The Three Great Legacies of Yeshe Öd

The Three Great Legacies of Yeshe Öd

Special Kagyu Monlam 2023 • Day 4

Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on the Life of Atisha • Day 3

1 February 2023

Yeshe Öd’s First Legacy: The Spread of the Teachings from Tö

His Holiness continued with the final day of teachings on the life of Atisha by focusing on the three greatest legacies of Yeshe Öd.

The first of these was spreading the teachings from Tö, or upper Tibet. Around a hundred years had passed since Langdarma had persecuted the teachings, and for five generations Buddhism had weakened considerably. In particular, the region of Shangshung (also known as Ngari) that Song-gne, later known by the name Yeshe Öd, ruled was where the Bön religion had originated and so the people of that time primarily had faith in Bön. There was not much interest in Buddhism. In addition, in many areas of Tibet, there were people who did not know the true dharma due to its suppression. Karmapa explained, “Tibetans respected people from India highly, and often offered them a lot of gold. Therefore, there were many strange panditas who came from India to give teachings. In particular, they would interpret the tantras literally and misunderstand them, so the situation became quite chaotic.” Even before Song-gne became a monk, he had read the words and treatises himself and done research, so he knew that the behavior of these individuals was antithetical to dharma. In order to correct them, he made many laws and rules but it was not not very beneficial. Thus, he thought it would be very important to invite an authentic pandita from India and reform Buddhism.

Moreover, Yeshe Öd himself went forth to be ordained and spent most of his time spreading the teachings. He gave the kingship to his younger brother (other accounts claimed it was his elder brother), and he built the Tholing Monastery in Ngari. “This is the earliest historical monastery in Ngari and is still in good condition to this day. It would be very good if people can go to visit the monastery in the future,” remarked Karmapa. Yeshe Öd invited many panditas from India, among them the pandita Dharmapāla from eastern India. Along with him came three disciples who were also named Pāla. They spread monastic vows in Ngari and established a community of the sangha and teachings of the vinaya. This is called the Tö or the Upper Transmission of Vinaya.

When we speak about Langdarma persecuting Buddhism, this meant that he singled out the monastic community and monasteries and destroyed them. “It is not that he completely eliminated Buddhism from Tibet,” His Holiness emphasized. “Thus the beginning of the later transmission of Buddhism mainly means when the transmission of vows and the monastic community were reestablished in Central Tibet."

There were two transmissions of vinaya in Tibet—the Upper and Lower Transmissions. The Lower Transmission appeared before the Upper Transmission, and when both became established in Central Tibet, the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism were stably and widely restored. This is what is known as the Later Transmission of Buddhism. In addition to these two transmissions, in the thirteenth century, the great pandita Shakya Shri from Kashmir introduced his lineage of vows called the Mahapandita transmission to Tibet. All the lineages of vows in Tibet can be included in one of these three, but it seems that the Upper Transmission of the Vinaya was later broken.

Karmapa explained that when discussing the lineages of the vows, this primarily referred to the lineages of the abbots; it seemed that not much attention was paid to the lineage held by the master of the ritual and the supplementary sangha. He gave an example, “When Sakya Pandita took his bhikshu vows, the abbot was Shakya Shri, but I believe the master of the ritual and the supplementary sangha were all from the Lower Transmission. However, if you look in the vinaya, the bhikshu vows are received from the sangha and not from an individual. It seems to me that in Tibet, we regard the lineage of the abbot as the lineage of the vows.” He then suggested that this is a topic to be investigated further.

Yeshe Öd’s Second Legacy: Inviting Atisha to Tibet

Although Yeshe Öd was the person who first had the idea and laid the plans to invite Atisha to Tibet, he was not able to actually meet with him. The one who was able to invite Atisha was Jangchup Öd, explained Karmapa. “Whether or not Yeshe Öd sacrificed his life to invite Atisha, as related in most Tibetan histories, you could say that without him, Atisha would have been unable to come to Tibet,” he remarked.

How Atisha Traveled to Tibet

Yeshe Öd had appointed Rinchen Sangpo, the great and famous translator who had previously studied in India, as the leader of five or six intelligent young Tibetans and sent them to study in Kashmir. Karmapa pointed out that while Muslims are referred to as Kach-ey in Tibetan, that term is derived from the name for Kashmir and does not mean Muslim, and originated because the first Muslims came to Tibet from Kashmir.

