‘YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF TANTRAS IS LIKE A HORSE-HAIR IN THIS WORLD!’: NOBLE TĀRĀ’S ADVICE TO YOUNG, HANDSOME TANTRIC YOGI, ATISHA: Jowo Atisha’s early life, studies of tantras, secret mantra unconventional conduct with Indian mahasiddhas, ‘pride-smashing’ direct instructions from Tārā and Ḍākinīs, and upholder of Mind-Only view. (Life and Liberation of Atisha by 17th Karmapa (Day One))

“In the excellent land of Za-hor [Bengal] in the east,
Is a great city, Vikramanipura. In its center is a royal residence,
A palace extremely vast, Called the “Golden Banner.”
Its resources, might, and fortune, Were like that of the eastern emperor of China.

ཤར་ཕྱོགས་ཟ་ཧོར་ཡུལ་མཆོག་ན། །དེ་ན་གྲོང་ཁྱེར་ཆེན་པོ་ཡོད། ། བི་ཀྲ་མ་ནི་པཱུ་ར་ཡིན། །དེ་ཡི་དབུས་ན་རྒྱལ་པོའི་ཁབ། །

ཕོ་བྲང་ཤིན་ཏུ་ཡངས་པ་ཡོད། །གསེར་གྱི་རྒྱལ་མཚན་ཅན་ཞེས་བྱ། ། ལོངས་སྤྱོད་མངའ་ཐང་འབྱོར་བ་ནི། །རྒྱ་ནག་སྟོང་ཁུན་རྒྱལ་བོ་འདྲ། །”

—description of the birthplace of Atisha, in Praises in Eighty Verses by Nagtso Lotsāwa

“I had a very good-looking form, and so even gurus, free of desire, treated me nicely. So, no need to mention people who still had desire.”

–Atisha on his remarkable physical beauty

“Atisha would continually see Tara and get blessings from her. Whenever he had any doubts or questions, no matter what they were, he would arrange a painting or drawing of Tara and in front of it make aspirations and supplicate. Then she would appear directly. Even if she did not appear directly, naturally his confusion would be resolved, and his doubts would be pacified. Atisha said that is how it happened himself. So, from an early age, he saw Tārā and was blessed by her.”

“If that is how it is, then why do you think you are so well-versed in the Dharma and mantra practices? The tantras that you know are like no more than a horse-hair in the world of humans. Almost all the mantric texts are in the hands of the dakinis.”

–17th Karmapa on Tārā’s life-long connection with Atisha

For Guru Rinpoche today, am happy to offer a transcript of a teaching given yesterday by the 17th Karmapa,the first day of three-day teaching on the Life and Liberation of Jowo Atiśa (Atisha), for the special Kagyu Monlam 2023 (video here) from 1.30 pm IST until February 1st. 

The Karmapa first explained the ‘seeds’ or roots of the Kagyu Monlam and how it was started in the 1980s by the first Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche (see images below). Then, how the Karmapa as a young man newly arrived in India in 2000, attended the Kagyu Monlam himself and changed some things about it. In fact, it made me wonder why, since the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul abandoned his role as a public teacher, the 2nd Kalu Rinpoche has not attended the Kagyu Monlam again, nor been seen publicly with the 17th Karmapa. In any case, here is a beautiful video I found of Bokar Rinpoche giving a mandala offering to a young Karmapa at the 2003 Kagyu Monlam under the Bodhi Tree, with a young, happy Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche next to them. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLnxqoJowPQ).

The 17th Karmapa then moved onto the Life and Liberation of Atisha, citing two texts: one called Praises in Thirty Verses by Dromtonpa and another called the Praises in Eighty Verses (Topa Gyechupa བསྟོད་པ་བརྒྱད་ཅུ་པ།) by renowned translator, Nagtso Lotsawa. The Karmapa mainly focused on the early life of Atisha, his birthdate and place, his visions of Tārā and his studies of secret mantra and ‘unconventional conduct (tul-zhug) with great Indian Mahasiddhas.

