Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment

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Atisha, the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist scholar and saint, came to Tibet at the invitation of the king of Western Tibet, Lha Lama Yeshe Wo, and his nephew, Jangchub Wo. His coming initiated the period of the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, formative for the Sakya Kagyu and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Atisha's most celebrated text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, sets forth the entire Buddhist path within the framework of three levels of motivation on the part of the practitioner. Atisha's text thus became the source of the lamrim tradition, or graduated stages of the path to enlightenment, an approach to spiritual practice incorporated within all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Geshe Sonam Rinchen's lucid and engaging commentary draws out Atisha's meaning for today's practitioners with warmth and wit, bringing the light of this age-old wisdom into the modern world."—Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559390828
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 215
  • Sales rank: 744,839
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.47 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933–2013) studied at Sera Je Monastery and in 1980 received the Lharampa Geshe degree. He taught Buddhist philosophy and practice at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, as well as in dharma centers around the world.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Three Perspectives

Understand there are three kinds of persons
Because of their small, middling and supreme capacities.
I shall write clearly distinguishing
Their individual characteristics.

Atisha now begins with a brief presentation of his subject-matter. The Tibetan word for person is a translation of a Sanskrit word which connotes "one with ability." What kind of ability? We are capable of accomplishing our future well-being in the form of good rebirths, liberation or complete enlightenment. We must awaken to the enormous potential of the human mind, which is able to create powerful virtue or non-virtue in a single moment.

    Atisha speaks of three levels of ability. Those of the most limited capacity overcome attachment to this life and out of concern for their future well-being live in accordance with the connection that exists between actions and their effects. Those of intermediate capacity are averse to all states within cyclic existence and seek to free themselves through the three kinds of training—in ethical discipline, concentration and wisdom. Those of the highest capacity reject both worldly existence and the peace of personal liberation. They dedicate themselves to helping all living beings attain peerless happiness.

    The author promises to explain clearly without any confusion the different intentions, practices and aims of those who possess such diverse abilities. As educated people we have no difficulty in understanding this tripartite division, but are weactually concerned about our future well-being and do we do what is necessary to insure it? What motivates our actions and what are we capable of at present? These are matters to which most of us give little or no thought.

Know that those who by whatever means
Seek for themselves no more
Than the pleasures of cyclic existence
Are persons of the least capacity.

The very basis for all authentic practice of the Buddha's teaching is a concern for future lives. With this orientation, persons of limited capacity make effort to adopt and cultivate positive patterns of thought and conduct and discard negative ones. In addition they may practice the four concentrations of the form realm, the four absorptions of the formless realm and the four immeasurables. The result of such practices is the future enjoyment of human or celestial places, bodies and possessions within cyclic existence. Their motivation is one of personal well-being and they seek nothing more than the pleasures of cyclic existence.

    Those of intermediate capacity may not attain their aim of liberation in this life. They will need future human rebirths to continue towards liberation, and thus they hope for a good rebirth not merely because they seek the pleasures of cyclic existence. Even those of great capacity may aspire to attain a human rebirth not for their own sake but out of a wish to help others. Their aims and intentions are clearly different from those that motivate a practitioner of limited capacity.

    What are the main practices and insights cultivated by those of least ability? They meditate on impermanence and the suffering experienced in bad rebirths. They take refuge sincerely and develop conviction regarding the connection between actions and their effects.

    At the beginning of his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path Je Tsongkhapa stresses the importance of creating a sound relationship with a spiritual teacher and of recognizing the value inherent in a life of freedom and fortune. Why are neither of these practices mentioned here? The reason is that they are not limited to practitioners of the least capacity but are essential for all practitioners, whatever their level.

    Does everyone fit into one of the three categories? We all have the potential to do what Atisha describes, but most of us don't try because we are still completely involved in the concerns of this lifetime. Those of least capacity are divided into three kinds of people. Certain people in their quest for pleasure and happiness do many harmful things and may even gain pleasure from the use of deceit and violence. Others use non-violent secular and spiritual means to accomplish happiness in this life. Most of us are in pursuit of present happiness and fall into this category. Neither of these two kinds of people are authentic practitioners of the least capacity.

    Only someone who is concerned with the happiness of future lives and uses spiritual practices alone to accomplish this is a true practitioner of the least capacity. How can we arouse an interest in future lives and overcome our strong preoccupation with this one? Thinking about the preciousness of our human life and its impermanent nature counteracts our obsessive preoccupation with this life. Thinking about the suffering experienced in bad rebirths will stimulate an interest in gaining a good rebirth.

    How can we avoid the intense suffering of a bad rebirth? Taking heartfelt refuge in the Three Jewels and living in harmony with the natural connection between actions and their effects will protect us. We become real practitioners when our orientation changes from the well-being of this life to that of future lives and when we gain some experience in these practices, which form the foundation for all other insights. Meditation practice that is not based on them will not be truly effective.

