Historical Background and Rarity of the Teachings

Introducing the Three Different Types of Dharma

In general, the Dharma teachings can be divided into the Hinayana and the Mahayana teachings. The word “dharma” means “something that holds its own self-nature.” To think of dharmas as being anything that takes or holds anything else, however, is too broad a definition and can lead to confusion. An eye, for instance, holds objects in the cognitive sense of taking them as cognitive objects. This is not the meaning of something that holds its own self-nature in the sense of what accounts of anything to be an individual item. 

However, the Dharma that we are speaking about today is not dharmas in the sense of just any phenomenon that holds its own, individual self-nature. Dharma is a Sanskrit word with the connotation “to hold” or, in this context today, it connotes “to hold back.” It can be understood on three levels:

  • Firstly, it refers to something that holds us back from the suffering that nobody wishes to have. Specifically, Dharma is something that holds us back in particular from the suffering of falling to a lower rebirth in some unfortunate state.
  • Secondly, from a little more advanced perspective than this, in general there can also be Dharma in the sense of what holds us back from the suffering of all of uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth. 
  • Thirdly, an even more advanced understanding than this is that it is something that holds us back from a self-cherishing attitude or selfishness, and thereby brings about peace in an extensive manner. 

These are the three different conditions it holds us back from, the three different ways in which Dharma can help restrain us from causing ourselves suffering.

The Practice of Dharma

If we look further into the meaning of Dharma and what it means to practice the Dharma, it is not, for instance, taking interest in clothing, food, fame, status, and all these things of this lifetime. To have these be our exclusive interest is not the practice of Dharma. If there were no such thing as future lifetimes, then it would be all right to be concerned with this lifetime alone, but that is not the case. There are future lives. 

Even if we can’t come to a definite conclusion or decision that future lives exist, nonetheless, we also cannot come to a decisive conclusion that they don’t exist. Therefore, if we are someone working to benefit and improve future lifetimes from the next life onwards, we can be known as a “Dharma practitioner.” 

Concerning someone who is working to improve future lifetimes onwards, this can be done in two ways: we could be working to benefit our own future lifetimes, or we could be aiming to benefit all beings’ future lifetimes. If we are not concerned with just working for ourselves but wish to work to free everyone from suffering and bring happiness to everyone in the long run, and whatever type of positive actions we take are directed for that purpose, such an orientation is the Mahayana Dharma, the Vast Vehicle. This is what we are speaking of today.

This type of attitude with which we wish for everyone to be happy and to be parted from suffering is, in fact, something that can be developed on our mental continuums. We can develop this through meditation and through practice in daily life. In other words, we can build up this attitude by familiarizing ourselves with it. 

Developing Bodhichitta, Discriminating Awareness of Voidness and Correct Conduct

If we have this wish for everyone to be happy and free from suffering, and if we aim to reach the attainment of enlightenment in order to be able to make this happen, we have the attitude known as an “enlightening motive of bodhichitta.” However, just to develop this bodhichitta motive or aim on our mental continuums is not enough. We also need the discriminating awareness (shes-rab, wisdom) of voidness (emptiness). 

This discriminating awareness that understands voidness must be free from the two extremes of nihilism and absolutism. Therefore, we need an excellent and completely perfect, correct view of voidness. In order to develop this correct view, we need to develop absorbed concentration free from mental dullness and flightiness of mind. In addition to a pure, correct view and a correct meditative state, we need the correct and perfect type of conduct or actions. We need to follow the actions spoken of by the Buddha regarding what is beneficial and not act in a way that the Buddha explained as detrimental. 

In order to help us to practice in this way, with a complete synthesis of a correct view, a correct way of meditating and a correct way of acting, and to develop these three without any of them missing, I will teach a text that deals with this subject matter. It is called Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma, Skt. Bodhipathapradipa) by the Indian master Atisha.

Proper Motivation for Listening to an Explanation of the Text

The attitude we should have when listening to these teachings is one in which we wish to hear these teachings and to practice and realize them in order to be able to benefit all beings. We should have a very strong wish to actually be able to fully understand these teachings, to realize all the points in them ourselves, and to make them a reality within ourselves. It is with this attitude that we should listen to these teachings.

