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Atīśa Dipankara Shrijnana : A Pillar of Medieval Buddhism

Atīśa Dipankara Shrijnana : A Pillar of Medieval Buddhism

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Atisa Dipankara Srijnana

As we celebrated Buddha Purnima recently on the 23rd of May, we share the story of Atīśa Dipankara Shrijnana, a monumental figure in the history of Buddhism, celebrated for his profound contributions to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

As we celebrated Buddha Purnima recently on the 23rd of May, I take this opportunity to share the story of Atīśa Dipankara Shrijnana (c. 982–1054) who has been described as ‘Eye of Asia’ and ‘One of the greatest sons of Bengal’ who stands as a monumental figure in the history of Buddhism, renowned for his contributions to the spread and revitalization of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism across Asia. Hailing from Bengal, his life and work have left an indelible mark on the spiritual landscape from Tibet to Sumatra, earning him recognition as one of the greatest figures of medieval Buddhism.

Early Life and Royal Origins

Atīśa was born into royalty in the village of Vajrayogini in Vikrampura, one of the capitals of the Pala Empire in Bengal. His father, King Kalyānaśrī, and mother, Prabhavati Sri, named him Candragarbha. Raised in the lap of luxury, his early life was reminiscent of the Buddha’s own, marked by a detachment from worldly pleasures and an intense yearning for spiritual knowledge.

Scholarly Pursuits and Ordination

At the age of twenty-eight, Atīśa was ordained into the Mahāsāṃghika lineage by Abbot Śīlarakṣita. His thirst for knowledge led him to explore a vast array of Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools, including Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Tantric Hinduism. Among his many teachers, Dharmakīrtiśrī and Ratnākaraśānti were particularly influential. His extensive studies encompassed not only religious doctrines but also the sixty-four classical arts, music, and logic, reflecting his comprehensive approach to learning.

Atisa Dipankara Srijnana Thanka

The Journey to Sumatra and Return to India

Tibetan sources recount that Atīśa spent twelve years in Sumatra, studying under the tutelage of Dharmakīrtiśrī in the Srivijaya empire. This period significantly shaped his understanding and practice of Buddhism. He returned to India in 1025 CE, coinciding with the invasion of Sumatra by Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty. Back in India, Atīśa’s reputation as a scholar and debater grew, leading to his appointment as abbot of the prestigious Vikramashila monastery, established by Emperor Dharmapala.

Influence and Teachings

Atīśa Dipankara Shrijnana and his influence extended beyond his scholarly achievements. His encounters with what he perceived as deteriorating forms of Buddhism often resulted in significant reforms, earning him acclaim for his efforts to preserve the purity of the Dharma. His tenure as abbot saw him nurturing Odantapuri and playing a pivotal role in the flourishing of Buddhist culture in the region.

Mission to Tibet

A transformative phase in Atīśa’s life began when he was invited to Tibet by King Yeshe-Ö of Guge. This invitation aimed to restore Buddhism in Tibet following its suppression by King Langdarma. Accompanied by Naktso and Gya Lōtsawa, Atīśa’s journey to Tibet was marked by a stop in Nepal and an encounter with Marpa Lōtsawa. Upon reaching Tolung, the capital of the Purang Kingdom, he composed his seminal work, “Bodhipathapradīpa” (Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment). This text, outlining the Buddhist path in terms of the Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna, became the foundation for the Lamrim genre, significantly influencing later Buddhist thought and practice.

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Legacy and Recognition

Atīśa’s teachings found a dedicated follower in Dromtön, who established the Kadam school, one of the New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This school later merged into the Gelug tradition, which adopted and expanded upon Atīśa’s teachings. His work also received reverence from figures like Jamgon Kongtrul, who praised the spread of Vajrayana in Tibet and acknowledged the efforts of earlier Dharma kings, translators, and panditas.

In recognition of his enduring influence, Atīśa was ranked 18th in the BBC’s poll of the greatest Bengalis of all time in 2004, underscoring his lasting impact on the spiritual and cultural heritage of the region.

Conclusion

Atīśa’s life is a testament to the transformative power of dedication to spiritual knowledge and reform. From his royal beginnings in Bengal to his profound influence in Tibet and beyond, Atīśa’s contributions to Buddhism have shaped the religious landscape for centuries. His teachings continue to inspire and guide countless practitioners on their path to enlightenment, solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest figures in the history of Buddhism.

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