‘BLOWING THE HORN FOR INVITING TRANSLATORS AND SCHOLARS’: BRINGING JOWO ATISHA TO TIBET. Tibetans studying in Kashmir and at Vikaramashila, the invention of the Ragdung horn, Atisha’s connection to Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo and reasons for composing Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Life and Liberation of Atisha by 17th Karmapa, Day 3)

“How did the Dharma King, Lha Lama Yeshe O invite Atisha to Tibet? First, there was a student and expert of the Dharma, called Rinchen Zangpo, the great translator who had previously gone to India to study and was very famous in Tibetan history. The King selected five, young and intelligent Tibetans and he appointed Rinchen Zangpo as their leader and sent them to Kashmir to study Buddhism.”

“Tārā told Atisha: “Your journey to the Land of Snows will be a complete success. You will benefit the Tibetans enormously and would find among them a disciple with an especially close bond to You. This great disciple of yours would be an upasaka, a man with lay vows, and he would spread the Dharma even further. However, if you go to Tibet, your life span will be reduced by 20 years. You will live till you are 72 years old. If you choose not to go to Tibet and remain in India, you will live till the age of 92. “

“Atisha told them that: “Among all the profound Dharmas, karmic cause and effect is even more profound than those miraculous teachings. Even seeing the yidam deities’ face is not as important. If you have a stable conviction in karma, cause and effect that is better than seeing the face of the yidam.”

—17th Karmapa (February 2023)

“When Rinchen Zangpo was eighty-five he met Atiśa at Toling. At Atiśa’s request he listed his accomplishments and outlined his understanding. Atiśa exclaimed “If there are men like you in Tibet, then there was no need for me to come here!” But when Atiśa asked him how one should practice the tantras, and Rinchen Zangpo replied that one should practice each tantra in its own way (or, more specifically, Guhyasamāja on the ground floor, Hevajra on the second floor, and Cakrasaṃvara on the top floor), Atiśa exclaimed “Rotten translator! Indeed there was need for me to come! The tantras should all be practiced together!” Atiśa then gave him instruction and told him to enter meditation retreat.”

–from Treasury of Lives biography of Rinchen Zangpo


Today, is the anniversary of the passing of the great Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055, རིན་ཆེན་བཟང་པོ་) who not only was one of the greatest Lotsawas from Tibet during the second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, variously called the New Translation School, New Mantra School or New Tantra Tradition School. He also studied in his eighties with the great Indian Pandita, Atisha (Atiśa), known affectionately to Tibetans as Jowo Je.  Thus, for this day, am happy to share a transcript of the third and final day of the teaching on the Life and Liberation of Atisha by the 17th Karmapa, who mentions Rinchen Zangpo [1]

As for his meeting Atisha:

“When Rinchen Zangpo was eighty-five he met Atiśa at Toling. At Atiśa’s request he listed his accomplishments and outlined his understanding. Atiśa exclaimed “If there are men like you in Tibet, then there was no need for me to come here!” But when Atiśa asked him how one should practice the tantras, and Rinchen Zangpo replied that one should practice each tantra in its own way (or, more specifically, Guhyasamāja on the ground floor, Hevajra on the second floor, and Cakrasaṃvara on the top floor), Atiśa exclaimed “Rotten translator! Indeed there was need for me to come! The tantras should all be practiced together!” Atiśa then gave him instruction and told him to enter meditation retreat.

Following his encounter with Atiśa, Rinchen Zangpo practiced for ten years. According to tradition, he wrote three inscriptions above consecutive doors to his medication cell, each corresponding to one of the three vehicles (Mahāyāna, Hīnayāna, and Vajrayāna); above outer door to his meditation cell: “Within this door, should a thought of attachment the phenomenal world arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapāla split open my head.” Over the middle door he wrote: “Should a thought of self-interest arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapāla split open my head.” Over the inner door he wrote: “Should an ordinary thought arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapāla split open my head.”

