The Treasury of Lives

Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kadampa Tradition

Following the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the 9th century, monastic Buddhism all but disappeared in Tibet. In the 11th Century, the King of the Western Tibetan Kingdom of Purang Guge (pu rang gu ge), Lha Lama Yeshe O (lha bla ma ye she ’od) and his nephew Yeshe O (ye shes ’od), distressed by what they considered the deterioration of Buddhist doctrine wishing to sponsor a revival of monastic Buddhism in Tibet, sent a mission to India to invite monks to Tibet. According to legend, they sent twenty-one youths, including the great translator Rinchen Sangpo (rin chen bzang po) and others, to India. The King underwent great personal sacrifice in order to make an invitation to Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana, said to be the greatest living Buddhist teacher, eventually even giving up his own life, and his emissaries were initially met with resistance from the other scholars of Vikramashila Monastery where Atisha was in residence.

Having received a vision of the female buddha Tara, who told him that his lifespan would be shortened by twenty years if he left for Tibet, but that he would herald a time of great benefit for the Buddha’s teachings there if he did go, Atisha set off to the east. Originally, he was granted only a three year leave of absence from the monastery in India, but he remained in Tibet for thirteen years until his death at age seventy-two.

Lord [Atisha]’s three disciples were Kuton Tsondru Yungdrung (khu ston brtson ’grus g.yung drung), Ngok Legpai Sherap (rngog legs pa’i shes rab) and Dromtonpa Gyalwai Jungne (’brom ston pa rgyal ba’i ’byung gnas). Dromton, who became one of his primary lineage holders and his companion for his remaining years in Tibet, founded the important monastery if Reting (rwa sgreng) north of Lhasa. His disciples Putowa Rinchen Sel (pu to ba rin chen sal), Chen-nga Tsultrim Bar (spyan snga ba tshul khrims ’bar), and Puchungwa Shunnu Gyaltsan (phu chung ba gzhun nu rgyal mtshan), were known as the three brothers, and Dromton is said to have divided Atisha’s heritage between them.

Putowa’s disciples included Sanggye Opagme (sangs rgyas ’od dpag med), Langri Tangpa (glang ri thang pa), and Dorje Sengge (rdo rje seng ge).

Lekpai Sherab founded the monastery of Sangpu Neutok (sang phu ne’u thog). His nephew, Ngok Lochen Loden Sherap (rngog lo chen blo ldan shes rab), spent twenty-five years in north-east India and became an unequalled scholar-adept. The lineage of his disciples is known as the “Lions of the Phya pa teachings” (i.e. the Sautrantika-Madhyamaka); they initiated the system of Tsema Dura (tshad ma bsdus ra). His followers came to be known as the eight great lions of Sangpu Neutok.

Atisha’s most important composition was the Bodhipathapradipa (byang chub lam gyi sgron ma). This short text is a practical explanation of the graduated path to enlightenment, or the lamrim, and became the foundation of the literature in the lamrim genre. The Bodhipathapradipa is said to condense all the teachings, commentaries, and instructions of the Buddha and of noted scholars and practitioners into a single path, subsumed into what are known as the “three scopes,” the great, middling, and lesser scope. It was the intent of this text to provide a comprehensive overview of the path to enlightenment for practitioners on every stage of the path to serve as a basis for analysis, contemplation, and meditation, and, ultimately, as the vehicle to enlightenment itself.

In addition, Atisha was a great practitioner of the Vinaya, or the ethical code of discipline for monastics, and in his teachings emphasized the practice of ethics as fundamental for all practitioners, whether lay or ordained. Atisha was responsible for the propagation of the cult of Tara in Tibet, and his teaching on compassion, bodhicitta, and the mind training technique known as lojong (blo ljong), became the second cornerstone of the Kadamapa teachings.

Many of the early masters of the Second Propagation studied at Kadampa monasteries, ensuring that the Kadampa teachings continued to survive in the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug traditions. All but Reting were later absorbed into other traditions, and the Kadam all but ceased to exist with the rise of Tsongkhapa’s followers in the fifteenth century, who initially called themselves “New Kadampa, taking on the mantle of the teachings of Atisha.


Miranda Adams

Background Information