After the scholars had finished their studies, Yeshe Öd asked them to bring panditas who could spread the dharma and important scriptures back to Tibet. They did bring a few panditas from India, but these scholars only knew the texts they had specifically studied and they were not at a level to reform Tibetan Buddhism fully and systematically. Thus, Yeshe Öd’s expectations were not fulfilled. Meanwhile, he had heard of a scholar in India named Atisha who was learned, venerable, and good, so he had a great desire to invite him.

Yeshe Öd gave the responsibility of inviting Atisha to an elder translator named Gya Tsöndru Senge. However, the first attempt was unsuccessful and Gya Tsöndru Senge could not bring Atisha to Tibet. Karmapa continued, “Not long after, Yeshe Öd grew old and passed away before his wish could be fulfilled. As he was about to pass away, he told his nephew Jangchup Öd that he absolutely must bring Atisha to Tibet. In order to fulfill his uncle’s last wish, Jangchup Öd sent Nagtso Lotsawa to India to invite Atisha.”

When Nagtso Lotsawa and his assistants arrived in India, Atisha was living at Vikramashila Monastery. This monastery was built in the eighth century by the king Dharmapala of the Pala dynasty. It was the second most important monastic university after Nalanda. In particular, it was a hub for the study of Vajrayana. The king would bestow on the best of the scholars who graduated from there the title of Pandita, so many great scholars came from that monastery.

Some of these great scholars include the six gatekeepers such as Naropa and Shantipa. They stayed by the four gates and the four directions because many non-Buddhists would come to debate with them. Atisha and Shakya Shri Bhadra also studied at Vikramashila. Although the monastery was destroyed by Muslim invaders in 1203, the ruins remain.

When Nagtso and his party arrived at the monastery, Gya Tsöndru Senge was studying there at that time, so he was intimately familiar with the reasons why they had been unable to bring Atisha to Tibet. He advised them, “At first, do not say that you are here to invite him. Pretend that you have come to study. When the time is right, I can tell you how to invite Atisha.”

After Nagtso and his party studied there for a year, they finally had the opportunity to explain to Atisha that the reason they had come was to invite him to Tibet. Atisha told them, “According to your account, that Tibetan king must be a real bodhisattva. It would not be right for me to go against a bodhisattva’s command. Now the teachings are spreading and you have come here with much hardship, I will definitely figure out a way to go to Tibet.”

Whenever Atisha had a doubt, he would consult his special deity Tara. When he did so in this case, she advised him, “Going to Tibet would be very beneficial. In particular, it will be beneficial for one lay person.” The lay person was likely Dromtönpa, Karmapa explained. In addition, Atisha went to the stupa in Bodhgaya and made offerings and supplications.

At that time, there was a khenpo Jñāna Śrī Mitra who gave him a handful of cowrie shells and said, “These are for a pale old woman with long dreadlocks; give these to her.” Atisha went to Bodhgaya and met the old woman. Before Atisha said anything, the old woman said, “Give me the cowrie shells you have brought for me.” Atisha realized this was no ordinary person and prostrated to her in his mind. Atisha asked her whether it would be beneficial if he went to Tibet, and the old woman answered exactly as Tara had. He then asked, “Will there be any obstacles to my life?”

Karmapa paused to explain that the journey was dangerous because Tibet is a high and remote place, and at that time Atisha was already in his fifties.

The old woman answered Atisha, “If you go to Tibet, your life will be shorter.”

“How much shorter?” asked Atisha.

“If you don’t go to Tibet, you will live to ninety-two. If you go, you will only live to seventy-three.”

This meant that Atisha’s life would be twenty years shorter if he went. At that time, Atisha thought, “If it is beneficial for Tibet, it doesn’t matter whether my life is shorter or not.”

Karmapa explained that if Atisha had directly indicated that he was going to Tibet, the Indian king and the monastery authorities would not allow him to go. Thus, Atisha took Ngatso and others and pretended to go on a pilgrimage to many sites. Eventually, they arrived in Nepal.

At that time, His Holiness elaborated, one of the elders of Vikramashila felt uneasy and suspicious and insisted on accompanying Atisha. When they had arrived in Nepal, he learned of Atisha’s plan to go to Tibet and immediately told Nagtso, “You did not come to study but to kidnap Atisha. Actually, it is not that we will not let Atisha go, but if we lose him to Tibet, there is the danger of Buddhism being destroyed in India.” In the end, it was decided that Atisha would spend no more than three years in Tibet and would then have to return to India. Nagtso took an oath, and they were just barely allowed to bring Atisha to Tibet.

