When Anselm of Canterbury was about 11 years old, on the other side of the world, a very significant figure emerged in the history of Buddhism in Tibet, namely, the Indian Bengali teacher Atisa Dīpamkara (982-1054). And there are intriguing similarities between these two men. Both were skilled and successful scholars and philosophers, both were deeply committed to exercising and teaching spiritual and devotional practices, and both were monks who left their monastic homes – in a sense as missionaries – to serve in other lands.
For his part, Atisa arrived in Tibet in 1042, and while he didn’t know it at the time, he would spend the rest of his life there in “the Land of Snows.” He is credited with re-generating the foundations of Buddhism in this his second home after a period of persecution and decline. Buddhism had been introduced in Tibet in the 8th century, but the actions of one 9th century king destroyed much of its organizational networks and educational structures, including the destruction of monasteries and the driving out of monks and nuns. One scholar summarizes the resulting damage: “Although [the king’s] reign was brief, the following century was a dark period for Tibet.” 1 Tibet was “in a state of turmoil.” 2 Misunderstanding of the teachings and practices of Buddhism arose and spread, focusing in a particular way on the “highly advanced system of thought and meditative practice” known as “tantra.” 3
It was into this uprooted and chaotic field that the Indian scholar was invited to re-sow the seeds of Buddhism. A contemporary Buddhist teacher tells the story of how Atisa overcame his initial resistance to such missionary work when the deity, Tara, “Mother of All Beings,” intervened: 4
He was invited to Tibet, but he didn’t really want to go. He was by this time in his 50’s. The journey to Tibet was very difficult. He didn’t speak Tibetan anyway. And he just felt like he was too old for that sort of adventure … [T]he deity that he was very close to … Tara … told him to go to Tibet. So off to Tibet he went, and he had an enormous influence on Tibetan Buddhism there. Of course, it had already been introduced and established in the eighth century. But he emphasized especially the very basics of how – before we do any of these high tantric practices and all [this] fancy stuff – we really have to get a strong foundation in genuine compassion … and really transforming our minds … [H]is tradition actually died out eventually in Tibet, but the teachings and texts from that tradition were incorporated into all the other lineages. So everybody practices that, and everybody reveres Palden Atisa very much for his tremendous help in establishing Tibetan Buddhism really with the emphasis on compassion … 5
While he was a very accomplished scholar and philosopher, it seems that much of what resonates with Tibetans – both 1000 years ago and today – can be found in Atisa’s humanity and the way in which he seemed to speak and teach to the challenges and struggles of everyday life:
[Atisa] made a great impression on the Buddhists of Central Tibet, and stories about his time there abound. These always emphasize his qualities of compassion and humility, and his insistence on practicing the simplest of Buddhist devotional activities. He is said to … have been able to present Buddhism in a simple way to ordinary people, being especially fond of the simple injunction: ‘Just be kind.’ 6
- “The first diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet began in the seventh century and ended around 838 C.E., when the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma attained the throne by assassinating his brother, the devout Dharma king Ralpachen. Langdarma was an advocate of the shamanistic Bön religion, which dominated Tibet before the advent of Buddhism. He set about destroying all the monasteries, convents, and temples in central Tibet. Monks and nuns were expelled and the pure lineages of Buddhist practice were wiped out or forced underground. Langdarma only reigned for five years. …. Although his reign was brief, the following century was a dark period for Tibet.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1: The Foundation Practices. Translated by David Patt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004, page 36.) The author of this commentary, Geshe Lhundup Sopa (1923-2014), was one of two Tibetan scholars whom the Dalai Lama recommended to TM as teachers who could assist him in getting “a good base” in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. (Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, pages 101-102.)
- “Tibetan society was in a state of turmoil: squabbles, skirmishes and outright wars were constantly breaking out between rival warlords. Merchants plied their trade, but always under threat of ambush by bandits. At the same time, lay Buddhist tantric teachers were springing up all over the place, some handing down traditions from the imperial period, others offering new translations only just brought back from India. It was a time of religious ferment …” (Sam van Schaik, Tibet: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, page 61.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/tibetahistorysamnanschaik_151_I/mode/2up
- The words of scholar Thupten Jinpa from The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts. Translated by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008, page 675. See also, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo: Volume 1: The Foundation Practices, page 36.
- Tara is a figure of enormous importance in the religious, spiritual, and cultural life of Tibet. The words, “Mother of All Beings,” are taken from a hymn to Tara composed by the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Tsongkhapa. The following excerpted stanzas from that hymn provide a sense of the exalted tenderness with which she is held by the Tibetan people and the vital role that she is understood to have in their lives: “A kind mother never loses her love for her infant child, / Even when she sees him doing something wrong; / So what need is there to speak of the chance / Of us losing your love, O mother of all beings …. / Never disheartened by our countless wrongs, / Us childish beings falsely pursuing our own interests, / You carry the burden to free all sentient beings; / I admire your enlightened deeds, vast and expansive.” Quoted in Thupten Jinpa, Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows, Boulder: Shambala, 2019, page 68. Regarding the impact of Atisa’s relationship with Tara, scholar James Apple writes: “Atisa also brought with him to Tibet fervent devotion to the goddess Tara, and he is responsible for the extensive worship of the goddess in the Land of Snows.” (James B. Apple, Atisa Dipamkara: Illuminator of the Awakened Mind. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 2019, page 3.)
- This quotation comes from a teaching offered by the Tibetan Buddhist nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: “Lojong Teaching … Part 1 of 4.” It was given on November 18, 2015 at the K J Somaiya Centre for Buddhist Studies in India. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFew-omoXCk (See especially minutes 2:20-2:36 and 3:53-5:57.) “Palden” is an honorific term meaning “glorious.” Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo herself is an extra-ordinary figure who spent twelve solitary years in a hermitage cave and later founded a convent to increase access to authentic religious teaching and opportunities for practice for women religious. For more information on Tenzin Palmo, see her biography on the webpage of her nunnery, “Dongyu Gatsal Ling”: https://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/
- Sam van Schaik, Tibet: A History, pages 59-60.
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