The first examples of Buddhist poetry can be found in traditional scriptures such as the Dhammapada, according to which, Siddhārtha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism), upon his reaching enlightenment, proclaimed:
Through the round of many births I roamed
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth
again & again.
House-builder, you're seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole destroyed,
gone to the Unformed, the mind
has come to the end of craving.
Traditionally, most Buddhist sutras have a prose component supplemented by verses (known as gatha) that reiterate and poetically summarize the themes of preceding prose passages. Gatha functions as a mnemonic device helping the Buddhist practitioner commit to memory a certain doctrinal maxim. And in fact, the earliest extant forms of Buddhist discourse appear in verse, which is hardly surprising, considering that the texts were not originally written, but memorized. Linguistic analysis shows that the prose component of the sutras is likely to have been modified by later editing, while the poems often contain earlier forms of language. This view is confirmed by Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura, who states that the verse components of the Pali Canon actually predate the prose components, the former being a way of facilitating memorization, as the Pali Canon was transmitted orally for the first 300 or so years.
Current Buddhology generally maintains that even the liturgical scriptures are products of literary composition. Hence, the study of Buddhist text in general and Buddhist poetry in particular cannot be disengaged from the literary field. But for the sake of classification it is useful to distinguish between
- Buddhist poetry that is attributed to the Buddha himself, which forms a part of "Buddha Speech" (Sk. Buddhavacana), and
- Buddhist poetry written by Buddhists, which is not included in the sutras.
Buddhist poetry in Sanskrit
A significant number of Buddhist poets composed their works in Sanskrit. One of the first and best known is Aśvaghoṣa, of whom two complete "Great Poems" (mahākāvya) survive, i.e. the "Acts of the Buddha" (Buddhacarita.) and "Handsome Nanda" (Saundarananda ). The first tells the life-story of Śākyamuni Buddha, while the second tells the story of Nanda, the Buddha's handsome cousin, who was guided towards liberation by turning his greatest weakness - desire - into a motivating factor for practice. Fragments of a drama called Śāriputraprakaraṇa () are also extant, and these may be some of the oldest, perhaps even the oldest example of Sanskrit drama. Aśvaghoṣa's verses are often simple yet very suggestive, casting key Buddhist teachings, such as impermanence, in evocatively paced similes:
vihagānāṁ yathā sāyaṁ
tatra tatra samāgamaḥ |
jātau jātau tathāśleṣo
janasya svajanasya ca || 
Like birds in the evening
May meet here or there,
So too from birth to birth
One embraces one’s kin.
Other verses of Aśvaghoṣa capture in vivid images human indecision, uncertainty and sorrow. The following verse describes Nanda at the door of his house, torn between the wish to remain with his beloved wife and the sense of respect that prompts him to leave and meet the Buddha to make amends for neglecting the Buddha's alms-round in front of his house:
taṅ gauravaṃ buddhagataṃ cakarṣa
bhāryānurāgaḥ punar ācakarṣa |
sa 'niścayān nāpi yayau na tasthau
turaṃs taraṅgeṣv iva rājahaṃsaḥ || 
Respect for the Buddha pulled him away
love for his wife pulled him back;
undecided, neither he went nor he stayed
like a swan-king pressed between waves. 
Sanskrit poetry is subdivided into three types: verse works (padya) prose works (gadya) and mixed works (campū); nowhere in the Indic tradition is versification taken as the distinguishing feature of literary diction, as all sorts of works, whether philosophical, medical, etc., were composed in verse, for ease of memorization. Several Buddhist authors specialized in mixed verse-prose compositions, often re-telling traditional stories about the Buddha's previous births (jātaka). Among the authors writing on the basis of the Jātakas, most prominent is perhaps Āryaśūra , , , , ; other beautiful collections of literary Jātakas are those of Haribhaṭṭa  and Gopadatta. Haribhaṭṭa's collection includes a concise version of the life story of Śākyamunibuddha; he describes Māra's dejection after understanding the Buddha's victory and superiority in the following verse:
evam ukte 'tha śākyendre
'dhomukhaḥ kusumāyudhaