Portrait of Atisha (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Atisha is most commonly said to have been born in the year 980 in Vajrayogini village in Bikrampur, the northeastern region of Bengal (modern day Bangladesh). His homestead in the village is still known to the local people as the "Ponditer bhita" (the homestead of the Pundit - a learned man). Atisha is believed to be born into royalty.
The city of Vikramapura, was the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Bengal. Though the city's exact location is not certain, it presently lies in the Munshiganj District of Bangladesh, and continues to be celebrated as an early center of Buddhist cultural, academic, and political life. His father was the king of Bengal known as Kalyana Shri, and his mother was Shri Prabhavati. One of three royal brothers, Atisha went by the name of Chandragarbha. In fact, it was not until he traveled to Tibet and encountered the king Jangchub Ö that he was given the name of Atisha, a Tibetan reference to peace.
For the first eighteen months of his life, Atisha was sheltered and attended to by eight nurses in the royal palace of the capital city, Vikramapura. At eighteen months old, it is said that his parents then brought him into public for the first time, on a visit to a local temple in Kamalapuri. It was here that Atisha's potential as an extraordinary religious and spiritual leader initially emerged. By the age of three, he was proficient in Sanskrit, astrology and writing. At the age of 11, he renounced his wealth, family and royal standing to find a spiritual teacher. After learning the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, under a renowned teacher Jetari, Atisha studied at Nalanda and was ordained as a monk. He made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and then travelled for 13 months to Sumatra where he studied for 12 years under Dharmarakshita. He then returned to India and was given a position as abbot at the Buddhist monastery of Vikramasila in north east India.
He was invited to Tibet and after a two year journey arrived at Ngari in western Tibet in 1042, where he spent three years.
According to Tibetan sources, Atisha was ordained into the Mahasamghika lineage at the age of twenty-eight by the Abbot Shilarakshita and studied almost all Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools of his time, including teachings from Vishnu, Shiva, Tantric Hinduism and other beliefs. He also studied the sixty-four 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 three main lineages were the Lineage of the Profound Action transmitted by Maitreya/Asanga, Vasubandhu, the Lineage of Profound View transmitted by Manjushri/Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and the Lineage of Profound Experience transmitted by Vajradhara/Tilopa, Naropa. It is said that Atisha had more than 150 teachers, but one prominent teacher above all else was Dharmakirti from Sumatra, Indonesia.
As he grew old, Atisha moved on from Ngari and accepted an invitation from Dromtonpa to explore Central Tibet. In Nyetang, a town near Lhasa, Atisha spent nine years during which he discovered Tibetan libraries with impressive collections written in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. The venerable monk moved around the region for another five years before passing away in 1052 at the prophesied age of seventy-two. He was enshrined near his last permanent home in the town of Nyetang.
After staying for thirteen years in Tibet, Atisha died in 1052 CE in a village called Lethan, near Lhasa. The site of his last rites at Lethan has turned into a shrine. His ashes were brought to Dhaka (modern-day Bangladesh) on 28 June 1978 and placed in Dharmarajika Bauddha Vihara.
Atisha remains an important figure in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for several reasons.
Atisha wrote, translated and edited more than two hundred books, which helped spread Buddhism in Tibet. He discovered several Sanskrit manuscripts in Tibet and copied them himself. He translated many books from Sanskrit to Tibetan. He also wrote several books on Buddhist scriptures, medical science and technical science in Tibetan.
Osho on Atisha
Atisha is one of the rare masters, rare in the sense that he was taught by three enlightened masters. It has never happened before, and never since. To be a disciple of three enlightened masters is simply unbelievable -- because one enlightened master is enough. But this story, that he was taught by three enlightened masters, has a metaphorical significance also. And it is true, it is historical too.
The three masters that Atisha remained with for many years were: first, Dharmakirti, a great Buddhist mystic. He taught him no-mind, he taught him emptiness, he taught him how to be thoughtless, he taught him how to drop all content from the mind and be contentless. The second master was Dharmarakshita, another Buddhist mystic. He taught him love, compassion. And the third master was Yogin Maitreya, another Buddhist mystic. He taught him the art of taking the suffering of others and absorbing it into your own heart: love in action.
This could happen because all these three masters were great friends. They had started their search together; while they were on the way they had remained together, and when they attained they were still together.
Atisha became a disciple of Dharmakirti. Dharmakirti said to him, "I will teach you the first principle. And for the second you go to Dharmarakshita, and for the third to Yogin Maitreya. This way you will know all the three faces of the ultimate reality, the three faces of God -- the trinity, the TRIMURTI. And this way you will learn each face from the person who is the most perfect in it."
These are the three ways people reach to the ultimate. If you reach through emptiness you attain the other two also, but your path remains basically that of emptiness -- you know more about emptiness, so emptiness will be emphasized in whatsoever you teach.
That's what happened in Buddha's case. He had attained through emptiness, hence his whole teaching became emptiness-oriented. There is no God in Buddha's teaching, because God is a thought, a content, an object -- God is the other, and Buddha had attained by dropping the other. Buddha had attained by emptying his mind totally, hence there is no place for God, no place for anything at all. His path is the purest VIA NEGATIVA.
