The Life of Atiśa | part 2
2. Studies in India and the Golden Isle
Atiśa immediately ran back to his master Avadhutipa and now, from the age of 21 to 25, 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 Ḍākinī, 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 29, Atiśa received from the stable elder, Śīlarakṣita, the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life and was given the name Dīpaṁkara Jñāna, "He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp."
During his first 12 years after taking robes, Atiśa studied at the monastic university of Otantapūri with the great Dharmarakṣita, the author of the famous lojong (mind-training) text for cleansing our attitudes, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons.
They focused on all the Hīnayāna or modest-minded measures to take as a vehicle leading to liberation, but Atiśa 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 Avalokiteśvara, to bond his mind closely with him and work to become Enlightened so that he could best liberate everyone from Saṁsāra, uncontrollably recurring existence. Only with this achievement would he realize his fullest potential.
At Vajrāsana, the Vajra Seat, at modern Bodh Gayā, while circumambulating the great Stūpa relic monument for honouring the Buddha,
Atiśa heard 2 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 Dharmakīrti (Dharmapāla) the Sublime Teacher from Suvarṇadvīpa, the Golden Isle.
Thus, with a group of 125 learned monks, Atiśa 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 13 arduous months to complete their journey, but Atiśa remained undaunted throughout.
When they finally landed, Atiśa did not go at once to the famous master, but stayed instead for a full 2 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 Atiśa arrived, they performed together many formal ceremonies auspicious for the future.
He also presented Atiśa with a Buddha statue and predicted that one day he would tame the minds of the people of the northern Land of Snow.
Atiśa stayed in the Golden Isle for 12 years, avidly training with this master:
First, he studied Ornament of Realizations (Abhisamaya-alaṁkāra) the Triumphant Maitreya’s guideline instructions for fathoming the Omniscient One’s Sūtras of Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Prajñā pāramitā Sūtras).
He then gradually received the full teachings on extensive behaviour from the lineage of Maitreya and Asaṅga, as well as those of the special lineage on exchanging selfishness for concern with others, which the Bodhisattva Śāntideva, a spiritual son of the Triumphant, had received directly from the ennobling, impeccable Mañjuśrī himself.
After Atiśa gained, through these methods, a full-realization of a Bodhichitta aim, he returned to India at the age of 45 and resided thereafter mostly at the sequestered monastic university of Vikramaśīla.
All in all, Atiśa 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 favoured one of his teachers above all others, Atiśa 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."