In fact, Atisha is one of the rare examples of someone who became a monk after being an accomplished yogic tantric practitioner (there are many examples where monastics had to leave the monasteries to be yogis etc.).  The 17th Karmapa covered the following topics (none of which are mentioned in any detail in the Treasury of Lives biography on Atisha by Dr. Alexander Gardner);

  • Atisha’s impact on the Dagpo Kagyu and the Union of Mahamudra and Kadampa teachings

  • Date and Place of Birth of Atisha and Dromtonpa’s account – End of 10th Century in Bengal

  • The Lion of Kings of Zahora – Royal Family Origins and related to Shantarakshita
    Atisha’s youthful beauty- stunningly attractive and good-looking

  • Atisha’s continual visions of Tārā as a child

  • Extremely learned in all the areas of knowledge, especially grammar and logic

  • Secret Mantra studies and practice with accomplished Indian yogic siddhas, such as Rahula-Gupta and his secret name Jñānavajra

  • Madhyamaka Studies with Indian siddha, Avadhūtīpa and his Mind-Only views

  • Studies of Madhyamaka with Indian siddha, Shantīpa 

  • ‘In the middle of a very narrow bridge’ – sudden teaching style of Avadhūtīpa and practising ‘unconventional conduct’ (tul-zhug)

  • Atisha’s pride about his knowledge of the tantras crushed by ḍākinīs in a dream

  • Direct Vision of Tārā who challenges Atisha on his knowledge of the tantras

It was wonderful to hear about Atisha’s yogic conduct and how for example, Rahula Gupta got his parents to let him study with him by making them think he was crazy. 

Music? For Atisha’s youthful beauty, astounding knowledge and skill, He’s the Greatest Dancer by Sister Sledge, for the ‘unconventional conduct’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by The Animals, and the message of the pride-crushing women, You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. 🙂

Written and transcribed by Adele Tomlin, 31st January 2023.



BY 17th KARMAPA, OGYEN TRINLEY DORJE (January 2023, Day One)


“So today is the second day of the special Kagyu Monlam. We are not counting it among the other numbers, so it is called a special Kagyu Monlam. The Monlam is being held at all the Kagyu monasteries, but the main place it is being held is at the Bokar Monastery Shedra. So the sangha members have stayed there after the Kagyu Guncho and together all the rest of us are participating in the special Kagyu Monlam over the internet.

The seeds/roots of the Kagyu Monlam

“As you all know, the seeds of the Kagyu Monlam and how it developed into what we call that, begain in the 1980s with the former 1st Kalu Rinpoche in the sacred place of Bodh Gaya, where they held a small puja and recited the Aspiration of Excellent Conduct. I would imagine that the previous Bokar Rinpoche and Khenpo Donyo Lodro Rinpoche were also there. So, they planted the seed of the Kagyu Monlam and then it became the seed of the Kagyu sangha Monlam. Primarily under the direction of the previous Bokar Rinpoche. So he led that for several years.

In 2000, when I arrived in India, I had the opportunity to go to the Kagyu Monlam, and in particular, in 2004, I made quite a few changes in the texts we recited at the Monlam and so on. In any case, the seeds of what we call the Kagyu Monlam was primarily started by the previous Kalu and Bokar Rinpoche who have both passed away. So, to have such an elaborate and special Kagyu Monlam at the Bokar Shedra Chime Ling with all the sangha who came to the Guncho, has an auspicious connection to our history and that is how I see it.

