Childhood and Renunciation of Princely Life
In eastern India, in the land of Jahor, in the city of Bangala, in the Golden Banner Palace, lived King Kalyana the Good and Queen Prabhavati the Radiant. The royal palace was crowned with thirteen golden roofs, one set atop the other, and magnificently adorned with 25,000 golden banners. It was surrounded by countless parks, pools, and beautiful gardens. The kingdom was as rich as the ancient, opulent dynasties of China.
The royal couple had three sons, Padmagarbha, Chandragarbha, and Shrigarbha. It was this second prince, who grew up to become our illustrious teacher, Atisha (Jo-bo rje dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982-1054).
When Atisha was eighteen months old, his parents held his first public audience at the local temple, Kamalapuri. Without any instruction, he prostrated to the venerable objects inside and spontaneously recited, "Because of the compassion of my parents, I have attained a precious human life rich with the opportunity to view all you great figures. I shall always take from you my safe direction (refuge) in life." When introduced to his royal subjects outside, he prayed to realize his fullest potential in order to satisfy their every need. He also prayed to be able to take the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life, never to be proud, and always to have compassionate sympathy and loving concern for others. This was most extraordinary for such a young child.
As Atisha grew older, his wish to become a mendicant monk increased ever stronger, but his parents had different expectations. Of their three sons, he was the brightest, and the auspicious omens at his birth helped convince them that he should be the royal successor. Therefore, when the boy reached eleven, the customary age for marriage at that time, they made elaborate preparations for him to take a bride.
On his wedding eve, the Buddha-figure (yidam) Tara appeared to Atisha vividly in a dream. She told him that for 500 consecutive lives he had been a mendicant monk and therefore not to have any attraction for the transitory pleasures of this world. She explained that an ordinary person caught up in them would be relatively easy to rescue, like a goat trapped in quicksand. But, as a royal prince, he would be as difficult to extract as an elephant. The boy told no one about this dream, but on other grounds cleverly excused himself from this marriage.
Having firmly resolved to find a spiritual teacher, but telling his parents he wished to go hunting, Atisha now left the palace with 130 horsemen. First, he met in the jungle the holy Jetari, a man of the brahmin priestly caste who was living as a Buddhist recluse. From him, the lad formally accepted a safe direction in life and took the bodhisattva vows. This holy man then sent him to the sequestered monastic university of Nalanda and the spiritual master Bodhibhadra.
Atisha immediately set off with all his horsemen and there, from Bodhibhadra, he again received the bodhisattva vows and teachings. He was next directed to the great Vidyakokila for further instruction and then on to the famous Avadhutipa. This latter master advised the boy to return home, treat everyone respectfully, but try to see the drawbacks of such a luxurious life and then report back.
Atisha’s parents were delighted to see him and thought at last he would settle down, take a wife, and prepare for his future rule. However, the lad informed them that he had in fact gone in search of a spiritual teacher for guiding direction. He confessed that all he wished was to lead a quiet, contemplative life and had come for permission to take leave of his princely duties.
Shocked at his words, his parents tried to dissuade him from leaving. They said he could combine both lives and offered to build sequestered monasteries near the palace and let him study, feed the poor and so on. They pleaded with him not to return to the jungle. But, Atisha told them he had not the slightest attraction to royal life. "To me," he said, "this golden palace is no different from a prison. The princess you offer is no different from a daughter of the demons, the sweet food no different from the rotted flesh of a dog, and these satin clothes and jewels are no different from rags from the garbage heap. From this day onwards, I am determined to live in the jungle and study at the feet of the master Avadhutipa. All I ask is for some milk, honey, and brown sugar and I shall take my leave."
There was nothing his parents could do but consent to his request and so Atisha returned to the jungle with these provisions and an embarrassingly large entourage of royal attendants they insisted accompany him. Avadhutipa now sent the young prince to the master Rahulagupta, on the Black Mountain, to enter the practice of tantra. Atisha arrived with all his horsemen and told this vajra master how he had studied with many teachers, but still was unable to shake off his bondage to royal life. Rahulagupta conferred upon him his first empowerment, which was into the practice of Hevajra, a Buddha-figure with which to bond his mind. He then sent him back to the palace with eight of his disciples, four male and four female, dressed scantily in the bone ornaments of mahasiddhas, great adepts with actual attainments.
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 hopes 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.
Studies in India and the Golden Isle
Atisha immediately ran back to his master Avadhutipa and now, from the age of twenty-one to twenty-five, studied intensively the Madhayamka middle way outlook of reality. During this period, he also studied with many other highly accomplished teachers and became extremely well versed in all systems of tantra practice. In fact, he became rather proud of his erudition and felt he was rather clever with these hidden measures to protect the mind and that he had mastered all their texts. But then, he received a pure vision of a dakini, a celestial maiden whose movements are unimpeded by ignorance, who held in her arms many volumes on the everlasting streams of such tantra systems. She told him, "In your land, there are only a few such texts, but in our land there are so many," After this, his pride was deflated.
One day, he decided to go off and devote all his energies to the tantra practices in order to realize his fullest potential in his very life. His vajra master, Rahulagupta, then appeared in a dream and advised him not to do so and desert everybody, but to become a mendicant monk. He should continue in this manner with steady practice and achieve perfect enlightenment in its due course of time. Thus, at the age of twenty-nine, Atisha received from the stable elder, Shilarakshita, the robes of a spiritual seeker who has renounced family life and was given the name Dipamkara Jnana, "He Whose Deep Awareness Acts as a Lamp."
During his first two years after taking robes, Atisha studied at the monastic university of Odantipuri with the great Dharmarakshita, the author of the famous lojong (blo-sbyong, mind-training) text for cleansing our attitudes, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. They focused on all the Hinayana or modest-minded measures to take as a vehicle leading to liberation, but Atisha was always dissatisfied. He longed for the fastest way to realize his fullest potential.
[See: The Wheel of Sharp Weapons .]
His vajra master Rahulagupta told him, "It does not matter how many pure visions you receive, you must train to develop caring love, compassionate sympathy, and a bodhichitta aim totally dedicated to benefiting others and to achieving enlightenment." He advised him to commit himself wholeheartedly to the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara, to bond his mind closely with him and work to become enlightened so that he could best free everyone from samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence. Only with this achievement would he realize his fullest potential.