Atisha and the Origin of Lam Rim

by Gan Starling

“Lam Rim is exactly what we need most in our life today...”
Geshe Tenzing Sherab, Abbot
Gyuto Tantric University

The indigenous traditions of North Indian Buddhism flowered their fullest around the turn of the first millennium. The centers of most of this wondrous activity were the great monastic universities: Nalanda, founded on the very site where Shariputra had passed away, where the sutras record that Shakyamuni himself spent many of his later years ever turning the Wheel of Dharma; and the tantric university of Vikramashila in Bengal.

Quite a number of legendary scholars hailed from Nalanda. The abbots of Nalanda read like a Who’s Who of Buddhist classicism: Shantideva, composer of The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life; Shantarakshita, who founded the very first monastery in Tibet, and at who’s request Padmasambhava was invited from Uddiyana to magically combat local shamans; Naropa, who left his post to become sole pupil to Tilopa, a great tantric adept, one among the eighty-four mahasiddhas of classical lore. From Vikramashila came Atisha, who before his royal appointment to the library there, had studied first at Nalanda, following up with nearly two decades of direct tutelage under renowned gurus far too numerous to list individually. To Vikramashila is where the Tibetan monk Drokmi went to study for eight years, returning home to found the first monastery of the Sakya sect. It is principally to Nalanda, Vikramashila and other Indian monastic universities that outland scholars came to deepen their study of the Mahayana. Many students, treasuring a favored lineage, carried it lovingly home again, that it might take root and grow. But here, at the great monastic institutions of Northern India is where the full diversity of all these doctrines was studied and practiced as a whole.

Before too long though, it was all to come tumbling down. Competing cultures from the West, armed with strong military contingents and fueled by their own religious, economic and political imperatives came to erase virtually every trace of Buddhist civilization out from most of its historic domains. So thorough were they in some places, that only in very recent times have Western scholars uncovered sufficient remains to admit of the Dharma’s historic glory. Prior till now, they had dismissed such legends as nothing but ethnocentric myth.

And a legend only it would have remained, save for the efforts of certain unusually adventuresome pandits, scholar/adepts from Nalanda and Vikramashila, who preserved the teachings in their entirety by carrying them off, far away into a hostile and not at all promising haven. Tibet was then nothing as we think of it now, a land fractured into feudal states, ruled by warlords of competing noble families. Most of these were traditionally allied with shamanistic priests presiding over a loosely grouped set of animistic creeds which scholars now refer to under the name of Bon. To these loyalists, Buddhism posed a dire and all too obvious threat. Being an undesired foreign influence, it comprised an affront to many cherished local traditions. The Bon shamans despised and reviled it. Their feudal lords opposed and persecuted it. Centuries earlier, under Shantarakshita’s and Padmasambhava’s combined influence, Buddhism had already made significant inroads into the Land of Snows. But King Langdarma’s years-long campaign of abject terror had beaten it all but completely back, with only a tenuous thread remaining. So it was that only in a few places did the Dharma survive at all. It was scattered and harried by the majority faction. In many places, the interconnections among the lineages had frayed apart, leaving some no longer whole. A strand here, another there, in small, remote monasteries and isolated mountain hermitages. Quite possibly, soon it might be utterly lost. Nothing short of a great revival could possibly preserve it in these hostile environs.

One of the remaining lesser kings still loyal to Buddha’s teaching dedicated his life (quite literally) to such a revival. He is said to have been much distressed by reports that his fellow Tibetan countrymen were being victimized by opportunistic charlatans from India. (No longer remembered, except by historical epithet: Blue Skirt, etc.) Tails tell of shadowy figures coming and going, making fantastic claims for themselves of arcane scholarship and yogic prowess, all for the purpose of charging in gold for secret transmissions, which then turned out to be little more than erotic exploits cloaked in an aura of shallow mysticism, or worse, black magic. These alleged pandits plagued the country like carpetbaggers, popping up here and there and disappearing just as quickly. Their ill fame tarnished the true Dharma in peoples minds. To negate this cancer, the king determined he must somehow lure genuine yogis to Tibet. He had set his hopes on one scholar in particular, a tantric adept of considerable fame, one to whom the Tibetan people could place their trust without any cause for regret, the pandit Atisha from Vikramashila, who was now almost sixty years of age. This mission carried the king into danger.