In Day Three of his teachings on the life of Atisha, the 17th Karmapa continued with the topic of how, why and by whom Atisha was invited and brought to Tibet from India. He reminded us all of how difficult it was to travel to Tibet from India, the elderly age of Atisha at that time, and how respected and renowned in India he was and the reasons why the Indians were reluctant to let Atisha go.   However, after seeking his yidam deity Noble Tārā’s advice on the matter, even though it would shorten his life-span by twenty years, Atisha decided to go to Tibet

Another fascinating anecdote the Karmapa shared was how the uniquely Tibetan Ragdung horn was actually invented due to the Tibetan King wanting to welcome Atisha in a grand and ‘loud’ way. The Karmapa joked that the people and animals in that area were probably so stunned when they first heard it, and perhaps it was even rather scary and caused the animals to bolt! For me, the Ragdung sound is something other-worldly, like the sound of an open central channel resounding AH. So, whoever, invented it was perhaps also a greatly realised practitioner too.

The 17th Karmapa then finished by explaining how the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Jangchub Lam gi Dronma) was composed by Atisha, in response to seven requests made of him. In my own recent presentation on the roots of Vajrayana, I mentioned very briefly Atisha and his statement in that text that monastics (or anyone with celibacy vows) should not take the second and third empowerments of a Vajrayana practice. I relied on the work of David Gray (2020) who stated that Atisha composed the text when he was travelling to Tibet. However, Gray does not mention these requests of Atisha, and although it is not clear from the 17th Karmapa’s teaching, it seems that he was saying Atisha composed the work when he had arrived in Tibet. This needs to be further investigated.

Thus, as a teaching based on the research and scholarship of the 17th Karmapa, it is extremely valuable and worthy of preservation and study.   In addition, in this oral life-story account we can see how important the oral and written translators were for the spread and preservation of the Buddha Dharma from India in Tibet. As Atisha is said to have remarked when his elderly translator, Gya Tsondru Senge passed away on their way to Tibet, “I have lost my tongue!” 

May we all be reminded of the great, kind acts of Atisha and the great Buddha Dharma translators who risked life and limb to spread the Dharma in Tibet and beyond!

Music? Tibetan Ragdung hornsKashmir by Led Zeppelin, and Come Blow Your Horn by Frank Sinatra.

Written and transcribed by Adele Tomlin, 7th February 2023.


“So today I will speak about how the Dharma teachings spread to Tibet. Around hundred years had passed since Langdharma had persecuted the teachings, around five generations. During that time, five generations Buddhism had weakened considerably. In particular, Yeshe O, the name he had before he became a monk was called Song-ngey (srong nge). The region where he was is Ngari, at that time, Zhangshung. The name Ngari was given later when the Tibetan Kings had gone there and established the three kingdoms of Ngari. Before that, this was the place where the Bon religion had arisen. So, even during the time of Yeshe O, most of the people had faith in the Bon religion. There was not much interest in Buddhism.

In addition, in many areas of Tibet there were not a whole lot of people who knew the Dharma well because the Dharma had been persecuted. Also, some people did know the Dharma but explained it improperly. In particular, the Tibetans really respected people who came from India very highly and often gave them a lot of gold. So, there were many strange panditas who came from India and would teach any Dharma. In particular, they would misinterpret the tantras literally and misunderstand them and so the situation of Dharma in Tibet became very chaotic.

For that reason, Song-ngey before he became a monk, had read the treatises himself and investigated them. He realised that a lot of these people’s behaviour was antithetical to the Dharma. He tried to correct them by making various laws and guidelines but they really did not bring much benefit. They were unable to eliminate these faults. So, he thought it would be good to invite an authentic pandita from India, to come to Tibet and reform Buddhism. He thought this would be very important, and he had a great interest to do this. Moreover, Lha Lama Yeshe O himself gave up his power and went forth as a monk. He spent most of his time trying to spread the teachings. He gave the Kingship to his younger brother, though some histories say it was his elder brother.

The founding of Toling Monastery and the re-establishment of the Vinaya vows in Tibet
Toling Monastery, Tibet

Then, he built the Toling monastery in the Ngari region. This is the earliest monastery in Ngari that we have a history for. It is still in pretty good condition. If in the future some people can go there, and see the monastery, that would be good. Lha Lama Yeshe O founded the Toling Monastery and invited many panditas from India.

Among them there was someone from Eastern India called Dharmapala. Along with him were three disciples who also had the name Pala. they spread the monastic vows in Ngari and established a sangha community there.  They promoted the teachings of the Vinaya. This is what we call the To (Upper) Vinaya. 

