How Atisha Went Forth and Was Invited to Tibet

How Atisha Went Forth and Was Invited to Tibet

Special Kagyu Monlam 2023 • Day 3

Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on the Life of Atisha • Day 2

31 January 2023

The Gyalwang Karmapa explained that because it was a three-day teaching, he would only be able to speak about the most important points in Atisha’s life and liberation. Yesterday he had spoken about Atisha’s birth, birthplace, the time he was born and how, from a young age, Atisha had studied a great deal of tantra.

For the second day, the Karmapa would speak about how Atisha went forth and was ordained. What were the causes and circumstances that made Atisha go from being a tantric practitioner to wanting to become a monk? 

The circumstances of Atisha going forth

When he was young, Atisha practiced Vajrayana; he received many instructions on mantra, so basically, he mastered the topics of mantra. Originally, he believed he could reach buddhahood in one lifetime, solely through tantric practice, so he devoted himself to tantric practice.

But many different signs occurred that he should go forth. One night in a dream, a heruka [one of a class of wrathful deities] came to the sky in front of him and said: “Child of noble family, if you keep doing the practice of Avadhutipa’s conduct, that will not be enough for you to get anywhere. So, you need to go forth and become a monastic, and if you do, then in the future, you will foster many monastic students.”

After that, Atisha had an even more amazing dream. He dreamt he was in a big temple where the Buddha Bhagavan Shakyamuni was surrounded by a large sangha of bhikshunis eating their midday meal. Atisha himself was at the end of the row. While he was sitting there, at the end of the row, the Buddha saw Atisha and pointed his finger at him, saying “Something happened to that person. What happened? Why didn’t he become a monk?”

Another night he dreamt that Maitreya was in a temple wearing monastic robes. Maitreya approached Atisha and said, “This is a place for monastics. It’s not a place for you householders, so you shouldn’t come here.” There were so many such signs that Atisha thought to himself, “Now I definitely must go forth.”

There was a landlord, from whom Atisha usually rented rooms when he was at Nalanda. This householder knew the Dharma well. At that time, there were many different Buddhist schools, and the landlord knew a lot about the situation in Buddhism. Atisha told him, “I’d like to go forth. Which school should I go forth into? There are many different Foundation vehicle schools, right? Which school should I become a monk in?”

The landowner asked, “Are you going to stop doing Vajrayana practices when you go forth or are you going to continue to keep doing them?” This was a very pointed question.

“Even after I go forth, I want to keep doing Vajrayana practices,” replied Atisha.

“If that’s the case, then it’s best for you to go forth in the Mahasanghika school.” This was the landlord’s opinion.

So, at the age of 29, Atisha went to Bodhgaya. At that time, there were many different temples there. It’s possible that he was ordained at the Mahavihara temple, but other accounts say that he went forth at the Odantapuri monastery.

The khenpo he went forth with was a master of the Mahasanghika school. There were of course, many different sub-schools within the Mahasanghika, but this particular school was the School of Transcending the World, which was founded by Buddhajñāna. He was probably a master of Padmasambhava, so he was very well-known. Later it was said that Buddhajñāna had also achieved the level of the path of joining. Atisha received the vows from Shilarakshita and was given the Sanskrit monastic name Dīpaṃkara Śrī Jñāna.

The Karmapa then explained the meaning of the name from the Sanskrit:

Dipam means lamp; kara means to do, or doer; the Śri means glorious; and Jñāna means wisdom. Dīpaṃkara Śrī Jñāna is his name. The Khenpo who named him was in the tradition of Master Buddhajñāna so all the people in that lineage had the word jñāna as the last word in their name; that was the tradition so that is the last part of Atisha’s name.”

In Dromtönpa’s Praise of the Thirty Verses, it says:

Without attachment to sensory pleasures,
He left the wealth of royalty,
Became a bhikshu of the Mahasanghika school.
I supplicate glorious Atisha.

From then on, Atisha refrained from even the smallest offense against the Vinaya. He was very strict about the most minor and subtle offenses against the Vinaya. For example, if he was given any kind of flour or ground grain that had been kept in a clay pot, he would not eat it, the reason being that clay pots were used as containers for making beer. Of course, when he became a monk, he gave up beer, but he also would not eat any food that came from a container that might have been used for alcohol. The Mahasanghika school had added the rule of not drinking alcohol to the four root vows and made it a fifth root vow. They were strictly observant. Hence, Atisha would not even eat food kept in a clay pot that might have been used for alcohol.

