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Atisha Biography

The Guru's knowledge of the origin of the Dharma
by Gurugana Dharmakaranama

To those noble persons in whom the religion is rooted, I pay homage.

On living beings suffering from the scorching heat of affliction (klesha), the vault of Dharma showers clouds of loving kindness (maitri) and rains down compassion (karuna) that refresh those beset by afflictions' scorching heat. To that Dharma King, I bow my head.

From his ocean-vast and unsullied story, without additions for changes of any sort, to the best of my ability, I have gathered some drops. O give ear.

In the eastern part of India, in the country named Bengal (Sahor), the ruler was a religious king named Kalyana Shri. King Kalyana Shri brought the prosperity of his kingdom to its zenith. His 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 in the palace.

All this splendour matched the King of Tonkun's (one of the Chinese kings); the dignity of the monarch's royal bearing and his air of great authority were like those of the great god Indra. His subjects were as numerous as the inhabitants of a city of Gandharas and their religious attainments could be compared to those of Aryadharma. Shri Prabhavati, the consort of this devout king, was like a goddess. She was a beautiful and chaste woman who worshipped the Triple Gem, and was beloved as a mother by all human beings. This queen had three sons, namely Shrigarbha, Chandragarbha and Padmagarbha. The story of these three is seldom to be found in other books. The second son, Chandragarbha, was my noble guru. At the auspicious moment of his birth, flowers rained down upon the city, a rainbow canopy appeared, and the gods sang hymns which brought gladness and joy to all the people. For eighteen months he resided in the capital and was excellently reared by eight nurses.

To the north of the palace there was a sacred place called Vikramashila Vihara. To make offerings at that place, the King, Queen and their ministers, escorted by 500 chariots full of lovely girls elegantly adorned with ornaments and surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of musicians, carried the innumerable jeweled articles necessary for the votive rite and all went to that place singing.

My infant guru, who already seemed like a child of three, had so many beauties of person that the eyes were dazzled. The boy, having been crowned and adorned with god-like ornaments, was carried by his father wrapped in fine muslin garments. When the people saw him they felt so full of happiness that they could not tear themselves away. Those who stood by exclaimed: "At the time of your birth, the tent of the sun was set up and melodious songs were heard by the people. So our most cherished desire was to meet you. And now, having seen you, we are filled with joyous awe."

Then the excellent Prince enquired: "Who are these people, O parents?"

"These are your subjects, Prince," answered his parents.

Then the excellent Prince continued:

"May they be possessed of merit like that of my parents.
May they rule kingdoms that reach the summit of prosperity.
May they be reborn as sons of kings and may they be sustained by holy and virtuous deeds."

Then, when the royal procession came safely to the Vikramashila Vihara (the main chapel at that place of pilgrimage) the excellent Prince, having prostrated himself to the Triple Gem, recited this melodious song of praise:

"Having attained the noble body of a man, and being without defect in all organs, I shall adhere to the Triple Gem.
Always, I shall take the Triple Gem upon my head with deep sincerity.
Henceforward, may the Triple Gem be my refuge!"

When these words were heard by the King, Queen, ministers and monks, they were filled with joyful wonder and all declared with one voice that the Prince was destined for greatness.

Then the King, Queen and attendants declared: "May we, by gathering merits through paying reverence and making offerings, be able to make offerings to the Triple Gem from life to life. And, by the virtue of those merits, we pray for the long continuance of our religion, for which we shall make offerings to the sangha. 0, may we be delivered from the sufferings caused by defilements."

When the Prince heard their words, he looked at his parents and exclaimed: "May I never be bound by worldly ways. May I be taught the holy way of the monks and humbly worship the Triple Gem. May I feel pity for all beings."

His parents and the others felt full of wonder when they heard the sayings of the Prince. This was the first preaching of my guru. The Prince, by the age of three, had become well-versed in astrology, writing and Sanskrit. At six years, he was able to distinguish between the Buddhist and non- Buddhist doctrines. From then up to the age of ten years, he took the Triple Gem for refuge by observing the precepts (shilas) of the upasakas, bestowing charity (dana), studying happily, reciting prayers, seeking out people of noble character, obeying and serving his parents humbly and with sweet words, enjoying every sort of religious dance and sacred song, paying respect to holy men even from a distance, looking at worldlings with heart-felt pity, helping those who were wretched, and doing many such noble deeds. When the Prince reached the age of eleven years, the ministers and subjects brought twenty-one girls of noble parentage to him and the King and Queen presented them with valuable gifts.

One day the King summoned all his ministers and commanded:

"Beginning from tomorrow you must carefully prepare the thirteen royal chariots and adorn them beautifully with innumerable ornaments such as the people love, especially the most beautiful and strongest chariot which should be placed in the centre. On it you must pitch the peacock umbrella surrounded by fans. In the centre (under the peacock umbrella) place Chandragarbha clad in splendid garments on a beautifully jeweled throne. In the other twelve adorned chariots, all the ministers will be seated dressed in magnificent garments and accompanied by musicians with many kinds of instruments to play joyful songs.

"The procession will be led by three white chariots; there will be three red chariots to the rear, three yellow chariots on the right and three green chariots on the left. In each of the chariots place many youths and maidens with colored banners proper to the devas of the four directions. The Prince's chariot of five different colors should be ornamented at the four corners with carvings shaped like peacocks' necks and surrounded by girls dressed as goddesses bearing offerings. The other attendants should play melodious tunes upon such instruments as violins, drums and cymbals to delight the crowds who will gather on all sides. Beyond the great city in a pleasant garden must be set all sorts of amusements and games that will draw the people to assemble there. These amusements must last for a period of half a month so as to make all the people feel happy and contented. Among the assembly, there must be girls ready to delight the Prince, and the ministers must instruct them how to behave when the Prince's gaze lights upon them."

Thus the great King ordered the ministers to get ready thirteen adorned chariots within a week, with the chariot of the Prince in the middle, richly ornamented, and twelve chariots of musicians with instruments of all sorts.

Then beyond the great city at all the crossroads and in the gardens, the people began enjoying themselves with fascinating games. During the royal progress through all the quarters of the city to which Prince Chandragarbha and his 25,000 attendants proceeded in their chariots, the people in the lotus gardens adjacent to the capital and at every junction of the roads welcomed him like a universal king (a chakravartin) and all followed to gaze at the Prince. Prabhadevi and the other court ladies, the Prince's kinsmen and comrades, encouraged one another to hasten to see the gathering of people. When the people came crowding around the procession, the daughters of King Punnadhara, King Nemandhara, King Jalapati, King Pracandraprabha and other kings of high descent, noble physique and great possessions came armed, riding in twenty-two chariots, to join in the celebrations. In each of the chariots rode seven girls with seven maiden attendants. All these twenty-two chariots were adorned magnificently with diverse ornaments. The riders came singing melodious songs and in happy mood. The girls sat like goddesses, their lovelorn eyes fixed upon the Prince, for, at the sight of this youth, their passion was so great that the hair on their limbs stood up.

Suddenly, a goddess appeared, her complexion pale blue, and uttered the following admonition to the Prince:

"0, care not for power and be free from lust, most fortunate Prince. If, as an elephant sinks deeply into the swamp, you, a hero, were to sink in the mire of lust,
Would it not stain the shila robes you have worn
In your past five hundred and fifty-two lives
When you took the form of an undefiled pandita, a holy bhikshu?
Therefore, as ducks seek out the lotus garden,
Seek you ordination in this life.
The charming and lovely girls who live in this city
Are temptresses sent by mara (the evil one) to dispel your brilliant shila,
Thus they hope to betray you by showing you their passion.
Know this, O handsome Prince!
Like the moon reflected in the ocean,
Your purity gives forth brilliance, O Prince.
Your head adorned with the five sacred jeweled ornaments
Puts a spell of fascination upon the people.
Since you have attained a precious human body, so difficult to win,
You should devote your life to hearing, pondering and practising (the Dharma)
And, to set your doubts at rest,
You should seek the guidance of innumerable gurus."
The Prince smiled and responded thus to the goddess's admonition :
"Oh wonderful! This is good, this is good, most excellently good!
The wise delight in the (silence of the) forest,
As peacocks thrive on poisonous plants
Or as ducks rejoice in the water of the lake.
Just as crows revel in dirty places,
So do ordinary people flock to the city.
Whereas, like ducks hastening to the lotus pond.
Do people of wisdom seek the forest.
How unlike ordinary people!
So, in the past, was Prince Siddhartha
Repelled by the prosperous kingdom of Suddhodana as by a filthy swamp.
He thereupon sought enlightenment, renouncing all his royal consorts.
All humans and devas praised and worshipped him.
Possessing the thirty-two glorious signs and eighty noble marks of a Dharma king,
He attained buddhahood attended by the twelve holy states.
Unless I renounce this kingdom,
I shall increase the lust in the swamp of evil.
All friends increase the lust in the swamp of evil.
All friends are deceivers sent by mara.
All wealth is but a salty river.
Now by making good use of this body, I shall attain enlightenment.
The enjoyment of pleasures stemming from desire
Is as empty as reflected moonlight,
As fleeting as an echo,
As illusory as a mirage,
As dependent as a reflection.
Into this vast ocean of affliction,
The rivers of birth, decay, sickness and death flow unceasingly.
In the past, I was bound by the karmic power of impure deeds,
But today I am able to fulfill this life, so why not seek after Dharma?
Determined to seek deliverance from worldly things,
I shall devote myself to the noble Dharma under the guidance of my gurus.''

When the people in that city heard the words of the Prince, they cried: "Such utterances make it seem that this Prince will not reign over the kingdom; but if he were to reign, he would doubtless be a Dharma king; whereas, by seeking out many learned people and gurus, he will emulate the son of Shakya."

Thus the people around him shouted, full of joy and wonder, gazing at the Prince repeatedly, their eyes full of love. However, those highborn girls who had felt so happy when they saw the Prince, were shocked when they heard his words.

Hastening to their parents, they spoke thus: "The noble Prince has declared that he feels repelled by the world and will leave the kingdom to become a holy bhikshu, just as the Prince Siddhartha renounced his queen, and that he feels no attachment to his people. Now all of you, our parents and the rest, must hasten to the palace and do all that can be done by means of your great wealth so that the mind of the Prince will remain fixed upon the kingdom. This is what we girls now urge."

The ministers, parents and subjects did their utmost to please the Prince by bringing girls to dance and sing for him. Then the Prince gathered from the city and neighborhood one hundred and thirty armed horsemen clad in warrior's garb and went out hunting. Presently he came upon a brahmin named Zitari who had the appearance of an arhant. Dwelling in a cave and dressed neatly and cleanly in a hermit's costume, he was singing a melodious song.