That was also the case with Dharmakirti. He was the perfect master of emptiness, a master par excellence of emptiness. And when Atisha had learned how to be empty, the master said, "It will be better for you to go to Dharmarakshita for the next step, because he has attained from a totally different path. Just as you can reach Everest from different sides, he has reached from a totally different path, the path of compassion. I can also teach you the path of compassion, but my knowing about that path is only known from the top.
"I have reached through the path of emptiness. Once you reach the top, you can look down at all the paths, they are all available to your vision. But to follow a path in its different dimensions, to follow a path in all its details, small details, is a totally different thing." And to look at it from a helicopter or from the mountain-top is certainly a different vision; it is a bird's-eye view.
And Dharmakirti said, "If there had been nobody available here, I would have taught you the other too. But when a man like Dharmarakshita is just here, my neighbor, living in another cave just nearby, it is better you go to him."
First one has to become empty, utterly empty. But you have not to cling to emptiness, otherwise your life will never know the positive expression of religion. Your life will miss the poetry, the joy of sharing; you will remain empty. You will have a kind of freedom, but your freedom will be only freedom from, it will not be freedom FOR. And unless a freedom is both -- freedom from and freedom for -- something is missing, something is lacking; your freedom will be poor. Just to be free from is a poor kind of freedom.
The real freedom starts only when you are free for. You can sing a song and you can dance a dance and you can celebrate and you can start overflowing. That's what compassion is.
Man lives in passion. When the mind disappears, passion is transformed into compassion. Passion means you are a beggar with a begging-bowl; you are asking and asking for more and more from everybody; you are exploiting others. Your relationships are nothing but exploitations -- cunning devices to possess the other, very clever strategies to dominate. When you are living in the mind, in passion, your whole life is power politics. Even your love, even your social service, even your humanitarian works, are nothing but power politics. Deep down, there is a desire to be powerful over others.
The same energy, when the mind is dropped, becomes compassion. And it takes a totally new turn. It is no longer begging; you become an emperor, you start giving. Now you have something -- you had it always, but because of the mind, you were not aware of it. The mind was functioning like darkness around you, and you were unaware of the light within. The mind was creating an illusion of being a beggar, while all the time you had been an emperor. The mind was creating a dream; in reality you never needed anything. All had already been given. All that you need, all that you can need, is already the case.
God is within you, but because of the mind -- mind means dreaming, desiring -- you never look within, you go on rushing outwards. You keep yourself in the background, your eyes are turned towards the outside, they have become focused there. That's what the mind is all about: focusing the eyes on the outside.
And one has to learn how to unfocus them from there -- how to make them loose, less rigid, more liquid, so that they can turn inwards. Once you have seen who you are, the beggar disappears. In fact it had never existed; it was just a dream, an idea.
The mind is creating all your misery. With the mind gone, misery is gone, and suddenly you are full of energy. And the energy needs expression, sharing; it wants to become a song, a dance, a celebration. That is compassion: you start sharing.
Atisha learned compassion from Dharmarakshita. But compassion has two faces. One is inactive compassion: the meditator sits silently in his cave, showering his compassion over the whole existence. But it is a very inactive kind of compassion. You have to go to him to partake of it, he will not come to you. You will have to go to the mountains to his cave to share his joy; he will not come to you. He will not move in any way, he will not take any active step. He will not flow towards others, he will not seek and search for the people with whom he can share his dance. He will wait.
This is a feminine kind of compassion: just like a woman waits -- she never takes the initiative, she never goes to the man. She may love the man, but she will never be the first to say "I love you." She will wait; she will hope that one day or other, sooner or later, the man will propose. Woman is inactive love, passive love. Man is active love, man takes the initiative.
And in the same way, compassion has two possibilities: the feminine and the masculine. From Dharmarakshita, Atisha learned the feminine art of being in love with existence. One more step was needed: Dharmarakshita told him, "Go to Yogin Maitreya" -- these three masters were all living together in the same vicinity -- "Go to Yogin Maitreya and learn how to transform the baser energy into active energy, so love becomes active."
And once love is active, compassion is active, you have passed through all the three dimensions of truth -- you have known all. You have known utter emptiness, you have known compassion arising, you have known compassion showering. Life is fulfilled only when all these three have happened.
Because Atisha learned under three enlightened masters, he is called Atisha the Thrice Great. Nothing more is known about his ordinary life, when and where exactly he was born. He existed somewhere in the eleventh century. He was born in India, but the moment his love became active he started moving towards Tibet, as if a great magnet were pulling him there. In the Himalayas he attained; then he never came back to India.
He moved towards Tibet, his love showered on Tibet. He transformed the whole quality of Tibetan consciousness. He was a miracle-worker; whatsoever he touched was transformed into gold. He was one of the greatest alchemists the world has ever known.
These "Seven Points of Mind Training" are the fundamental teaching that he gave to Tibet -- a gift from India to Tibet. India has given great gifts to the world. Atisha is one of those great gifts. Just as India gave Bodhidharma to China, India gave Atisha to Tibet. Tibet is infinitely indebted to this man.
The Book of Wisdom, Chapter-1