17th Karmapa at the Kagyu Monlam beneath the Bodhi tree, with 4th Jamgon Kongtrul, 2nd Kalu Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche in 2001.
The former Bokar Rinpoche making a Mandala offering to the 17th Karmapa in Bodh Gaya in 2004.
Atisha’s impact on the Dagpo Kagyu and the Union of Mahamudra and Kadampa teachings

“Today, I want to give an introduction to the Life of Atisha.  Atisha was very kind to everyone in Tibet and was also one of the founders of the Kadampa lineage and also in our Dagpo Kagyu lineage, in his youth, Gampopa studied the Kadampa teachings. Then, later he met Milarepa and he received the instructions on the six yogas of Mahamudra and Naropa. Then, later Gampopa himself when he was caring for his students, primarily he taught them according to the stages of the path of the Kadampa teachings. That is what he taught in public. He was giving advice to the general public. Also, he would give advice to particular students dwelling in retreat in the mountains and he taught them Mahamudra and so this is a way of teaching where he unified the Kadampa instructions and Mahamudra. It became what we call a ‘Union of Kadampa and Mahamudra’. So, for the Dagpo Kagyu also Atisha also has a particular importance. So today I will start teaching about the Life of Atisha and it will take three days. I have not had much time to prepare it, I have been very busy, so my preparations have not been the best but I think I need to give the teaching so it is not left empty.”

Date and Place of Birth of Atiśha and Dromtonpa’s account – End of 10th Century in Bengal

Of course, it is important for us to understand when Atisha appeared. If we calculate it in the Common Era, he was probably born in 982 CE. There is a summary of his life by Dromtonpa (འབྲོམ་སྟོན་རྒྱལ་བའི་འབྱུང་གནས། 1004-1064) in which it is written that:

“The Omniscient Guru was born in the year of the female-fire Tiger.”

There are several different accounts of Atisha’s birth, the main one probably was the one by Dromtonpa. It was the most influential in terms of the year of his birth, which in the Western calculation is 982 CE.

Map of India, Tibet and Asia, c.800 CE, during the Pala dynasty. Bengal was ruled by the Pala empire when Atisha was born.

“If we wonder where Atisha was born? The place was medieval India. In medieval times, India had the four directions of east, south, west and north and there was a central region. So, it was divided into these five regions. It is often said that India was the noble land of the five regions. There is this use of the name.

These terms appear frequently in the texts of the Chinese translators, including Xuanzang’s Travels to India. However, it is not often found in the Tibetan works. These days, we say Bodh Gaya is the central area. So, everything around Bodh Gaya, geographically is central India. In terms of Dharma, it is also considered central India. The central area of Dharma means primarily where the Buddha’s teachings were taught and spread and the four sections of the sangha are all present.  So that is what is meant by a ‘central land in terms of the Dharma’. So, India has the five regions: the four directions and the central region. Among these, the place where Atisha was born is Central India.

Now, in the Praises in Eighty Verses by Dromtonpa, it says: “The prosperous land of Bengal.” This clearly indicates that Atisha’s birthplace was in Bengal in Eastern India. However, in terms of current geography, his birthplace is no longer within the territory of India. There is the country called Bangladesh, and it is within that. 

To give an example, it is similar to the situation of the Buddha. He was born in ancient Indian land and in terms of ancient land he was an Indian person. In terms of today, the birthplace of the Buddha is in Nepal. So now they say he was born in Nepal because the birthplace is now in the territory of Nepal. This is similar to the situation with the birthplace of Atisha.

So, if we ask where is it now in terms of present geography? There in the text called the Praise in Eighty Verses to Atisha (bsTod pa brgyad cu pa), by Dromtonpa, translated by Nagtso Lotsawa (Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa (nag ‘tsho tshul khrims rgyal ba, 1011-1064)[1].  What it says is: 

“In the excellent land of Za-hor [Bengal] in the east, Is a great city, Vikramanipura.”