The Prince, while still astride his horse, enquired: "O hermit, by living in this solitary place, eating pure food and performing noble deeds, by renouncing goods and pleasures and observing a strict ascetic rule, what kind of knowledge have you gained?"

The hermit, without raising his eyes, answered the Prince thus:

"O Prince, the riches possessed by brahmins and royal persons are like summer flowers that soon decay; thus the power of karmic actions leads down to miserable states. Residing here, I have learnt that riches will be of no profit in the next life.
Fearing to be born in a filthy insect-haunted swamp,
As a result of bestial behaviour suited to cattle, dogs and pigs,
Practising self-mortification, I dwell in this clean forest.
Perceiving no value in illusory wealth, remembering the next life, I live now as a hermit."

On hearing those words the Prince spoke as follows, seeking to read the hermit's mind from his expression: "Hermits are more arrogant than others, not bothering to rise even in the presence of royal persons."

The great hermit replied: "What sort of royal person are you and from where do you come? Since I have no friends or enemies, I know nothing about you. I am happy without wealth in these forests. The only enemy in my life is Yama (the god of death) and, being free from pride, I have left off attending entertainments."

The Prince replied: "I am from the Golden Victory Banner Kingdom and am a son of King Kalyana Shri. Today I have come to this forest to find out if there are disaffected people here and you have committed an offence by not recognizing a member of the royal family."

The great hermit continued:

"Is my staying apart from the race of humans an offence? I have no master, no servant, none to guard me.
King, when you enter upon the next life,
With no horse and no comrade, you will have to walk alone
Hungry and naked, you will have to wander alone between death and rebirth.
Your wanderings in unknown places, unknown countries, will go on and on.
One day you will no longer be the son of a king.
It is for reasons such as these that I stay in this solitary place."

On hearing these words, the Prince dismounted from his horse and offered him three gifts, namely servants, horses, and weapons.

With hands reverently folded, he uttered the following stanzas:

"To test the knowledge of Your Reverence,
I uttered words that were: harsh and proud.
Now day and night I long to repent, being disgusted with worldly matters.
I pray you, O hermit, receive me (as your disciple)."

The great hermit answered: "Come, may your mind be freed from the wind of pride. May you become a leader of the shasana."

So saying, the hermit conferred upon him bodhicitta and the blessing of the Triple Gem. Then the Prince arose and offered the hermit chariots and other gifts in return for the blessing of the Triple Gem and the gift of bodhicitta.

The hermit, so as to enable the Prince to receive the full merit, took the offerings for a while. Then he uttered this admonition:

"O Prince, if without taking careful thought, you make offerings so as to solve present problems and thus achieve greatness in this life,
That is a selfish way of which even foxes and wolves are capable.
Enlightenment cannot be thus attained even by pratyekabuddhas.
Even a servant can fill his mouth with food, but a king can never find satisfaction in this life.
Therefore, O Prince, let zeal fill your heart, and seek enlightenment by renouncing the kingdom."

To this the Prince answered:

"I am chained by my royal consorts like a pampered prisoner.
Above all, bound by the effects of my klesha, I am fondly held by kinsmen
Who all betray me by showing me their love.
That is how I feel in this mirey world. Now I cannot bear the actions of the King.
Therefore, O guru, bless me."

To these words, the great hermit replied:

"One of the world's great chains is high birth. The name most beloved of mara is 'king', mara's chief messengers are royal ministers. Certainly, the King's actions will soon cause you harm. So to Nalanda you must go. There lives one who has been your guru throughout lives since time immemorial, Bodhibhadra. Receiving from him bodhicitta and listening to the Dharma, there must you come face to face with truth. This learned man will be of great benefit to you."

So saying, the great hermit, having returned all the offerings continued: "Come back to me here when you become a monk. I will guide you with much good advice."

Then the Prince, having quickly returned to his capital, took gold, silver and great wealth with which he proceeded to Nalanda followed by his attendants.

The King of Nalanda tremblingly came to receive the Prince while still at a distance with his troops and attendants. When they met, he uttered these noble words:

"O Prince, from whence have you come? And where did you take birth, you who are like a chakravartin?
And where will you go to subdue the enemies of the excellent Dharma?
I, seeing you from afar, have come to receive you."

The Prince replied: "I have come from the land of East Bengal, the Palace of the Golden Victory Banner. Now I go to subdue the enemy, samsara. To subdue the mara of death I go!"

"You are a son of the King of East Bengal, the pious King Kalyana Shri, the king who like a chakravartin has been victorious over many evils. It is good fortune that the son of such a king has come to this land of mine. Your Vikramashila Vihara is like the palace of a divinity in paradise. To renounce so wonderful a place is beyond imagination; the pandits there are as brilliant as the sun and moon. Why, then, have you come here to seek some other teacher, O great Prince?"

The excellent Prince responded:

"In the great religious institution of Nalanda—like an ocean whose vast expanse is filled with gems –
Among the pandits numerous as the stars, there lives
The most excellent and venerable Bodhibhadra, whom the hermit foretold will be my guru. I pray you, O King, do not reject me!"

Then the King of Nalanda replied:

"Great indeed is the excellent Bodhibhadra!
Like snow-clad Mount Tise, motionless, giving forth radiance!
As the god of wealth is rich in possessions, so is Bodhibhadra rich in noble followers. I pray you come now to celebrate these joyful tidings with pleasant entertainment."

"Excellent," uttered the noble Prince.

Then the King of Nalanda, with a procession of those who had come to welcome the Prince, proceeded to Nalanda to the accompaniment of music. To the south of Nalanda, there was a palace called Samantabhadra Prasada in a place known as Padamadesh, encircled by innumerable houses. In this place the Prince was invited to seat himself on the beautifully decorated jeweled throne and the King of Nalanda himself served and praised His Highness.

Thereafter they went to guru Bodhibhadra in Nalanda. Entering the monastery, the Prince felt exceedingly happy upon meeting his guru. So also did the noble guru Bodhibhadra, on hearing of the Prince's coming, feel full of joy and, rising from his mat, he uttered the following sweet Dharma words: "So you have come, O son of Dharmaraj! Does our religion flourish in Bengal? Has not the long journey made you tired?"

The Excellent Prince answered: "My father is in good health and I have come here to seek the Dharma. And after a safe journey, I have met you today, O learned expounder of the teaching of Buddha. Are you not weary of listening, thinking and meditating?"

To these words, the guru replied: "I too am well. Day and night I flourish by the blessing of the holy Dharma. Be seated, O excellent Prince, and tell me what you need."

Thereupon the Prince prostrated himself reverently and, by his offerings of jewels, pleased the guru. Then, in humble tones, he cried: "Compassionately listen to my words, O teacher of all beings! I could not bear the swamp of suffering that is samsara. Fearing to suffer through the snare of a great kingdom, I went with some armed companions to the forest. There I came upon the guru Zitari who was dwelling there. Then I prayed to him for the gift of bodhicitta and, by the graciousness of that high pandit, I was sent to this great religious institution of Nalanda. There, said the hermit, blessed by divinity in previous lives, dwells the noble guru Bodhibhadra. From him seek the blessing of bodhicitta. Immediately I went to my palace and took gifts for offerings. Today I have arrived. In your compassion be kind to me and bestow on me bodhicitta and many blessings."

Then the Prince immediately sat down. The guru, entering a state of meditation, gave the blessing of right action of body, speech and mind together with bodhicitta and other blessings. Then he delivered the following admonition:

"O Prince. Make good use of this life. Unless you seek deliverance by renouncing the kingdom,
When your karma leads you to fall into evil states, it will be too late to regret.
This life is a precious opportunity to establish the strong foundation of all lives.
If you do not make gigantic efforts, but waste this valuable opportunity to obtain deliverance,
O honored Prince, you will not be able to gain it in the future.
However well equipped and courageous you may be, when the messenger of death leads you along the narrow path to the beyond (the next life), no power, no protector, no repentance you may have will be of any benefit.
O Excellent Prince! This is the Dharma to be pondered.
To the north of Nalanda, there lives one who has been your guru in your previous lives since time immemorial. Known as Prince Bodhikoyal, he has spent all his life meditating in solitary places.
Unsullied by the filth of the eight extremes, he is clad in shila and prophetic power. Approach him and receive his Dharma teaching."

The Prince, having heard these admonitions of the guru, sadly left the valuable Bodhibhadra for the noble Bodhikoyal, to whom he prostrated himself and made offerings, saying: "I am a son of East Bengal. Setting forth from the Palace of the Golden Victory Banner, I made my way to the monastery of Nalanda and there received bodhicitta from the venerable Bodhibhadra. The Venerable One admonished me: 'Stay not here, but go to the northern side where dwells one who has been your guru in many lives since, time immemorial, the venerable Bodhikoyal by name. Approach him and receive the blessing of bodhicitta. This Venerable One will be of great benefit to you!'  Thereafter, I sadly left my noble guru and have come joyfully to be near you, O teacher! I cannot bear the actions of my father. You, noble guru, must bless me."

Full of joy, the eminent guru uttered these words: "It is excellent that the Prince has come. Draw near, you who are to me as my own self, and receive my blessing. Of the Dharma's true nature I shall preach to you, out of my love."

Then the Prince, having prostrated himself and presented many offerings, humbly sat down upon the mat.

The venerable Bodhikoyal administered bodhicitta and uttered the following stanzas as the gist of his profound teaching:

"O Prince! Even though perfectly endowed with the three possessions (grace, glory and wealth) in this present life, were you to neglect to make your life meritorious, your possessing a noble human body would be of no avail.
And how regrettable it would be if you forfeited the wealth of lives to come.
O Prince! As the noble Nagarjuna once said: 'All things both external and internal, are void, dreamlike, illusory. Whosoever fails to ponder these two truths will be swallowed up by samsara's filthy mire!'
O Prince! You must fix your concentration on the void (shunyata), insubstantial as the sky.
But when, after meditation, you feel that all things resemble a mirage,
Then ponder karma and its results."

Thus did the guru transmit the profound Dharma, whereupon the Prince attained the prayogamarga (the path of endeavour, which is the second of five stages) and also surangama samadhi (the contemplation leading to power).

Uttering these words, he described what he had perceived:

"O guru! On entering samadhi, I perceived (a state of voidness) like a cloudless sky, radiant, pure and clear. Is that the nature of the Dharma, O guru? Then, after coming forth from meditation, I was troubled by no attachment, but longed to be of benefit to sentient beings. I recognize the reality of karma, even though all objects are revealed as illusions. O guru, is my practice without error?"

