From the Jacket
These translations of the 11th century Tibetan texts of Atisa open important charismatic documents for the general reader of Buddhism. Although these texts have been acknowledged for centuries as the source and inspiration of the Dge-lugs-pa and Bka' -gdams-pa monastic orders' in Tibet and Central Asia, the writings of Atisa have only recently found more interest among Western scholars.
The Lamp for the Path and its Commentary were translated and published in 1983 by Richard Sherburne, and are included in this book, but newly added are his translations of the Twenty-five Key Texts authored by Atisa himself. The Key Texts are found in the Tibetan Tengyur in a collection called the 'The Hundred Root Texts' (rtsa brgya) which were preserved by Atisa's followers as fundamental for a proper study of Buddhist theory and practice.
Atisa (982-1054 CE) is the Bengali monk-saint who sparked the revival of Buddhism in Tibet beginning in 1042 - after nearly a century and a half of repression and decline. He is the revered founder of the distinctive religious tradition that gave vitality to generations of great intellectual, political, and spiritual leaders of Tibet (not least of whom are the Dalai Lamas) who drew their inspiration and motivation from the program of spiritual discipline defined and described in these texts.
Atisa's genius lay in the originality of his integration of the great but sometimes conflicting Indian Buddhist theories and practices of his day into a sure and sound doctrine for the achievement of Bodhi-Awakening and highest tantric mystical experience. His message does not fall under the heading of esoteric teaching, but was written for monks and beginners who had been out of touch or unfamiliar with the great Indian Sanskrit sources of Buddhist thought. It is an overview of Buddhism both profound and comprehensive that should be of interest to any student of the human religious experience.
Richard Sherburne is professor emeritus of Religious Studies from Seattle University, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, lecturer and writer, and long time student and friend of Tibetan monks and lamas. He has done research in Buddhist monasteries in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and has retraced Atisa's footsteps in Nepal, and central Tibet.
Atisa, the author of A Lamp For The Path To Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradipa), is held in special regard by Tibetans. He had a vision that he would not live so long if he left India and went to Tibet. Nevertheless, this Indian saint and scholar made the arduous journey across the Himalayas and travelled throughout Tibet teaching and giving guidance in the full realisation that by so doing he would shorten his life by many years. The place where he died, not far from Lhasa, was and remains to this day an important place of pilgrimage for Tibetans.
Atisa's life itself exemplifies the religious path taught by the Buddha. He travelled far and wide to study with teachers who could explain the practices from their own experience, and having learned the importance of altruism directed towards all living beings, strove to transform himself into an embodiment of love and compassion. He recognised the importance of ethical conduct, meditative stabilization and wisdom and Practised all three. Before coming to Tibet he was accepted in his own land as foremost authority on discipline, meditation and Buddhist philosophy. Like other great and kind Indian masters who taught Buddhism to Tibetans, he also gave due importance to Tantra.
Atisa taught that Buddha's message was primarily a method to relieve the suffering of living beings. He sought to heal the division which threatened the spread of Buddhism in Tibet by emphasizing the central Buddhist teachings and by showing clearly that each teaching was relevant at the appropriate time and for the appropriate person. He stressed the value in all branches of the Buddha's teaching.
This book, which was written by Atisa with special needs of his Tibetan disciples in mind, is the prototype of the stages of the (Lam rim) literature, which reached its full bloom amongst later Tibetan teachers and scholars. It presents the important practices in a concise and easily understandable manner and orders them in terms of the development and ability of the mind.
Such practices as these are timeless and of benefit to all. Just as we Tibetans have benefited greatly from them through the centuries, I hop those in other countries will find here a method to attain the lasting peace they desire. The translation of the text into English here by the noted Christian scholar, Richard Sherburne, S. J., Illustrates cooperation between religions that enhances mutual understanding and draws the world together in recognition of the common goal of bettering humankind.