ཤར་ཕྱོགས་ཟ་ཧོར་ཡུལ་མཆོག་ན། །དེ་ན་གྲོང་ཁྱེར་ཆེན་པོ་ཡོད། །བི་ཀྲ་མ་ནི་པཱུ་ར་ཡིན། །

Contemporary researchers say that Atisha’s birthplace is the Munshiganjdistrict of present-day Bangladesh. In medieval times, this area was called Vikrampur[2].  This is why it says in the Praises of Eighty Verses, Vikramapura. In terms of the history of Bangladesh, from the 10th to the 13th Century, this was the capital of three different dynasties: the Candra, Varmapa and the Sena dynasties. It was also a great centre for Buddhism in middle eastern Asia.   In the 7th Century, the Chinese translator Xuanzang also went to Vikrampura and he also recorded in writing the events relating to his visit.”

The Lion of Kings of Zahora – Royal Family Origins and related to Shantarakshita

`”What sort of family was Atisha born into? It was the royal family of that area. According to the old histories, they say it is the Lion of the Pala Kings. His father’s name was Kalyanachandra and his mother was Shri Prabhavati. His parents had three sons, who were born one after the other. The oldest was called Padmagarbha, the middle was called Chandramagarbha and the youngest was Sri Garbha. It seems that Padmagarbha ascended to the throne, Chandragarbha became Atisha and Sri Garbha also went forth as a monk.

[His eldest son, Punyasri,
Is a great scholar of our time
Known as Dha-na-shri.
The youngest, Srigarbha,
Is the monk Viryacandra.
The middle [son], Candragarbha,
Is our present venerable guru [Atisha].

སྲས་ཀྱི་ཐུ་བོ་བསོད་ནམས་དཔལ། ། ད་ལྟའི་དུས་ན་མཁས་པ་ཆེ། །

དྷ་ན་ཤྲཱི་ཞེས་བྱ་བར་གྲགས། །  

ཆུང་བ་དཔལ་གྱི་སྙིང་པོ་ནི། ། དགེ་སློང་བིརཱུ་ཙན་ཡིན། །

བྲིང་བོ་ཟླ་བའི་སྙིང་པོ་ནི། ། ད་ལྟ་བླ་མ་རྗེ་བཙུན་ཡིན། །]

It is said that later he also went to Tibet` to see Atisha, after he had gone there. But he was unable to see him before he passed away. 

According to the contemporary histories of Bangladesh, his father’s name was  Kalyanachandra. So, in the Eastern areas of Bengal, there was the Candra (Moon) dynasty. He was the 3rd King of this dynasty. The time he reigned was from 975-1000 CE. So, this is the time period of his reign.

So the quote says, he was the Lion of Kings of Zahora. So if we ask what Zahora means, that is a complicated question. Sometimes we think of it as a place, or as a family, there are many different descriptions of it. In the Blue Annals by Go Lotsawa, it says that Zahor in Tibetan is a corruption of the Sanskrit word, Zahora. So actually, it should say Zahora, it means ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ and several other meanings. My guess is that Zahora is the name of a particular family, maybe a royal family, a good lineage or family. This is just a guess though.

Śāntarakṣita (ཞི་བ་འཚོ, zhi ba tsho,[3] 725–788), was an important and influential Indian Buddhist philosopher, of the Madhyamaka school who studied at Nalanda monastery under Jñānagarbha, and became the founder of Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

During the time of the Tibetan King, Trisong Detsen, which was probably about 200 years before Atisha’s birth, Shantarakshita went to Tibet. He also came from Eastern India. He came from Bengal and it is said that both he and Atisha were from the same family line. Dromtonpa’s Praise of Atisha says that:

“The family line in which the Bodhisattva, Shantarakshita was born.”

So Atisha was born in the same family line. Thus the two most influential, great Panditas in India in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, were both the same in coming from Eastern India and from the same family lineage. This is an amazing coincidence. Probably it shows that there must have been some previous karmic connection.” 

Atisha’s youthful beauty – stunningly attractive and good-looking

“To give an introduction to some of the events in Atisha’s childhood. When he was young, he was known by the name Chandragarbha and was extremely intelligent. He was also very respectful of his parents and he treated them well. He was also very handsome and attractive, so whoever saw him were captivated by his physical beauty. For that reason, Atisha said:

“I had a very good-looking form and so even gurus, free of desire, treated me nicely. So, no need to mention people who still had desire.”