In order to understand all its points and to make them into a living way of thinking, speaking and acting, we actually have to put them all into practice. In order to be able to practice the path, we have to first know about it. In order to know about the path, first we have to hear about it. However, it’s not enough to merely know about the path, we have to put it actually into practice. It is not enough to just put it into practice, we have to follow it to its endpoint. 

We should not think that we will be able to gain full realizations after a few months or a few years but think instead of working over a long range of time, improving ourselves gradually, lifetime over lifetime over lifetime. Eventually, over this very long process, we will attain enlightenment. This begins with hearing about the teachings and listening to them attentively, with the attitude of intending to put into practice whatever we hear. 

For instance, the texts state that we should refrain from taking the lives of others and that there are a lot of disadvantages and terrible outcomes that happen as a result of killing. The texts also state that if we restrain ourselves from killing, we attain a long life. We should think, “From now on, I am going to stop killing.” In this way we should think to immediately implement whatever we hear. 

Likewise, when it says that if we have harmful thoughts and harbor ill will toward others, it is extremely negative, and we should abandon this way of thinking. We should think, “I’m going to abandon ill will and harmful thoughts toward others,” and feel great regret for what we have done in the past. We should also resolve never to act like that again in the future. In this way, we should immediately put into practice what we hear.

When the texts say that we should have kind thoughts toward others and help others, we should think, “This is really what I must do. I must develop this enlightening motive of bodhichitta on my mental continuum. Yes, this is exactly what I must do.” This is the way we should approach listening to the teachings.

On the other hand, to listen just to gain intellectual knowledge of the facts and contents of the teachings is not at all proper. To be learned in the teachings, just to know about them, is not sufficient. What we need is a combination of three things: 

  • The first is to be very learned in the subject matter
  • The second is to be very proper and strict in our conduct and ethics
  • The third is to be very kind and warm-hearted in the way that we think. 

We need to be learned, strict, and kind-hearted. Of these three, the most important is not to be learned, but to be strict in our ethics and to be kind. Of course, it is best to have all three, but if we can’t, then it is best to have the latter two. If, in fact, someone is very learned, but acts in a very sloppy or undisciplined manner, that won’t do.

This is an introduction to the subject matter and now we will get to the main body of the teaching.

Introduction to the Text

The author of this text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, is Atisha, Dipamkara Shrijnana. The text begins with the title in Sanskrit, Bodhipathapradipa, and in Tibetan, Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma, or Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment in English. If we try to put the two languages, Sanskrit and Tibetan, together, then bodhi in Sanskrit is byang-chub in Tibetan, meaning a purified state, in this case enlightenment. Patha is lam in Tibetan, meaning path or, more fully, a pathway mind leading to a purified state. Pradipa is sgron- ma in Tibetan, meaning lamp. 

The Five Paths: the Five Pathway Minds

The purified state of enlightenment refers to the omniscient awareness on the mental continuum of a Buddha. This omniscient awareness is also referred to as a “pathway mind needing no further training” (mi-slob-lam, path of no more learning). Before we achieve this pathway mind needing no further training, we need to attain four prior Mahayana pathway minds that do need further training. 

First is a building-up pathway mind (tshogs-lam, path of accumulation), followed by an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation). Of the pathway minds of ordinary beings and of highly realized beings, the aryas (noble ones), these first two are the pathway minds of ordinary beings. By the time we attain an applying pathway mind,  we will have a conceptual realization of voidness. However, before this, there is the building-up pathway mind, with which we build up a joined state of a stilled and settled mind of shamatha, having perfect absorbed concentration, and an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana. This building-up pathway mind is divided into three levels, each of which has three stages: the three initial, three intermediate and three advanced building-up pathway minds. 

It is when we have gained the advanced-level building-up pathway minds that we gain a stable conceptual cognition of voidness; whereas, with initial and intermediate building-up pathway minds, we only have occasional instances in which we have a conceptual realization of voidness. However, once we achieve the advanced level building-up pathway minds, our conceptual understanding of voidness will be stable. 

