Atisha’s Origin Story

Atisha’s Origin Story

Special Kagyu Monlam 2023 • Day 2

Gyalwang Karmapa on the Life of Atisha • Day 1

30 January, 2023

As the seeds of the current Kagyu Monlam were planted in the 1980’s in Bodhgaya through the kindness of the previous Kalu Rinpoche and previous Bokar Rinpoche (among others), His Holiness began today’s teaching by remarking upon the auspicious historical connections that were flourishing through hosting the 2023 Special Kagyu Monlam at Bokar Shedra Obar Chimeyling.

Atisha was an extremely influential early master in Tibetan Buddhism.  He is particularly revered as a founder of the Kadampa lineage and cherished within our own Dakpo Kagyu for his stages of the path Lam rim teachings. Lord Gampopa, our Kagyu forefather, began his studies with Kadampa masters before receiving teachings from Milarepa on Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa.  Gampopa subsequently taught both of these traditions to his disciples, and henceforth the Kagyu lineage has been known as the confluence of the Kadampa and Mahamudra traditions.  Therefore, Atisha’s teachings and life story hold a particular importance for us.

Atisha was born in 982 CE in Vikramapura, in present-day Bangladesh

Although various accounts differ, the Praise in Thirty Verses of Atisha by Dromtönpa states:

The omniscient guru
Was born in the year of the female fire tiger.

This would place Atisha’s birth in 982 CE according to western calculations.

Medieval India was divided into five regions during that era — the area around Bodhgaya, which was central in terms of both geography and dharma, plus the regions in the four cardinal directions — according to Chinese translators, including Xuanzang’s travel narratives in India. Dromtönpa’s summary says that Atisha was born in The prosperous land of Bengal” in eastern India, located in present-day Bangladesh. The Praise in Eighty Verses of Atisha by the translator Nagtso says:

In the eastern region of Sahara,
There is a great city.
That is Vikramapura.

This pinpoints the location of Atisha’s birth in the Munshiganj district of Bangladesh, formerly Vikramapura in medieval times. Vikramapura was a prominent regional centre for Buddhism, as noted by Xuanzang during his visit in the seventh century, and the capital from the tenth to the thirteenth century, during three subsequent dynasties, the Chandra, Vardhamapa, and Sena.

Atisha was the second son of a noble family

Atisha was born into a regional royal family, said to have descended from the Pāla kings. According to contemporary histories of Bangladesh, his father was Kalyanachandra, the third king of the Chandra dynasty in East Bengal, who reigned from 975–1000 CE. From Dromtönpa’s praise of Atisha:

His father’s venerable family was the line of kings of Zahor.

His Holiness noted that Zahor is likely a Tibetan corruption of the Sanskrit sahora, meaning “good” or “excellent” and can alternately refer to a name or a place.  However in this case, His Holiness speculated that it was the name of a particular family.

Atisha’s mother was named Shri Prabhavati, and his parents had three sons:  the eldest Padmagarbha who ascended to the throne, the middle son Chandragarbha, later known as Atisha, and the youngest Śrīgarbha who also went forth as a monastic and later went to Tibet, after Atisha had passed away.

During the time of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, 200 years before Atisha's birth, Shantarakshita went to Tibet.  He also was from Bengal in eastern India, and it is said that both he and Atisha were from the same family line. From Dromtönpa's praise of Atisha:

The line in which the bodhisattva Shantarakshita was born…

His Holiness commented on the amazing coincidence that the two most influential Indian mahapanditas in the history of Tibetan Buddhism both were from eastern India and both from the same family line, probably arising from a previous karmic connection.

A childhood with visions of Tara and scholastic mastery

From an early age, Atisha showed great intelligence and was a respectful son to his parents. He was good-looking and charismatic, so everyone treated him well.

When Atisha was young, he had visions of Tara and was blessed by her.  Once when he was sleeping on a bed in the palace, there was a loud cracking and rumbling sound.  Both his parents wondered what it was and went to look. A huge scorpion had fallen down in front of the boy. Atisha was looking at the scorpion without even the slightest fear or trepidation, and the scorpion ultimately left.  It was thought that this was a sign that Atisha would have obstacles before he saw his special deity and could practice naturally.  The next day there was another cracking and rumbling sound, and when his parents looked, his mother saw that a fresh blue utpala flower had appeared.  Atisha said he saw Tara's face at that time.  From then on, whenever he had doubts or questions, Atisha would arrange offerings in front of a painting of Tara and pray.  Sometimes she would teach him dharma, but even if she did not actually teach dharma, Atisha’s confusion would be resolved from within. So from an early age he had visions of Tara and received her blessing.

