sumatra he trained in bodhichitta with the monk Guru Suvarnadvipa, residing on the island for twelve years. Returning to India at age forty-five, he sequestered himself at the great monastery-university Vikramalashila.

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 10th century, the king of Purang, Lha Lama Yeshe O (lha bla ma ye shes 'od), a descendant 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: the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (rin chen bzang po), who established many important monasteries in what is now Ladakh, and Legshe (legs bshad). 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. Janchub 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 and Legshe 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 Lotsawa Tsondru Sengge (rgya lo tsA ba brtson 'grus seng ge), with a sizable offering of gold. Gya Lotsawa's eight companions did not survive the journey, and, unable to bring Atisha, Gya Lotsawa's stayed on in India. Collecting more gold to send as an offering, Jangchub O sent the Tibetan monk Nagtso Tsultrim Gyalwa (nag 'tsho tshul khrims rgyal ba). According to legend, while collecting funds 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.

Nagtso left for India in 1037, accompanied by several companions. The leadership of Vikramalashila 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 Tara 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 Nagtso set out for Tibet, accompanied by Gya Lotsawa, who had aided them at Vikramalashila, serving as translator. Unfortunately Gya Lotsawa did not survive the journey, passing away before they arrived in 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.

There Atisha resided for three years, giving teachings that gave birth to his masterpiece, the Bodhipathapradipa, 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: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, and became the model for subsequent texts in the genre of Lamrim (lam rim), the Stages of the Path. There he also met his closest disciple, Dromton Gyalwai Jungne ('brom ston rgyal ba'i 'byung gnas).

Having grown close to Nagtso, Atisha next traveled to Nagtso'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 Lokattaravada rather than the Mulasarvastivada 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 Tangpoche (thang po che), founded by Khuton Tsondru Yungdrung (khu ston brtson 'grus g.yung drung), 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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Nag tso tshul khrims rgyal ba. 1982. Jo bo rje dpal ldan mar me mdzad ye shes kyi rnbam thar rgyas pa. In Lokesh Chandra, ed., Biography of Atisha and his Disciple Brom-ston, Zho[l] edition. Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, vol. 2, pp. 820-862.

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Alexander Gardner, 2009

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. November 2009].

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