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ATĪŚA . Indian scholar-monk regarded as a reformer of Tantric practices and founder of the Buddhist "path literature" in Tibet. Atīśa (more properly Atiśa) was invited to Tibet by Byang chubʾod under the advice of Ye shes ʾod to revive Buddhism after Glan dar ma's (d. 842) persecution of the religion. He is also variously known as Śrī Atīśa, Dīpakararakita, Dīpakara Śrījñāna, and Śrī Dīpakarajñānapada in Sanskrit, and Jo bo rje Dpal ldan, Mar me mdzad Dpal ye shes, and Dpal ldan Atīśa in Tibetan.

The dates of Atīśa varysome accounts give as his dates 9801052, others as 9821054; in any case, he lived for seventy-two years. Some sources claim that he was born at Vikramapura, Dacca (East Pakistan); others claim him to be a native of Bhagalpur (Bihar); still others claim that he was the son of a king of Zahor, a country noted for Tantrism. His father was Kalāyaśrī, the king of Bengal, and his mother was Padmaprabhā. Recent studies tend to confirm that Atīśa was born in Bengal, was a member of a family with some royal blood, and lived from 980 to 1052. Accounts of his life can be found in the Tibetan historical literature (chos ʾbyun ) and the extensive biographical literature (rnam thar ).

Atīśa's first religious encounter came at an early age, when he had a vision of the Vajrayāna goddess Tārā, who remained his tutelary deity throughout his life and to whom he was especially devoted. He sought a monk's career and studied at Nālandā. At the age of thirty-one, he went to Suvaradvīpa (Sumatra?), where he studied under Dharmapāla for twelve years. Upon his return to India he became steward of the Buddhist college Vikramaśīla, from which he left for Tibet in 1040 as the result of an invitation from Nag tsho (b. 1011), who had been sent to the college for this purpose. After a year in Nepal Atīśa arrived in Gu ge in 1042; from there he traveled to central Tibet, and finally to the Snar thang (Narthang) Monastery, where he died.

Atīśa's activities in Tibet centered in and around western Tibet at the beginning, but after a few years he began to travel extensively. Within a short time he gained great fame for his scholarly abilities and for the bold stand he took in favor of religious reform in Tibet. He was not, however, accepted by everyone; ʾBrog mi (9921074) and Mar pa (10121096) are said to have avoided meeting him, and even Rin chen bzang po, who impressed Atīśa on their first meeting, was not always in accord with him, although he finally submitted to Atīśa and acknowledged his superiority. It is related that on his visit to the Bsam yas Monastery, Atīśa discovered Tantras that did not exist in India.

Atīśa's mission in Tibet was to restore monastic order and discipline. In 1057 he founded the monastery of Rwa sgreng. His Bodhipathapradīpa (Tib., Byang chub lam gyi sgron ma ), written for the Tibetans as a manifesto of Buddhist reform, became the basis for the Lam Rim ("stages of the path") teachings of Tsong kha pa (13571419).

Atīśa worked on many translations of the various Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras. He also must be credited for his important work on reckoning dates by a method in which the well-known cycle of twelve animals is complemented by the five elements, thus resulting in a sexagenary cycle. According to this work, the first year of the first cycle of sixty years is 1027 ce; all other dates, past and future, are derived from this year. Although Atīśa was instrumental in reviving Buddhism in Tibet, his influence did not seem to last too far beyond his lifetime.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism.


Chang Ke-ch'iang. "Atīśa." In Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, edited by G. P. Malalasekera, vol. 2, fasc. 2. Colombo, 1967. A good summary of his life and work. Includes lists of Atīśa's writings on the Tantras, the Prajñāpāramitā literature, and the Mādhyamika literature as well as lists of his commentaries and translations.

Chattopadhyaya, Alaka. Atīśa and Tibet (1967). Reprint, Berkeley, Calif., 1981. An up-to-date study, including valuable appendices on biographical materials; the works of Dīpakara; selected writings of Dīpakara, with Sanskrit restoration of the Bodhipathapradīpa and photostat reproductions of the manuscript containing the Sayings of Atīśa; and the Tibetan sexagenarian cycle.

Das, Sarat Chandra. Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow (1893). Reprint, Calcutta, 1965. Four lectures by S. C. Das on his own research on Atīśa based upon Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Chinese sources.

New Sources

Brom ston, Rgyal bai byun gnas. Jo-bo rje lha gcig dpal ldan A ti sa'i rnam thar bla ma'i yon tan chos kyi 'byun gnas sogs Bka' gdams rin po che'i glegs bam. Zi lin, 1993.

Brom ston, Rgyal bai byun gnas, and Hubert Decleer. "Atisa's Journey to Tibet." In Religions of Tibet in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 157177. Princeton, 1997.

Decleer, Hubert. "Atisa's Journey to Sumatra." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp 532540. Princeton, 1995.

Leslie S. Kawamura (1987)

Revised Bibliography