Atiśa Dīpaṁkara (982-1054)
Atiśa Dīpaṁkara (982-1054)


Atiśa Dīpaṁkara Śrījñāna (982-1054) was a Buddhist Bengali religious leader and master.

He was one of the major figures in the spread of 11th century Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism in Asia and inspired Buddhist thought from Tibet to Sumatra.

In 1013 CE, He travelled to the Śrīvijaya kingdom (now Sumatra, Indonesia,) and stayed there for 12 years and came back to India.

He is recognised as one of the greatest figures of classical Buddhism, and Atiśa's chief disciple Dromtön was the founder of the Kadampa School, one of the New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  

After some years of married life he entered the Buddhist order, where he was given the name Dīpaṁkara Śrījñāna (Light of Wisdom).

Atiśa, the name by which he is better known, is a proto-Bengali form of the common Buddhist Sanskrit term atiśaya, which means “surpassing intention or kindness.”

According to Tibetan sources, Atiśa was ordained into the Mahāsaṁghika lineage at the age of 28 by the Abbot Śīlarakṣita and studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of his time, including teachings from Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, Tantric Hinduism and other practices.

He also studied the 64 kinds of art, the art of music and the art of logic and accomplished these studies until the age of twenty-two.

Among the many Buddhist lineages he studied, practiced and transmitted
the 3 main lineages were

1. the Lineage of the Profound Action transmitted by Asaṅga and Vasubandhu,
2. the Lineage of Profound View transmitted by Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti, and
3. the Lineage of Profound Experience transmitted by Tilopa and Naropa.

It is said that Atiśa had more than 150 teachers, but one key one was Dharmakīrtiśrī.

According to later hagiographical accounts, after becoming a monk, Atiśa studied in the 4 great monastic universities of the Pāla Empire (8-12th centuries, Bengal-Bihar):

1. Nālanda, 2. Otantapūri, 3. Vikramaśīla, and 4. Somapūri

He then travelled to Suvarṇadvīpa (perhaps Sumatra in present-day Indonesia), where he met his most important teacher, Dharmakīrtiśrī, a Cittamatra (Mind Only) philosopher who taught Atiśa Mahāyāna altruism (bodhicitta).

Tibetan sources assert that Atiśa spent 12 years in Sumatra of the Śrīvijaya Empire and he returned to India in 1025 CE which was also the same year when Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty invaded Sumatra.

Once back in India, the increasingly knowledgeable monk received much attention for his teachings and skills in debate and philosophy:

On 3 separate occasions, the monk Atiśa was acclaimed for defeating non-Buddhist extremists in debate.

When he came into contact with what he perceived to be a misled or deteriorating form of Buddhism he would quickly and effectively implement reforms.

Soon the Pāla king Nayapāla appointed him abbot of Vikramaśīla, where he launched a program of monastic renewal.

At the end of the 10th century, the king of Ngari in far western Tibet, Yeshe-Ö (c. 959–1040), sent a group of 21 Tibetans to India, among them the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055).

Yeshe-Ö was a descendant of the original Tibetan royal line that had ended in central Tibet in about 840, a date that marks the end of the first spread of Buddhism in Tibet:

He believed in reforming his Kingdom under the ethos of 3 ‘R’s namely, religious education, religious architecture, and religious reform, during a time when the Indian Buddhist religious, artistic, architectural, scriptural and philosophical traditions permeated the entire Tibetan world

Rinchen Zangpo’s return to Ngari after his travels in India is the traditional date for the beginning of the second spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

According to hagiographical accounts, late in his life Yeshe-Ö told his son Changchub Ö (984-1078) to invite Atiśa, then the foremost Indian Buddhist scholar, to help further the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

Atiśa accepted the invitation and arrived in Ngari in 1042. He never returned to India, traveling and teaching extensively before his death in central Tibet in 1054.

In western Tibet Atiśa collaborated with Rinchen Zangpo on Tibetan translations of Prajñā Pāramitā Literature.

Atiśa later collaborated in central Tibet with Nagtso Tsultrim gyalwa on Tibetan translations of many fundamental texts of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way).

Of his many Tibetan disciples the most important is Dromtön (1005–1064)), who founded Reting Monastery in 1056 in the Reting Tsampo Valley north of Lhasa, the first monastery of the Kadampa Tradition and brought some relics of Atiśa there.

The Kadampa, which evolved into the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat tradition, is the Tibetan tradition with which the name of Atiśa is most closely associated.

Atiśa’s student Dromtön is considered to be the 45th incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, an important Bodhisattva and thus a member of the early lineage of the Dalai Lamas (the First Dalai Lama is said to have been the 51st incarnation).

It was Dromtönpa's student Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1102–1176) who first compiled Atiśa's core teachings on the practice of bodhicitta in written form, as The Seven Point Mind Training.

Among Atiśa’s best known works is his Lamp for the Path, taught soon after arriving in Tibet:

In it he classifies practitioners of Buddhism into 3 types
(those of lesser, middling, and superior capacities),

and he stresses the importance of a qualified guru, the need for a solid foundation of morality, the central place of Mahāyāna altruism, and an understanding of ultimate reality.

He also sets forth the practice of tantra as a powerful technique for quickly reaching Enlightenment.

Atiśa’s works influenced all the later Tibetan Buddhist traditions (Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug).

Some later Gelug writers, influenced by Tsongkhapa’s Lam rim chen mo (Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, written in 1403) projected onto the historical Atiśa a mythical perfect guru who became for them the symbol of their exclusive form of monasticism and scholastic learning.