Atisha said, “I’ve never had any faults in my pratimoksha vows. There have been occasional minor faults in the Bodhisattva precepts. I have had many faults of the tantric samaya, but I have never left any of them for more than a day.” This means that Atisha confessed his faults on the day he committed them as one should.

How Atisha was named

The Karmapa next spoke about how Atisha was known by many different names:

The most common name used in Sanskrit form is Atisha. When translated into English, it means “preeminent,” “the greatest” or “the most excellent.”

There are, however, several different interpretations of its meaning. Some would say ati means “excellence,” and āśya means “intention” so that would make his name “the one with the most excellent intentions.”

A second explanation is that ati means “exceedingly” and śanti means “peaceful,” so Atisha means “exceedingly peaceful.”

A third explanation is that the first syllable of his name, A, means “great yogi”; ti means “great pandita”, and śameans “great bhikshu”. The A could be understood as in avadhutipa—a great yogi—ti refers to pandita, and śacould be understood as shramana.

There are other such explanations, but how did he come by the name “Atisha”?  There are two different accounts:

  • Panchen Sodrak’s History of the Kadampa: Ornament of the Mind says that Lha Lama Jangchup Öd saw that this master had superior knowledge and compassion, so he was superior to other panditas, and that he had the ability to greatly illuminate the precious teachings, so he called him, “Atisha” in praise.
  • According to Sakyapa Kunsö’s history of the Kadampa, King Dharmapāla recognized that Atisha was superior among all panditas and siddhas, so invited him to Vikramashila, and gave him the name Atisha. However, because Indian history is so unclear, if this refers to a king in the Pāla dynasty, the time period does not match. That King Dharmapāla lived in the eighth century and Atisha was from the tenth century.

In Taranatha’s history of India, when writing about Atisha, Taranatha said the king of the Pāla dynasty who reigned during that time was Bayapāla.

The Karmapa then commented that he thought after this research, it was more logical that Jangchup Öd gave Atisha that name. It was the case which fitted better with the facts.

In Tibet, the most frequently used name for Atisha is Jowo Je. This is the same name as used for the two Jowo statues in Lhasa [images of Buddha Shakyamuni]. The only difference between these titles is whether or not the ending “Je” is used.

In terms of Sanskrit, the word for the Tibetan jowo is a translation of the word swami. In general, in Tibetan, jowo can mean one’s king or leader, or sometimes it is understood as someone who is older. The eldest son is called ajo, jojo, jola, and jowo comes from the same root. It can also be understood to mean a Buddha statue dressed in the sambhogakaya form with robes and ornaments, like the Jowo in Lhasa. The Jowo is not just any Buddha statue but the sambhogakaya form of a buddha.

The Karmapa emphasized the significance of Atisha’s name and title in Tibetan:

“Jowo” is a word of praise that means the main or supreme, the most important, a word of praise to show Tibetans cherish someone. This shows how close Tibetans feel to Jowo Je, for they do not call anyone other than Atisha “Jowo Je.” This shows the Tibetans’ gratitude to Atisha for his great kindness. The only lama Tibetans called Jowo is Jowo Je. Tibetans have a different way of viewing Jowo Je from the depth of their hearts. They use this name “Jowo Je” as high praise with deep respect.

How he studied after being ordained

From the time he became a monk at the age of 29, Atisha studied many Mahayana texts with different gurus. In terms of the texts of the Foundation vehicle, there were the four root nikayas (the collections of sutras of the Mahasanghika, Theravada, Mahasammata, and Sarvastivada schools). They were called the four root schools and were referred to as the four main schools among the eighteen different schools. These four great schools were the most widespread.