Caught and held captive by a neighboring Bon rival, his ransom had been set at his weight in gold. The Buddhist king’s heir, having nearly collected such a sum, went first to speak with his imprisoned uncle. The captive king, rather than see such wealth delivered into the hands of the Dharma’s antagonists, instructed his nephew to instead carry it as an offering to the elders at Vikramashila, that they might be so impressed as to send their emissary to the Land of Snows and renew the Dharma once again. This decision sealed the king’s fate, and he was executed for the affront.

The heir made good his upon uncle’s wishes. The offering was sent. The gold however, made little impression and the elders refused to part with Atisha. But Atisha, hearing of the king’s self-sacrifice, went forth anyway. The full story is rather longer and more complex than here detailed, but these are the high points.

Arriving in Tibet Atisha found the beginnings of a dharmic resurgence already partly underway. But even so the situation was still very much in disarray. Potential students showed themselves eager and attentive, but lacking for the usual grounding in even the basics of Buddhist training. A crash course in the whole spectrum of Dharmic study would have to be formulated. It would need to comprise all three levels of spiritual capacity and all three modes of meditative application to fill such a long list of wants. Atisha was but a single person, and could hardly divide himself into the usual plurality of separate specialized instructors such as would ordinarily be found at any established Buddhist center. Fortunately for the Tibetan students, Atisha’s career up until then had taken him across the length and breadth of both India and Sumatra, to study under many of the most famous adepts in this, the golden age of Buddhist culture. Atisha was therefor a walking treasure of the Buddha’s teaching, a seasoned adept in many modes of meditation. If anyone alive was in a position to conceive and administer such a course, it was Atisha. And this is exactly what he did.

Atisha composed the now famous treatise, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, a concise two-page outline of topics for graduated contemplation and diligent practice, so that no student might become lost in the plethora of texts and commentaries. He taught a unique, multifold meditative practice. This technique combined each of the three primary elements: devotion, analysis, and absorption. The analytical segment in turn contained all three levels of aspiration: lower, personal avoidance of future suffering; middling, individual escape from samsara; and great, the Bodhisattva path.

Elsewhere the mutual equity of these approaches has largely unwoven into separate strands, as in the Pure Land, Tien-tai (Japanese, Tendai), and Ch’an (Japanese, Zen) schools, where devotional, analytic and absorptive meditations are given very unequal emphasis. And among certain others (Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai) meditation is never taught at all. In Tibetan Vajrayana, however, at least since the advent of Jowo Je (Lord Master, usual epithet for Atisha), the three have been kept fully integral and carefully balanced. Fortuitously so, since it is recorded that prior to Atisha’s timely arrival, a similar unraveling had begun even there, with various camps given to dispute amongst one another, each claiming stridently that this or that class of scriptures, this or that mode of practice totally obviated any others. Firmly but gently Atisha refuted this, avowing that meditators must apply themselves evenly.

Lam Rim meditation is among the foremost of those techniques which address all three. Further, it provides direct inroads into yet another even more advanced regimen which likewise heralds from the late North Indian tradition: the tantric system.

Tantra, another of the several meditative traditions all but lost elsewhere, is now preserved to its fullest degree only in Tibet. The Shingon sect in Japan presents certain of the lower tantra, but no techniques from the class called Highest Yoga Tantra. I mention these issues here only because it is important to know that Lam Rim, while not itself a tantric practice, engages the practitioner in several elements of otherwise advanced concepts which are usually particular only to tantra: visualization, prostration, mantra and mudra. Visualization, in particular is employed to deepen our devotion. Without Lam Rim the basis for tantra will not have been laid.

Devotion or intelligent faith can not by any means be dismissed as non sequitur to Dharmic practice. Through devotion we open our minds to the objects of refuge. Opening the mind means to actually invite a mode of direct communication from those who have tread this path before. Visualization is an opportune means to open both the heart and mind simultaneously. The mind is vast, limitless, but we confine it through the habit of closing off our thoughts to anything outside the artificial borders of our own ego. Spiritually, this is the equivalent of putting on blinders and plugging our ears. We shut ourselves off from other beings. We ignore and dismiss them in our subconscious. It is a habit, a compulsive obsession. We do it so automatically that we hardly imagine anything existing just beyond. Before we can engage in this prying open, we must first at least admit to ourselves of the possibility.