    In his Lamp for a Summary of the Conduct Atisha says that all those who have the disposition should cultivate a relationship with a properly qualified spiritual teacher. He is referring to the fourfold disposition of the exalted, who are content to live on alms, wear the three robes of an ordained person, sleep on a simple mattress and who take joy in meditation and in the elimination of what needs to be discarded.

    The first three of these characteristics depend upon having few desires and cultivating contentment. This is the foundation for the kind of ethical discipline that is pleasing to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Such simplicity is necessary if we wish to eliminate what must be discarded in order to bring about true cessation of suffering. This is done by meditating on the paths. The greed of wanting everything we see, and the lack of contentment whereby we want more or something better make it hard to practice purely and complicate our life, whereas the disposition of the exalted simplifies it and makes pure practice possible.

    What Atisha explains in The Lamp forms the core of the Kadam tradition, which was passed on by Dromtönpa and his disciples, the three Kadampa brothers. Their followers and later Je Tsongkhapa spread this tradition and caused it to flourish. The custom of hearing teachings on, thinking about and meditating on the stages of the path to enlightenment, the life-blood of practice, has not declined to this day. The very same teachings that were practiced and taught by these masters are available to us and can enable us to fulfill all our wishes if we put them into practice.

    Dromtönpa once saw a monk doing circumambulations and intuitively knew he was doing them for a worldly motive. He remarked, "It's good to do circumambulations, but it would be better to practice." Later he saw the same monk making prostrations. "Prostrations are good," he said, "but it would be better to practice." After some time, the monk began to do meditation and Dromtönpa again remarked that doing retreats was laudable, but it would be even better to practice. Finally the monk who by this time was thoroughly perplexed, inquired what he meant by the word "practice." Dromtönpa answered that it meant letting go of our preoccupation with this life and developing true love and compassion.

    If what we do is for this life, it is a worldly endeavor, no matter how much it resembles a spiritual practice. If we don't overcome that concern, we aren't true practitioners. If we don't overcome our concern for the well-being of future lives, we don't have a real wish for freedom. If we cannot overcome our self-interest and anger, we aren't practitioners of the Great Vehicle. Once we decrease our attachment and anger, we must begin the work of uprooting the underlying ignorance from which they spring.

    Central to the Kadam tradition are the ten innermost jewels which describe the attitudes of a dedicated practitioner. There are four attitudes of complete trust, three adamantine resolutions, and finally expulsion, finding and attainment.

    The first attitude is to entrust ourselves completely to the teachings. At present we have this rare and good human life of freedom and fortune, but it won't last forever. We are certain to die and don't know when. At death nothing at all but our spiritual practice will be of any use to us. That is the only thing worth doing—everything else is a futile waste of energy. We tire ourselves for the sake of reward and reputation and in our search for the kind of companions we prefer, but we can take none of these with us when we die. They must be left behind and only the imprints of negative actions we have performed in the process of trying to acquire them accompany us to our next rebirth. This is not hard to understand, but we must remember it and think about it till it affects the way we think and feel.

    Our trust in the teachings should be so complete that we are prepared to become even a beggar. This doesn't mean giving away all our possessions and taking to the streets. It involves ridding ourselves of our present attachment to the sense objects, which is like a chain that fetters us to suffering. It makes us greedy, discontented and unhappy now, and the actions we perform because of our craving bring suffering in the future. Vasubandhu says:

Sound is the deer's perdition;
For the elephant it is touch.
Appearance is the moth's perdition
And for the fish it is taste.
The fly is attracted to smells—
For them there is but a single cause.
Among humans, each individual
Both night and day is constantly
Destroyed by all five of these.
How can they attain a happy state?

Deer are attracted by the sound of the hunter's flute and die as a consequence. Elephants stand still when they are touched gently and scratched. This makes it easy to attach the iron hooks by which they are controlled. Moths are drawn to the bright flame of the lamp, which bums them. Fish are tempted by the worm on the hook and perish. Flies are attracted to the smell of the cesspit and drown. These creatures succumb because of their particular weakness, but we humans have a weakness for all the sense objects—sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations.

    We are enthralled by natural and artificial shapes and colors, by natural sounds and by music, by natural fragrances and created perfumes, by tastes to the extent that we eagerly eat foods we know are bad for us, and by physical sensations of all kinds. These factors exercise the greatest fascination when associated with human beings: their appearance, the sound of their voice, their smell, their taste and the feel of their body and touch. The truth of this is apparent if we honestly examine our own experience. People are even prepared to undergo painful and dangerous surgery to improve the appearance of this body which is an outcome of our past actions and the product of our parents.

    We may think that to practice well we need certain amenities and if we are reduced to penury we will lack these. Though we work hard to gain security, there is no guarantee we will be successful and even if we are, we may not have the opportunity to enjoy the comforts for which we have labored. We should be prepared to practice and not give up the teachings even if our living conditions are poor.