Each school had their own sutras, vinaya, and abhidharma texts, which differed slightly. Atisha had faith in all of them. He knew the practices of each of them clearly without confusing them, for example, he even knew how novices should give bhikshus their begging bowls at mealtimes. He also studied the Great Exposition Treatise (Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra), the 800-volume text written by the Arhat Upagupta. Whether it was the same text as the Great Exposition Treatise as described by the Chinese, some say it had 300 volumes—it was a very long text with hundreds of volumes—and Atisha studied the entire text. It is said to be the common basis for all four schools, with guru Dharmarakṣhita at Odantapuri monastery. Generally, it is said, it would take twelve years to study this text, but Atisha was so diligent that he studied its entirety in eight years.

While he was studying the great exposition, he would study for six days with Dharmarakshita, then on the seventh day, he would leave. He did this repeatedly: he would enter the monastery, stay and study for six days, then leave the borders of the monastery on the evening of the seventh day. This was because it says in the Vajrayana, in the secret mantra, you should not stay more than six days with the shravakas. In order not to violate his samaya, he would only stay for six days, as Ngok Lekpay Sherap explained.

Similarly, Atisha studied with many gurus, and sailed across the ocean three times in search of gurus. He traveled to many lands including Central India, Sumatra, and Ceylon (“Copper Island”). He underwent many difficulties, and in those days, travel was extremely dangerous. He followed many gurus in his life, and the accounts in various biographies differ slightly. The maximum number of gurus given is 157 and the minimum number is thirty. Among all of them, he had three gurus who were extraordinary; they were the three lamas who taught him bodhichitta—Dharmarakṣhita, Maitriyogin, and Guru Suvarṇadvīpa.

The Karmapa gave a brief introduction to each of these three:

  1. Dharmarakṣhita: According to the oral histories, there was a man who had a particular illness and he needed human flesh and blood as medicine to cure his illness. Without any hesitation, Dharmarakṣhita cut some flesh off his own body and gave it to the man as medicine. For us, such an amazing story is difficult to get our heads around. Dharmarakṣhita did not merely train his mind in exchanging self for others, but, because of his high level of practice of bodhichitta, he actually gave his own flesh and blood.
  2. Maitriyogin: According to the stories, someone was beating a dog with an iron rod. When the guru saw this, he immediately felt great compassion and took that dog’s suffering upon himself. Not only did he take the dog’s feelings of pain and suffering but he also took on the physical effects of the suffering. Big welts from the strokes of the iron rod appeared on his body, and pus dripped from them. This shows how Guru Maitriyogin had an extremely high level of practice in loving-kindness and compassion. This is not something an ordinary practitioner of mind training could do.
  3. The third is Suvarnadvipa, or “Serlingpa” as he is known in Tibetan. He was said to be the embodiment of bodhichitta. The guru himself was “living bodhichitta”. The guru himself was bodhichitta. Because of this, the level of Suvarnadvipa’s realization of loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhichitta, or his level of practice, was extremely high. Among all the gurus Atisha followed, the one for whom Atisha had the greatest faith, the deepest devotion, and deepest connection was Suvarnadvipa.

The proof of this is that, unlike his other gurus, Atisha had a reliquary with a silver parasol on top of it for Suvarṇadvīpa. Atisha did not make monthly offerings to his other gurus, but he did to Suvarṇadvīpa. This is the same as the Tibetan tradition of observing the anniversaries of the guru’s parinirvana. Some say this practice originated with Atisha.

When he merely heard the names of his other gurus, he joined his palms at his heart, but when Atisha heard Suvarnadvipa’s name, he joined his palms at the crown of his head to show the depth of his emotions for this guru. When he recalled his other gurus, no tears would come, but when he remembered Suvarṇadvīpa, it is said tears would flow freely.

When he went to Tibet, he was asked why, among all his gurus, he had such respect for Suvarṇadvīpa. Atisha replied that it was not a question of whether his gurus were better or worse or whether they had higher or lower qualities.

“Part of my reason for having such faith in Suvarnadvipa, and not as much for the others, is not because of the difference in their qualities, or a difference in devotion to them. I have faith in all of them, but Suvarnadvipa was the kindest to me.”

When asked the nature of his kindness, Atisha replied, “I can’t say that I have any special qualities of mind, but I can say that I am a little bit kind-hearted because of Suvarnadvīpa’s kindness.” He also said, “Without Suvarnadvīpa, I would not have this bodhichitta of exchanging self for others.” It was only after meeting Suvarnadvīpa that he was able to practice tonglen. So Suvarnadvīpa was of great importance to him.

