Atisha’s Work of Genius

“Atisha’s ‘Lamp of the Path of Enlightenment’ is key to the greatness of the dharma traditions that were established in Tibet.” Lama Jampa Thaye.

It was a work of genius in the 11th century by the Indian Buddhist master Atisha that has rendered 1000 years of Buddhist practice in Tibet so readily transposable to the western world.

Some 1500 or so years after the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, Atisha shaped the entirety of Buddhist teachings into a cohesive path to be practised by an ordinary person in a step by step manner all the way to enlightenment. Atisha achieved this without adding anything new nor diminishing the vast array of Buddha’s teachings. And therein lies the genius of this achievement which has withstood both the test of time and of transposition to quite different cultures: first Tibetan and now to the western world.

This only came about because an 11th century ruler of Ngari in western Tibet called Jangchub Ö was concerned that misunderstandings of Buddhism had become rife throughout his kingdom. So, he sought out a learned master from India, found Atisha and invited him to Tibet. He then made an inspired and brilliant request. He asked Atisha to make a presentation of Dharma that would bring together all strands of Buddha’s sutras and tantras so that they could be practised as a coherent path.

Atisha’s response was to present a full yet concise explanation, including practical instructions, philosophical elucidation and details of how the teachings should be given, as well as by whom and to whom they were intended to be given. These elements and more form the content of his text The Lamp of the Path of Enlightenment.

Without adding anything at all to Lord Buddha’s teachings, as found in the sutras and tantras, Atisha shaped his guide into a ‘graduated path’. Through that structure: teachings, explanations and practices are introduced to the student in a step-by-step manner so that he or she can progress to each succeeding step in turn on the basis of having properly understood and accomplished preceding ones. Adherence to such an approach guards against misapprehension and misappropriation of teachings not yet reached on the individual’s path.

It is not that Atisha was suggesting the graduated path was to render the sutras and shastras redundant. But rather to serve as a guide through the treasury of Buddha’s teachings. For example, in stanza 13 Atisha says:

One should read the sutras or hear them from the lama.

For truly to understand the limitless qualities of the mind

Of perfect enlightenment causes its stabilization.

This manner of presenting the Buddhist Path did not stop with Atisha’s text. It had far reaching influence on how succeeding masters of the various schools of Buddhist teaching that emerged in Tibet came to structure their own guidebook texts on how to understand and practise the Dharma. Hence, the ‘graduated path’ approach became a major constituent of the overall treasury of Dharma brought together by Tibetan masters.

What is it that makes this style of presentation so readily comprehensible to many a western mind? Perhaps it is because, when properly explained by a qualified teacher, the presentation makes perfect sense to the rational, commonsensical mind; one that is able to step aside from any culturally molded sophistry in thinking. This suggestion is not to deny that the essence of the teaching is just as radical as Buddha’s original words; a totally fresh way of seeing the world; one that leads to a transcendent view of it. 

This graduated path is not just graduated in terms of meditation practices but is also graded in terms of development of motivation, (philosophical) view of the world and vows taken along the way. Atisha divided the path into distinct levels according to the motivation and aptitude of the individual practitioner. The most basic level is for those who look beyond this life alone, the intermediate is for those who have recognised the need for freedom from all of samsara, the higher levels of the common Mahayana and Vajrayana are for those who wish to develop and have developed the aspiration of bodhichitta, the thought of enlightenment. 

It must be said that Atisha’s root text, owing to its concision, necessarily makes use of terms unfamiliar to someone unacquainted with Buddhist teaching. However, once the text is expanded by means of a commentary and is further explained by a qualified teacher, it becomes clearly comprehensible. That process was perfectly exemplified this summer when Lama Jampa taught the text to a group of his students at his French centre, Changlochen Ling using the commentary composed by the 19th century master, Jamgon Kontrul Lodro Thaye.

As Lama Jampa said at the conclusion of his week of teaching:

“Atisha has given us a skeleton. One should learn the text and for all future teachings received, see where in the skeleton parts of that teaching fit.”

We are furthermore fortunate that the translator Adrian O’Sullivan, a student of Lama Jampa, has made a translation of Atisha’s root text and Jamgon Kontrul Lodro Thaye’s commentary, ‘A Full Illumination of the Path to Enlightenment’. It is due to be published by Rabsel Publications in the coming year (2023).

Click here to view a video of Lama Jampa talking about the life of Atisha

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to