Likewise, we also have this stable conceptual cognition of voidness with an applying pathway mind, but now we apply the joined state of shamatha and vipashyana we have gained with a building-up pathway mind to focusing on our stable understanding. When this focus on voidness is with bare non-conceptual cognition, we have attained a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing). It is called a “seeing pathway mind” because, with it, we are non-conceptually seeing something freshly that we have not seen before with just a conceptual cognition of voidness. After that, when we familiarize ourselves and meditate more and more on this manner of non-conceptually seeing voidness, this is with an accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam, path of meditation). 

From a seeing pathway mind onwards, the higher pathway minds are known as “arya pathway minds,” the noble pathway minds that are the fourth noble truth, true pathway minds. 

The Ten Levels of Bodhisattva Bhumi-Minds 

Starting from the Mahayana seeing pathway mind and upwards, we enter into a division scheme of ten levels (sa, Skt. bhumi) of arya bodhisattva minds, known as the “ten levels of bhumi-minds,” the “ten bhumis.” The progression through these levels of arya bodhisattva minds starts with the attainment of a Mahayana seeing pathway mind. 

The names of the ten levels of bhumi-minds are:

  1. Extremely joyous (rab-dga’-ba)
  2. Stainless (dri-med)
  3. Illuminating (‘od-byed-pa)
  4. Sparkling light (‘od-phro-ba)
  5. Difficult to cleanse (sbyang dka’-ba)
  6. Forward facing (mngon-du phyogs-pa)
  7. Far gone (ring-du song-ba)
  8. Immovable (mi-g.yo-ba)
  9. Most intelligent (legs-par blo-gros)
  10. Cloud of Dharma (chos-sprin).

All ten levels of these bhumi-minds are known as “pathway minds needing further training.” We develop them as we progress from having a seeing pathway mind to a pathway mind needing no further training, the omniscient awareness of a fully enlightened Buddha. 

When we walk along a road or path during the day, we have the sun that makes the path clear and illuminates it. At night, we might have some streetlamps or electric lights or something like that. Similarly, this text acts as a lamp to make clear all these different pathway minds and levels of bhumi-minds that we were just discussing that lead to the enlightened state of a Buddha. 

This is the connotation and significance of the title of the text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, or perhaps better, Lamp for the Pathway Minds to Enlightenment – a title that itself has great, extensive meaning. The words with which the text presents this topic are few, but the meaning is something very far-reaching. Although the text itself has only seven pages in this particular edition, the essential meaning of the entire sutra and tantra teachings is incorporated within it in a highly condensed form. Since the main point is how to tame our own minds, it contains practical guidelines for us to immediately put into practice.

Brief Introduction to Buddhist Cosmology

To appreciate the rarity and preciousness of the fully endowed human life that we have and our opportunity to listen to these teachings, it helps to look at the history of the universe. The world age in which we presently live is rightly known as the “fortunate eon.” In general, there are two types of eons or world ages: a world age of light or an illuminated time, and an age of darkness. In the dark eons, Buddhas do not manifest and the Dharma is not present. However, in illuminated eons, Buddhas are manifest and present, and there are Dharma teachings. This particular eon in which we are living is known as the “fortunate eon” because in this eon, 1,000 Buddhas will manifest and come to our world. 

What constitutes an eon, a kalpa in Sanskrit? A great eon consists of 80 intermediate eons. An intermediate eon is the time for the human lifespan on the Southern Continent to go from 10 to 80,000 years and back to 10, changing at one year every century. These 80 intermediate eons are divided into four groups – eons of evolving, eons of enduring, eons of disintegrating and eons of being bare – 20 in each group. 

We may ask, “How are these constituted?” Vasubandhu described this in Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa'i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha). There, he explained that over the first intermediate eon of the 20 intermediate eons of evolving – the first set of 20 – a world-system or universe forms. Out of a vacuum or vacuity, the first thing that forms is known as a “wind mandala,” the energy of wind. On top of this, next a water or liquid mandala forms and, on top of that, an earth or solid mandala forms next. After this, due to a great rainfall, there is the buildup of oceans. 

This is what the text describes. First, the material universe or environment builds up and, after that, during the following 19 intermediate eons, the evolution of the life forms inhabiting it takes place. Both of these occur by the force of the general, collective karmic potentials shared by all living beings who will be reborn in this universe. This is the way that a universe, both the environment and the beings inhabiting it, come about. It takes 20 intermediate eons to complete the process. There are a countless number of universes, simultaneously existing, but all at different stages of their lifetimes.

