The Life of Atiśa | part 3
3. Inviting Atiśa to Tibet
After Atiśa’s return to India, he protected and upheld the Triumphant One’s hallowed Dharma by 3 times defeating in formal debate non-Buddhist extremists.
Within the Buddhist fold, he established many institutes of learning wherever he travelled, 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 and several others, this early flowering suffered a great setback due to repression by King Langdarma (U Dumtsen) (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 Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, leading respectively to Liberation and Enlightenment.
Saddened by this degenerate condition, the Tibetan king Yeshe-Ö (c. 959–1040) wished very strongly to invite a learned master from one of the great monastic centres of India to come to Tibet and clarify the confusion.
Not knowing specifically of Atiśa, he sent 21 young men to study Sanskrit and locate a suitable master. All but 2 died of the heat.
Unable to invite anyone, but having learned the language, the new translators Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055) and Lekpai Sherap returned to the king and informed him about Atiśa.
As soon as he heard his name, the king decided that this Atiśa was the person who was needed:
Wasting no time, he sent a 2nd party of 9, headed by Gya Tsondru Sengge, with much gold to invite this master. But the 8 companions died as well and, unable to bring Atiśa, Gya Tsondru Sengge stayed on in India.
When news of this 2nd failure reached Yeshe-Ö, 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, who wished to prevent the further spread of Buddhism in Tibet.
King Yeshe-Ö nephew, Changchub Ö, 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 travelled 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 Atiśa.
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 Atiśa 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.
Changchub Ö (984-1078), now became King of Tibet.
He decided that the best person he could send on this third mission would be the translator Nagtso Lotsawa, 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 Atiśa 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 6 companions. The King escorted them for several days and, before taking his leave, reminded Nagtso to tell Atiśa:
"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 Avalokiteśvara.
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 travellers reached the sequestered monastic university of Vikramaśīla late one night and camped at the gates.
In a room above, lived Gya Tsondru Sengge, the Tibetan who had led King Yeshe-Ö’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 Atiśa himself back to Tibet.
Gya Tsondru Sengge 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 travellers 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 Atiśa."
He then offered to show them to Gya Tsondru Sengge’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 Avalokiteśvara, overseeing their mission.
Now the Tibetans decided on a plan of action.
Gya Tsondru Sengge told them to say they had come to study Sanskrit:
"Our chief abbot, the elder Rātnakāra, is Atiśa’s superior and regards him very highly. If he hears of your real purpose, he will make sure you never even meet Atiśa."
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 Atiśa. 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 Atiśa 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 Atiśa.
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 travellers hoped that at last they would catch a glimpse of Atiśa.
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, Atiśa 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 Gya Tsondru Sengge if they could invite one of the other more glamorous masters instead.
Gya Tsondru Sengge told them,
"No, Atiśa 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 Atiśa with the gold coins piled high on a round maṇḍala offering plate and told him the history of how the hallowed Dharma had degenerated in Tibet.
Relating the story of King Yeshe-Ö’s sacrifice and repeating the words of both the uncle and nephew, Nagtso pleaded with him to come.
Atiśa 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, Tārā appeared to Atiśa 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 upāsaka, 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 92,
whereas if you go to Tibet your life span will be 72 years."
Atiśa now felt confident to go with the Tibetans and that it was worth the sacrifice of 20 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 Vikramaśīla. 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 Atiśa 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 3 years. However, you must promise to return him to India after that time."
Overwhelmed with joy, the Tibetans pledged their word.