The guru answered:

"Fortunate man. You are a product of accumulated merit. As a bhikshu I do not exaggerate or pervert the truth.
Although at the time of concentration one perceives that all objects share the voidness of the sky, one must lift up all beings through compassion after the concentration has been performed.
This is an exposition of two truths (absolute and relative).
It is my most precious teaching. Now, if you desire to renounce your kingdom, to the south of the black mountain's peak dwells my guru Avadhuti. He was also your guru in previous lives. Go and obtain the bestowal of bodhicitta from him and receive the admonition that will lead you to renounce the kingdom."

On hearing the words of that guru, the Prince, though reluctant to depart, joined his attendants in happily paying their last homage. Thereafter, they went on their way as though escorting a great hero. While they were proceeding, the King of Nalanda presented innumerable precious objects and, followed by his train, escorted the Prince for as much as three miles.

Before the King departed, the Prince spoke the following affectionate words:

"Although you are clad in a noble body, O King,
Were you not to subdue the enemy, samsara,
Later, when led in bonds by the executioners—well! That would be sad indeed! Therefore, cherish your wealth of Dharma.
Although your good-heartedness made our meeting possible, that is perishable by nature and vanishes like customers from a fair.
Do not consider my departure a loss, but remember the love I bear you,
And try hard to come into accordance with religion, soon."
The King replied: "Our meeting today has been the most excellent good fortune.
I am deeply moved to have encountered you, son of a religious king.
Your setting forth from here saddens me more than the departure of my own son, but I pray we may soon meet again."

Then the Prince went to the south of the Black Mountain's peak to the venerable Avadhuti. He discovered the noble guru dwelling beneath the shelter of that dark peak clad in a black blanket that covered his whole body. He was seated on the skin of a spotted antelope with a string of meditation beads adorning his breast. His frame was bulky and his belly corpulent. His eyes were pale red, his complexion blue, and it was his habit to sit with one leg partly extended. Though devoid of worldly possessions, he bore a skull in which sentient beings were collected. Though he was often seen in that place, he had no definite dwelling.

The Prince dismounted while still at a distance and, bowing low, approached the guru, followed by his attendants.

The guru, meeting him with a fixed glare, spoke as follows:

"Has your inner pride been entirely broken yet?
Are you not tortured by maras?
Are you not stuck in the swamp of your kingdom?
Are you not cheated by mara's daughters?
Has your noble body not withered yet?
And why do you come here like the son of a king?"
The Prince prostrated himself and replied: "From the land of East Bengal have I come.
Free from longing for my kingdom, have I come.
To obtain protection from samsara have I come.
To the great religious institution of Nalanda I went,
And received refuge from the venerable Bodhikoyal.
That guru has sent me to you.
Now may you give me refuge?"
To these words the venerable Avadhuti replied:
"O man! Since you have taken birth as one of royal descent,
What terrifying heaps of affliction you must have! Could you, throwing off your kingdom as one spews forth spittle, bear the actions of Avadhuti?
The wealth of a kingdom is nothing but a lake of poison!
Taste but one drop and your liberation will be imperiled!
The wealth of a kingdom is nothing but a pit of fire!
One touch will make you suffer cruelly.
Go back now to your kingdom,
And return to me soon after contemplating its miseries."

The Prince, on hearing these words of the guru, paid his respects and set forth for his kingdom. The people, on seeing their Prince, laughed with delight, danced joyfully and gave themselves to song and music. When the Prince arrived at the palace, the King and Queen, rejoicing, asked:

"Where have you been O Chandragarbha?
Are you not fatigued?
Did you not suffer by seeing so much misery?
It is good that you have come home."
The Prince answered his parents fully:
"I went to engage in mirthful sports at every place.
I went to find out the way to subdue the enemies of religion.
I went to seek a guru able to give me protection.
I went in search of solitary places amidst mountains and rocks.
I saw the defects of samsara in every place I went.
All with whom I associated told me of its evils.
Nothing I did brought me peace of mind.
Now I will go back to seek after Dharma.
O my parents, give me this opportunity!"

To this, his parents answered: "O son! If you feel distressed by samsara, make offerings to the Triple Gem by reigning over your kingdom, by satisfying the needs of those who are wretched with fond commiseration, and by always erecting monasteries. Meditate on compassion (karuna) and on loving kindness (maitri) without partiality. All will be made happy by your behaving in this way."

The Prince responded: "Listen, Father, if you love me!
Here in this palace of golden jewels, enmeshed by bevies of consorts whose charms are so hard to resist, I shall suffer support the sangha by and on loving kindness bitterly.
Looking upon this samsara,
I recollect the sufferings of all beings.
As for attachment to this kingdom,
I shall regret it no more than a drop of spittle.
Day and night, I have thought over the defects of this kingdom.
However lovely those deceiving girls of mara may be,
I experience not the least desire.
Looking upon those illusory things,
I recognize that, between three pure substances such as curd, milk and butter,
Or three sweet foods such as sugar, molasses and honey,
And, on the other hand, such unclean filth as leprous persons, dog-flesh, pus and blood,
There is not a particle of difference.
Between splendid garments, beautiful turquoises and corals, or the lovely ornaments of devas, And tattered and unclean rags
There is not a shred of difference.
In order to contemplate dhyana, to the forest I shall go
In the eight cemeteries shall I disport myself!
To the place of yogis, I go
To seek out solitude where true happiness can be enjoyed.
Giving up all attachment and treating everything impartially,
I go to be a mendicant.
To the lofty mountain peaks, I go
To the guru Avadhuti, I go.
To the place of yogis, I go
To sip the essence of the Vajrayana.
To the country of Udyana, I go.
To make friends with the dakinis of wisdom, I go
I go to the heaven of Akanishta.
To bow at the foot of Vairochana, I go.
I go to the heaven of Tushita.
To serve the noble guru, I go.
I go to all the heavens.
To perform devotional rites, I go.
I go to the Arya heaven, to Sukhavati (the paradise of happiness) to enjoy delight, I go.
Do not bind me, do not bind me, O King Kalyana Shri.
Permit me to go to a place of salvation, O Father, if you love me.
Do not bind me, do not bind me, O Queen Shri Prabhavati!
Permit me to embrace religion, O Mother, if you love me!
Give me now a little rice and wine, meat, milk, molasses and honey,
And other such provisions.
I go to the venerable Avadhuti and there, propitiating him.
I shall be able to subdue my mind."

As the noble Prince sang these words into the ears of his parents, they seemed to hear the song of a Ghandarava king which bemuses the minds of all people. The parents, bemused by the Prince's song, gave him everything he wished, making no reply. Then taking the rice and wine and other provisions, the Prince went off to the forest with a train of one thousand horsemen and pleased the venerable Avadhuti by his offerings. To the guru they reverently folded their hands and prostrated themselves at his feet. The guru thereupon administered bodhicitta and blessed them with the admonitions of the Mahayana. At that time it seemed the Prince was like a chakravartin ruler, protected from danger by his retinue of guards and soldiers riding their horses amidst the forest and uttering martial shouts. Pressing round him and about him, they guarded him and made him offerings of music and of song.

After blessing them, the guru commanded:

"Go to the Black Mountain.
To the noble and blissful Vajrayogi, he who has propitiated the Lord of Death by serving him as an attendant spirit. To that noble rahula you must go.
Obtain bodhicitta and glorious admonitions from him.
He, too, was your guru in previous lives.
Stay not here, but go on your way happily."

On hearing the guru's words, the Prince, like a great hero going forth to battle, rode off with his thousand horsemen who, well accoutred with shields and helmets, made martial music and flourished axes, hammers and short spears. As they rode to the monastery, they let fly arrows and their shouts rang out upon all sides.

In Black Mountain Monastery, there lived countless yogis and yoginis. While the august Vajrayogi was expounding the Tantra to his disciples, he saw the young Prince Chandragarbha coming. Although he knew that the Prince had come to seek religious teaching, the merciful one, for the purpose of giving him a warning, cast a thunderbolt in his direction. The missile, instead of falling to the earth, flew towards a stupa on Black Mountain.

In great amazement, the disciples asked: "Why has the Prince come with an army to visit the guru?"

Whereupon the guru replied :

"Having passed through five hundred and fifty-two lives as a bhikshu undefiled, a great pandita most learned, this man has taken birth excellently in Bengal as the son of King Kalyana. Even to such a great kingdom and to such throngs of subjects, he is not attached, but longs to practise austerities. On the peak of this mountain dwells Avadhuti and, as prophesied by him, the Prince has arrived here today. Is this not wonderful, O my disciples?"

When the guru had spoken these words, all of them cried out: "Wonderful! Blessed is this day on which the great hero has come!" Then all rose and welcomed the Prince while he was still at a distance. When he dismounted, so did his thousand horsemen.

Then, entering the palace of the guru, the Prince reverently prostrated himself and said:

"I pray you listen to me, exalted guru. Although I desire to attain liberation by renouncing my home,
I am burdened by my so-called royal descent;
I am in danger of being bound to the kingdom of Bengal.
Zitari, Bodhibhadra, Bodhikoyal and Avadhuti, to all these gurus who have attained wisdom, higher knowledge and spiritual power, I have attended.
Yet still I have not been liberated from my kingdom.
Now I have been sent by them to you, O guru.
Bless me with the power of bodhicitta
And deliver me from the chains of my kingdom!"

Then the noble guru took the Prince close to the mandala and, bestowing the power of Shri Hevajra, secretly named him Janna-guhey-vajra. Day and night, the guru showered upon him the rain of admonition and followed this by an empowerment (abhisheka) that lasted a full thirteen days, during which time none of his attendants slept, but strolled about, playing, singing, dancing and enjoying many kinds of music. These attendants thought only of when the Prince would emerge. When the thirteen days had elapsed, the Prince came forth wearing the dress of Heruka (a fierce divinity or yogic form) and, on seeing his attendants, sang them hymns of exhortation. Gazing upon his three possessions (servants, horses and weapons), he perceived them all to be worthless. Then did he utter the following stanza:

"All things are in a state of absolute stillness like the sky.
All things are empty as an echo among hollow rocks.
A kingdom is worthless as riches in a dream.
Attendants are deceivers like covens of magicians.
If I do not seek deliverance by renouncing all these, I am not blessed, despite my accumulated merits. Day and night, in contemplating the nature of all phenomena and in listening ever (to the Dharma), I shall exert unremitting effort."

Then suddenly there appeared many (divine) yogis and yoginis, such as Hevajra Yogi, Karma Yogini, representing the nature of impermanence, Vira Yogi, a master of higher knowledge and spiritual power, and eight fearful male and female naked ascetics, grasping in one hand flutes fashioned of human thighbones and, in the other, human limbs at which flesh they gnawed as they shouted: "HUM!" and "PHAT!"