The human beings of this first period were of a special type. At that time, the sun and the moon had not yet formed. The people all looked alike, without any sexual distinctions, and were able to see just by the radiance of their own bodies, which emanated light. The people had extrasensory perception and also extraphysical powers. They did not need to eat rough food but lived instead on the food of single-pointed concentration. The lifespan of the humans at that time was literally almost an uncountable number, because there was no sun or moon to delineate the passage of time. Actually, “uncountable” or “countless” is the name of largest finite unit when counting 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, etc. Like that, if we increase this up to 10 to the 60th power, this would in fact be the lifespan of the people living during that time. Therefore, “countless” is more like a “zillion.”

During the last of the 20 intermediate eons of evolving, there appeared on the earth a certain kind of edible “soil,” actually perhaps some kind of moss, in conjunction with some people developing a desire for tastes because of previous karmic potentials. Those people investigated this growth by touching it with their fingers, licking it and, in this way, they began to eat it. They found that it was very delicious, but by starting to lick and eat this growth, eventually their bodies began to lose their luster, brilliance and radiant qualities. At this point, the sun, moon and stars arose in the sky and, because of the lessening of the positive potential that the beings had built up, their lifespan gradually diminished from immeasurable to 80,000 years.

During this period, this edible growth on the ground eventually became depleted, and the people then began to eat the blossoms from certain trees. Their bodies became coarser and coarser and eventually the people started to eat coarser and coarser foods. As a result of eating coarser food, their bodies began to  produce both liquid and solid waste. As a result of this, they developed a urinary tract and a digestive tract. In this way, their bodies formed sex organs and the other organs for eliminating waste. 

Up until this time, the birth of these human beings was by miraculous transformation. They just appeared whole; however, once they developed sexual organs and engaging in copulation, people began to be born from the womb. Those who engaged in copulation were criticized by those who did not, and so they started to build houses to hide their sexual activity from others. 

People were eating more and more food, and each type of blossom they relied on as a food source became depleted. Eventually, people started to think of gathering beforehand what they would eat tomorrow and the next day. In this way, people started to hoard and collect these blossoms. Because of all the hoarding, inevitably the blossoms ran out and there were no more. 

After that, a type of crop began to grow that did not actually need to be planted or cultivated. It was a type of crop that just grew wild, and this was also very delicious. Again, the hoarding arose and, as a result, these things did not grow wild as before. They would only grow if people actually planted and cultivated them as crops. This began the development of agriculture, of planting crops. 

As a result of that, people started to divide fields and to think in terms of “my field” and “your field” and disputes arose. They needed an official to decide these disputes, so the people came together and chose one. The first king was named Mahasammata (Kun-gyi bkur-ba), the “One Honored by Many.” At this time, the people began to be divided into the four main Indian castes. 

During this entire process, the lifespan of human beings had been steadily decreasing and now it had reached 80,000 years. This and the start of the lineage of the first kings marked the beginning of the first of the 20 intermediate eons of enduring. It is only during the period of an intermediate enduring eon, when the human lifespan decreases, one year a century, from 80,000 to 10, that Buddhas manifest and appear in that universe. 

To repeat, this present great eon is known as the “fortunate one” because during its intermediate eons of enduring, 1,000 Buddhas will manifest and come. When the human lifespan on the Southern Continent reached 80,000 years, the start of the first intermediate eon of enduring, this was the time of the coming of the first Buddha of this eon, Krakucchandra (‘Khor-ba ‘jig). The second Buddha, Kanakamuni (gSer-thub), came when the human lifespan reached 60,000 years. The third Buddha, Kashyapa (‘Od-srung), came when the human lifespan reached 20,000 years. When the human lifespan reached 100 years, this was when the fourth Buddha, the present Buddha Shakyamuni, manifested and appeared. 

The Five Degenerations

In addition, during this entire procedure, everyone was growing smaller. The size of human beings and animals diminished as the lifespan lessened. The fourth Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, came during the time of what is known as the “five degenerations” (snyigs-ma lnga, five deteriorations).

What are these five? They are the degeneration of:

  • Time
  • Lifespan
  • Views
  • Disturbing emotions
  • Beings.