Anyway, when we speak about Langdarma destroying Buddhism, it means he singled out the monastic communities and destroyed them. It does not mean that after the persecution he completely eliminated Buddhism from Tibet. When we speak about the beginning of the later transmission of Buddhism, that primarily means when the transmissions and the vows of the monastic community were re-established in central Tibet. The other day, I spoke about the lower transmission. The upper transmission a little bit earlier than the lower transmission from Gonpo Rabsel. In any case, the lineages and vows came from Upper and Lower Tibet. After these two transmissions had been established in central Tibet that Tibetan Buddhism could be stably and widely restored on a vast scale. This what we call the later transmission of Buddhism.

Śākyaśrībhadra who came from Kashmir, hence why Tibetans called him Khachepa Penchen

Then, in addition to these upper and lower transmissions (To-Me), in the 13th Century, there was a great Pandita called Shakyashri (Śākyaśrībhadra 1127-1225) from Kashmir. The transmission of his lineage and vows is called the Mahapandita tradition. So, basically in Tibet, all the lineages and vows can basically be included in one of these three: the Upper, Lower, and Mahapandita transmissions. There is none that are not included in these three.

However, later, the transmission of the Upper Vinaya (from the three Palas) was probably broken. Here, one thing we need to pay attention to is when we talk about the linage of the vows, we are talking about the lineage of the abbots. For example, when Sakya Pandita took his Bhikshu vows, the abbot was Shakyashri but I believe the master of the ritual and the master of the sangha present were probably from the lower transmission. However, if we look into the Vinaya, the Bhikshu vow is received from the sangha, not from an individual. That is very clear. So, it seems that in Tibet, we know the lineage of the abbots as the lineage of the vows. But we should really research this further.

Inviting Atisha to Tibet – sending Tibetans to Kashmir to study Buddhist philosophy

The second of Yeshe O’s legacies was inviting Atisha to Tibet. The person who actually brought him to Tibet was Jangchub O. Yeshe O was not able to meet Atisha in person. The one who had the idea and had the plan to invite him was Yeshe O. For that reason, most Tibetan histories say that Yeshe O, whether he had to sacrifice his life or not, without him then one could say Atisha would have been unable to come to Tibet.

How did Yeshe O invite Atisha? First, there was a student and expert of the Dharma, called Rinchen Zangpo, the great translator who had previously gone to India to study and was very famous in Tibetan history. Then he selected five, young and intelligent Tibetans and he appointed Rinchen Zangpo as the leader of these people, and sent them to Kashmir to study.

So, Kashmir is what modern Tibetan scholars call Kachepa. These days when we say Kache in Tibetan, we understand it to mean practitioners of Islam. That is not quite the right term. The reason why we call Muslims, Khache is because when Muslims first came to Tibet, they came from Kashmir, Kache. From then on Tibetans called them Khache. Actually, Islam is Islam, Kashmir is the name of the region they came from, it is not the name of the religion. Anyway, he sent several Tibetans to Kashmir to study translation.

After they had finished their studies, then Yeshe O asked them to bring panditas who could spread the Dharma and important texts back to Tibet. The King encouraged them to do that and they did as he asked and brought some Indian panditas. However, these scholars were only learned in the texts they had specifically studied, but not at the level to reform Tibetan Buddhism fully and systematically.  Even in terms of their education and learning it was not sufficient. So, Yeshe O thought these panditas did not fulfil his wishes. Likewise, Yeshe O had heard there was a scholar called Atisha in India who was learned, venerable and good. So he got the idea that they had to absolutely invite Atisha. Yeshe O gave the responsibility of bringing Atisha to Gya Tsondru Senge, who was an older translator and sent him to India. But he was unable to bring Atisha to Tibet. After that, Yeshe O had become quite old and passed away before his wish could be fulfilled. However, before he passed away, he told his nephew Jangchub O that he must bring Atisha to Tibet. That was his last will and testament.

Nagtso Lotsawa and study at Vikramashila and inviting Atisha to come to Tibet

In order to fulfil his uncle’s wish Jangchub O also sent the translator called Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa (1011-1064, nag ‘tsho lo tsA ba tshul khrims rgyal ba)  to India to bring Atisha back. So, Nagtso went with a few helpers and assistants and they all arrived in India and when they arrived in India, Atisha was living at Vikramashila (Vikramaśilā).