The Karmapa then explained that the name “Suvarnadvīpa” was the ancient name for the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia. It is the seventh largest island in the world. During the medieval period, it was called Suvarṇadvīpa, which means “Golden Island” or “Isle of Gold,” for suvarna means “gold,” and dvīpa, means “island.” These days we no longer use that name.

In the latter half of the seventh century, the Tang dynasty translator Yijing went there twice and spent a total of over two years there. The guru Suvarṇadvīpa was known by that name because that was where he lived. Because of the lack of time, the Karmapa said he was not able to describe how Atisha met Suvarṇadvīpa but would talk about that later, if there were time.

In general, Atisha followed many gurus from the Mahayana lineages, both the Middle Way and Mind Only. Suvarnadvipa and Śantipa were masters who upheld the Mind Only tradition, so when looking at Atisha’s life and liberation in detail, he primarily focused on the practices of vast conduct passed down from Suvarnadvipa. The Karmapa summarized:

In any case, one particular feature of Atisha is that he combined the Middle Way view with the vast practice of the Mind Only and practiced them in union. This was a special feature of Atisha, so that later he was very influential in Tibetan Buddhism. He had a unified practice of the Middle Way view and the Mind-Only view. According to Taranatha’s History of Dharma in India, after he had gone forth and studied a long time, he became very knowledgeable. Later, Atisha became the abbot of Vikramaśīla Monastery as well as of Odantapuri.

Atisha had a very good character and treated everyone well. He studied all the different dharmas of all the different schools, tried to be harmonious with all the different schools, so he was revered by all of them, and was a general lama for all the schools in India at the time. That was how his activity spread throughout India.

How Atisha was invited to Tibet

It was different in medieval times than today. To bring Indian panditas to Tibet, or to visit the sites in Tibet, or if a Tibetan student wanted to go to India to study was extremely challenging. These are things difficult for us to conceive today, the limitless hardship these journeys entailed.

At that time, Atisha was one of the most famous and main Buddhist gurus in India; he was extremely important and influential. What was the reason they were able to invite him to Tibet and how was he able to go? What were the reasons and circumstances that allowed them to bring Atisha to Tibet?

During the beginning of the seventh century, at the time of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo [617–649 CE] Buddhism was introduced into Tibet. There were many different accounts of this, but the most reliable source states that it was at the time of King Songtsen Gampo.

From the time of King Trisong Detsen [742–798 CE], Buddhism spread widely.

Four generations later, Darma Udum Tsen, whom we know as Langdarma (a nickname for the king), was the fourth king after King Trisong Detsen. In 841 CE, Langdarma began to persecute the Buddhist religion andprohibited the formation of monasteries. The dates here are not certain, but some say he died in 842 CE, others in 846 CE. By c. 844 CE, Buddhism in Tibet had been wiped out.

Some fifty years later, in 892 CE, Lachen Gong Rabsal was born. He was the one who propagated the Lower Vinaya lineage. Many people went to see him to receive vows from him. And his students went to Central Tibet, to rebuild and re-establish the sangha. It was only then that the teachings began to be revived. This was called, the Later Spread of the Teachings.

It was probably more than a hundred years between Langdarma’s persecution of Buddhism and the re-establishment of the sangha in Central Tibet. Although there was much to say about that, the Karmapa said there was no time.

Because of the activities of Lachen Gong Rabsal and other lamas, the Vinaya teachings in Kham were revived and able to spread into Central Tibet, the Spread of the Teaching from Lower Tibet (Eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo & Kham). At the same time, the teachings were also being revived in Ngari (Western Tibet). When speaking about the revival of the teachings in Ngari, Lha Lama and his nephews played an important role.

The Tibetan King Langdarma had two sons, Ösung and Yumten. There was a severe conflict between the two. They disagreed over who should be king, so by the end of the ninth century, the Tibetan empire had fragmented into many smaller kingdoms. After the fragmentation, the descendants of Yumten continued the feud against the descendants of Ösung. Ösung’s nephew, De Nyima Gön, had to flee to an area then called Shangshung, which is nowadays known as Ngari.