He also said,

“I was so good-looking that all the gurus were pleased by me,”

So, whoever looked at him were very captivated and enchanted by him. This is a feeling people naturally had within their minds because of the attractiveness of his form and face.

Atiśa’s continual visions of Tārā as a child

“From a young age, Atisha often had visions of Tara and was blessed by her. So his own special yidam deity was mainly Tara. So once when e was very young, not long after he had gone to bed, at one time, he had been sleeping on a bed in the palace. Above Atisha’s crib, there was a great cracking and rumbling sound, his parents wondered what it was and immediately went to where he was sleeping and they saw huge Scorpion had fallen down right in front of Atisha. When he saw this huge scorpion, he did not have any fear or any trepidation at all. Eventually, the scorpion left on its own. So it is said that this is a sign that before he would see his special deity and before he could practice the natural state, he would have obstacles. Later, they said that.

The reason they say that is because the next day, there was a huge cracking and rumbling sound and again his parents went to see what was happening where he was sleeping. His mother saw a beautiful blue Utpala[3] flower. Atisha said that, at that time, he saw Tara’s face, but his mother did not see that. She saw a blue Utpala flower, that had just freshly bloomed.”

Blue Utpala flower, which is slightly different from a blue lotus flower. Tārā often holds such a flower in her left hand.

“Anyway, from then on, Atisha would continually see Tara and get blessings from her. Whenever he had any doubts or questions, no matter what they were, he would arrange a painting or drawing of Tara and in front of it make aspirations and supplicate. Then she would appear directly. Even if she did not appear directly, naturally his confusion would be resolved, and his doubts would be pacified. Atisha said that is how it happened himself. So, from an early age, he saw Tārā and was blessed by her.”

Extremely learned in all the areas of knowledge, especially grammar and logic
Birch bark manuscript from Kashmir of the Rupavatara, a grammatical textbook based on the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. It was composed by Dharmakirti, a Buddhist monk from Ceylon. The manuscript was transcribed in 1663 Wellcome Images.

“As he got older, until he was ten years old, he studied medicine, crafts and writing and so on. Then until he was 21, he studied non-Buddhist and Buddhist grammar and logic completely. So basiclaly he studied all the different areas of knowledge that one had to study in India. The sixty-four arts, as they are called. In particular, he was very skilled in grammar and logic. 

In the Praises of Atisha by Nagtso Lotsawa it says:

“At the age of 21, you were learned in sixty-four arts, all the crafts, Sanskrit language and logic.”

If we look at what level Atisha had of grammar and logic. When he was 15, he had listened to the teachings on reasoning once. At that time, there was a non-Buddhist intellectual/scholar who was very well-known and he had a debate with Atisha who defeated this non-Buddhist scholar. Then, he became very well-known for his knowledge of that topic. This is according to the great Kadampa Geshe Drolungpa Chenpo.

Even later, after Atisha went to Tibet he would often speak with Tibetan lamas about grammar and pronunciation.  At this time, there was not even a word for grammar or pronunciation. There was an attendant of Atisha called Bangton, who spent a lot of time with him. He was reciting the long dharani of the Great Compassionate One, Avalokiteshvara and blessing other sentient beings. They really got great blessings. What Atisha said then is that “you are reciting the dharani of Avaloketishvara but your pronunciation of the dharani it should not bring any blessings but because you have good intentions, the blessings are from those kind intentions. They are not the blessings of reciting the mantra correctly.”

Sometimes, it was said, that when Atisha’s hand hurt, he would call this attendant, Bangton and say: “Please bless my hand. You have such a good and kind intention it will be of benefit.” Also, when he was talking about epistemology and logic, he would speak about the Tibetan lamas and said in Tibetan you do not even have a term for ‘validity’. At this point, there was no level of study of epistemology. So he said they could never debate with non-Buddhists. As you cannot debate with them that does not matter. However, if you had to debate with them you would not be able to do so. He was very learned in terms of grammar, logic and epistemology.”