These danced around the Prince, giving him this admonition:

"Hasten to Bengal and convert the mind of the King. Make him understand why you have renounced the kingdom, O Prince! Let him take you to the noble personage, yogi Avadhuti. There, put on rough cloth and sustain your life on coarse food. Abandon your mat of embroidered silk and sit on the fur of an antelope. Give up your horses and attendants and learn to travel alone as a mendicant. Do not fear, do not fear, when you are seeking liberation; particularly now that you are cutting off the mighty adversary! Go now, our guru (Hevajra) thus orders you!”

Then the Prince, having put on his hermit’s costume, mounted his horse, surrounded by his thousand horsemen. On the way back, he sang the following Vajrayana verses:

"In the absolute non-being (voidness) of Citta-vajra,
I have sought the imperishable Vajrayana.
O most delightful Vajra,
My thought springs up to thy noble dignity. By the clarity and purity of the Deva-vajra, the shadow of karma is reflected, but freed from ail imperfect action.
By the power of the Ratna-vajra of the Kaya mandala,
I gaze upon the Anatta-vajra without fear.
By the perfect wisdom of the Guheya-vajra, may I surely be victorious in the battle over samsara."
When the Prince had concluded this song of Vajra, the four great court ministers, Mahamantri Shura-vajra, Mahamantri Shatru Prabhanca, Mahamantri Jayatiraj and Mahamantri Abhaya, sang sadly:
"How powerful is karma in this world! In that excellent land, Bengal, of which all people speak with delight,
How great is the prosperity of its capital!
Pleasant to see is the Golden Banner. Magnificent are King Kalvana and Shri Prabhavati, the mother of its people.
Yet renouncing his councillors, ministers and subjects like phantoms,
The noble Prince prefers to dwell in the forest.
Abandoning his horses, chariots, elephants,
He will walk barefoot like a commoner!
Putting off his god-like ornaments and garments.
He will clothe himself in common garb!
Abandoning his peacock-ornamented throne,
He will stretch an antelope's skin on the floor of a hovel!
Indifferent to the goddess-like beauty of the women in his kingdom,
He will wander in cemeteries, devouring the flesh of corpses!
We felt such happiness on seeing you when you took birth.
After living with us so joyfully, how can you leave us?"

Singing this sad song, the ministers came (with the Prince) to the capital and, upon their arrival at the palace, all the people heard what they were singing. Gazing at them they saw them, looking like the Guardian Deities of the ten directions going forth to war, so awe-inspiring, courageous and mightily armed. The sight was greatly astonishing and full of beauty and allurement. The attendants made such a great noise with their hurlyburly that even the Prince himself was awestruck.

For three whole months the ministers wore their warriors' array and kept their horses saddled. Some raced on horseback, others played in dramas and sang. Some armed themselves with new weapons as if going forth to war. Yogis and yoginis pranced about and the Prince behaved like a madman in the centre of the capital, causing all his subjects to recognize that he would not reign over the kingdom. So the people stood weeping.

As though wild beasts had come howling to devour the people's flesh, his parents fell to bitter lamentation, particularly the father, who cried:

"At the time of your auspicious birth,
We saw such marvelous prodigies that I made sure you would reign over the kingdom.
And accordingly my mind was filled with delight.
Now what thoughts are these that make you wish to leave for the forest?"
To this, the Prince replied: "Pray listen to me, O religious King!
If I reigned over the kingdom as you command,
Though I should naturally be with you for a while in this life,
We, father and son, would never meet again in all the lives to come.
How shameful it would be, were I to stay and bring you not benefit but harm!
It is sure that, if by renouncing this mighty kingdom I shall accomplish the path of liberation,
Then in all lives to come gladly shall we meet again.
Therefore, I implore you to give me that opportunity."

Then the mother cried: "What is the use? Much though I grieve, his karma has greater weight.
Well! Send this noble looking youth to practise religion wherever he may go.
I pray that we shall soon be together always."

The Prince, when morning dawned, went to the forest with the yogis and, encountering Avadhuti, practised asceticism, and learned all the Dharma of madhyamarga without attachment. From the age of twelve to eighteen he practised asceticism with Avadhuti by listening, thinking and meditating on one mat. Thus did this Holy One of great compassion perform hundreds of varied austerities. Renouncing his unimaginably mighty kingdom like a drop of spittle, he attained complete liberation.

Since there exists no one to rival your accomplishment, I have found in you the most successful master of religion. I, Dromtonpa, bowing my head, shall humbly pay you homage until the end of samsara. I pray you, O Greatly Compassionate One, to forgive me whatever exaggeration or perversion of truth there may be in this book.

Thus ends the summary, selected from the ocean of my guru's deeds, setting forth the virtuous actions whereby he accomplished liberation through the renunciation of his kingdom.

Atisha and the Restoration of Buddhism in Tibet

Compiled by the Tibetan Teachers' Training College
Dharamsala, India

Lha Lama Yeshi Yod, (King) of Manjushri, (the western province of Tibet), whose holy endeavors were unending, sent many learned disciples off to India. After they had studied Sanskrit, they were asked to translate a great many volumes of sutras and tantras. Among their translators Renchen Sangpo became the most preeminent. Lha Lama also sponsored the erection of the Todinpel Monastery.

Previously Buddhism had been suppressed by King Langdarma, so very few ordained monks were to be found in Tibet during the seventy years that followed his reign. However, at that time, thanks to the services rendered by the religious King of Mnahri, monasteries for bhikshus were built. Nevertheless there was conflict, because those who preferred the Vinaya school opposed the followers of the Tantric school and vice versa. Thus whereas almost all subscribed to this or that doctrine in name, it was rare to find anyone who understood even one set of teachings, let alone the entire practices and doctrines of the Mahayana. It was a time when numbers of Indians came to obtain gold from Tibet, and these people, pretending to great knowledge of tantra, behaved truculently, employed black arts, and cheated many Tibetans.

King Lha Lama was saddened on seeing those conditions. Therefore he sent Gyatsundru Singhe and others to India in the hope that they would be able to translate the scriptures, and, in particular, invite a well-versed pandit who would be of real benefit to the religion. Having given these commands, he sent a large amount of gold with them. The disciples, after a long period of investigation, found no one who could surpass Atisha, but as they were not able to bring back the pandita, they returned to Tibet and related the reasons to the King of Mnahri.

Again Lha Lama, desiring to invite the pandita in order to introduce unsullied doctrine, collected a large amount of gold, and set forth in search of more. The King of Garlog, knowing that Lha Lama was seeking gold so as to invite the pandita, issued this command: "The ancestors of this man did much for the spread of Buddhism in former times. Therefore, unless he is made prisoner he will invite the pandita and spread Buddhism again. So capture him and imprison him." Accordingly, Lha Lama was captured and put in prison. Hearing this news, Jangchub Yod 9 went with a hundred horsemen to release his uncle but the Garlog King was able to put up a powerful resistance; Jangchub Yod thought that since it would cost many lives, it would be unwise to wage war against him. Moreover, if there were likely to be some danger to Atisha's life, it would not be possible to invite him. Therefore, thinking to release his uncle by peaceful means, that is, by paying ransom, he approached the King of Garlog, but the King exclaimed: "Either you give up your intention to invite the pandita and pay homage to me, or else you must bring me gold equivalent in weight to the body of Lha Lama." Then Jangchub Yod brought him a hundred gold coins as ransom, but the King refused to accept them. The next time, he took with him gold equivalent in weight to the body of Lha Lama, but again it was refused.

Then Jangchub Yod went up to the gate of Lha Lama's prison and cried: "0, compassionate one, it would be futile to wage war against the Garlog King, since the karma from previous lives has fallen upon us. It is better for you to die here for the sake of religion than to live under such an evil man. With that thought in mind, I went to him with gold equivalent in weight to your body, but still he refused. I will come back to release you when I have collected gold equivalent in weight to your head also. Until then, keep your mind fixed on karma, pray to the Triple Gem, and make merit by meditating on compassion."
On hearing this, his uncle smiled and said, "When you were a dear little boy being fed with butter cakes, I never thought you would be able to face such hardships. Your doing so reveals that you will preserve the tradition of our ancestors, even though I pass away. This is what you should understand. Already I am doing as you have said. Even if I was not to die at this time, I would have but ten years left. Therefore it would be better to die now for the religion. Do not give even one coin to the Garlog King. Take all the gold to India to invite Atisha and deliver this message to the pandita, 'For you and the sake of our religion, I have sacrificed my life to the Garlog King. My great longing is to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Therefore, please fulfill this desire and I shall pray for blessings to fall upon you in future lives.' This is the message you must deliver to the pandits. Now leave me here and devote yourself to the religion."

Then Jangchub Yod, in accordance with astrological observations and predictions, said to Nagtso Lotsawa (the translator): "You must go to India to invite Atisha and I will send with you a large amount of gold and as many servants as are needed. I wish you to tell Atisha how Langdarma suppressed our religion, although the Buddha Dharma had been spread and propagated by religious kings in former times. (Tell him how) later my ancestors were able to re-establish the Buddha Dharma, but still those who know how to practise it properly are rare and the Buddha Dharma has been sullied by misconduct. (Recount how) my uncle, not being able to bear these conditions, went to seek gold to invite him, but was murdered by the Garlog King. All these things you must tell to Atisha. Alas! My uncle was so very gracious, why should he have met such trouble? I dare not leave him behind and come with you. When I peeped at him through a chink in the door, he was bound with ropes, his voice was weak and his body thin as a bee's, yet still he thought of nothing but Atisha, Tibetans and their need for Buddhism. (Say to him) 'If such is the courage of us remote Tibetans, how can you, the merciful one, the refuge (of the helpless), abandon us?'" Giving these messages he sent the Lotsawa Nagtso with his servants to India.

Many hindrances that beset Nagtso on his way to India were overcome by various miracles performed by Avalokiteshvara, and thus they arrived at Vikramala-shila. Here, they consulted with Gyatsundru Singhe 10 about inviting Atisha, but sometimes they had difficulty even in seeing Atisha face to face. Then one day Gyatsundru Singhe took Nagtso secretly to Atisha's chamber. Here they placed a piece of unwrought gold on a mandala fifteen inches high and also presented other gold pieces to the Lord, placing them on the top of the circle of offering. After that Gyatsundru Singhe related what had transpired earlier in Tibet, and then repeated the invitation, saying: "Again a reverend one has come to invite you. Please, out of sympathy for us Tibetans, do not refuse us as you did in that previous year." Whereupon Atisha answered, "No doubt the rulers of Tibet, the three religious kings and the great lamas, were incarnations of the bodhisattvas. Otherwise they could not have revived Buddhism after its destruction. It is unfitting for me to disregard the order of the bodhisattvas and also I feel ashamed that those people have lost much wealth and many men for my sake. 0! I feel pity for Tibetans. However, I am advanced in age, holding many keys (having many administrative duties) and with many tasks that remain undone. Nevertheless, I will consult the omens; in the meanwhile take back your gold."