Vikramashila monastery was built in the 8th Century by a King of the Pala dynasty, by King Dharmapala (Palden Chokyong). This monastic university was the second most important university after Nālanda.  In particular, it was a hub for the centre of Vajrayana Dharma, in particular the Unexcelled Highest Tantra. The best of the scholars who graduated from there were given the title pandita by the King. For that reason, many great scholars came from that temple. For example, there is Nāropa was a graduate who came from there. Also, Śantīpa the Mind-Only scholar and in fact, Nāropa and Śantīpa are among the six scholars called the six gate-keepers. These were primarily the scholars who stayed at the four gates of Vikramshila, and the two pillars, because many non-Buddhists would come to debate with them at the monastery. Atisha himself was a master at Vikramashila.  Also Shakyashribhdra,who also went to Tibet, also studied there. Then in 1203, it was destroyed by the Muslim invaders. The ruins are still there if you travel down from Siliguri they are there along the way.

In any case, Nagtso and his party arrived at Vikramashila and at that time, Gen Tsondru Senge, the monk who had been previously said to have asked Atisha to come to Tibet was there studying. So Gya Tsondru Senge was the one who had initially invited Atisha and he was intimately familiar with the reasons why but he told them not to tell anyone there the reasons they came to invite him, just pretend that they are there to study. Just to stay there for a while and when the time comes and there is an opportunity, he would tell them how they should invite Atisha.

So Nagtso Lotsawa and his friends did as Gya Tsondru Senge suggested and told people they were there to study. They spent a year studying there. It was only a year later that they finally had the opportunity to explain to Atisha why they had come to invite him to Tibet. For an entire year, they did not have an opportunity to speak to him as they had to ask Atisha directly and they could not go through someone else as it was secret. Atisha had such vast activity that it was hard for them to get an opportunity.

After Nagtso had explained the situation in detail, Atisha said: “if I look at the way you tell the story, that Tibetan King must be a real Bodhisattva. If I were to go against a Bodhisattva’s command that would not be right at all. So now, the Tibetans have come to all this hardship to come here50:25 ? So I will try to find a way to go to Tibet.”

Atisha asks Tārā about his trip to Tibet

“So they got a promise from Atisha to come. Then Jowo je, as I mentioned the other day whenever he had a question or a doubt, he would ask his special deity Tāra about the issue and she would directly tell him what to do. So, he asked her about going to Tibet, Tāra said that it would be really beneficial if you go to Tibet. In particular, there will be one Upāsikā (layperson) who will be really beneficial for it.  Who was that layperson? It probably means Dromtonpa, there is no-one else. The main layperson he taught was Dromtonpa, right?”

Trip to Bodh Gaya and yogi’s response to Atisha about Tibet
Cowry shells

“Not only that, Atisha thought it was really important to go to Tibet, so he went to Bodh Gaya. Probably at the great Buddha statue there, he made offerings and supplications. At that time, there was a Khenpo there called Jnanashrimitra. this Khenpo gave him a handle of cowry shells from a sea-dwelling animal, When we were children, we would put them in bags and carry them on our backs.

Anyway, he gave him a bag full of cowry shells and said there was an old pale person with long, dreadlocked hair and told him to give the cowry shells to him. So, Atisha went to Bodh Gaya, when he was going to make his offerings then he met the old man, who said: “give me the cowry shells you brought for me.”

When he said that, Atisha realised this is not an ordinary person he is a daka, so he did not actually prostrate, but in his mind he prostrated. He asked him if going to Tibet would be beneficial or not. The old man responded that It would be good to go and would be beneficial. So this old man had responded in the same way as Tara has advised.

Atisha’s question about his life-span and Tārā’s response that if he went to Tibet it would be shorter
Tārā from the Atisha tradition

“Atisha also asked Tārā that if he went to Tibet would there be any obstacles to his life. There were probably several reasons why Atisha asked this. The first reason was, at that time, Atisha was already in his 50s, he was already quite old. The second reason is that Tibet is a very high-altitude area and very remote place. So, of course, there is a risk and potential danger to his life if he went there. Tārā responded that: “if you go to Tibet your life will be shorter.” Jowo je said: “How much shorter?” and she responded: “If you do not go to Tibet, you will live to 92, but if you go, you will not live longer than 73.”   In actuality, if Atisha went to Tibet, his life would be 20 years shorter. However, at that time, Atisha thought to himself, “well it doesn’t really matter whether my life is shorter or not.” So, he decided to go to Tibet.”

