Dharmakirtisri (Serlingpa)

Atisha & Dharmakirtisri (Serlingpa)

source : www.tibet.cn
original title : In honor of Atisha, once and now

It is a question only few people pose: how would Tibet look like today without Atisha?
Most likely Buddhism would have vanished from the hearts of the Tibetan people, monks would not have known what and how to teach, monasteries would have lost their purpose. There would have been no teaching of the Lam Rim, as the gradual path to enlightenment is called, there would be no understanding of Bodhichitta ( enlightened mind) as the gate to the truth, no preservation of so many holy scripts, which were lost in India, but saved in Tibet and later spread around the globe. Tsongkapa would have had no basis for his great reforms and the founding of the Gelug sect with a Dalai Lama as its head. There would be no driving force, who over the last decades has brought Atisha’s message to the rest of the world.

From India Atisha had come to Tibet. One thousand years later, Atisha comes from Tibet to the world. Atisha meditation centers, many led by Tibetan monks are opening up all over the West and East and in memory of him, some groups even use the name of Serlingpa, whom Atisha called one of his greatest teachers.

Who was Atisha ? Who was Serlingpa ? Both were born towards the end of 10th century.
Serlingpa was an offspring of the Srivijaya Dynasty, which had its roots in the Island of Java, but moved its seat to the Island of Sumatra and influenced for centuries the culture and religion of large parts of Southeastasia. Serlingpa’s Sanskrit name was Dharmakirtisri.

In his time, Serlingpa seems to have been the most revered scholar in the Buddhist world. Even Chinese and Indians respected his monastery near the city of Palembang as the leading center of Buddhist learing.

One of the reasons for Serlingpa’s outstanding reputation was his clear and comprehensive knowledge of Buddha’s teachings, especially of the path to Bodhichitta, the path to the enlightened mind. The concept and teachings of Bodhichitta was not Serlingpa’s invention as nothing that was ever taught by the holy men was ever invented by them. What they taught was and is eternal. For Serlingpa the practise of Bodhichitta was natural. He did not have to learn it. Bodhichitta is the core of the Javanese soul and is there ever since the people of Java came to this earth. Buddha had talked about Bodhichitta and later the great Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna put it in writing. That was about 700 years before Serlingpa. What Serlingpa did was to cleanse the various teachings of Bodhichitta, which existed at that time, from confusing interpretations and made it easy for people to understand. Easy though it may have been in those days when people lived close with nature. Nowadays, when Materialism is over whelming the human mind, the path to Bodhichitta, the practise of loving kindness and compassion seems much more difficult.

Atisha was the second son of the Ruler in what today is the border area between India and Bangladesh. It is said, that during Atisha’s birth in 982 many wondrous things happened such as a shower of blue Lotus-flowers descending on his mothers lap. His parents named him Chandragharba, the “Essence of the Moon”. In the Buddhist tradition, the sun stands for wisdom and the moon for the means to achieve this wisdom. In all his later teachings Atisha reminded his followers again and again to never separate the two, since every human being is given the means to achieve wisdom. But if people use the means in order to fulfil the desires of their senses, wisdom is unattainable. People will not be able to follow the path to inner liberation. They will remain in the endless cycle of rebirth.

Already as a small child, Atisha started to preach. Monks from the famous Vikramasila Monastery, which was close to his parents palace, guided his spiritual development. At the age of 20, Atisha was ordained and given the name Dipamkara Srijnana. He hardly could have gotten a more challenging name, since this was the name of the first Buddha, who was long before Siddharta Gautama. Buddha Dipamkara, so it is said, was the invisible spiritual guide for Siddharta to achieve enlightenment and become the historical Buddha, known as Buddha Sakyamuni. Much later, during his time in Tibet, Dipamkara Srijnana was being called Atisha.

Atisha was an eager student. He studied the scripts of all the Buddhist schools, not taking side with any one. After all, there had been only one Buddha Sakyamuni and if one wanted to follow him one would have to walk his path. Only then could one hope to enter the gate to Nirvana and unite with the Creator of All, the Only and Almighty One. As Atisha discovered, reaching Nirvana was not to separate oneself from the world, but to use the Enlightenment to work with loving kindness and compassion for the benefit of all. For Atisha there was no separation of Buddha’s teachings into Hinayana (the small wagon of the younger Buddha ) and Mahayana ( the big wagon of the older Buddha ).

After Atisha had studied with all the famous teachers of India, he was told, that there is only one left, who could still teach him more. This was Serlingpa, who himself had been in India before. Together with 125 disciples and traders Atisha set out for Sumatra. 13 months later he arrived. Atisha was about 30 years old.

There was so much to learn and see that Atisha stayed with Serlingpa for 12 years. According to research in Indonesia, Atisha seems to have also visited the Island of Java, where Serlingpa’s ancestors had built many holy places such as the world famous Stupa Borobudur, the temple complex Prambanan, the Tara Temple Kalasan and Boko Palace, which Javanese people consider the cradle of their philosophy.

Boko, a hill top temple and palace complex goes back to the 5th or 6th century. It was the seat of Panangkaran, the Great Wise Man of Java. The kings of the Sailendra-Dynasty are known to have built Borobodur, but Panangkaran was its conceptor. Panangkaran first gave the design for the Tara Temple in Kalasan and then for Borobodur.