There, De Nyima Gön established a kingdom. Later he had three sons. So that there would be no conflict between his sons, he divided the region of Ngari into three parts and gave one to each, so the term “the three regions of Ngari” originated at that time. Before then there was no mention of the three regions of Ngari.

The Karmapa then said he wanted to digress:

Sometimes when speaking about the Tibetan Dharma, there is no choice but to speak of Tibetan history. In Tibet, Tibet is divided into three parts, the upper, lower, and western part. This is mentioned as coming from the time of Ngari, but was first mentioned in Mongolia, during the Yuan dynasty [1261-1368 CE]. Some Tibetan manuscripts from that time indicate that Tibetans considered central Tibet as a single part.

Nyima Gön divided Ngari into three and gave the area of Purang to his second son, Tashi De Gön, who founded the famous Guge dynasty in that area. He had two sons. The elder, Song-nge, was born in 965 CE. He became the second king of the Guge dynasty after he reached adulthood. Later he gave up his kingship, became a monk and was given the name Lha Lama Yeshe Öd. His name symbolized his first being the king and later becoming a monk. The word, lha means ‘god’ and was used for kings, and the word, Lama,symbolized going forth. He had two sons who also went forth, so they all had great faith and dedication in the true Dharma and offered a lot of service.

The influence of Lama Yeshe Öd

Lha Lama Yeshe Öd had a significant impact on Tibetan history. First, he established the vow transmission of the Three Pālas, so the teachings could then spread from Upper Tibet; the upper transmission of the Dharma was because of him. Second, he invited Atisha to Tibet. Third, he fostered and supported many translators including the great translator Rinchen Sangpo, so that many texts of the new transmission of the secret mantra could be translated.

There is a story in the oral tradition which tells how Yeshe Öd went looking for gold in order to invite Atisha, but he was captured by the King of Garlok who would not release him. Yeshe Öd’s nephew Jangchup Öd looked for gold to pay the ransom for Yeshe Öd, but the King of Garlok still would not release him, so in the end, Yeshe Öd died at Garlok.

The Karmapa raised doubts about the veracity of this tradition. He cited the work of the Guge Pandita, Ngawang Drakpa—probably one of Tsongkhapa’s students—who took many of the old manuscripts and papers stored in Ngari Tholing and wrote a history of Lha Lama Yeshe Öd and the Guge dynasty. He wrote, “Even when Lha Lama Yeshe was very old, he would go to Tholing, and he would circumambulate the Tholing monastery, carrying a staff.”

It also said, “At that time when he got to be old, other than one attendant, he would not want anyone else to see him, and Lha Lama Yeshe Öd spent three years in a very strict retreat. He passed away in his room at Tholing in the Female Earth Sheep Year.” Looking at this, the story that Lha Lama Yeshe Öd was captured and imprisoned by the King of Garlok needs to be examined to see if it really happened.

Among the ancient manuscripts at the Drepung Nechu Lhakhang is a handwritten manuscript of a biography of Atisha called, The History of the Guru and Lineage. This is an old manuscript probably written in the twelfth century. It said that “a nephew of Khor Re” (another name for Lha Yeshe Öd)— so that would be a male relative of Lha Yeshe Öd —had a great-grandson named Udey, who was wrathful and violent by nature. Udey waged war against the Dak king in Ladakh, in an area called Balti. In the past this area was part of Tibet but now it is part of Pakistan. Within Balti, there was an area called Drusha, and they fought the war there.When Udey lost the war, he was captured by the king of Drusha, and severely punished. His younger brothers Jangchup Öd and Shiwa Öd went to ransom him with a large amount of gold. But before the gold arrived, Udey had escaped from the prison, was struck by a poisoned arrow, and he died on the road. Since this is the story recounted there, we need to examine whether it is true that Lha Lama Yeshe Öd was imprisoned by the king of Garlok.

The contemporary Tibetan scholar Guge Tsering Gyalpo wrote a paper examining whether Lha Lama Yeshe Öd had died in Garlok or not. The Karmapa also mentioned a book by Kharmeu Samten, Arrow and Power, that compiles the different positions held by many scholars concerning whether the King of Garlok had imprisoned Lha Lama Yeshe Öd, so that must be further examined. Here the Karmapa concluded the second day of the teaching.


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2023.01.31 Day 3: Special Kagyu Monlam 2023