Key-holder of many Indian monasteries: The Indians’ discovery of the plan to bring Atisha to Tibet and their reluctance to let him go
Bunch of keys in old Tibetan style – monastery in Ladakh

“However, if Atisha had directly said he was going to Tibet, then the Indian King and the Indian authorities and sponsors would not have allowed him to go. So, Atisha had a little bit of a skillful way and said  he was going on a pilgrimage. So, he took Nagtso Lotsawa and other people and they went here and there, trying to fool them by going to these sites. Then at the end, they went to Nepal. To go to Tibet, they had to go via Nepal. So eventually they got to Nepal. At that time, one of the authorities who worked at Vikramashila monastery felt a bit uneasy about it. He got suspicious about it all and insisted he had to go with Atisha and so went along too.

In Nepal, this person learned of Atisha’s plan to go to Tibet and so he called Nagtso Lotsawa and confronted him with his lying about coming to study in India and accused him of coming to kidnap Atisha.  He said: “Actually, it is not that we don’t want to let Atisha go to Tibet, however, if we lose him to Tibet, there is a danger of Buddhism being destroyed and declining in India.” So after their speaking together about it, they agreed that Atisha would spend no more than three years in Tibet. After three years, Nagtso Lotsawa would have to bring him back to India. And he had to take an oath and promise that he would bring him back. Only then would they allow Atisha to go to Tibet.

When we think about how difficult it was for Atisha going from India to Tibet and wonder why the Indians did not want him to go there. Think about it factually. When Nagtso and his party went to bring Atisha to Tibet, he was already in his 50s. For the life expectancy at the time he was already very old.

In addition, Atisha was already at a national level of pandita and was famous and influential. So, for that reason, he had been appointed the abbot of the important and famous Vikramashila monastery, and Odantapuri, and also the head of several important temples in central India. Thus, he had a keyring that always had a minimum of eighteen keys on his belt. He had a lot of keys to carry as they had given him the keys to lots of monasteries. So, he carried them on his belt and they clanked together as he walked. This is why the Indians were so reluctant to let him go.

Indians also looked at Tibet like a land of darkness, remote, backwards place. Also, at that time, Buddhism in India had begun to decline, and the unexcelled highest tantra teachings were spreading very widely. So, the Buddhist and Hindu religions began to mix.  There were many practices that you could not tell if they were Hindu or Buddhist. Many Buddhist panditas said you could not tell the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.  I don’t remember the name of the person who said that.

Atisha himself also said that, those days in India there were only three or four panditas, including Shantipa who could tell Hinduism and Buddhism apart, including Atisha himself.  So, for that reason, it was also important for Indian Buddhism that Atisha stay in India.”

The exceptionally high regard Indians had for Atisha
Master Nāgārjuna

“One example of how important Indians considered Atisha was a wall at the Vikramshila temple. On the right side, there was a painting of Nāgārjuna, and on the left was Atisha. They basically considered him equal to Nāgārjuna. Likewise, also in Vikramashila on another mural, they had a mural of all the panditas and on the other wall they had a mural of the other Mahasiddhas. Atisha was painted in both the line of panditas and the siddhas who were all very important. Also, Atisha had such a gentle character, he got along with everyone. He had a very open mind; he was familiar with all the positions and had experience of all the Buddhists schools in India of that time. For that reason, all the different schools loved him and respected him.

We can see this in the Praises of Atisha written by Nagtso Lotsawa which says:

“At Odantapuri, there were three-hundred and fifty monastics, and at Vikramashila about one hundred. You were learned in all the schools and had no arrogance about the schools. You became the crown jewel of all the four communities, the teacher and all the sacred sites in the land of Maghada. You stood at the head of all the eighteen schools and everyone accepts you.”

So, out of the people at these universities and among all the four schools, he was from the Mahāsāṃghika, and he did not have any pride about being from that school. Also, in the four communities, the monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen all respected and listened to him.

Also, there were great debates between the Mind-Only and Middle Way, but Atisha would take the best parts of both, and practice them in union. So, he was able to practice the lineage of the profound view and the lineage of vast conduct without any conflict.

Anyway, Atisha was very important in India. So, the Indians were very reluctant for him to go off to Tibet.”

“Losing his tongue” translator in Nepal and Nagtso’s encouragement to continue to Tibet with the aid of Lotsawa RInchen Zangpo

“They went to Nepal and probably spent one year there. What is unfortunate is that on the way to Nepal, Gya Tsondru Senge, the older translator passed away. When he died, Atisha said: “The translator has died, so it is like I no longer have a tongue.”  In the olden days, if you did not have a translator, it was the same as not having a tongue. So, Atisha thought there is no point in going to Tibet.

Nagtso said: “Oh, don’t talk like that, there is a really well-known translator, Rinchen Zangpo in Tibet and he can serve you. For ordinary conversation, then I can help with that. But you must continue on to Tibet.” Due to that advice, Atisha continued on his way to Tibet and in 1040, when Atisha was 59 years old, he arrived in the region of Ngari.”

The Tibetans’ grand welcome for Atisha and the invention of the Ragdung horn
A pair of horns photographed by a 1938 German expedition in Tibet

“Now I will speak about how they welcomed Atisha when he arrived in Ngari. At that time, the King was Jangchub O. He was a royal but he had become ordained and his monastic name was Jangchub O.  So, this was probably when he had become a monk. He had been waiting a long time for Atisha’s arrival. They prepared the welcome well before he arrived. They were at the Toling monastery, founded by Yeshe O. It had been enlarged a bit since then.

As Atisha was getting close to the monastery, they had a very elaborate welcome. They had 300 laypeople riding white horses, carrying banners and canopies, and various offerings and a huge welcome. In particular, at that time Atisha arriving was considered something that all the gods and humans should rejoice about, so they thought they have to do something very impressive. Jangchub O thought they had to invent a musical instrument that was very loud. We have the horns that we play, Ragdung, sometimes we call them dungchen, or dungmar, but that is when these horns were invented.

For that reason, we also call the Ragdung, “the horn for inviting translators and scholars”. At that time, there had never been a Ragdung before, so they needed something very loud and when Atisha came, they played it. What happened was all the livestock and animals had never heard anything like it before. If you know how to play it, it can be very powerful and strong sound, so all the animals on the hill fled, and the horses they were riding panicked and ran, it probably also frightened Atisha and all those mild-mannered Indians [laughter]. I don’t know if it actually please Atisha, he had probably not heard anything so loud in his life. They probably were quite scary to the mild Atisha.”

[Transcriber’s note: for me, the Ragdung sound is something other-worldly, like the sound of an open central channel resounding AH. So, whoever, invented it was perhaps also a greatly realised practitioner too.]

Atisha called ‘Guru Karma, Cause and Effect’: Teaching the profound Dharma of Karma in Tibet

“Atisha arrived in Toling monastery, and Jangchub O explained the whole situation of Tibetan Buddhism and how the Dharma Kings had established the teachings and Langdarma had persecuted the Dharma teachings. Then how his predecessor disregarding his own life had worked to establish the teachings but there were so many false teachers of the Dharma that it had become very mixed up and chaotic. He was crying as he explained this. In the end, he said:  “You have come to Tibet now, and now that you have come here, please don’t teach at all those really profound teachings, just teach the Dharma of cause and effect.” The false teachers had taught about miraculous and profound teachings and called it secret mantra. They wanted him to just teach about karma, cause and effect.

Atisha was very pleased to hear this and told them that: “Among all the profound Dharmas, karmic cause and effect is even more profound than those miraculous teachings. Even seeing the yidam deities’ face is not as important. If you have a stable conviction in karma, cause and effect that is better than seeing the face of the yidam.”

In India, there was a yogi practice called Yamantaka and he saw the deity’s face. He thought that if I make a few mistakes, it won’t matter much and used the ritual substance as he wished. Due to this he was later reborn as a hungry ghost. The hungry ghost he was born as had the same shape as the Yamantaka he had been meditating on before. Atisha told many other such stories and he did as Jangchub O had requested and taught a lot about karma, cause and effect.

For that reason, the people in Tibet called him Guru Karma Cause and Effect1:13:59 . Even that name was very beneficial to Buddhism. Because it is a very important subject and the profound and miraculous things are not as important as that.”