For Atisha, the visits to Boko and Borobodur must have felt like homecoming. Each of those holy places has its own explanation and messages, set in their architectural layout and structures and reliefs of stone. Each of those places contains the knowledge, that Atisha had learned from scripts. While circumambulating and walking up to the top of the Stupa of Borobudur, Atisha found all there is in the Universe, all knowledge about heaven and earth and the path to the ultimate truth, to the Oneness of All. Also, there was the Tara Temple. Tara had been to Panangkaran, what Tara had been to Atisha. The Buddhist deity had been Atishas guardian and guide ever since he was a child. It was her, who advised him not to get married, to become a monk and practise the Dharma. And it was her, who guided him in his decision to go to Tibet.

Atisha came to understand, that Serlinpas version of Buddhism seemed nearly identical with the Javanese philosophy striving to control desires in order to achieve an enlightened mind. But while Buddha `s teachings were eventually written down, Javas philosophic path remains unwritten up to today. People must feel their Inner when they discover themselves. They can not it by using word. Words are the product of the mind – and here lies the root of all problems mankind has ever had and is having today. The intellectual mind wants to reason, to interpret and to know better than the hidden “mind” of the soul.

When Atisha left to return to India, Serlingpa gave him six of his scripts. These scripts contain the essence of Buddha’s teachings. Laymen would not have to study all the Sutras and Tantras, in which Buddha explained the human nature and how to free themselves from rebirth. Since Atisha was well versed in the Sutras and Tantras, he understood, that Serlingpas scripts were like a key for all, who wanted to open their inner doors. Wherever Atisha went, those 6 scripts were always with him.
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Back in India, Atisha was made the head of his former school, the monastery of Vikramasila. One day, a group of Tibetan monks came to see him. They had been sent by Jangchub ?, the King of western Tibet, to plead with Atisha to come to Tibet and save Buddhism from extinction.

Atisha hesitated. There was so much to do in India, where Buddha’s message needed to be revived as well. But after Atisha was told, that Jangchub’s uncle, King Yeshe, had sacrificed his life to make Atisha come, Atisha felt, Tibet was his destiny. He went, spent one year in Nepal and arrived at the country of the Snow Lion at the age of about sixty.

Murals in many Tibetan monasteries recall, how Atisha was received by Jangchub, all the monks and people with greatest honours and open hearts. Jangchub ? wanted nothing more than to bring his people back to the spiritual path. So he asked Atisha to compose a short, precise and practical guide on how to practice the Dharma. Everyone should be able to understand. Only then, so said the King, could Buddhism be revived. That was, what Atisha had been prepared for by Serlingpa. Atisha compressed Serlingpa`s Scripts into what is read by people all over the world up to today: The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradipa), a guiding text of 68 verses only. Once again Atisha lived up his name of Dipamkara, which means: the Lighter of the Lamp.

For Atisha it may not have been easy to cope with the high altitude of an average of 4000 Meters, the cold winters and the travelling over far distances, mainly by horse, boat and foot. But he braved the harshness of nature with his inner powers and his love for the people, he visited many holy places on the mountains and in the valleys, he wrote essays and taught, prayed in caves, had Stupas built, blessed existing monasteries and encouraged the establishment of new ones. Most of all, he cleared up the religious confusion and united the schools of Buddhism as well the teachings of Sutra and Tantra into one and the same. There was no more Hinayana or Mahayana. There was the teaching of loving kindness and compassion, which leads to Wisdom, to Bodhichitta, the enlightened mind. Atisha became the beloved “Dorje Pandit Atisha”, “the Precious Lord” , the savior of the Dharma in the hearts of the people.

After many years of travelling, Atisha spent a longer time in the caves of Drak Yerpa, a mountainous area in the eastern surroundings of Lhasa and finally settled at a small monastery called Njetang, half an hour drive west from Lhasa. Here his throne can still be seen as well as his selfmade statue and a small stupa, containing his personal belongings next to another Stupa of his favorite disciple Dromt? Atisha died in Njetang in 1054 at the age of 72.

Almost one thousand years have passed. Many Tibetan monasteries honor Atisha with statues, murals or Tankas, often together with Dromt?npa and Serlingpa. But what do the monks know of Atisha or Serlingpa? Yes, they say, Atisha was a great Lama and Serlingpa was his teacher. Atisha was the one, who preached the need to tame the mind , practise Compassion, treat all people as parents and always be grateful to them. Older monks still tell the story, how Yeshe and Janchub did everything to make Atisha come to Tibet and that Atisha is seen as the father of all, who adhere to Tibetan Buddhism. Older monks also know, that there seems to be a spiritual and geographic North-South Line between the Indonesian Stupa of Borobudur and the Tibetan Kumbum Stupa in Gyantse. Both are built on a very similar Mandala, both are manifestations of the universal compassion and truth, though the Kumbum Stupa was built about 900 years after Borobodur and 400 years after Atisha. Younger monks, however, know hardly more than Atisha’s name though they all speak of compassion as the leading theme in their life. But spiritual and intellectual depths is missing. And as in the days before Atisha, there are various sects and only a few monks, who can read the original holy scripts in Sanskrit language. At least there is the Gelug sect, which was founded in the 15th century by Tsongkapa, after he had a vision of Atisha.

Is another Atisha needed to once again cleanse and unite the teachings and the believers as well? As an old men said, everything has its time and if the right time has come, a wise man will appear and open scripts, which have not been destroyed, but hidden for future use. Is this time coming? Some of those scripts are the ones of Serlingpa. Two of them seem to have been found and are kept in safekeeping in Lhasa’s holy mountain place, the Potala Palace. Another sign of changing times is the rehabilitation of the Lama-Temple Yonghegong in Beijing. There a whole Pavillion is being dedicated to the fathers of the Gelug sect, showing among others the statues of Serlingpa, Atisha, Dromt?npa and Tsongkapa.

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