Secret Mantra studies and practice with accomplished Indian yogic siddhas, Rahula-Gupta and his secret name Jñānavajra
Rāhula-gupta (sbas pa’i rnal ‘byor sgra gcan ‘dzin pa), 10th Century Indian yogi

Now, I would like to talk about how he practised secret mantra. In the beginning, before he had studied the Sutras, he studied a lot of secret mantras. When he was young he primarily studied tantric teachings. When he was 22 years old, he went to Midnight-Blue Khandro mountain temple and while he was there was a guru called Rahula Gupta[4]. This was not a general type of teacher, but a lama who had visions of Hevajra and prophecies from the dakinis. Atisha took all the empowerments on Hevajra from him and was given the secret name of Jñāṇavajra (Yeshe Dorje).

There was another yogi of Yamantaka named Kamalarakshita who was really powerful, he was able to transform alcohol into milk and he could spread out his mat and float across the Ganges river. So, these were the kinds of powers this guru had.  Atisha also did a lot of his secret mantra studies with him.

10th/11th Century Buddhist master, Jowo Atisha, pictured with yogic teachers and students.
Madhyamaka Studies with Indian siddha, Avadhūtīpa and his Mind-Only views
Avadhutipa, Mahasiddha (Tibetan: drup tob awa dhu ti pa): an Indian master of tantric methods, the 6th guru of the Lamdre lineage descending from Virupa surrounded by the ‘Tip of the Flame’ Perfection Stage Lineage. https://www.himalayanart.org/items/60690

“Another important guru Atisha studied with when he was young was Avadhūtīpa. There are two, an elder and a younger. The one I am thinking of here is the elder/greater. Some people say that Atisha spent seven years with him, some say he spent twelve years. So, there are differing accounts. However, Nyagtso Lotsawa says that Atisha spent nine years studying with him. He mainly studied the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) view with him.

Avadhūtīpa Chenpo was from the Yogacara Middle Way school. This seems to be the reason why Atisha upheld the views of the Yogacara Middle Way view. Once there were some Tibetan lamas who asked him, what are the reasons why you hold the Yogacara Middle Way view? In response, Atisha said: “I asked exactly the same question to my guru, Avadhūtīpa ‘ who responded: “this is how I see the Dharma and have realised the nature. So for that reason, you should also uphold this view.”

So, Atisha was an upholder of the Mahayāna, and in particular the Autonomous Yogacāra Madhyamaka. Of course, in Tibet we say that almost all the Indian panditas were Consequentialist Middle Way (Prasangika Madhyamaka).

Studies of Madhyamaka with Indian siddha, Shantīpa
Ratnākaraśānti (also known as Śāntipa) (c. 10th-century CE) was one of the eighty-four Buddhist Mahāsiddhas and a monk at the monastic university of Vikramashila in what is now modern-day Bihar in India. At Vikramashila he was instructed by Nāropa, and taught both Atīśa and Maitrīpa.  He was known as kalikālasarvajña meaning “Omniscient One of the Degenerate Age”

“However, if you think about Atisha’s life, there is another really important guru called Shantipa ( Śāntipa).  He was one of the great paṇḍitas of Nalanda and he was the one who guarded the eastern gate. He was a very well-known Mind-Only scholar, famous for his Mind-Only views. So, Atisha studied Dharma from him.

One time, Shantipa was teaching the 8000 verse Prajñāparāmita Sutra to him and Shantipa made negations of all of the Madhyamaka expositions. So, he would say: “the Madhyamaka says this, and this is not right.” He refuted each of the Madhyamaka expositions. Because of these refutations, instead of making Atisha doubt the Madhyamaka view, it made him have a much stronger understanding of it. His refutations of Madhyamaka were very beneficial for Atisha because it clarified exactly what the Madhyamaka view was.  Of course, Atisha himself, even though he held the Yogacara Madhyamaka view, he also had a strong interest in the Consequentialist Madhyamaka of Chandrakirti’s tradition. As many of the older lamas said.”