That same day, Atisha prayed to Avalokiteshvara and Tara, inquiring how far the religion and sentient beings would be benefited, how far the wish of the king could be fulfilled, and whether there would be any danger to his own life. Having prayed on these three matters, that very night he dreamt he heard the words: "Go to where you will find a small Buddhist temple and inquire of the yogini who comes there." Having thus dreamt, in the morning he took a handful of flowers and proceeded to a temple where he met a yogini, hair flowing to the ground. To his inquiry, she replied, "There will be benefit if you set forth for Tibet, especially with the help of an upasaka." Still desiring to pray at Buddha Gaya and make great offerings there, he approached the Abott Jnana Shri Metri, by whom he was given a handful of cowries to deliver to an old whitehaired woman who was living at Buddha Gaya. When Atisha reached that city the old woman demanded: "Give me the cowries that were sent to me." Atisha, having paid homage mentally and questioned her in his mind, got the same answers as he had received before (from the yogini). But when he inquired about physical danger, she replied that if Atisha did not set forth for Tibet, he would live to the age of ninety-two years, whereas if he did set forth, he would live to be only seventy-three. At this Atisha courageously decided that he would not care about his health if his journey would benefit Tibet.

Thereupon, many groups of monks and sponsors tried to dissuade him from setting out for Tibet, declaring that, if he did so, India, as the source of religions, would greatly deteriorate. Seeing how things stood, Atisha resorted to very skilful means; not mentioning his journey to Tibet, he went back and forth many times, giving out that he was making huge merits at holy places such as Buddha Gaya. Presently a phantom of Drom (one of his future disciples) came in the form of a merchant and without anyone knowing, he carried away his images of Manjushrivajra and the buddhas, his set of holy writings, and other sacred objects. Thus Atisha was able to proceed to Nepal. There at the request of its king, Yashananda, and many devotees, he stayed for one year, constructed the Tanbhehari Monastery, and established a sangha.

Then Atisha and his disciples reached Nepali Tsong (on the frontier of Tibet) where he met 300 horsemen who had been sent by Jangchub Yod to welcome him. They were clad and adorned all in white and the four great ministers, Lhayi Wangchuck, Lhayi Lodo, Lhayi Sherup and Lhayi Sizin, were encircled by sixteen horsemen who held lances with white flags, whereas the rest of the retinue held small Buddhist flags and twenty umbrellas. All of them, masters and servants, were playing upon flutes and stringed instruments, reciting the Refuge in the Triple Gem and praying: "May the doctrine of the Buddha prosper in Tibet!"

While uttering these auspicious words, they remained mounted and formed a circle. In the centre were placed Atisha and his retinue, with the rest of the horsemen facing them, led by the four great ministers. As in former times when the wise ministers of Chogyal Thrison Dhesten had gone with songs on their lips to receive the Abbot Bodhisatta, so did the ministers come forward singing. This occasion is famous for the thousand melodious and auspicious songs with which they invited Atisha. Nagtso Lotsawa and thirty-five bhikshus encircled him. In their midst stood Atisha, his whole body beautiful to see, pleasing to gaze upon, worthy of worship by humans and gods. Sitting astride his horse, Chanshe Tonmon, he uttered the following words in Sanskrit wiith smiling countenance: "Ema Ho Ati Anti Pala Ho." Uttering many Sanskrit benedictions, he continued on his journey.

While circumambulating Gang Rinpoche 11 he heard the sound of a ghanti (a white sandalwood gong), for the Sthaviras 12 and Yen Lekjun were observing upasojong 13 day. Atisha, on coming face to face with the chief Sthavira, held consultation with him. On the bank of Manasarova Lake, while he was making holy water offerings, 14 Avalokiteshvara appeared, nagas 15 came to worship him and many wondrous events occurred. Then when they were gradually approaching Gughe Tedhen, Nagtso delivered a letter to Lha Lama Jangchub Yod which made the great king cry joyfully: "Long indeed have I been praying for his coming, daily with reverence and faith. Now I shall meet with that Lord! In my dream yesterday there appeared a great sun from the west and a full moon from the east. At their approach, cloud, mist and dust vanished immediately. Also I dreamt that groups of stars gathered in lines as though it were midnight and bowed to sun and moon. Perhaps that moon might be myself but I knew not who was that sun coming from the west. However that may be, it was an auspicious dream."

Then Atisha stood in the centre of his retinue, surrounded by five hundred horsemen, wearing a beautiful cap bright as the sun. Whereas his thirty-four disciples and servants resembled one another in bearing, conduct and costume, his own robe was smooth, shining, of fine texture and sweet-smelling. Brilliant was his splendor, upright his handsome figure and many were his other marks of distinction. The whole gathering, as soon as they beheld that noble man, were unable to take their eyes from him and prayed spontaneously: "We seek your protection." Furthermore they implored: "Pray look compassionately upon us Tibetan people who have accumulated so many evil deeds! Our Lha Lamas who have faced such difficulties for your sake will be overjoyed and by no means grudge the loss of Tibetan men and treasure. Though it was difficult indeed to persuade you, it was truly worth our trouble. Now a good time has come." These words were shouted by all the people with full faith. Atisha also rejoiced extremely. Looking upon the Tibetan people, he blessed them.

Anilha Chick Chobum, Lha Lama's aunt, on meeting Atisha, folded her hands and exclaimed: "For you, pandita, I lost my nephew who was as precious to me as a golden mountain, but now I feel no sorrow or remorse, for I have given my nephew's life in exchange for your coming, pandita. Truly the exchange has been worthwhile. Now, I have you, pandita, to show to Hasu in Nepal and Rinchen Songpo in Mnahri (western Tibet) who set themselves up to be pre-eminent pandits." With these words she laid down the mountain-like burden of sorrow caused by Lha Lama's death. She then offered her turquoise necklace and fifty gold coins to Atisha.

Then Atisha paid a visit to the Todin Golden Monastery and was received by Jangchub Yod with a great procession. Lochen Rinchen Sangpo also invited him to his own monastery. Here, when he had listened to Atisha expound the madhyamika philosophy, and particularly the Sambara abhisheka, as well as other sacred matters and Dharma teachings, holy thoughts sprang up in the Abbot's mind as well as wide comprehension of the teaching; therefore he offered everything he had to Atisha. On being asked by Atisha to accompany him as his interpreter, the Abbot pointed to his head and begged Atisha to allow him to engage in religious practice as he had grown old and grey. Atisha in response to his plea, exhorted him.

"O Rinchen Sangpo! Since you righteously wish to practise religion, let not your mind wander into evil." Rinchen Sangpo, keeping these teachings in mind, sealed his meditation house with iron nails, writing on the lintel of the door: "If any mundane thoughts occur in this place, may the protectors of the Dharma cut off my head!" Having done so, he sat in contemplation for ten years and the mandala of Sambara manifested itself before him.

One day Jangchub Yod, shedding tears, related fully to Atisha how, although Buddhism had been introduced by his paternal ancestors, yet it had since been reduced to ashes and scattered. "Now it lies with you, O gracious Atisha, to bestow on the rude and rough Tibetan converts the profound teachings of the Dharma. O compassionate one! I pray you compose a treatise setting forth the essential points of the Buddha's doctrine in a manner very easy to practise for the benefit of the whole Tibetan people." Atisha responded gladly by writing the Bodhipathaprabha treatise (his famous Light on the Path of Liberation).

Atisha then thought to move on to Tibet's central region, but was restrained by a promise which, at the time of his setting out from India, had been made to the Abbot of Vikramshila Vihara. Should Nagtso Lotsawa not send Atisha back to India after three years in Tibet, that promise would be broken. Accordingly, Nagtso Lotsawa, in fulfilment of his bond, induced Atisha to return to India for that reason. Atisha, at his request, went back as far as Puran, at which place he occasionally received a prophecy from Tara that, with the assistance of an upasaka, he would bring much benefit to Buddhism. Moreover, Tara prophesied that the upasaka would soon come. Atisha kept constant watch for his coming and it was said he used to exclaim, "My upasaka has still not come. Would Tara tell a lie?"

Then one day Dromtonpa, having been invited by a sponsor, arrived at the dwelling while Atisha was out. Though Dromtonpa was informed that Atisha would soon be back, he left, saying: "I would sooner meet my guru earlier than later and I have no time to wait." With these words, he went out and presently met Atisha in a lane. Atisha handed him the tsampa and butter he had begged from his sponsor as a share for his upasaka that day. Dromtonpa ate the tsampa, but he used the butter to offer a lamp which would last throughout the night in front of Atisha's bed. Thereafter, he offered a butter lamp in front of Atisha's bed for the rest of his life. Dromtonpa was blessed by Atisha as his chief disciple at the very moment of their meeting.

Then setting out from Puran, Atisha gradually journeyed to Keydron. At that time, due to inspiration on the part of Atisha and to good fortune on the part of the local Tibetans, the way was blocked by a skirmish near the border of Nepal, and Atisha stayed one year preaching the Dharma to several converts at the shrine of Ranjun Pakpa Lhakhan. Today there still exists in that place the monastery of Keydron Samten Ling.