Visualization is the tool to aid us in opening up to this awareness. We create within ourselves a visualized landscape. We involve our minds to the greatest degree possible, employing the maximum of our mental resources in its creation. The more complicated and detailed an image we are able to generate, the greater will be the effort involved. The greater the effort (provided that we can also stay focused) the stronger our connection. While employing a maximum of cognitive capacity, we set up a stage within our minds and people it with representative imagery.

Next we invite the Enlightened Ones to animate our mental constructs. At first this will seem very stilted and contrived. But if we strive with ardent sincerity at some point a tendril of recognition will be felt. In point of fact, the communication which we seek will have been there all along. But we ourselves will have been tuned out, focused elsewhere, not in a receptive state. So initially, our attempt at visualization will seem little more than a contrived effort. But this contriving nevertheless leads to something very real. The Enlightened Ones are ever present, yet we are unaware of them. Our ordinary, mundane awareness barely can conceive of this and therefor needs to be convinced. To become convinced, we must invite them. Invitation constitutes a karmic act, which conduces to a concrete result. So the practice of offering a mentally created panorama and inviting the Wisdom Beings into it fulfills the requirement of purely volitional association with the ultimate. We must make at least this symbolic effort to commune beyond our subconscious boundaries. Only then will the Enlightened Ones be at liberty to influence us from within.

As for analysis, most Westerners have little taste for, nor any inclination towards it. But this attitude is something which impedes our progress. We can not make the leap into intuition with any facility unless we have obtained some skill in analysis. Analysis is the counterpoise necessary for balance. It also affords us our first combined exercise in the threefold vehicle of hearing, thinking, and meditating. It is a major Buddhist paradigm that these three pose the only way to Enlightenment.

Tantra is fighting fire with fire, to defeat ego and the afflictive emotions with their own energy. Lam Rim analysis mirrors this, but at a less subtle level, the level of the conceptual mind. It is said to lay the foundation, lacking which the house (mandala) of tantra would collapse. Just as with ego and the afflictive emotions, conceptual mind must be abandoned at the threshold of Enlightenment. But for the meantime they persist, with the bulk of our mental and spiritual energies tied up in them. This admittedly being the case, it is better to make some use of this resource than to idly toss it away. So, for as long as conceptual mind continues to (dis)function we will have to undergo its results. If results there must be, might they not better aid us along on our journey rather than impede our every step? This is called training the mind.

To hear, think and meditate, these are the essence of Lam Rim. They hasten us along the three principal paths: Renunciation, Bodhicitta and Shunyata. Without intelligent understanding (and heartfelt practice!) of these three, tantric realization does not manifest. Activating these three is the essence of Lam Rim practice

Harmful, ill and destructive impulses are obviously not to be given a free reign. Nor is it an easy task simply to suppress and deny them. A more skillful approach by far is to directly oppose them as they arise with equally potent antidote concepts. One purely illusive mental concept may conduce to behaviors which bring negative karmic results, while others draw forth happier returns. The logical mind can here be employed as a powerful instrument, to play one concept against another, controlling the mindset that results. This is not so very dissimilar from the subtler skills which later we will employ in tantra. There we will steer deeply rooted afflictive aggregates through a course of our own choosing, converting them into Buddha Mind. For the present we are on an easy slope. The going gets steeper, and rather more slippery further on. It is much the same really, only more so. Any skills gained in advance are sure to prove invaluable.

Now as for the topics which in Lam Rim are laid out for analysis, I suspect that many will recognize their sources, which again are threefold. They are: the Lineage of Extensive Deeds (Bodhicitta/Skillful Means) as represented by the Buddha Maitreya attended by the Bodhisattva Asanga; the Lineage of the Profound View (Wisdom/Emptiness) as represented by the Buddha Manjushri attended by the Bodhisattva Nagarjuna; and the Lineage of Divine Inspiration (direct experiential realization) as represented by the Buddha Vajradhara and a host of siddhas: Saraha, Luipa, Ghantapa, Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Je Rinpoche, et al. An inspired study of their works and histories would doubtless lead to profound and enduring inspiration. But this would require the career of a lifetime, while Lam Rim aims to encapsulate their major points into the time frame available to an ordinary person.