Meeting Rinchen Zangpo and requests made to Atisha that led to the composition of Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment
Bodhipathapradīpa of Dīpaṅkara Śrījñāna: A guide for realising the path of bodhi reconciling the Mādhyamika Śūnyavāda, Vijñānavāda of … English translation and critical annotation by Ramprasad Mishra

“At Toling monastery, the translator Rinchen Zangpo was there and probably thought he would see him later. Later, Zangpo understood what a great lama he was and followed and served Atisha as his guru. Not only himself, but he encouraged everyone else to take all the teachings they could from Atisha.

Due to this, also the Venerable Lhatson Chandru then offered a lot of gold to Atisha and said: “Here in this land of Tibet, there are a lot of individuals with misconceptions about Buddhism, who explain it incorrectly, they have never met authentic spiritual teachers. There are a lot of such people. They pretend to know things they don’t know. They make up a lot of falsehoods and various other things. And even among them there are many disagreements. They really dispute with each other. They are always in conflict with each other. For that reason, in order to eliminate this, please teach the Dharma to dispel our doubts.”

Moreover, he asked two questions about the common vehicles, two about the paramitas and three about the Vajrayana. He asked seven questions and asked Atisha to write a treatise that summarised the entire teaching of Buddhism in a few words, related to the guru’s own practice that explained his own experience. Likewise, there were also pith instructions on the Guhyasamāja tantra by Buddhajnana with Avalokiteshvara as the main deity of the mandala, and he asked Atisha to write that sadhana.

So, Atisha said that Nagarjuna’s Jewel Garland (Rinchen Trengwa) was already in Tibet, and that there was nothing in Tibetan better than that and that was enough. Also, if they wanted a sadhana of Guhyasamāja there is the Kunzangpo of Samanthabadra 1:17:08 . However, in order to fulfil the first request, he later wrote the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa;  བྱང་ཆུབ་ལམ་སྒྲོན་). For the second request, he wrote (or translated) the Guhyasamāja sadhana.

Lamp for the Path is very well-known, as you all know. The length of the text is sixty-seven stanzas. Tsongkhapa says in his longer Lam-Rim (Stages of the Great Path) that it has three features. The main ones are that is summarises the points of the Sutras and the Tantras and so the topic is complete. Primarily, it teaches how to train and tame the mind and so it is easier for people to put into practice. Also, the advice is adorned with is from two gurus who are learned in the two traditions. Repa Kujug who was learned in Nagarjuna’s tradition and Survanavdvipa who was learned in Asanga’s tradition. As it is adorned with these instructions which Atisha had received directly from them, and combines both of them, it is better than one that is solely based on one of the lineages. It had many different features. The advice given was so great. It shows the teachings are not in conflict and that one can attain Buddhahood easily.” 

Dromtonpa’s role in spreading Atisha’s teachings in Tibet as ‘the living commentary’ on Lamp for the Path
Dromtonpa Gyelwa Jungne (‘brom ston rgyal ba ‘byung gnas) who helped spread Atisha’s teachings in Tibet, as predicted by Noble Tārā

“Due to Atisha writing this text, it was no longer necessary to directly or forcefully block the false Dharma and false mantra. There was no need to tell people they should not do that. It just naturally stopped on its own and had a very strong influence on Tibet. Even though Atisha wrote that text, if there had not been someone like Dromtonpa Gyelwa Jungne (1004-1064, ‘brom ston rgyal ba ‘byung gnas) who would then later spread and teach the text, it would have been like Kamalashila’s Stages of the Meditation.  That text is studied a little bit in the philosophical schools, but they were not something that people really practised. However, because of Dromtonpa, he first meditated on Lamp for the Path and developed its meaning. Due to his practice, he was able to practice the real and undiminished teachings of the Lamp for the Path. So, the fact it is still here with us, is due to Dromtonpa’s kindness.

One person asked Dromtonpa, wouldn’t it be good to have a commentary on the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. So Dromptonpa said: “you don’t need a commentary on the words. I am a student who received it directly from its author, so I am the commentary on its meaning. Look at how I act.  I am the living Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.” In brief, that is about the origin of the Lamp for the Path.”

