The Life of Atiśa | Full

The Life of Atiśa | Full

1. Childhood and Renunciation of Princely Life

In eastern India, in the land of Jahor, in the city of Bangala, in the Golden Banner Palace, lived King Kalyāṇa the Good and Queen Prabhavati the Radiant.

The royal palace was crowned with 13 golden roofs, one set atop the other, and magnificently adorned with 25,000 golden banners.

It was surrounded by countless parks, pools, and beautiful gardens.
The kingdom was as rich as the ancient, opulent dynasties of China.

The royal couple had 3 sons, Padmagarbha, Chandragarbha, and Śrīgarbha. It was this second prince, who grew up to become our illustrious teacher, Atiśa (982-1054 CE).

When Atiśa was 18 months old, his parents held his first public audience at the local temple, Kamalapuri. Without any instruction, he prostrated to the venerable objects inside and spontaneously recited,

"Because of the compassion of my parents,
I have attained a precious human life
rich with the opportunity to view all you great figures.
I shall always take from you my safe direction (refuge) in life."

When introduced to his royal subjects outside,
he prayed to realize his fullest potential in order to satisfy their every need.

He also prayed to be able to take the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life, never to be proud, and always to have compassionate sympathy and loving concern for others.

This was most extraordinary for such a young child.

As Atiśa grew older, his wish to become a mendicant monk increased ever stronger, but his parents had different expectations:

Of their 3 sons, he was the brightest, and the auspicious omens at his birth helped convince them that he should be the royal successor.

Therefore, when the boy reached 11, the customary age for marriage at that time, they made elaborate preparations for him to take a bride.

On his wedding eve, the Buddha-figure (yidam) Tārā appeared to Atiśa vividly in a dream:

She told him that for 500 consecutive lives he had been a mendicant monk and therefore don’t have any attraction for the transitory pleasures of this world.

She explained that an ordinary person caught up in them would be relatively easy to rescue, like a goat trapped in quicksand:

But, as a royal prince, he would be as difficult to extract as an elephant.

The boy told no one about this dream, but on other grounds cleverly excused himself from this marriage.

Having firmly resolved to find a spiritual teacher, but telling his parents he wished to go hunting, Atiśa now left the palace with 130 horsemen:

First, he met in the jungle the holy Jetāri, a man of the Brahmin priestly caste who was living as a Buddhist recluse. From him, the lad formally accepted a safe direction in life and took the Bodhisattva vows.

This holy man then sent him to the sequestered monastic university of Nālanda and the spiritual master Bodhibhadra.

Atiśa immediately set off with all his horsemen and there, from Bodhibhadra, he again received the Bodhisattva Wows and Teachings.

He was next directed to the great Vidyakokila for further instruction and then on to the famous Avadhutipa. This latter master advised the boy to return home, treat everyone respectfully, but try to see the drawbacks of such a luxurious life and then report back.

Atiśa’s parents were delighted to see him and thought at last he would settle down, take a wife, and prepare for his future rule.

However, the lad informed them that he had in fact gone in search of a spiritual teacher for guiding direction. He confessed that all he wished was to lead a quiet, contemplative life and had come for permission to take leave of his princely duties.

Shocked at his words, his parents tried to dissuade him from leaving:

They said he could combine both lives and offered to build sequestered monasteries near the palace and let him study, feed the poor and so on. They pleaded with him not to return to the jungle.

But, Atiśa told them he had not the slightest attraction to royal life:

"To me," he said, "this golden palace is no different from a prison:

The princess you offer is no different from a daughter of the demons,
the sweet food no different from the rotted flesh of a dog, and
these satin clothes and jewels are no different from rags from the garbage heap.

From this day onwards, I am determined to live in the jungle and study at the feet of the master Avadhutipa. All I ask is for some milk, honey, and brown sugar and I shall take my leave."

There was nothing his parents could do but consent to his request and so Atiśa returned to the jungle with these provisions and an embarrassingly large entourage of royal attendants they insisted accompany him.

Avadhutipa now sent the young prince to the master Rahulagupta, on the Black Mountain, to enter the practice of tantra.

Atiśa arrived with all his horsemen and told this Vajra master how he had studied with many teachers, but still was unable to shake off his bondage to royal life.

Rahulagupta conferred upon him his first empowerment, which was into the practice of Hevajra, a Buddha-figure with which to bond his mind.

He then sent him back to the palace with 8 of his disciples, 4 male and 4 female, dressed scantily in the bone ornaments of mahā-siddhas, great adepts with actual attainments.

For 3 months, Atiśa stayed in the environs of the palace with these strange new companions, behaving in a completely unconventional and outrageous manner.

In the end, his parents were forced to give up all hopes for their precious son:

Thinking him to have gone mad, they gave full permission for him to leave with his rather unsavoury-looking friends and be gone once and for all.