Atisha was born in a royal family. He was influenced by the strong religious beliefs of his family since he had been a child and at the same he received good cultural education. He started to learn writing at the age of three, recite Buddhist scriptures at five, study Buddhism in Nalanda Buddhist Monastery at eleven, and received the Vajra empowerment at eighteen. At the age of 20, he gave up the throne, determined to devote himself to the Buddha dharma for life and at the age of 29, he went to Bodh Gaya Temple for further study and intensive practice. Later, he was given the name Dipankar Srigyan.

In 1013 AD, Atisha, along with a group of 125 learned monks, set off on a ship of merchants bound for the Golden Isle, the modern Sumatra to seek Buddha dharma. Atisha stayed in Sumatra for twelve years, avidly training with the master of Sumatra. He studied A Filigree of Realisations, the Triumphant Maitreya’s guideline for fathoming the Omniscient One’s Sutras of Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness. He then gradually received the full teachings on extensive behaviour from the lineage of Maitreya and Asanga, as well as those of the special lineage on exchanging selfishness for concern with others, which the Bodhisattva Shantideva, a spiritual son of the Triumphant, had received directly from the ennobling, impeccable Manjushri himself. After Atisha completed his training, he returned to India and resided mostly at the Sequestered Monastic University of Vikramashila thereafter.

In the 9th century AD, King Langdarma, the ruler of China's Tibetan area, tried to ban Buddhism in Tibet. It directly caused theoretical disagreements within Buddhism and led to the Tibetan internal chaos for nearly a century. In order to revive Tibetan Buddhism, in the early 11th century, the Tibetan King Yeshey-wo followed his uncle’s instruction and dispatched translators. Nagtso invited Master Atisha to come to Tibet to preach and promote the Buddha dharma. Atisha was moved by King Langdarma’s pious call and decided to go to Tibet.

In 1040 AD, the 58 -year-old Master Atisha started his journey towards China. He could have never imagined that the journey would not only cross thousands of miles, but also continue for thousands of years.

After travelling for two years, Master Atisha passed through Nepal and finally arrived in Upper Tibet at the city of Ngari, the capital of Yeshey-wo’s kingdom. He started to rebuild Tibetan Buddhism by devoting himself to preaching and spreading the dharma in Tibet. He spent three years at Ngari generating discourses and later compiling them into A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. He denounced the different Dharma theories that violated Buddhism, taught the order of the three priests, and went to many different areas of Tibet to provide lectures. He revitalized Tibetan Buddhism through new disciples, promoted the Dharma, integrated sutra and tantra Buddhism.

Atisha spent 17 years in Tibet China: three years in Ngari, nine in Nyetang near Lhasa, and five in various other places until his death in 1054 AD at the age of 72. Atisha’s body was embalmed and enshrined at Nyetang, west of Lhasa. During the 17 years, Master Atisha integrated sutra and tantra into Dharma in Tibet, he accomplished the enormous task of reforming and revitalizing the spread of the Triumphant One’s complete Dharma in Tibet.

Homecoming

As time went by, Atisha Dipankar Srigyan left his hometown for almost a thousand years and his hometown was always looking forward to his return.

In 1963, Sanghanayaka Suddhananda Mahathero, the President of the Bangladesh Bouddha Kristi Prachar Sangha (Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery), led a delegation to China to attend the Asian Buddhist Peace Conference, and he was warmly received by Zhou En’lai, the Premier of China and Zhao Puchu, the Vice President of Chinese Buddhist Association. Sanghanayaka told made a sincere request to Premier Zhou for the return of Master Atisha’s relics’ return to his hometown and build a memorial temple for worship. Premier Zhou immediately gave a positive response to this on behalf of the Chinese government. In 1978, Zhao Puchu led a delegation to escort parts of Atisha's relics to Dhaka and those were finally enshrined in the Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery.

Eventually, Atisha Dipankar returned to his homeland, and the great history was marked at the end of his journey. With the establishment of the Government of Bangladesh and Master Atisha’s return, the cultural exchanges in the area of Buddhism between China and Bangladesh entered a new chapter. From then on, the two countries started high-level cooperation and frequent exchanges in the realm of Buddhism.

In 2010, BBKPS awarded the Atisha Dipankar Peace Gold Award to Xue Cheng, the Vice President of Chinese Buddhist Association. In 2015, Sanghanayaka, the President of the BBKPS visited Tibet, China. In 2017, Chun Yi, the Vice President of Chinese Buddhist Association visited Bangladesh and inaugurated the new Atisha Memorial Temple. In 2018, Ming Sheng, the Vice President of Chinese Buddhist Association visited Bangladesh and attended the international seminar on "Inter-religious Dialogue for World Peace". In 2018, Sanghanayaka visited China and attended the 5th World Buddhist Forum.

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Bangladesh along with the Chinese communities and Chinese enterprises in Bangladesh have also been supporting the development of Bangladesh’s Buddhism for many years. BBKPS carried out charitable work and promotes China-Bangladesh friendship with many local NGOs, including repairing Buddhist temples, establishing orphan schools and hospitals, helping the poor, praying for the people and providing masks to the local citizens to curb the COVID-19 epidemic.

On 3 March 2020, Sanghanayaka Suddhananda Mahathero passed way at the age of 87 in Dhaka. President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued statements on his unfortunate demise. The prime minister said his demise was an irreparable loss for Bangladesh and the Buddhist community. "The contributions of Sanghanayaka Suddhananda Mahathero to creating bonds of friendship and harmony among the people irrespective of castes, creeds, religions and communities as well as strengthening the sense of brotherhood of the Bangladeshi will be remembered forever,” she said.

Clues under the soil

In 2013, the Hunan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in China received a special mission from Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh to assist in archaeological excavations in Bangladesh. The site was the Vikrampura region, the ancient Kingdom of Hazard and the real hometown of Atisha.

From 2014 to 2019, with full support from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Bangladesh, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of China, Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh and Agrashar Vikrampur Foundation, the Sino-Bangladesh archaeological team led by Chinese expert Dr. Chai Huanbo and Bangladeshi expert Professor Sufi Mostafizur Rahman conducted six large-scale archaeological excavations in the Nateshwar site of Vikrampura region. Through this event, China and a South Asian country cooperated for the first time in a large-scale archaeological excavation.

Excavations revealed that the Nateshwar was a Buddhist monastery site which can be divided into two parts with different age periods. The first part of the site consists of a complex of an enormous temple and monastery and a square-shaped, grand central temple. The monastery includes four halls, a public house with residential and storage functions, a canteen, a bathroom and a drainage ditch which date from the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 10th century. The second part of the site entirely exposes a large-scale "cross-shaped" central temple building. This group of architectural relics has four cross-shaped "Buddha Halls" which date back from the middle of the 10th century to the beginning of the 13th century. These two parts from different age-periods reflect the details of the changes that the Buddhist architecture in South Asia went through and the relics provide an important benchmark for the Buddhist archaeology in the South Asian sub-continent.

From the end of 2019 to 2021, the Chinese archaeological team was unable to work in Bangladesh due to the COVID-19 epidemic. So, they made the decision to go to the south of Tibet to follow the ancient footsteps of Master Atisha and they collected many significant historical materials and evidences which prove the Nateshwar site was the center of Bangladesh’s Buddhism in the ancient times.

Bright Future

After six years of archaeological excavation, the Sino-Bangladesh archaeological team has revealed a new aspect of the historical background of China-Bangladesh relations. Moreover, their archaeological achievements have been highly recognised by the two governments of China and Bangladesh while also being praised by the two peoples. The great success achieved through the rigorous efforts of archaeological excavations has gained widespread recognition in Bangladesh. Advisor of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Gowher Rizvi, ex-finance minister AMA Muhit, Minister of Road Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader, ex-minister of cultural affairs Asaduzzaman Noor, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Culture Affairs Simeen Hossain (Rimi), former Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jun and Ma Mingqiang visited the archaeological site.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also praised the archaeological discovery on various occasions. At the same time, the Nateshwar archaeological project won the “2019 Foreign Archaeological Award" from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and it has been listed in “The Belt and Road Initiative” international cooperative archaeological project in 2019 from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in China.

A new chapter titled "Paharpur" written by the China-Bangladesh archaeological team has been added in the new edition of History of Bangladesh. The excavation report Nateshwar has been published simultaneously in both the countries. More importantly, both Bangladesh and China government intend to promote the Nateshwar site to a Buddhist Archaeological Park, and in doing so, one of the most crucial pieces will be added to the historical blueprint of Buddhist cultural exchanges between South Asia and China.

In 2019, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations: "Diversity spurs interaction among civilizations, which in turn promotes mutual learning and their further development. We need to promote exchanges and mutual learning among countries, nations and cultures around the world, and strengthen popular support for jointly building a community with a shared future for both Asia and humanity as a whole." For thousands of years, Chinese civilization and South Asian civilization have admired each other and exchanged their learning and culture.

As forerunners, Atisha, Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing have opened up wide windows of cultural cooperation between the two regions of China and South Asia. As the successors, we have the responsibility to cherish the same ideals, adhere to the same beliefs and write a new chapter for the Asian civilization.

*Zha Mingwei is Third Secretary, Culture Section, Embassy of China in Bangladesh