As for the degeneration of time, we can understand this in terms of how in the past there were many treasures in the sea and now these are becoming depleted. It refers to the fact that natural resources are being depleted or exhausted. This is what is meant by a degenerated time. 

Likewise, the second degeneration, the degeneration of lifespan, refers to lifespans getting shorter and shorter. Nowadays, there are very few people who live past 100. 

Degenerated views or outlook refer to the fact that there are many people who do not believe in cause and effect, who say there is no such thing as past and future lives, and who say there is no point in practicing any type of Dharma or spiritual practice. They think that the only thing is this lifetime, and they work only for this lifetime. This type of attitude is an example of degenerated views.

Degeneration of disturbing emotions refers to the fact that even the people who are trying to practice the Dharma have a great deal of anger, attachment and other disturbing emotions. 

The degeneration of living beings refers, for example, to human beings getting smaller and smaller as the lifespan gradually gets shorter. This will continue until human beings live a complete life in only 10 years – the lifespan will be that low. That occurs at the end of the first of the 20 eons of enduring. The people of this time will be very aggressive and will constantly fight with each other. It is at this point that the fifth of the 1,000 Buddhas of this eon will come, Maitreya Buddha. Influenced by his teachings, people will start to put them into practice. As a result, the human lifespan will gradually increase due to the force of the shared positive karma potential the people build up. The human lifespan will then continue to increase until it reaches 80,000. Once it reaches this peak of 80,000, then again it will start to decrease once more.

This cycle of increase and decrease occurs in each of the subsequent 18 intermediate eons. These are known as the “18 curves of time.” As the human lifespan goes down to a 10-year span in each of the subsequent intermediate eons, the rest of these 1,000 Buddhas will come. During the last of these 20 intermediate eons of enduring, only the part of the cycle during which the human lifespan increases occurs.

Twenty Intermediate Eons of Disintegrating and of Being Bare

After that, when the force of the positive karmic potential of beings has been exhausted, this marks the beginning of the intermediate eons of disintegrating when the environment gets destroyed and the beings in it become extinct. There are several ways in which a universe gets destroyed in each great eon. For instance, one of the ways is that due to the force of the collective negative potential built up by the beings in it, a second sun appears in the sky, and then a third, and eventually seven suns. By the force of the heat of these suns, the entire material universe first dries out and then burns up. In that way, it gets destroyed. This entire process of disintegration, for instance by fire, takes place over a period of 20 intermediate eons. These are known as the 20 intermediate eons of disintegration. 

When there is nothing left and everything is just a complete vacuum, which lasts for another 20 intermediate eons, these are known as the “intermediate eons of being bare.” In this way,  there are 80 intermediate eons making up a great eon, during which this four-phase cycle of evolving, enduring, disintegrating and being bare occurs.  

Dark Eons and Star-Like Eons

After our particular great eon of 80 intermediate eons ends, once again there will be 60 great eons of similar duration to ours. All of these will be dark eons, also with each lasting 80 intermediate eons. They are known as “dark eons” because, during this great amount of time, no Buddhas will appear in them at all. After that, there will be another great eon known as the “star-like eon,” during which 20,000 Buddhas will manifest and come. 

If we consider all these different types of eons, then the eons in which a Buddha will not appear are far more frequent than eons in which Buddhas do appear. Furthermore, it is only during the 20 intermediate eons of a universe enduring that Buddhas actually manifest and appear in the world. It is not during any of the other intermediate eons. Likewise, within the 20 intermediate eons of enduring, Buddhas come to the world only during the half in which the human lifespan is decreasing, not the half during which it increases. So, when we speak of these curves of time, it is only during the downward parts of the curves of the eons of enduring, when human lifespans are decreasing, that Buddhas actually appear. 

The Fourth Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni

If we think about this, we realize how rare it is that a Buddha has actually manifested and come to this world, that we have attained an excellent working basis of a human life at such a particular juncture in time, and that we have the good fortune to be able to meet with the teachings of such a Buddha. If we ask, “Which particular Dharma teachings we have encountered?” we have met with the teachings that were given by the fourth of the 1,000 Buddhas of this particular great eon, Buddha Shakyamuni.