IMPORTANCE IN TIBETAN TRADITION:
The twenty-five Key Texts, which are added here to Atisa's major work, the Lamp for the Path and Commentary, form the first items of a larger collection preserved by the Bka' gdams-pa Order as the Hundred Root Texts of the Noble Lord (jo-bo-rje'i chos-chung rtsa brgya). For centuries, the Hundred Root Texts have been listed together in the Tanjur, the Tibetan canon of commentatorial texts. These texts are held by the Bka'gdams-pa, (later Dge-Iugs-pa), to embrace the essential spirit of their order as outlined for them by Atisa - the first 25 texts being of Atisa's own authorship - and which I am calling The Key Texts - with the remainder being important earlier sources and writers upon which he drew. They provide an elaboration and illustration of the ideas already set forth so succinctly in the Lamp and Commentary. In effect, this volume of translations comprises the complete preserved works of Atisa.
The impact of Atisa's thirteen years of teaching and writing in Tibet has endured to the present day in the continuing observance of religious emphasis he instituted, embodied by monks of the Bka'- gdams-pa and Dge-Iugs-pa (a later reform) and Bka'-brgyud-pa Orders. The ideas behind Atisa's charism, preserved in his writings, are so well accepted that two prominent Tibetan religious literary genres - Gradual Path texts (lam-rim) made famous by Tsong-kha-pa, and Mind Purification texts (blo-sbyong), such as that of Sgam-po-pa, grew' out of the style and content of Atisa's presentation. Even the present Dalai Lama, as many Dge-Iugs-pa monks before him, follow and teach the doctrine as Atisa set it down.
IMPORTANCE OF KEY TEXTS TO WESTERN HUMANISTS:
For the past two decades there has been unabated growth of interest, both popular and academic, in Asian cultural and spiritual values. The Lamp and Key Texts provide a clear insight into the practical aspects of Buddhist life, not only as applicable to monastics, but addressing values of profound significance in human existence the world over. Atisa's view of the organic unity of the many Buddhist approaches to interior peace and fulfillment deeply influenced Central Asian culture through monastic influence, much as Christian monasticism was greatly responsible for the preservation of western culture through the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe.
The recent increased focus on Tibet has often been one-sided, stressing either political aspects or isolated philosophical questions or extravagant interpretations of Tantric mysticism. Atisa's writings present a balanced and integrated framework of the various Buddhist paths which are the basis of Tibetan culture.
DESCRIPTION OF THE KEY TEXTS:
The religious annals of the Bka-gdams-pa Order traditionally divide Atisa's writings under three headings: 1) Theory'(Ita): texts pertaining to basic Mahayana interpretation of scripture, the nature of man and human activity, and the doctrine of Emptiness (stong-pa-nyid/sunyata) according to the tradition of the Madhyamika (dbu-rna) school. The entire Hundred Root Texts collection is found in the Madhyamika section of the Tibetan Tanjur.
2) Practice (spyod): texts that describe the essentials of monastic life, the inner spirit of compassion, techniques of meditation, and practice of the Perfections.
3) Combined Theory and Practice (zung-'brel): texts which outline an entire course of practices that demonstrate the full living out of the Madhyamika theory of Emptiness.
NATURE OF TEXTS
That the Key Texts are reform-oriented is seen within the texts themselves by direct reference, but the implications are more evident from other contemporary historical sources. Atisa lays a classical foundation for Buddhist life by wide use of the Sutras, and particular emphasis on the teachings of Nagarjuna (for Theory), Asanga (for Practice), and Santideva (for combined Theory and Practice). His presentation of these Masters follows that of his own immediate teachers, Bodhibhadra and Dharmakirti of Sumatra. The uniqueness of Atisa's contribution - and what made his reform viable - is his unifying of Buddhism's three vehicles (Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) into a harmonious and coherent spiritual development of ascent.