Dromtonpa Rinpoche eloquently persuaded Atisha to pay a visit to central Tibet, saying there were many Buddha images, holy writings, stupas, and thousands upon thousands of Buddhist monks. When Atisha agreed to grant Dromtonpa's prayer, Drom Rinpoche wrote specially to inform Kawa Sakya Wangchuk, although at that time there were also (other great lamas such as) Nog Lekpi Sherap and Khuton Tsondru Yuntran and so on. In his letter, he wrote: "The great lamas of Tibet must reach here before autumn to welcome Atisha." On receiving the letter, Kawa Sakya informed all the great lamas of Tibet, but before all were ready to set forth together, Khuton left in advance, saying: "It is not necessary to include me in your party." Though he created some anxiety, the rest set forth immediately to invite Atisha. In the meantime, Atisha preached the Dharma widely. The places where he preached are now known as Grachokhor and Ladhap Chokhor. At that time Nagtso could not invite Atisha back to India immediately and, recollecting the promise he had made to the Abbot of Vikramashila, the translator became worried. Seeing this, Atisha consoled him, saying: "O Lotsawa, you should not be so distressed. There is no offense if things are beyond our power to remedy." On hearing the pandita's words, the translator rejoiced and further prayed Atisha to visit central Tibet if there was no offense involved. Then the great lamas of central Tibet arrived to welcome Atisha. These great lamas wore elegant san (shawls of Tibetan monks) and were dressed in setab (ceremonial garments which abbots or monks usually wear on festive occasions as a mark of rank). They rode good horses covered with woolen blankets. Atisha, on seeing them coming, cried: "O upasaka, what are these? Look at all those spirits approaching!" So saying, he hid his head, wrapping it tightly in his robe. So Dromtonpa told the newcomers that it was proper for the great lamas of Tibet to come dressed in bhikshus' robes. When they drew nigh, on Dromtonpa's advice, Atisha rose and returned their prostrations. In due course, when Atisha was on the way to Tsang, at Palpud Tan he met Lhodrak Marpa Lotsawa who was about to leave for his last journey to India. Marpa studied the Dharma with Atisha but, on being asked by the pandita to accompany him as his interpreter, replied: "It is absolutely necessary for me to go to India this time; however, I can meet you afterwards."

Then gradually they approached Sakya, and Atisha, pointing in that direction, prophesied that an incarnation of Manjushri would appear there. At this place Drokme Lotsawa bowed himself to the feet of Atisha as a disciple and venerated and served him meritoriously. Then when Atisha was proceeding towards Nartan, he foretold that at this place an incarnation of Arya Sthivira would occur in the near future. Thereafter he visited the shrine of Shalun Tel where he stayed in a rocky cave and preached many sermons. On leaving this place, he passed Buddhist Lent in Myantod, where he encountered three disciples, namely Yolchos, Yoldranron and Yoltag Bab. Disciple Golo also came and bowed at the feet of Atisha. Gonpapa, coming to the same place, did likewise and presented offerings. After Buddhist Lent, Atisha went to the central region by way of Ron. When he reached Gonpa Jangtang (a grassy undulating plain in the north of Tibet) he pointed towards the mountain of Lhasa and, on inquiring what was to be found there, was told that it contained the Temple of Lhasa (an appellation of the Jo Khan; the chief temple there). Then he observed: "In the direction of this temple there are three rainbows and many deva children are paying their respects."

When Atisha came to Samye, he was served by Devaguru Bodhiraj and there was a great congregation of Tibetans to whom Atisha preached many sermons. In Samye, while he was in the temple or circumambulating it, he performed numerous miracles which inspired many people to attain single-hearted faith. Then he was invited by Khuton to Yarlun where he stayed in the Rarted quarter and preached often. However, as Khuton did not conduct himself well, Dromtonpa and others fled with their master, embarking in a boat belonging to Myanpo. Khuton, seeing this, ran after them and cried: "Atisha, I beg you to stay." But the master kept silent and threw his cap to him as a keepsake that would bring blessings. Thereafter Atisha stayed in the shrine of Won at Keru for one month and drew a picture of himself on the wall there. Then he returned to Samye and stayed in the Pakar Ling. There, on seeing many holy writings from India, he felt boundless joy and cried: "Oh, the spread of Buddhism in Tibet in former times was even greater than in India! Seeing these holy writings, it is just as if I were at Maha Bodhi!" So saying, Atisha rejoiced in the monastery and holy places there.

Then nearly two hundred horsemen came from Banton to receive him, and he and his attendants went to Godhar and stayed in Gyapep for one month. Later, when Atisha was proceeding to the Jo Khan at the invitation of Nog Lekpi Sherap, Avalokiteshvara appeared in the form of a tall layman and declared: "Excellent! the Maha Pandita has come and I pray he may win victory!" Uttering these words, he hurried away. Although Atisha dismounted and ran after him, he could not come up with him. On being asked what he was doing, he replied: "Have you not seen a tall layman?" "Yes, we did," they answered, so Atisha said: "Well, that was my tutelary deity Mahakaruna 16 and, desiring to do him obeisance, I ran after him but could not catch up with him. Oh, there is nothing more wonderful than this Mahakaruna of the Jo Khan shrine of Lhasa! He is the real Mahakaruna." Again on seeing the image of Shakyamuni, he declared it to be a real embodiment of Shakyamuni. He thereupon ordered a skilful sculptor from India to construct a similar image. Presently he wondered whether there existed a history of that monastery and of its dedication by King Tsonten Gampo, whereupon a mad beggarwoman cried that she would display its history to him. Recognizing her as a disguised yogini, Atisha paid her homage in his mind and asked her to show it to him by all means. "Well, it is written on the Bumpa pillar at a height of two and a half fathoms, but it would be wise not to disclose this to others," replied the yogini. Atisha found it just as she had said and a guardian of the temple treasures who was standing near by told them they could copy as much as they could write on that day. Dromtonpa and four disciples spent the day copying it, but there still remained a little that could not be finished that day.

During Atisha's stay in Lhasa for one winter season, many amazing signs occurred. He spent the summer that year in Yerpa at the invitation of Nog Jangchub Jungne and performed many deeds for the benefit of sentient beings. Thereafter he was invited to Penpo by Kawa Sakya Wangchuk and stayed in Menpa Jilpur, were he preached many sermons. Next he returned to Yerpa, where he received an invitation from Bhaton and, travelling back through Lhasa, came to Nartan. During all these days, Drom Rinpoche investigated the essential stages of the liberation path day and night continually.

After settling at the Lhari Ningpo Cul Monastery in Yerpa, the guru and his disciples spent three years discussing and examining the very essence of the stages of the liberation path and then they made a summary of this teaching. In that same place, Atisha gave instruction in the seven Kadam Lhacho (seven wholesome teachings of Kadam) as well as sermons and initiations pertaining to the sixteen tigle. Sanpu Noglekpi Sherap offered a mandala to both Atisha and Dromtonpa, praying them to compose a book to reveal the secret mysteries of both the guru and his disciple. In response, Atisha wrote the Noble Biography of Dromtonpa, whereas Dromtonpa wrote on the extremely secret occult teachings of Atisha in a book called A Book of Phantoms which in these days is known as the Kadam Lek Bum. For many years this was transmitted privately (from lama to pupil) and was not allowed to be preached in public. Later, an emanation of Dromtonpa Rinpoche known as Drom Ku Mara clarified the secret of this Dharma and spread it. Then in due course, this doctrine was made public at the monastery of Nartan. Since then it has spread in all directions.

 


 

The Life of Atisha

Childhood and Renunciation of Princely Life

In eastern India, in the land of Jahor, in the city of Bangala, in the Golden Banner Palace, lived King Kalyana the Good and Queen Prabhavati the Radiant. The royal palace was crowned with thirteen golden roofs, one set atop the other, and magnificently adorned with 25,000 golden banners. It was surrounded by countless parks, pools, and beautiful gardens. The kingdom was as rich as the ancient, opulent dynasties of China.

The royal couple had three sons, Padmagarbha, Chandragarbha, and Shrigarbha. It was this second prince, who grew up to become our illustrious teacher, Atisha (Jo-bo rje dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982-1054 CE).

When Atisha was eighteen months old, his parents held his first public audience at the local temple, Kamalapuri. Without any instruction, he prostrated to the venerable objects inside and spontaneously recited, "Because of the compassion of my parents, I have attained a precious human life rich with the opportunity to view all you great figures. I shall always take from you my safe direction (refuge) in life." When introduced to his royal subjects outside, he prayed to realize his fullest potential in order to satisfy their every need. He also prayed to be able to take the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life, never to be proud, and always to have compassionate sympathy and loving concern for others. This was most extraordinary for such a young child. 

As Atisha grew older, his wish to become a mendicant monk increased ever stronger, but his parents had different expectations. Of their three sons, he was the brightest, and the auspicious omens at his birth helped convince them that he should be the royal successor. Therefore, when the boy reached eleven, the customary age for marriage at that time, they made elaborate preparations for him to take a bride. 

On his wedding eve, the Buddha-figure (yidam) Tara appeared to Atisha vividly in a dream. She told him that for 500 consecutive lives he had been a mendicant monk and therefore not to have any attraction for the transitory pleasures of this world. She explained that an ordinary person caught up in them would be relatively easy to rescue, like a goat trapped in quicksand. But, as a royal prince, he would be as difficult to extract as an elephant. The boy told no one about this dream, but on other grounds cleverly excused himself from this marriage.

Having firmly resolved to find a spiritual teacher, but telling his parents he wished to go hunting, Atisha now left the palace with 130 horsemen. First, he met in the jungle the holy Jetari, a man of the brahmin priestly caste who was living as a Buddhist recluse. From him, the lad formally accepted a safe direction in life and took the bodhisattva vows. This holy man then sent him to the sequestered monastic university of Nalanda and the spiritual master Bodhibhadra.

Atisha immediately set off with all his horsemen and there, from Bodhibhadra, he again received the bodhisattva vows and teachings. He was next directed to the great Vidyakokila for further instruction and then on to the famous Avadhutipa. This latter master advised the boy to return home, treat everyone respectfully, but try to see the drawbacks of such a luxurious life and then report back.

Atisha’s parents were delighted to see him and thought at last he would settle down, take a wife, and prepare for his future rule. However, the lad informed them that he had in fact gone in search of a spiritual teacher for guiding direction. He confessed that all he wished was to lead a quiet, contemplative life and had come for permission to take leave of his princely duties.

Shocked at his words, his parents tried to dissuade him from leaving. They said he could combine both lives and offered to build sequestered monasteries near the palace and let him study, feed the poor and so on. They pleaded with him not to return to the jungle. But, Atisha told them he had not the slightest attraction to royal life. "To me," he said, "this golden palace is no different from a prison. The princess you offer is no different from a daughter of the demons, the sweet food no different from the rotted flesh of a dog, and these satin clothes and jewels are no different from rags from the garbage heap. From this day onwards, I am determined to live in the jungle and study at the feet of the master Avadhutipa. All I ask is for some milk, honey, and brown sugar and I shall take my leave."

There was nothing his parents could do but consent to his request and so Atisha returned to the jungle with these provisions and an embarrassingly large entourage of royal attendants they insisted accompany him. Avadhutipa now sent the young prince to the master Rahulagupta, on the Black Mountain, to enter the practice of tantra. Atisha arrived with all his horsemen and told this vajra master how he had studied with many teachers, but still was unable to shake off his bondage to royal life. Rahulagupta conferred upon him his first empowerment, which was into the practice of Hevajra, a Buddha-figure with which to bond his mind. He then sent him back to the palace with eight of his disciples, four male and four female, dressed scantily in the bone ornaments of mahasiddhas, great adepts with actual attainments.