To just see a Buddha statue or a Buddhist text does not constitute meeting with the Buddha’s Dharma. What does it actually mean to meet with the Dharma? This is what we are doing here today. What does it mean in terms of our coming here today? We have come here because all of us have seen that no matter how much material comfort we may have, it does not bring lasting or secure happiness. We have come to seek a type of happiness that far exceeds that which can be gotten by material progress alone. We have come to find some teachings for this. This constitutes coming and meeting with the Dharma.

Of this eon’s 1,000 Buddhas, they will be divided, in terms of Indian castes, between those that will appear in the brahmin caste and those that will appear in the royal caste. The Buddha Shakyamuni came in the royal caste. The name he was given at birth was Prince Siddhartha. His father was known as King Shuddhodana. His mother was Mayadevi. At that time, the great wealth of the royal family was considerable, if we think in terms of the wealth of India in the past. 

At one time, the young Prince Siddhartha went on a tour through the kingdom to see what was happening outside. As he travelled, he met someone who was carrying a corpse. When he asked what this was, he was told that someone had died, and they were taking the body away. Siddhartha became very sad. Then, as they continued the tour, he saw a sick person. Then he saw someone who was very old and bent. After a while, he saw a renunciant mendicant, a shramana (dge-sbyong), who was wearing scant robes. He thought that no matter how much material prosperity he might have, eventually the human condition is such that it comes to such types of suffering – death, sickness and old age. 

This experience turned his mind away from all the material wealth and splendor that he enjoyed in his palace. He went to the elder, Namdrag (rNam-grags), had his hair cut and became a celibate, renunciant mendicant. He engaged in very difficult ascetic practices for six years, and then, on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, at Bodh Gaya, he manifested his enlightenment. On the fourth day of the sixth month, Buddha went to Varanasi (Benares) and there he first turned the wheel of Dharma. After setting flow this first round of his teachings, the Buddha taught for many years and eventually passed away at Kushinagar. 

Nagarjuna 

After that, there was a line of succession of those who held all the Buddha’s teachings, starting from Mahakashyapa (‘Od-srung chen-po) down in a succession of “seven patriarchs of the teachings” (bstan-pa’i gtad-rabs bdun). 

In the following centuries, the Mahayana teachings, which had not been transmitted publicly, declined in the sense that they became less and less available. But then came the “two great masters who opened the way for the chariot of the (Mahayana) tradition” (shing-rta’i srol-‘byed chen-po gnyis), Nagarjuna and Asanga. Nagarjuna, came as the Buddha himself had prophesized. Due to Nagarjuna and his teachings, the Mahayana Dharma again began to flourish greatly. 

Nagarjuna authored six great texts on Madyamaka or the Middle Way. Known collectively as the Six Collections of Reasoning (Rigs-tshogs drug), the chief of them is Root Verses on Madhyamaka, Called “Discriminating Awareness” (dBu-ma rtsa-ba shes-rab, Skt. Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamaka-karika). The other five are:

  • Precious Garland (Rin-chen ‘phreng-ba, Skt. Ratnavali)
  • Refutation of Objections (rTsod-pa zlog-pa, Skt. Vigrahavyavarti)
  • Seventy Verses on Voidness (sTong-nyid bdun-bcu-pa, Skt. Shunyatasaptati)
  • Sutra Called “Finely Woven” (Zhib-mo rnam-‘thag zhes-bya-ba’i mdo, Skt. Vaidalya-sutra-nama)
  • Sixty Verses of Reasoning (Rigs-pa drug-cu-pa, Skt. Yuktishashtika).

As a result of these six texts, the Mahayana teachings, especially those on Madhyamaka, flourished greatly. Of the two lineages, the lineage of the profound teachings and the lineage of the widespread or extensive teachings, the lineage of the profound teachings were passed in this way through Nagarjuna.

Asanga

The second of these two lineages, the pathway of the widespread teachings, came through Asanga, the second of the two great great masters who opened the way for the chariot of the Mahayana tradition. Asanga’s mother was a brahmin woman named Prakashashila (Rab-gsal ngang-tshul-ma). When she was younger, she had a wish to give birth to sons who would cause the Dharma to increase and flourish. Therefore, she took a husband from the ruling royal caste, and the son that was born from that union was Asanga. 