Atisha’s Difficulty in Traveling from India to Tibet

As mentioned, when Nagtso and his party brought Atisha to Tibet, Atisha was already in his fifties. This was already old for the life expectancy of that time, Karmapa pointed out. Moreover, Atisha had become a famous and influential pandita with a rank in the Indian kingdom. He elaborated, “Not only had he been appointed abbot of the Buddhist monasteries Vikramashila and Odantapuri, he was also the head of several important temples in Central India, so he normally had a keyring with at least eighteen keys on his belt.”

This was why the Indians were reluctant to let Atisha go to Tibet. One reason is that they viewed Tibet as a remote and backwards place. From another perspective, Buddhism had begun to decline in India at that time, and the unexcelled tantra tradition was spreading widely. There were many opportunities for Hinduism and Buddhism to mix, so there were many practices that became unclear if they were Hindu or Buddhist. In addition, Karmapa explained that there were many panditas who claimed that there was no difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. Atisha himself said, “These days in India, there are only three or four panditas such as Shantipa who can tell Hinduism and Buddhism apart.” Atisha himself was included in that count. For such reasons, it was important for Indian Buddhism that Atisha stayed in India.

To illustrate Atisha’s status, Karmapa pointed out, “On one wall of the Vikramashila temple, Nagarjuna was painted on the right and Atisha was painted on the left. They considered Atisha to be on the same level as Nagarjuna. Likewise, there was another mural with all the panditas on one side and all the mahasiddhas on the other. Atisha was portrayed in both murals.”

Additionally, His Holiness explained that Atisha had a very gentle character. “He was someone who got along with everyone and had an open mind. He was familiar and experienced with all the positions of the various Buddhist schools in India at that time. All the different schools respected and loved him.” Nagtso wrote in his Eight Verses of Praise:

In Odantapuri there were
Three hundred and fifty monastics
And in Vikramashila,
Just about a hundred
Of all four root schools.
You had no arrogance about school.
You became the crown jewel
Of all the four communities of the Teacher
In all the sacred sites
In the land of Magadha.
You sit at the head
Of all eighteen schools,
And everyone accepts you.

Karmapa explained that although Atisha was from the Mahasanghika school, he did not have any pride but paid respect to all schools. Likewise, there were major disputes between the Middle Way and Mind Only in India, but Atisha would extract the good parts of the Middle Way view and the Mind Only conduct and practice them together. He was able to practice both the Lineage of Profound View and the Lineage of Vast Conduct without conflict.

In summary, Atisha and his party went to Nepal and spent one year there. Unfortunately, on the way to Tibet, Gya Tsöndru Senge passed away. At that time, Atisha said, “Now the translator has died, I no longer have a tongue. Now there is no point in going to Tibet.” To this, Nagtso replied, “There is the well-known translator Rinchen Sangpo in Tibet, and I can translate ordinary conversations. Please, you absolutely must continue on to Tibet.” Because of this request, Atisha continued to Tibet and arrived in Ngari in 1040, when he was 59 years old.

The Grand Welcome for Atisha

Jangchup Öd, who had been ordained by that time, had been waiting a long time for Atisha’s arrival. The welcome had long been prepared, Karmapa explained. “When Atisha and his party were getting close to Tholing monastery, it was said there were three hundred laypeople riding white horses and carrying banners, pennants, and various offerings to give a grand welcome.” In order to make it more impressive, Jangchup Öd invented a new musical instrument that would be especially loud and impressive. Karmapa stated that this is the origin of the rakdung that we play in monasteries these days, and it is known as the “horn for inviting translators and scholars.” The first time they played the rakdung, all the livestock and animals were startled and the horses they were riding panicked and fled. Karmapa remarked that the obstinate Tibetans must have played the rakdung at such loud volumes that it probably frightened Atisha and all the mild-mannered Indians.

Atisha’s Teachings on Karmic Cause and Effect

After Atisha arrived in Tholing , Jangchub Öd told Atisha of how the dharma kings had established the dharma in Tibet and how Langdarma had later persecuted the teachings. He also shared how his uncle disregarded his own life and reestablished the teachings, but many false teachers had mixed them up. Jangchub Öd’s eyes were filled with tears and he requested Atisha, “Instead of teaching the most profound and the most amazing dharma teachings in Tibet, please teach the dharma of cause and effect.”

Atisha was very pleased and replied, “Among all the dharmas, cause and effect is the most profound. It is superior to gain stable conviction in karmic cause and effect than to see the face of the yidam deity. In India, a yogi who practiced Yamantaka saw his deity’s face and thought, ‘Because of this, it would not be a big deal if I made a few mistakes,’ and he started using the common items of the sangha as he pleased. He was then born as a hungry ghost in a body that looked like Yamantaka.” His Holiness explained that Atisha also told many other such stories, accepted Jangchup Öd’s request, and taught Tibetans a great deal about karmic cause and effect. Therefore, people called him “Guru Karmic Cause and Effect.” Even that very nickname was extremely beneficial to Buddhism, as people calling him by that name helped them understand the importance of these teachings.