‘In the middle of a very narrow bridge’ – Sudden teaching style of Avadhūtīpa and practising ‘unconventional conduct’ (tul-zhug)
Damro Bridge, Arunachal Pradesh, India. From CNTraveller

“Anyway, he spent quite a few years with the guru Avadhūtīpa, but they never had just ordinary chats about things, about what they were doing and how things are going and so on. They wouldn’t have any meaningless talks or questions like that. Sometimes, Atisha would pay respect and offer a great gold mandala and he would not get any teachings. Sometimes, at busy times, when Atisha did not ask for teachings and normally one should not ask for them, all of a sudden Avadhūtīpa would teach some Dharma.  Yet, if he asked and made offerings, he would not teach the Dharma.

One time, Atisha and this guru were walking across a very narrow bridge, extremely thin and narrow. As they were going to cross it, probably Avadhūtīpa was in the front, and Atisha at the back and as they were going like that. In the middle of this very narrow bridge, he suddenly turned round and said:

‘Son, until you are free of ego-clinging, refrain from even the tiniest or tiny negative actions.’

So, you can imagine he just taught this very important Dharma as they were on the middle of this tiny bridge. Avadhūtīpa was really a lama who had practiced, so every single word was one that could bring exceptional realisation, this was the type of incredible lama he was. 

During that time, Atisha had many different gurus at that time, and he received many different tantric teachings from many. Atisha himself practised the unconventional conduct (tul-zhug chopa) of Avadhūtīpa. This yogic conduct means giving up any fear or shame and so on. If you think about this in worldly terms, it is kind of crazy actions. An ordinary person would look at them and think they were crazy, not wearing many clothes and having no fear of anything and so on. He spent six years practising yogic conduct. Some say he spent three years.”

Atisha’s pride about his knowledge of the tantras crushed by ḍākinīs in a dream

“Anyway, basically Jowo Atisha had studied a lot of secret mantric practice but he also trained and practised in the Vajrayāna. He had such a vast practice of it that Atisha began to think to himself, that he had such a vast knowledge of secret mantra, that no-one else had better knowledge of tantras and mantra than he did. So, he got a bit proud of himself.

Due to this, when Atisha was travelling on his way to India, he had a dream. In the dream, ḍākinīs were showing him innumerable tantric texts and they said to him: “What tantra is this? Do you know?” However, Atisha had not even heard the names of the texts, there were so many, there were just a couple he knew. So, the ḍākinīs were saying, those are just the few texts you know, but the ones you don’t know are infinite.”

Direct vision of Tārā who challenges him on his knowledge of the tantras

“Another time, he had his special deity Tara of the Acaia Forest appeared to him, she came to him and said: “Are you a Pandita who knows about mantra?” Atisha replied he was. She then mentioned a couple of tantric sadhanas and said: “Do you know these sadhanas?” Atisha said that he had never seen or heard the name of the texts. So, Tara said:

“If that is how it is, then why do you think you are so well-versed in the Dharma and mantra practices? The tantras that you know are like no more than a horse-hair in the world of humans. Almost all the mantric texts are in the hands of the dakinis.”

Then she disappeared.  From that point on, Atisha said that his pride had been shattered. He had thought he knew a lot of tantra, but then he realised that the amount he knew was like just a tiny portion of it and that there were many more Dharma teachings and pith instructions to learn.

This is mainly discussing the early life of Atisha, how he studied a lot of secret mantra teachings. I will discuss tomorrow, how he went forth and became an ordained monk. The reason for that is because we started a little bit late today.”