Asanga asked his mother during his childhood, “What was my father’s profession? What did he do?” His mother said, “It doesn’t matter what your father did for a profession. I prayed to give birth to a son like you, not for furthering worldly purposes, but to spread and further the Dharma teachings. Furthermore, of the Dharma teachings, I prayed for you to be able to further the cause of the Mahayana teachings.” For this purpose, Asanga set about on a meditative practice to gain an actual vision or realization of the meditational deity Maitreya. 

After twelve long years of meditation, he finally realized a vision of Maitreya, who led him to the heavenly realm of Tushita. There Asanga stayed for many years. He received many teachings from Maitreya, which he later wrote down from memory. They are known as the Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya (Byams-chos sde-lnga). What are these five texts? They are:

  • A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara)
  • A Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras (Theg-pa chen-po mdo-sde rgyan, Skt. Mahayanasutralamkara)
  • Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes (dBu-mtha’ rnam-‘byed, Skt. Madhyantavibhanga)
  • The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra)
  • Differentiating Phenomena and Their Actual Nature (Chos-dang chos-nyid rnam-‘byed, Skt. Dharmadharmatavibhanga).

Asanga stayed in this celestial realm for the equivalent of one morning of the gods. When he came back down to earth, to the human realm, he found that 50 years had passed. After returning to the human world, Asanga himself authored many texts. As a result of this activity, the Mahayana teachings flourished even more and the lineage of the widespread teachings continued on. 

Atisha

The teachings of Nagarjuna passed down in the lineage of the profound teachings to the Indian teacher Vidyakokala. It is through him that Atisha received those teachings from Nagarjuna. The lineage from the side of Asanga went down through a succession of great masters to one called Maitriyogi. It is through him that Atisha received the lineage of Asanga. Thus, Atisha held all the guideline instructions from both of these lineages that came from Nagarjuna and Asanga. 

Atisha himself was born into a great royal family in Bengal. His family was extremely wealthy and prosperous. Yet, he saw that there was no essence at all to these worldly things. He turned his mind completely away from these riches and went to Nalanda Monastic University, where he received monk’s ordination. He studied very hard and became a greatly learned pandit. 

He examined very carefully what would be the best methods for achieving enlightenment as quickly as possible in order to be able to benefit all living beings. It happened on several occasions, while circumambulating the great stupa in Bodh Gaya, that the statues at the stupa spoke to him. On one occasion, a statue said to Atisha that the best method for achieving enlightenment quickly is to develop an enlightening motive and aim of bodhichitta. Atisha already had a certain level of development of bodhichitta on his mental continuum, but he was seeking the complete guideline instructions for being able to take this development to its full endpoint. 

Therefore, he searched far and wide for someone who had the complete guideline instructions for doing this. He heard that these instructions were held by the great Lama Serlinga, also named Dharmakirti Shri, in what is present-day Sumatra in Indonesia. So, he went to meet this great master in Sumatra to seek these complete instructions. At that time, they did not have great ships as we do nowadays; he went by the boats that were available then. It took twelve months to make this difficult sea journey from India to Sumatra to meet this guru. Atisha stayed there for twelve years and listened to all the instructions on the subject matter. Then he returned to India. 

In Tibet at this time, there had already been the prior flourishing of the Dharma, as was initiated by the efforts of the great Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, and the great Nalanda abbot, Shantarakshita. Through their efforts, the Nyingma school, the “Old Tradition,” had flourished greatly in Tibet. Nonetheless, its teachings had come to decline. They were being practiced in a mistaken, degenerate form and, consequently, a repression of the Dharma had taken place. 

In the part of Western Tibet known as Guge, there were two kings who were relatives. One was Yeshe Wo (Ye-shes ‘od) and the other, his nephew Jangchub Wo (Byang-chub ‘od). Wishing to revive the Dharma in Tibet, they both had sent many people to India to be able to study the Dharma. Except for a few, most of them were unable to take the great heat and difficult conditions in India and couldn’t complete their endeavors. There was talk at that time as to who would be the best person in India, the most learned and suitable master who would be able to cause the teachings to once again flourish and expand in Tibet. It was said at that time that there would be no one better than Atisha. Therefore, these kings sought many means to invite Atisha to come to Tibet. 

