The Life of Atiśa | part 4
4. Reforming and Revitalizing the Dharma in Tibet
Thus, at the age of 53, Atiśa set out on the long journey to the Land of Snow.
On route, the translator Gya Tsondru Sengge fell ill and died.
In grief, Atiśa declared, "Now my tongue has been cut out!"
Then Nagtso humbly bowed before him and said,
In Nepal, they met the great eye-opening translator Marpa Lotsawa (1012 – 1099 CE), who was on his way to India for the 3rd time.
Atiśa invited him to be his interpreter, but Marpa excused himself by saying, "It was my teacher’s wish that I visit India 3 times. Now, I must make this final journey."
They also met the aged translator Rinchen Zangpo, but he too was unable to help:
"As you can see by the white hair on my head," he said, "I am very old. I have worked all my life without ever the chance for doing intensive practice."
Thus, Atiśa went on, forced to rely on Nagtso’s limited skills.
After 2 years of travel, the party finally arrived in Upper Tibet at the city of Ngari, the capital of Yeshe-Ö’s kingdom.
Both the householders and the monks formed a grand procession and invited Atiśa to stay at the nearby sequestered monastery.
The Indian master was overjoyed at this enthusiasm for the Triumphant One’s teachings and was greatly surprised at the number who had taken the robes of a spiritual seeker.
Many learned people came from all over Tibet.
He was so impressed with the profundity of their questions concerning the Sage Buddha’s Sūtras and Tantras that he wondered why they had gone to so much trouble to invite him when there were already so many masters.
However, when he quizzed them back as to how these 2 sets of preventive measures formed an integral whole, they were unable to answer. Atiśa now knew the purpose of his mission.
One day, King Changchub Ö requested a teaching for the people of Tibet:
"We do not want one of the measures that are so vast and profound we shall be unable to adopt them," he said:
"What we need is something that will tame our minds and enable us to deal with our everyday impulsive behaviour (karma) and its results. Please teach us the measures you yourself take."
Atiśa was so enchanted by the simplicity and sincerity of the King’s request that in later years he referred to him as "my excellent disciple."
Had he been asked for advanced empowerments into tantric deity systems or for practices conferring special powers, he would have been far less pleased.
Thus, he spent 3 years at Ngari giving discourses later compiled into A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, the prototype for all future texts on this subject.
The points he always emphasized in his talks with the people earned him the nicknames,
"Sublime Teacher of Safe Direction (Lama Refuge)" and
"Sublime Teacher of Impulsive Behaviour and Its Results (Lama Cause and Effect)."
He was very pleased with this and said, "Even hearing such names might prove beneficial."
Throughout this time, Atiśa kept watch for his future chief disciple, the Tibetan layman prophesied by ennobling, impeccable Tārā, but he had still not appeared.
One day, the Indian was invited to a patron’s house for lunch and, as he was a strict vegetarian, was served traditional toasted barley cakes (tsampa).
When he left, he asked for a few extra pieces and some butter.
At that very same moment, the revered Dromtönpa (1004 – 1064 CE), the awaited upāsaka layman, arrived at Atiśa’s house:
He asked the attendants, "Where is my sublime Mahayana guru?"
They replied, "Atiśa is having lunch with his patron. If you wait here, he will return shortly."
Dromtönpa could not wait. Instead, he ran quickly toward the patron’s house. Atiśa and Dromtönpa met in one of the streets.
Although they had never seen each other before, there was an immediate mutual recognition because of their close bond from previous lives.
Dromtönpa made prostration and Atiśa, offering him the barley cakes, said, "Here is your lunch. You must be very hungry."
The layman ate the cakes and used the butter to make a butter-lamp offering to his newly found spiritual master. From that time onwards, he offered such a lamp each night without fail.
After Atiśa had been in Ngari 3 years, he set out with the translator Nagtso for the return to India. But, a war on the Nepalese border prevented their passage.
Nagtso became extremely anxious since now it appeared impossible for him to keep his promise to the Abbot of Vikramaśīla.
Atiśa immediately calmed his fears by saying,
"It is useless to worry about a situation that is beyond your control."
Greatly relieved, Nagtso wrote the Abbot a letter, explaining how their good intentions had been thwarted.
As partial recompense for his absence, Atiśa sent with it a copy of A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. He also requested permission to stay in Tibet for the remainder of his life.
They then returned to Ngari.
Nowadays, the publication of a book is a relatively simple commercial transaction:
At the time of Atiśa, however, before a manuscript could be printed, it had to pass a rigid examination by a committee of scholars, presided over by the local king:
If the work were found lacking in any way, it would be tied to the tail of a dog and dragged through the dust. While the author, instead of reaping praise and fame, would suffer a humiliating loss of reputation.
Atiśa’s text was subjected to this same scrutiny and the committee unanimously agreed to its outstanding worth. The presiding king was even moved to remark that it would not only benefit the ignorant Tibetans, but the sharp-minded Indians as well.
When the Abbot of Vikramaśīla read the text, he wrote to Nagtso the translator:
"I have no more objections to Atiśa’s remaining in Tibet. What he has written has benefited us all. I merely ask that he now compose and send us his own commentary to it."
This is how Atiśa’s own explanation of the difficult points of this important text came to be written.
Soon, Dromtönpa invited Atiśa to travel further north to Central Tibet and visit Lhasa. On the way, they stopped at Samye Ling, the first monastery built in Tibet:
Atiśa was very impressed by the library’s Sanskrit and Tibetan collections and said that he did not think that so many Sanskrit Buddhist texts existed even in India at that time.
Altogether, Atiśa spent 17 years in the Land of Snow:
3 in Ngari, 9 in Nyetang near Lhasa, and 5 in various other places
until his death in 1054 CE at the age of 72 as prophesied by Tārā.
Atiśa’s body was embalmed and enshrined at Nyetang and, 2 years later (1056 CE), the revered layman Dromtönpa established the sequestered Reting Monastery, the most important centre of the Kadam tradition which passed on his master’s lineages.
Nagtso the translator recalled that not once during the long time they had been together had Atiśa ever said or done anything unpleasant.
Teaching an integrated path of sūtra and tantra, the great Indian master accomplished the enormous task of reforming and revitalizing the spread in Tibet of the Triumphant One’s complete Dharma.
In fact, it is due to his kindness that these hallowed measures have survived in their original form up until the present.