Atisha studied medicine, crafts, writing, and so forth, until he was ten.  Then he studied both Buddhist and non-Buddhist grammar and logic until he was 21. Basically, he studied all the different areas of knowledge that one had to study in India at that time, the 64 arts as they are called.  In particular, he was very skilled in grammar and logic. From the translator Nagtso's Eighty Verses of Praise:

At the age of twenty-one,
You were learned
In all sixty-four arts,
All the crafts,
Sanskrit language,
And all logic.

As an illustration of his intellectual prowess, having listened once to teachings on the Drop of Reasoning when he was 15, Atisha then debated and defeated a learned non-Buddhist scholar. He thus became a well-known scholar, according to Geshe Drolungpa Chenpo.

After Atisha went to Tibet, he became aware of the Tibetans’ lack of understanding of proper pronunciation, logic, and debate.  Once, his attendant Bangtön was reciting the long dharani of Avalokiteshvara and blessing beings.  Atisha said that no blessings could come from Bangtön’s pronunciation of the mantra, but blessings would come because of his kind intentions.  Atisha’s hand was hurt, and he said, “Bless this, as you have kind intentions.”  Atisha also said, “You in Tibet don’t even have a word for logic or epistemology.  You could never debate against non-Buddhists.  If they were to come, Tibet could not withstand them."

Apprenticing with tantric adepts in his youth

Atisha received dharma from many sources, including gurus who had achieved siddhis.  When Atisha was 22, he had a vision of Hevajra at the Black Mountain Temple and received prophecies from dakinis.  He received the full tantric empowerments from the guru Rahulaguptavadra and was given the secret name Jñānavajra.  He also studied secret mantra with Kamalarakshita, a yogi of Yamantaka, who could transform beer into milk and levitated across the Ganges on his mat.  Different sources report that for seven, nine or even 12 years, he studied with the elder Avadhūtipa from the Yogachara Middle Way school, and due to this Atisha seems to have held the Yogachara Middle Way view.  When asked why he held the Yogachara Middle Way view, Atisha said, “I asked my guru Avadhūtipa the same question, and he said, ‘I see dharma in this way, so you should also uphold this.’”  Shantipa, the famous Mind Only teacher who guarded the eastern gate at Nalanda, was another of Atisha’s gurus, teaching him  the 8000 verse Prajnaparamita.  When Shantipa refuted each of the Middle Way explanations, Atisha said that instead of it making him doubt his Middle Way view, the refutation made his view become clearer.  Atisha had great faith in the Consequentialist Middle Way view of Chandrakirti’s tradition.

Atisha spent a long time with the guru Avadhūtipa and they never chatted together or talked about mundane things.  Sometimes Atisha asked for teachings, paying great respect by offering a golden mandala, but Avadhūtipa would not teach.  At other times, Avadhūtipa would unexpectedly teach at inopportune moments.  One day when Atisha and his guru were walking across a narrow bridge, Avadhūtipa looked back, and said, “Son, until you are free of ego-clinging, avoid even the tiniest of tiny karmic ripenings.”  Atisha described how each of his guru’s words could bring exceptional realization.  Atisha spent six years practicing the crazy actions of yogic conduct as Avadhūtipa taught, giving up fear and shame.

Atisha had such extensive training and practice of Vajrayana, that he became proud, thinking no one was greater than himself.  Once while traveling to India, Atisha dreamt that the dakinis showed him innumerable tantric texts.  They asked, “What tantra is this?  Do you know?”  In his dream, there were innumerable texts of which he had never heard.  However, in a corner there were a few volumes he recognized and the dakinis said, “These are the texts that you know.”  On another occasion, Atisha’s special deity Tara of the Acacia Forest appeared to him and asked, “Are you a pandita who practices mantra?”  Atisha said, “Yes.”  Then she mentioned a few tantric sadhanas and asked, “Do you know these?”  Atisha said he had never heard of those texts before.  Tara said, “Aren’t you proud of being well-versed in mantra?  You are no more than a mere horsehair in this world of humans.  All the tantric texts are in the hands of the dakinis,” and then she disappeared.

Until that moment, Atisha had believed that he was well-versed in tantra, but at that point his pride was shattered and he realized that the amount of tantra he knew was minuscule and that there were many more dharma teachings and pith instructions to learn.


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2023.01.30 Day 2: Special Kagyu Monlam 2023