Unfortunately, in that same vicinity on the borderlands of Tibet, there was another king who seized Yeshe Wo and threw him in prison. His nephew, Jangchub Wo, approached this king and requested that he release his uncle Yeshe Wo. The king said, “If you bring me the amount of gold equal to the weight of your uncle’s body, then I will release him.” 

Jangchub Wo went all around seeking to collect enough gold to meet this requirement, but he was only able to bring back gold that was equal only to the weight of his uncle’s body below the neck. The king who held Yeshe Wo captive told him that he needed to bring more gold to equal the weight of the head as well. Jangchub Wo would need to go out and collect even more gold. 

Before he set out again, Jangchub Wo went to speak with his uncle Yeshe Wo where he was being held in confinement. He tapped on the door and said, “If I wanted to, I could conduct a war with this kingdom and in this way gain your release. But this would cause a great deal of harm to the lives of the beings in this area, so I don’t think to do that.” Then he continued and said, “So I sought a peaceful method to gain your release. The king told me I had to bring back enough gold equal to the weight of your body. I still don’t have enough gold to complete that request. I still need enough for your head. I am going to go out and make another expedition. Please wait here until then.”

The older relative, Yeshe Wo, said to his nephew, “I didn’t think that you were capable of such tasks because you are so young. But you are extremely brave and courageous to seek the means to find all this gold to gain my release. But, if you use all this gold that you have collected for my own welfare, it would be a waste. It would not be a great profit to the Triple Gem. Therefore, please don’t waste it on me. Rather, use this gold to be able to send some to India and invite the great learned master Atisha to come to Tibet. This will cause the flourishing of the Dharma to occur once again. Please also tell Atisha that he must come, for I have sacrificed my life for this cause, to invite him and bring him to Tibet.” 

Jangchub Wo looked through a small crack in the door at his uncle. He saw how his uncle was completely tied up and shackled and in a very pathetic and difficult condition physically. In this way, the king Yeshe Wo sacrificed his life in order to be able to benefit the teachings. Jangchub Wo sent the translator, Nagtso to invite Atisha back to Tibet. Nagtso Lotsawa’s name was Tsultim Gyalwa (Nag-mtsho Lo-tsa-ba Tshul-khrim rgyal-ba).

In India, Atisha received visions of Tara who made various prophesies: “If you go to the land in the north, to Tibet, you will cause the Dharma teachings to flourish and expand there. You will have a disciple in Tibet whose name will be the Upasaka (meaning “layman”), and he especially will cause the teachings to flourish very much there. However, if you go to Tibet, your life span will diminish by twenty years; but, nevertheless, you will bring great benefit to the living beings and to the teachings there.”

Atisha felt that if he could go and be of great benefit to the teachings and living beings there, it didn’t matter if his lifespan was lessened by twenty years. He felt he should go. He went on the arduous expedition to Tibet, passing through Nepal, and then stayed in Tibet for seventeen years before he passed away.

In Tibet, just as was prophesized by Tara, he met his disciple, the Upasaka Dromtonpa, Gyalwa Jungne (‘Brom-ston rGyal-ba’i ‘byung-gnas), who was an incarnation of Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara. The Dharma king, Jangchub Wo, requested Atisha to give teachings on refuge and cause and effect. This text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, was composed by Atisha to satisfy this request. That is why it says in the first paragraph of the text, Having been urged by my excellent disciple, Jangchub Wo. This is in reference to the fact that this teaching was requested by this great king. 

The lineage of these teachings was primarily passed to the disciple, Dromtonpa. The lineage continued through Dromtonpa and through various very famous learned Kadampa geshes, such as Geshe Potowa and his disciples. The lineage has continued to be passed down to the present day. 

In this way, we can see how the kings of old made a great deal of effort to have various learned masters and translators come to Tibet. They had no concern for how much money, wealth and difficulty was expended in these efforts. All of this was made to cause the Dharma teaching to come to Tibet and flourish.

The Rarity of Meeting with the Buddha’s Teachings

There is some purpose to explaining all this history and it’s something that we should further think about. The point is to get some feeling and appreciation of how rare it is to actually meet with the Buddha’s teachings. This history is also good as an introduction to get into the teaching and to know its historical background. 

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