For three months, Atisha stayed in the environs of the palace with these strange new companions, behaving in a completely unconventional and outrageous manner. In the end, his parents were forced to give up all hopes for their precious son. Thinking him to have gone mad, they gave full permission for him to leave with his rather unsavory-looking friends and be gone once and for all.

Studies in India and the Golden Isle

Atisha immediately ran back to his master Avadhutipa and now, from the age of twenty-one to twenty-five, studied intensively the Madhyamaka middle way outlook of reality. During this period, he also studied with many other highly accomplished teachers and became extremely well versed in all systems of tantra practice. In fact, he became rather proud of his erudition and felt he was rather clever with these hidden measures to protect the mind and that he had mastered all their texts. But then, he received a pure vision of a dakini, a celestial maiden whose movements are unimpeded by ignorance, who held in her arms many volumes on the everlasting streams of such tantra systems. She told him, "In your land, there are only a few such texts, but in our land there are so many." After this, his pride was deflated.

One day, he decided to go off and devote all his energies to the tantra practices in order to realize his fullest potential in his very life. His vajra master, Rahulagupta, then appeared in a dream and advised him not to do so and desert everybody, but to become a mendicant monk. He should continue in this manner with steady practice and achieve perfect enlightenment in its due course of time. Thus, at the age of twenty-nine, Atisha received from the stable elder, Shilarakshita, the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life and was given the name Dipamkara Jnana, "He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp."

During his first two years after taking robes, Atisha studied at the monastic university of Odantipuri with the great Dharmarakshita, the author of the famous lojong (blo-sbyong, mind-training) text for cleansing our attitudes, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. They focused on all the Hinayana or modest-minded measures to take as a vehicle leading to liberation, but Atisha was always dissatisfied. He longed for the fastest way to realize his fullest potential.

His vajra master Rahulagupta told him, "It does not matter how many pure visions you receive, you must train to develop caring love, compassionate sympathy, and a bodhichitta aim totally dedicated to benefiting others and to achieving enlightenment." He advised him to commit himself wholeheartedly to the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara, to bond his mind closely with him and work to become enlightened so that he could best free everyone from samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence. Only with this achievement would he realize his fullest potential.

At Vajrasana, the Vajra Seat, at modern Bodh Gaya, while circumambulating the great stupa relic monument for honoring the Buddha, Atisha heard two statues whispering to each other in a niche overhead. One asked the other, "If you wish to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible, in what should you train?" "A totally dedicated heart of bodhichitta" was the reply. And while circumambulating the cupola of the monument, a statue of Buddha, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All, spoke to him saying, "O mendicant monk, if you wish to realize your fullest potential quickly, train in love, compassion, and bodhichitta." 

At that time, the most famous master holding the complete teachings on how to develop bodhichitta was Dharmamati, the Sublime Teacher from Suvarnadvipa, the Golden Isle. Thus, with a group of 125 learned monks, Atisha set off on a ship of merchants bound for the Golden Isle, modern Sumatra. In those days a long ocean voyage was not an easy affair and they had a particularly difficult passage with storms, whales, and losing their way. It took thirteen arduous months to complete their journey, but Atisha remained undaunted throughout.

When they finally landed, Atisha did not go at once to the famous master, but stayed instead for a full two weeks with a group of this master’s disciples. He prodded them over and again for information about their teacher and insisted on his full biography. This shows us the importance of thoroughly examining a spiritual master and checking his or her qualifications before going to study.

Meanwhile, this Sublime Teacher from the Golden Isle had heard of the arrival from India of the learned scholar and his mendicant companions on their spiritual quest. He assembled his own community of monks for the welcome and when Atisha arrived, they performed together many formal ceremonies auspicious for the future. He also presented Atisha with a Buddha statue and predicted that one day he would tame the minds of the people of the northern Land of Snow.

Atisha stayed in the Golden Isle for twelve years, avidly training with this master. First, he studied A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamaya-alamkara) the Triumphant Maitreya’s guideline instructions for fathoming the Omniscient One’s Sutras of Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Sher-phyin-gyi mdo, Skt. Prajnaparamita Sutras). He then gradually received the full teachings on extensive behavior from the lineage of Maitreya and Asanga, as well as those of the special lineage on exchanging selfishness for concern with others, which the bodhisattva Shantideva, a spiritual son of the Triumphant, had received directly from the ennobling, impeccable Manjushri himself. After Atisha gained, through these methods, a full-realization of a bodhichitta aim, he returned to India at the age of forty-five and resided thereafter mostly at the sequestered monastic university of Vikramashila.

All in all, Atisha studied with 157 great teachers, but he had such exceptional reverence for this magnificent teacher from the Golden Isle and the measures he imparted that tears would well in his eyes whenever he mentioned or heard his name. When later asked by his Tibetan disciples if this display of emotion meant that he favored one of his teachers above all others, Atisha replied, "I make no distinctions among all my spiritual mentors. But because of the kindness of my sublime master from the Golden Isle, I have gained peace of mind and the dedicated heart of a bodhichitta aim."

Inviting Atisha to Tibet

After Atisha’s return to India, he protected and upheld the Triumphant One’s hallowed Dharma by three times defeating in formal debate non-Buddhist extremists. Within the Buddhist fold, he established many institutes of learning wherever he traveled, and whenever he saw signs of degenerate or misinformed practices, he would immediately reform them. His fame spread throughout India. Because of his compassion and insight, he was revered as the crowning jewel of the erudite masters. He conferred the greatest benefit, however, on the people of Tibet, the Land of Snow.

Although the Buddha Dharma had been brought to Tibet several centuries earlier through the efforts primarily of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava (Gu-ru Rin-po-che Pad-ma ‘byung-gnas) and several others, this early flowering suffered a great setback due to repression by King Langdarma (Glang-dar-ma) (863 – 906 CE). Few practitioners were left and afterwards many points were no longer properly understood. Many felt that the practices of ethical self-discipline and tantra were mutually exclusive and that enlightenment could be achieved through intoxication and various forms of sexual misconduct. Others believed that likewise contradictory were the teachings of Hinayana and Mahayana, leading respectively to liberation and enlightenment.

Saddened by this degenerate condition, the Tibetan king Yeshey-wo (Ye-shes ‘od) wished very strongly to invite a learned master from one of the great monastic centers of India to come to Tibet and clarify the confusion. Not knowing specifically of Atisha, he sent twenty-one young men to study Sanskrit and locate a suitable master. All but two died of the heat. Unable to invite anyone, but having learned the language, the new translators Rinchen-zangpo (Rin-chen bzang-po) (958 – 1051 CE) and Legshay (Legs-bshad) returned to the king and informed him about Atisha.

As soon as he heard his name, the king decided that this Atisha was the person who was needed. Wasting no time, he sent a second party of nine, headed by Gyatsonseng (rGya brtson-‘grus seng-ge), with much gold to invite this master. But the eight companions died as well and, unable to bring Atisha, Gyatsonseng stayed on in India. When news of this second failure reached Yeshey-wo, he decided to lead an expedition himself to collect more gold for yet another party. But on this mission, he was captured on the Nepalese border by the rival King of Garlog (Gar-log, Qarluq), who wished to prevent the further spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

King Yeshey-wo’s nephew, Jangchub-wo, was informed either to give up this mission to India or to raise an amount of gold equal to the size of his uncle in order to secure the hostage’s release. The nephew traveled about the kingdom, but was only able to collect gold equal to the King’s torso and limbs. He could not raise the additional gold for his head. When the Garlog ruler demanded the full measure of ransom, the nephew requested permission to see his uncle.

He was taken to a dark prison cell enclosed by iron bars. There he explained the situation to his uncle, who was in chains and very frail, and said he would continue to search for the remaining gold. "Do not give up hope," he told his uncle, "for I shall raise the ransom. I could wage war with this Garlog king, but many would be killed. Buying your freedom seems best."

"My dear nephew," the aged King replied, "I never expected you to have such compassion and wisdom. I am pleased that you understand the evils of violence, but now you must forget about me. Instead, use all the gold you have collected to invite to Tibet the great master Atisha. I have died countless times in previous lives, but I am sure I have never before sacrificed myself for the Triumphant One’s Dharma. Now I am very happy to do so. Whomever you send to India, please have him tell Atisha that I have given my life for the welfare of my subjects and the Dharma so that he could be brought to Tibet. Although I have not had the fortune to meet him this lifetime, I have fervent hopes that I can in the future." The nephew submitted to his uncle’s command and departed, nearly overcome by grief.

Jangchub-wo, now became King of Tibet. He decided that the best person he could send on this third mission would be the translator Nagtso (Nag-mtsho Lo-tsa-ba), who had already been to India several times. The new king invited him to the palace and, insisting that the translator sit on the royal throne, pleaded with him. "My uncle died so that Atisha could be invited to Tibet. If his wish is not fulfilled, the troubled people of this land will surely fall into terrible rebirths. I beg you to save these unfortunate beings." The young king then broke down and wept. Nagtso had no choice but to accept and brave the hardships of yet another journey to India.

The translator set off with 700 gold coins and six companions. The King escorted them for several days and, before taking his leave, reminded Nagtso to tell Atisha, "This is the last of the gold in Tibet and my uncle was the last of Tibet’s great men. If he has any compassion for others, he must come. If the barbarians of Tibet have such concern for the Dharma and he has none, then Buddhism has indeed weakened and there is no hope!" The King then turned back to his palace. 

On the way to India, the delegation met a young boy who asked the purpose of their journey. When told, he was very pleased and said, "You will be successful in your quest if you always recite this prayer, ‘I make obeisance to and take safe direction from Avalokiteshvara. I request that the Triumphant One’s Dharma flourish in Tibet.’" When asked who he was, the boy said they would find out in due time.

Eventually, the travelers reached the sequestered monastic university of Vikramashila late one night and camped at the gates. In a room above, lived Gyatsonseng, the Tibetan who had led King Yeshey-wo’s second mission. When he heard voices speaking his native tongue, he looked down with great surprise and, seeing the party camped below, asked why they had come. The Tibetans excitedly related their story, and even disclosed that the purpose of their mission was, in fact, to bring Atisha himself back to Tibet. Gyatsonseng warned them not to reveal their aims so openly. He advised them to leave their gold with the boy posted at the gate and come to see him in the morning. The travelers did so and the small boy told them to rest and to trust him.