The Lam Rim outlines set in writing by Atisha form a concise two-page synopsis of all the paths. From the dauntingly vast array of Buddha’s instructions, it directs the contemplator’s focus first here, next there, and so on through the works of masters: Asanga, Nagarjuna et al. If we have all of these works ready to hand, then we study each in turn, thus and so. Even then, still it is somewhat overwhelming. Fortunately, later masters distilled their essence into separate unified works. One in particular, Je Rinpoche (common epithet for Tsong Khapa), having attained through his own practice direct realization of Atisha’s Lamp on the Path, detailed his explanations in several such works. This, taken in concert with his having reunited Atisha’s divers tantric instructions and also his insistence that ordained monks strictly adhere to all of Buddha’s rules of conduct (which had again fallen into very sad disarray) coalesced into the formation of a new reform sect later known as the Gelugpa.

Think of the merit field visualization partly as a kind of schematic diagram, symbolizing the intertwinings of these Dharmic threads from their historic beginnings until now. The refuge prayers pay homage to each major lineage in turn, and then to all of them as a whole. This homage helps one to sort out the confusing weave of doctrines and gives a perspective as to how they relate. It also anchors the practitioner’s relationship to the Dharma, to its historic votaries, and also to his or her personal guru, should they have one. If you do not yet enjoy the benefits of first-hand study under an accomplished teacher, it may serve instead to embody this part of the meditative experience in the person of an Enlightened historic figure (for Gelugpa, Je Rinpoche; for Nyingma, Guru Rinpoche, etc.) or in that of whichever teacher/author inspires you most.

These schemata often can be quite complex, with many figures being pictured, each with separate special accoutrements and highly animated poses. This is the case in most of the several Lam Rim manuals now available in English. Such visual exertions (though deeply expressive) are much too difficult and time consuming for nearly all but those most ardent. But this practice, while encouraged, is not at all an iron clad rule. Alternately, more condensed symbolism may be substituted in, still with very fine results. Specially recommended for us is a visualization prayer of the class called Guru Yoga: the Ganden Lha Gyema.

Whichever visualization you ultimately select, in practice, first of all try to develop an understanding of who the major figures are. The central figure is the most important. Next come those surrounding, and so on outwards and backwards. Build up the picture from the center out, to the limit of your own individual capacity. Try not to let the mind wander. But when it does (and it will) rebuild it again. Open up your heart and mind, invite the Wisdom Beings to enter. Recite the several initial prayers. Then analyze the topic selected. Deliberate on the logically obvious conclusion. Dwell one-pointedly in the realization that arises, and hold this for as long as you can. Let it sink deeply into the makeup of your personality. Then offer a prayer to dedicate the merit thus accumulated that you may attain to an enlightened state and yourself become a vehicle for the Enlightenment of every sentient being remaining. This is the gist of Lam Rim practice.

One year of consistent effort in Lam Rim is what the Gelugpa consider prerequisite for full initiation into Highest Yoga Tantra. Opportunities for such transmissions do occur from time to time. There are important Gelugpa centers in Ann Arbor, Bloomington Indiana, and Toronto, all of these with recognized tantric masters regularly available. But unless you already hold tantric vows from another sacred order, Gelugpa gurus will very politely refuse your request for initiation into tantra until you have applied yourself at sutra (Lam Rim) study and contemplation. This I can assure you from my own experience.

But don’t look at Lam Rim as a mile post to be eagerly put behind you. It will remain an essential practice all your life. Without Lam Rim there is no basis whatever for tantra. It’s like arithmetic. Sure, calculus is quicker and more powerful. But if you forget your basic arithmetic, calculus won’t do you any good. You need both, always. The same holds true for sutra and tantra, where Lam Rim serves as the causal vehicle and tantra as the resultant vehicle.