The Writing of the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment

The translator Rinchen Sangpo realized how great Atisha was and decided to follow him as his guru. He encouraged everyone, saying “Atisha has only one year to stay in Tibet, so get all the teachings you can.” In addition, Jangchub Öd offered a lot of gold to Atisha and said, “In this land of Tibet, individuals with misconceptions about Buddhism who have not met authentic spiritual teachers pretend to have knowledge and have made up many falsehoods. They disagree and dispute among themselves. There are so many false teachings, so please teach the dharma and dispel their doubts.”

Moreover, Jangchub Öd asked two questions about the common vehicles, two about the transcendences, and three about the Vajrayana, seven questions in total. He then requested that Atisha write a treatise summarizing the entire teachings of Buddhism in a few words in relation to his own practice. Likewise, he requested, “There are pith instructions on the Guhyasamaja Tantra by Buddhajñāna; please write a sadhana based on this, with Avalokiteshvara as the main deity of the mandala.”

Atisha replied, “Nagarjuna’s String of Jewels is already in Tibetan; that is enough, you won’t find anything better. As for the sadhana on the Guhyasamaja Tantra, there is the Samantabhadra sadhana.”

Eventually, Atisha wrote the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment in order to fulfill the first request. For the second, Karmapa remarked that Atisha probably wrote or translated a sadhana on the Guhyasamaja Tantra.

The Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment is a renowned text with sixty-seven stanzas. As Tsongkhapa says in his Stages of the Path, it has three features. First, it summarizes the points of both sutra and tantra, so the topic is complete. Second, it focuses on how to tame one’s mind, so it is easy to put into practice. Third, it is adorned with the advice of two gurus who are learned in the two traditions: Rigpe Khujuk in Nagarjuna’s tradition and Survarandivpa in Asanga’s tradition. Since this text is adorned with the instructions Atisha had received directly from them, it is better than one that is solely from the Lineage of Profound View or the Lineage of Vast Conduct.

“It is said that because Atisha wrote this text,” Karmapa stated, “it was not necessary to directly or forcefully block the false dharma and false mantra in Tibet; they naturally ended. However, without someone like Dromtönpa who later spread the text, even if Atisha had written this text, it would have turned out to be like Kamalashila’s Stages of Meditation—a text that is only studied in the monasteries.”

His Holiness then explained that Dromtönpa first meditated on it and realized its meaning. He was able to practice the real and undiminished teachings of the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment. “The fact that it is still here is because of his kindness,” Karmapa emphasized. Once, someone asked Dromtönpa, “Is there a commentary on the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment?” To which he replied, “You don’t need a commentary on the words. I am a student who received it directly from the author, so I am the commentary. Look at how I act; I am the actual commentary.”

While it is said that Atisha wrote the text because of the seven questions Jangchub Öd asked, these questions were not specifically identified. When Atisha went to Central Tibet, Khu, Ngok and others also asked him five questions. One of them was, “If means and prajna are divorced from each other, can one achieve buddhahood through one of these alone?” Atisha replied, “Jangchup Öd asked most of those questions and they are in the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment.” Karmapa noted that it is probably clear that the two questions on the transcendences and three on tantra were asked by Khu and Ngok, but it is not clear what the two questions regarding the common path are.

Panchen Lobsang Chögyen’s commentary on the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment speaks of a commentary by Nagtso called the Ornament of the Explanations, which presents each of the seven questions. Karmapa expressed that he had read a few old commentaries by Kadampa masters which mention five or six questions. “How the questions and the answers relate is clearly shown,” he said, “but these days there is not much of a custom of teaching in that way.” It was also stated in Panchen Lobsang Chögyen’s commentary that teaching the text in this manner would provide for a clearer understanding.

Karmapa added, “There is not enough time today to explain whether there is an autocommentary on the Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment or not, and about Atisha’s travels to Central Tibet. I can teach them later if we have time and an opportunity.”

He announced that on the fifth of February, there would be the practice on the Five Deities of Tara and the Marme Monlam. Thus, concluded the third and final day of the Special Monlam teachings, with a recitation of the Aspiration for the Stages of the Path.


Click on the photo to view Flickr picture gallery ↓

2023.02.01 Day 4: Special Kagyu Monlam 2023