The seven questions posed to Atisha and the composition of Lamp for the Path
Penchen Lobsang Choki Gyaltsen (བློ་བཟང་ཆོས་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་མཚན་, blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan) (1570–1662) who is said to have written a commentary on the Lamp for the Path

“When talking about the seven questions asked to Jowo Je Atisha in his Life Story the Path of Liberation, it says that Jangchub O wrote the 7 questions and posed them and Atisha wrote the Lamp for the Path text as a response to those questions. That life-story does not identify what the seven questions are. Then when Atisha went to central Tibet then ??1:22:45  and others also asked him five questions. One of the questions was: “If method and prajna are divorced from each other can one achieve Buddhahood through one of them alone?” Atisha answered those questions and said that “before when I was in Tibet I wrote them in the Lamp for the Path.”

So, it is clear that in the questions that Khuton (ཁུ་སྟོན་བརྩོན་འགྲུས་གཡུང་དྲུང་,1011-1075) and Ngog (rngog legs pa’i shes rab) asked, they were the questions on the paramitas and the three on tantra. But it is not clear what the two questions on the common path are.

There is a commentary on the Lamp for the Path by Penchen Lobsang Choki Gyaltsen (བློ་བཟང་ཆོས་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་མཚན་, blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan) (1570–1662) the fourth Panchen Lama and the first to be accorded this title during his lifetime) which says there is a commentary by Nagtso Lotsawa called the Ornament of the Explanations and this presents each of the seven different questions. I have read a few old commentaries by the Kadampa masters and they mention five or six of them by Jangchub O. They also clearly say how the answers relate to the questions. They say that these words in the texts, from this stanza to that stanza etc.

These days, there is not much of a custom of teaching the Lamp for the Path in such a way. But Penchen Lobsang says in his commentary explanations that are very detailed and the ways beginners should practice are excellent. When there is Question and Answer then one has a very profound understanding and it is beneficial for beginners to put it into practice. If one is able to teach the Lamp for the Path according to that method of question and answer it is of real benefit.

The question as to whether there is an auto-commentary or not and Atisha’s travels to central Tibet, I would like to speak about but there is not enough time today. Later, if I have a chance I will do so. That is enough for this Special Monlam  and we don’t have time to say more than that.”


Gray, David B. 2020. “The Visualization of the Secret: Atiśa’s Contribution to the Internalization of Tantric Sexual Practices” Religions 11, no. 3: 136. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11030136.

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.




[1] Regarding Rinchen Zangpo’s connection with India and Indian panditas, the Treasury of Lives biography states that:

“Whether he went first on his own or both times in royal employ, during his two trips to India (some sources have it that he went three times) Rinchen Zangpo is said to have studied with over seventy-five Indian paṇḍitas. Among them, he learned the Yogatantras from Ratnavajra, Guhyasamāja from Nāropa, the Durgatipariśodhanatantra from a teacher whose name in Tibetan was Norbu Lingpa (nor bu gling pa), and, at Vikramaśila, he studied with Dīpaṅkarabhadra, Jinākara, and Duryacandra, whose commentary on the Cakrasaṃvara was later of significant importance for the Sakya tradition. In Tamalasinta he studied Yogatantra with Śrāddhakaravarman. In Tibet he also studied with Śrāddhakaravarman, who taught him the system of Vajrodaya (rdo rje ‘byung).

Among the Indians who worked with him in Toling was Dharmaśrībhadra, who contributed, together with Shākya Lodro (shAkya blo gros, d.u.) to the translation of the Bodhicaryāvatāra. The name of at least one artist he hired is known: Bhidhaka, who created a statue of Avalokiteśvara of the size of his father that was installed at Gokhar Lhakhang (go khar lha khang) in Khatse (kha tse) and still exists today.

He is credited with promoting the Prajñāpāramitā literature in Tibet, having translated several important works, including the Prajñāpāramitā in 8,000 verses (Aṣṭasāhastrikā), as well as in 20,000 verses, and the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, one of the most important commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitā literature. In addition to his translation work he also composed commentaries on topics such as Prajñāpāramitā, sādhāna, and abhiṣeka.

He promoted several tantric traditions, particularly Yogatantra, translating numerous commentaries on the Sarvatāthagatatattvasaṃgraha, and he was the first to introduce the Cakrasaṃvara tantra to Tibet. He also is credited with disseminating the “mother” (ma rgyud) and “father” (pha rgyud) classes of the Anuttarayoga tantra.༸

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