Lastly please do be assured that Lam Rim is not at all intended to be some kind of magic ritual. Attachment to rule and ritual are specifically discouraged all through Buddhist scripture. So while encouraged to adhere to a structured format, you needn’t feel stifled by it. Do always begin with refuge, close with a special dedication, and touch on the essential points between; but exact wordings of the prayers are open to considerable editing and revision. Many examples of this can be found, long and short, intricate and austere. The book which I have chosen to distribute is the most terse of all those known to me. It was chosen for its simplicity, as an easy benchmark to abide by. The prayers therein exemplify the barest, most minimal requirements. Still, they do fulfill them. Should you find them a trifle rigid, or even somewhat uninspiring, modify them just a bit, seek out others better suited to your needs, or compose addenda of your own. Go with what inspires you deeply.

Manuals for Lam Rim Meditation:

1. Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Wisdom Publications, $37.50 for the HC & $24.95 in PB. First recommended to me by Geshe Tenzing Sherab, Abbot of Gyuto Tantric University, very clear and straightforward. This is the principal text for both basic and advanced studies not only at our own local group, the Lama Tsongkhapa Center, but at all member Dharma centers of the greater Ganden Society jointly headed by the Ven. XIIIth Zasep Tulku Rinpoche.
2. Liberation in Our Hands, in three volumes, Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, $12.50/vol. Recommended to me by my Lam Rim tutor, Geshe Lharampa Ngawang Jangchup, of Drepung Gomang Dratsang for its smooth translation and also its several helpful diagrams which aid in the refuge and merit field visualizations.

Both the above are direct translations from the Tibetan of Kyabje Pabonkha Rinpoche’s legendary twenty-four day oral instruction given in Lhasa early in this century.

3. Path to Enlightenment, by Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, Tushita Press, $75.00. Same general info as the above, but structured more as a stand-alone text rather than as a chronological record of an historical teaching/transmission. This beautiful hardcover has a Smyth sewn binding. So despite weighing in at 1097 pages, it can still be made to lay nearly flat whether it be on an altar table, brocaded floor cloth, or in your lap. It comes complete with a final outline, table of quotations, glossary and a complete index. Not only does it present all relevant information in a logical order, but you can find it again later at any time! Kindly do be informed that Zasep Rinpoche (our teacher!) served as principal translator for the author during this text’s compilation. I find it most excellent. But Rinpoche seldom recommends it, in part, no doubt because of its cost. Books from Australia are all quite high.
4. Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor holds regular full-length courses in Lam Rim directed orally by Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche. Transcripts are available in limited quantity to students not able to attend in person, these having been compiled (in English) over a period of three years by his students in the Netherlands. Filling a two-inch thick loose leaf binder, its $55.00 price tag hardly covers the cost of xerography for its 820 pages. Credit card orders may be placed by phone at 1-313-994-3387.
5. Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, $12.95. This is a translation of the original outline for all the graduated topics of contemplation in the Lam Rim system as a whole.

Still more Lam Rim manuals: Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment, by Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, Tushita Press, $35.00 oa condensed version of the same material as in item 3 listed above; Essence of the Path to Enlightenment, also by Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, Tushita Press, $25.00. And for under twenty dollars: Essence of Nectar, by Yeshe Tsondru; Essence of Refined Gold, by the Third Gyalwa Rinpoche & Glenn H. Mullin; Path to Bliss, by H. H. the Gyalwa Rinpoche, Tenzin Gyatso; The Essential Nectar, Meditations on the Buddhist Path, by Geshe Rabten; An Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice..., by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey; Joyful Path of Good Fortune and (shortest of all) The Meditation Handbook, both by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

Lam Rim texts on great scope topics (glossing over the lower and middle) intended for advanced meditators: The Great Path of Awakening, by Jamgon Kongtrul, The Door to Satisfaction, by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, and Compassion: the Key to Great Awakening, by Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen.

All texts listed above (except for Jewel Heart’s loose leaf edition) are available either from Snow Lion Books or from Wisdom Publications. Both welcome credit card orders by phone. You may reach Wisdom Publications at 1-800-272-4050. The number for Snow Lion is 1-800-950-0313.

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