Early the next day, the lad woke them and asked why they had come. When they told him everything, the boy said crossly, "You Tibetans talk too much! You must keep this quiet. Otherwise, there will be much interference. Important things should never be done in haste, but always slowly, carefully, and in secret." He then returned their gold coins and led them into the enormous monastic grounds.

The party met an old man who greeted them and asked where they were from and why they had come. Again, they made no attempt to hide anything and the old man scolded them, "If you continue indiscreetly like this, you will never accomplish your goal. Tell your mission only to Atisha." He then offered to show them to Gyatsonseng’s room. Although he walked slowly with a cane, no one could keep up with him, for he too, like the small boys before, was an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, overseeing their mission.

Now the Tibetans decided on a plan of action. Gyatsonseng told them to say they had come to study Sanskrit. "Our chief abbot, the elder Ratnakara, is Atisha’s superior and regards him very highly. If he hears of your real purpose, he will make sure you never even meet Atisha."

The next morning, they reported to the Abbot and presented him with half their gold coins. They told him that in the past many of their countrymen had come to India seeking to invite to Tibet such erudite masters as Atisha. However, they had come to study and become learned themselves. The venerable elder was greatly relieved and said, "By all means do that. Do not misunderstand. It is not that I have no compassion for Tibet, but Atisha is one of our most highly realized masters, especially in terms of his bodhichitta. If he does not remain in India, there is no hope for the Buddha’s teachings to be preserved in their birthplace." The Abbot, however, was still highly suspicious of these foreigners and prevented them from meeting Atisha.

The Tibetans, convinced that their ploy had worked, began to attend classes and bided their time. After several months, an important monastic ceremony was held. As everyone was required to attend, the travelers hoped that at last they would catch a glimpse of Atisha. As they watched and waited, many great masters made their entrance. Some, like the famous Naropa, came surrounded by a huge retinue. Others were preceded by attendants bearing flowers and incense. Finally, Atisha arrived. He was dressed in old tattered robes, with the chapel and storehouse keys tied to his waist. The Tibetans were sorely disappointed with his unimpressive appearance and asked Gyatsonseng if they could invite one of the other more glamorous masters instead. Gyatsonseng told them, "No, Atisha has a very special close bond with Tibet and, despite his appearance, he is the one you must bring back."

Finally, a secret meeting was arranged. Nagtso presented Atisha with the gold coins piled high on a round mandala offering plate and told him the history of how the hallowed Dharma had degenerated in Tibet. Relating the story of King Yeshey-wo’s sacrifice and repeating the words of both the uncle and nephew, Nagtso pleaded with him to come.

Atisha told them they were very kind and that he had no doubt that those Tibetan kings were in fact bodhisattvas. He was aware of the problems and sincerely respected the King for his sacrifice, but they must try to understand he was getting on in years and had many responsibilities as keeper of the monastery’s storehouse. He hoped it would be possible to come and returned their gold for the journey home. "Meanwhile," he told them, "I must consult with my personal yidam."

That night, Tara appeared to Atisha in a pure vision and told him his journey would be a complete success. He would benefit the Tibetans enormously and would find among them a disciple with an especially close bond to him. This would be an upasaka, a man with lay vows, and he would spread the Dharma even further. "But," she told him, "if you remain in India, you will live to be ninety-two, whereas if you go to Tibet your life span will be seventy-two years." Atisha now felt confident to go with the Tibetans and that it was worth the sacrifice of twenty years of his life if he could truly benefit others. He would have to find some clever means to obtain leave from his shrewd abbot.

First, he asked permission to make pilgrimages to the east, south, and west of Vikramashila. This was granted and he visited a number of holy places. He then asked to make a similar journey to the north, but the Elder, sensing his hidden motive, refused.

The Tibetan delegation was thrown into great despair and decided the only hope was to tell the Abbot the entire truth. The stable Elder pretended to be angry, and the Tibetans immediately fell to their knees and pleaded for forgiveness. "My reasons for not wishing to give you Atisha are the same as before," the Abbot began, "but because the need of Tibet is so great, I am willing to let him remain in your land for three years. However, you must promise to return him to India after that time." Overwhelmed with joy, the Tibetans pledged their word.

Reforming and Revitalizing the Dharma in Tibet

Thus, at the age of fifty-three, Atisha set out on the long journey to the Land of Snow. On route, the translator Gyatsonseng fell ill and died. In grief, Atisha declared, "Now my tongue has been cut out!" Then Nagtso humbly bowed before him and said, "Please do not worry. Although my Sanskrit is not perfect, it will surely improve. There are others as well who maybe can serve you."

In Nepal, they met the great eye-opening translator Marpa (Mar-pa Lo-tsa-ba) (1012 – 1099 CE), who was on his way to India for the third time. Atisha invited him to be his interpreter, but Marpa excused himself by saying, "It was my teacher’s wish that I visit India three times. Now, I must make this final journey." They also met the aged translator Rinchen-zangpo, but he too was unable to help. "As you can see by the white hair on my head," he said, "I am very old. I have worked all my life without ever the chance for doing intensive practice." Thus, Atisha went on, forced to rely on Nagtso’s limited skills.

After two years of travel, the party finally arrived in Upper Tibet (sTod, western Tibet) at the city of Ngari (mNga’-ri), the capital of Yeshey-wo’s kingdom. Both the householders and the monks formed a grand procession and invited Atisha to stay at the nearby sequestered monastery. The Indian master was overjoyed at this enthusiasm for the Triumphant One’s teachings and was greatly surprised at the number who had taken the robes of a spiritual seeker. Many learned people came from all over Tibet. He was so impressed with the profundity of their questions concerning the Sage Buddha’s sutras and tantras that he wondered why they had gone to so much trouble to invite him when there were already so many masters. However, when he quizzed them back as to how these two sets of preventive measures formed an integral whole, they were unable to answer. Atisha now knew the purpose of his mission.

One day, King Jangchub-wo requested a teaching for the people of Tibet. "We do not want one on measures that are so vast and profound we shall be unable to adopt them," he said. "What we need is something that will tame our minds and enable us to deal with our everyday impulsive behavior (karma) and its results. Please teach us the measures you yourself take."

Atisha was so enchanted by the simplicity and sincerity of the King’s request that in later years he referred to him as "my excellent disciple." Had he been asked for advanced empowerments into tantric deity systems or for practices conferring special powers, he would have been far less pleased. Thus, he spent three years at Ngari giving discourses later compiled into A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma, Skt. Bodhipathapradipa), the prototype for all future texts on this subject.

The points he always emphasized in his talks with the people earned him the nicknames, "Sublime Teacher of Safe Direction (Lama Refuge)" and "Sublime Teacher of Impulsive Behavior and Its Results (Lama Cause and Effect)." He was very pleased with this and said, "Even hearing such names might prove beneficial."

Throughout this time, Atisha kept watch for his future chief disciple, the Tibetan layman prophesied by ennobling, impeccable Tara, but he had still not appeared. One day, the Indian was invited to a patron’s house for lunch and, as he was a strict vegetarian, was served traditional toasted barley cakes (tsampa). When he left, he asked for a few extra pieces and some butter. At that very same moment, the revered Dromtonpa (‘Brom-ston rGyal-ba’i ‘byung-gnas) (1004 – 1064 CE), the awaited upasaka layman, arrived at Atisha’s house. He asked the attendants, "Where is my sublime Mahayana guru?" They replied, "Atisha is having lunch with his patron. If you wait here, he will return shortly."

Dromtonpa could not wait. Instead, he ran quickly toward the patron’s house. Atisha and Dromtonpa met in one of the streets. Although they had never seen each other before, there was an immediate mutual recognition because of their close bond from previous lives. Dromtonpa made prostration and Atisha, offering him the barley cakes, said, "Here is your lunch. You must be very hungry." The layman ate the cakes and used the butter to make a butter-lamp offering to his newly found spiritual master. From that time onwards, he offered such a lamp each night without fail.

After Atisha had been in Ngari three years, he set out with the translator Nagtso for the return to India. But, a war on the Nepalese border prevented their passage. Nagtso became extremely anxious since now it appeared impossible for him to keep his promise to the Abbot of Vikramashila. Atisha immediately calmed his fears by saying, "It is useless to worry about a situation that is beyond your control."

Greatly relieved, Nagtso wrote the Abbot a letter, explaining how their good intentions had been thwarted. As partial recompense for his absence, Atisha sent with it a copy of A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. He also requested permission to stay in Tibet for the remainder of his life. They then returned to Ngari.

Nowadays, the publication of a book is a relatively simple commercial transaction. At the time of Atisha, however, before a manuscript could be printed, it had to pass a rigid examination by a committee of scholars, presided over by the local king. If the work were found lacking in any way, it would be tied to the tail of a dog and dragged through the dust. While the author, instead of reaping praise and fame, would suffer a humiliating loss of reputation.

Atisha’s text was subjected to this same scrutiny and the committee unanimously agreed to its outstanding worth. The presiding king was even moved to remark that it would not only benefit the ignorant Tibetans, but the sharp-minded Indians as well. When the Abbot of Vikramashila read the text, he wrote to Nagtso the translator, "I have no more objections to Atisha’s remaining in Tibet. What he has written has benefited us all. I merely ask that he now compose and send us his own commentary to it." This is how Atisha’s own explanation of the difficult points of this important text (Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma’i dka’-‘grel) came to be written.

Soon, Dromtonpa invited Atisha to travel further north to Central Tibet (dBus) and visit Lhasa. On the way, they stopped at Samyay (bSam-yas), the first monastery built in Tibet. Atisha was very impressed by the library’s Sanskrit and Tibetan collections and said that he did not think that so many Sanskrit Buddhist texts existed even in India at that time.

Altogether, Atisha spent seventeen years in the Land of Snow: three in Ngari, nine in Nyetang (sNye-thang) near Lhasa, and five in various other places until his death in 1054 CE at the age of seventy-two as prophesied by Tara. Atisha’s body was embalmed and enshrined at Nyetang and, two years later (1056 CE), the revered layman Dromtonpa established the sequestered Radreng Monastery (Rva-sgreng rGyal-ba’i dben-gnas), the most important center of the Kadam (bKa’-gdams) tradition which passed on his master’s lineages.

Nagtso the translator recalled that not once during the long time they had been together had Atisha ever said or done anything unpleasant. Teaching an integrated path of sutra and tantra, the great Indian master accomplished the enormous task of reforming and revitalizing the spread in Tibet of the Triumphant One’s complete Dharma. In fact, it is due to his kindness that these hallowed measures have survived in their original form up until the present.

Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
oral translation by Sharpa Tulku
prepared and edited by Alexander Berzin
lightly revised by Alexander Berzin, November 2003

Original version excerpted from
Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice, vol 1.
Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1982.