STATUS OF TEXTS
The pages of Tibetan transliteration facing the English translation, compares two of the xylograph editions of the Tibetan Kanjur-Tanjur: the Otani University (Japan) printing of the Peking edition held by the University of Washington, and the Sde-dge edition, from a copy held by the University of California-Berkeley. This is not an exhaustive critical edition of the original 18th century editions - there are also the Lhasa, Narthang, and Co-ne editions - but these were unavailable to me. The differences in the two editions I compare are minimal, attributable to woodcarver's error, and not to intentional change of thought. In no case is there alteration of the original expression of Atisa.
Seeing that Atisa's explanations are quite straightforward and clear in the texts themselves, I felt that footnotes were unnecessary. Reference to the Glossary can elucidate the very few terms not already found in the Lamp for the Path and Commentary.
The Lamp for the Enlightenment Path and its Commentary are eleventh-century Buddhist texts which were written at Tho-ling ("High-flying") Monastery in the central Himalayas near Mount Kailas. Although little known to "outsiders", these texts have been used and cherished by the Buddhist communities within Tibet and inner Asia for well over nine centuries. The monk who composed them wrote originally in Sanskrit (now lost) while simultaneously translating them into Tibetan, and they were included as authentic commentary in the earliest canon of Mahayana scripture.
The Lamp proved to be a unique model for a religious literary style that received much attention and development in Tibet: the concise but comprehensive manuals that show the "steps of the path" (lam-rim, as the genre is called) and are kept as lifelong guides for the spiritual endeavour: Both beginner and adept find a map for the Path in the poem, which was to be memorised, while the Commentary provides the eminently practical explanation for further reflection and study. The Lamp and its companion were a new direction and emphasis for Tibetan Buddhist life because they presented for the first time the harmonious relationship between Buddhism's essential monastic basis and the compassionate Bodhisattva's high ideal, flowering in the true and necessary mystical experience of Tantra.
His missionary labours in Tibet extended over thirteen years, beginning at Tho-ling, where he composed the Lamp and Commentary in 1042-3; he then moved east to Bsam-yas and to Lha-sa, teaching at many monasteries, writing, and counselling renewal of spirit. He died at Snye-thang just south of Lha-sa where his relics are enshrined in a temple overlooking the Skyid-chu near its confluence with the mighty Brahmaputra.
If Tibetan monastic life in Atisa's time was somewhat in disarray, it was due to both political and religious influences. After Buddhism's original royal patronage in the seventh century, temples and monasteries had fanned out as far as the reaches of the Tibetan empire itself - from within the borders of T'ang China to what is now Russian Turkestan, sweeping the entire arc of the Himalayas from Kashmir to Burma. But two centuries of growth was summarily stopped in a merciless persecution that began in 836 under Glang-dar-ma, upon whose assassination the Tibetan empire itself fragmented, After a century and a half of suppression and decline, refugee monks began slowly to return to ancient ruins and find patronage under local princes and families. Direct descendants of the old royal family in western Tibet were particularly eager to restore Buddhist life, building impressive monasteries like Tho-ling and financing the education of promising Tibetan youths in Kashmir and northern India.
It was a prince of this line, Byang-chub-'od, grand-nephew of the builder of Tho-ling and an ordained monk, who heard about Atisa through the Tibetans who had studied at Vikramasila, and pressed the urgent invitation for him to come and assist in the work of restoring true observance of monastic life.
The urgency of the invitation was not so much that corruption existed because of the years of suppression and isolation, but rather that serious misinterpretations of Buddhist ideals and practice had arisen through the pitfalls of Tantra. This movement of a devotional and mystical system had been growing among Brahmanists and Buddhists in India for some centuries and held great appeal for the Tibetans. But it is well known that the subtle and profound elements of much of the “swift path” are clothed in sexual imagery that lends itself to misuse by the uninitiated and unguided. Atisa was the first to integrate and balance the Buddhist paths and win an audience that would carry on his teaching. The Lamp and Commentary show his views and are his major work.
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