[1] In the Treasury of Lives biography of Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa, it says: “he is credited with around one hundred translations in the Kangyur, including texts in the Prajñāpāramitā and tantra sections, and in the Tengyur, including works by Atiśa. He also authored a biography of Atiśa, the “Extended Biography” (rnam thar rgyas pa).” See: Nag tso tshul khrims rgyal ba. 1982.Jo bo rje dpal ldan mar me mdzad ye shes kyi rnam thar rgyas pa. In Lokesh Chandra, ed.,Biography of Atiśa and his Disciple Brom-ston, Zho[l] edition. Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, vol. 2, pp. 820-862.

According to Atisha’s Treasury of Lives biography the connection between Nyag Lotsawa and himself is a strong one. Perhaps this is something the 17th Karmapa will cover in the following days’ teachings. It says he was one of the Tibetans who tried to bring Atisha to India:

The next mission to India was headed by the Tibetan monk Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa (nag ‘tsho tshul khrims rgyal ba, 1011-1064), who left in 1037, accompanied by several companions. The leadership of Vikramaśila is said to have refused to allow the Tibetans to take Atiśa away, and the hagiographies make much of the subterfuge employed to prevent the success of their mission. Nevertheless, Atiśa, said to have been urged by Tārā herself to accept the Tibetan invitation, and engaged in some deception of his own in order to obtain permission from his abbot: he told his abbot that he was going to show the Tibetans the pilgrimage sites of India. The abbot, Ratnakara, saw through the deception, but permitted Atiśa to leave on the condition that he return in three years.

In 1040 Atiśa and Naktso set out for Tibet, accompanied by Gya Lotsāwa, who had aided them at Vikramaśila, serving as translator. Gya Lotsāwa did not survive the journey, passing away en route to Nepal. There, according to some, Atiśa met Marpa, whom he asked to become his translator. Marpa declined. After two years of travel they reached Tolung (stod lung), the capital of the Purang Kingdom.

[2] Vikrampur (“City of Courage”) was a pargana situated 19 kilometres (12 mi) south of Dhaka, the modern capital city of Bangladesh. In the present day, it is known as Munshiganj District of Bangladesh. It is a historic region in Bengal and was a part of the Bhawal Estate.

Ashoka, the emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, ruled all of major parts of Bengal from ca. 269 BC to 232 BC. Being a devotee of Gautama Buddha, he propagated Buddhism across his kingdom which included Bikrampur to the east. Following the high ideals of this religion, Pala Kings came to Bikrampur to rule the region.

Pala Era

The second ruler of Pala Empire, Dharmapal, built a Buddhist monastery in Bikrampur during his reign in 770–810.[3] After his death, his son, Devapala ruled this area until 850 CE. Then the region is successively ruled by Vigrahapala I, Narayanapala, Rajyapala, Gopala II, Vigrahapala II, Mahipala, Naya Pala, Vigrahapala III, Mahipala II, Shurapala II, Ramapala, Kumarapala, Gopala III and Madanapala.[4] Pala empire disintegrated in 1174 weakened by attacks of the Sena dynasty.

[3] Utpala in Sanskrit is a neuter noun with two meanings, both given by Amarakoṣa (a lexicon of circa. 400 AD). The first meaning is Nymphaea caerulea, the “blue lotus”, also known as kuvalaya in Sanskrit.

[4] In Images of Enlightenment (Shambhala, 2006), in Chapter Six about Atisha, it says that Rahula Gupta had to devise a special [and hilarious] plan to enable him to get the tantric teachings:

“When this great yogi saw that his young and eager disciple was still not free of his parents’ worldly expectations for him, he devised a plan to win Atisha his release:

[Rahulagupta] sent him back to the palace with eight of his disciples, four male and four female, dressed scantily in the bone ornaments of [advanced Vajrayana practitioners).

For three months Atisha 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 hope for their precious son. Thinking him to have gone mad, they gave full permission for him to leave with his rather unsavory-looking friends and be gone once and for all.”

Further Reading



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