    Living the life of a beggar, we should be willing even to die for lack of basic necessities rather than give up our practice of the teachings. We have been born over and over again and have died so many times but never because of our dedication to the teachings. To die for the sake of our practice this time would be worthwhile. Rich and poor, all must die, so it is better to expend our energy on practicing the teachings than on creating wealth, better to die without doing the harmful actions often performed in the acquisition of wealth.

    When we seriously consider devoting ourselves to a life of practice, the following deep-seated fears will arise. What will happen when we fall ill, grow old or when we are dying? Who will nurse us? Who will assist us? Who will give us a decent burial? We need money to pay for these services. And if we have a family, what about those who survive us? Who will look after them? Such thoughts show how deeply entangled we are in the concerns of this life. We have all kinds of insurance to cover sickness and old age, but we may not live long enough to benefit from them. We may never experience serious sickness or old age, but we will definitely experience death. Are we prepared for that? We should be determined never to give up our practice of the teachings, even if we have to die alone in an empty cave with no one to care for or bury us. This, of course, doesn't mean we have to live either like a beggar or die in an empty cave, but it does imply wholehearted commitment.

    The Buddha's life-story illustrates these four attitudes of complete commitment. He gave up his royal life to devote himself to spiritual practice and resolved to live the life of a mendicant. He practiced austerity for six years with no concern whatsoever for his livelihood and was prepared even to die, living alone in a desolate place on the banks of the Nairanjana.

    The three adamantine and immutable resolutions begin with the resolve to act in this way no matter what our parents, relations and other loved ones do or say. The Buddha's decision to leave royal life behind was unshakable. Our decision will cause pain and make those close to us weep, but if we are steadfast we will eventually be of greater help to them as a result of our spiritual practice. The separation will be painful for us too, but in the long run it will spare us more intense and protracted suffering, so we should leave to practice in seclusion without any clinging attachment, regret or sorrow. This does not mean giving up our love, compassion or affection for them.

    When we turn away from the comforts and amenities we have enjoyed in favor of a simple life and choose to live even like a beggar, others will criticize and deride us. We should be resolutely impervious to what they say about us, whether good or bad. If we conform to the wishes of those who lead a worldly life, we will do many harmful things. The Buddha's resolve remained firm despite the admonitions, criticism and advice proffered by those at his father's court.

    With single-minded determination never to give up the precepts of training we have adopted and with the intention to turn away completely from worldly concerns, we must resolve wholeheartedly to practice for the rest of our life.

    As a result of this, we may be expelled from the society of ordinary worldly people. Since we regard attachment to what are conventionally considered the good things of life as faulty, normal people, whatever their standing in society, will think we are mad and shun us.

    As a homeless outcast living on the fringes of society like a stray dog, we may have to endure hunger, thirst and derision. Even the Buddha was taunted by passing cowherds while he lived as an ascetic. But if we devote ourselves entirely to the practice of the teachings, we too will attain the divine state of enlightenment just like the Buddha.

    These are called "jewels" of the Kadam tradition. They may seem extreme and controversial but contemplating them will enrich us by giving us courage. If we adopt them they will make us fearless, fulfill our wishes and help us to cut through the bonds of worldly existence. At present we dare not live like this, but paradoxically if we do, humans and celestial beings will give us gifts and pay us homage even though this is not what we seek. Contentment and a feeling of satisfaction are our greatest riches, our happiness and splendor. Without them, no matter how much wealth we own, we will always feel hungry and impoverished.

    Contentment is essential for practitioners of all capacities. Those of least capacity understand that the pleasures and comforts of this life don't last and are of no help to us at death. They are content with what they have and regard as adornments any difficulties they meet through taking refuge and living in accordance with the natural law of causality. Practitioners of intermediate capacity recognize that all pleasure and happiness within cyclic existence is contaminated, subject to change and untrustworthy. They regard all disturbing emotions as faulty and cultivate contentment, viewing the hardships of practicing the three forms of training as adornments. Understanding the drawbacks of self-centeredness, practitioners of great capacity foster contentment where their own personal interests are concerned and devote themselves to others' well-being. They regard the hardships they encounter in their work for others as adornments.

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommends that we devote half of our time to the practice of meditation and the other half to helping others. How do we reconcile this with the ten innermost jewels of the Kadam tradition? The ten innermost jewels of the Kadam tradition are intended to give us the impetus to practice purely. The very heart of the Buddha's teaching is non-violence, which demands ethical discipline. True practitioners train in the sixteen practices that yield high status, meaning a good rebirth. These consist of active restraint from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, from lying, harsh speech, divisive speech and trivial conversation, from covetous thoughts, harmful thoughts and from holding wrong views. In addition they refrain from taking intoxicants which befuddle the mind. They sustain themselves by a pure means of livelihood and avoid any forms of behavior which hurt others or cause them unhappiness. They practice respectful generosity by giving material things, instruction and protection and make offerings of gifts to those with great qualities, to their parents and others. They try to develop affection for all living beings.


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