Atisha is the founder of Kadampa Buddhism. What makes somebody a Kadampa is they take Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice. Before he left Tibet, Atisha gave some parting advice. In many ways, his advice is a guide to how to practically live our life in accordance with his Lamrim. This is very special advice that we should take to heart. Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path that we should take all Dharma instructions as personal advice, but I think this is especially true for Atisha’s advice. This is advice he has specifically given to us as Kadampas.
When I asked a very senior teacher once what the key is to growing the Kadampa tradition, he said “we need to create a space in which others are 100% able to come into the Dharma from their own side, and then in that space we set a good example.” The advice of Atisha is how we do that. By living our life in accordance with this advice, we will show the example of a pure Kadampa practitioner. This is what a Kadampa does. This is the ‘good example’ that we set for others. Geshe-la includes this advice in a booklet called ‘the Kadampa Way of Life.’ This is really meant as advice for the way in which we live our life. So we should put it into practice in our daily life.
You can read the complete life story of Atisha in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, but here I will just give a summary of his life. The purpose of this story is to inspire faith and respect for the author to show that the instructions are authentic. Atisha was born as a prince in India in AD 982. His name means peace. Throughout his life he received visions of Tara, wherever he went, Tara went with him, and he could speak with her like we would speak with any other person. When his parents arranged a marriage for him, Tara told him that if he renounced his kingdom and dedicated his life to the spiritual path, then he could become a spiritual guide and lead countless others to enlightenment. So he left his kingdom and became a spiritual practitioner.
Originally Buddha Skakyamuni taught 84,000 different instructions, and between the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and Atisha, the lineage of these instructions became spread out, and nobody contained a complete lineage of all the instructions. So Atisha set out to collect all of Buddhas instructions. Meanwhile in Tibet, the Dharma had degenerated, and so a King Yeshe O wanted to bring the pure Dharma back to Tibet, so he sent many people to find out who was the greatest spiritual guide in all of India. The answer was Atisha, so he decided he wanted to invite Atisha to Tibet. But he needed more gold to be able to do so, so he went out in search of more gold and was captured by a hostile king. The evil king then demanded that Jangchub O, the king’s nephew, bring Yeshe O’s weight in gold for his release. When the Jangchub O went to visit the king, Yeshe O said to offer the gold to Atisha instead so that pure Dharma could be restored in Tibet. When Atisha learned of the many sacrifices made by the Tibetans, he decided to go to Tibet to teach Dharma. There he wrote Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, or Lamrim, which is a special presentation of all of Buddha’s instructions. After several years in Tibet, Atisha decided it was time to return to India, and the Tibetans requested one last teaching. In response to this request, Atisha taught Advice from Atisha’s Heart.
During this series of posts, I will share my understanding of what I consider to be the essential points of Atisha’s advice. Ultimately, though, the best way to truly understand the meaning is to start living our life in this way. Then we will know first-hand how special this advice really is. If I were to summarize all of it, though, I would say Atisha’s advice explains to us how we would/should live our life when we understand it is all a dream. Atisha’s actual advice will be presented in italics, and my understanding of the meaning will follow.
Friends, since you already have great knowledge and clear understanding, whereas I am of no importance and have little wisdom, it is not suitable for you to request advice from me. However because you dear friends, whom I cherish from my heart, have requested me, I shall give you this essential advice from my inferior and childish mind.
Friends, until you attain enlightenment the Spiritual Teacher is indispensable, therefore rely upon the holy Spiritual Guide.
Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.
Who is the Spiritual Guide? He is somebody who exists outside of our dream of samsara, who has come into our dream to explain to us how to wake up from this dream. We consider the Spiritual Guide to be a Buddha, and therefore perfectly reliable. It is important to understand how this works. If you consider your spiritual guide as a Buddha, he will perform the function of a Buddha for you, even if from his side he is an ordinary being. If you consider him to be an ordinary being, he will perform the function of an ordinary being, even if from his side he is a Buddha. The reason why this works is because wherever you imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes. So by maintaining the view of the Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, all the Buddhas enter into him.
The primary sickness we have is we believe this dream to be real. This is why we suffer and why we make mistakes. We have all done the meditation on emptiness many times and we know that things are a dream. We can’t deny this because it is easily provable. Yet we continue, by force of karmic momentum within our mind, to grasp at all of this being real. We need to realize that we are sick in this way and study Dharma instructions as the medicine for our sickness.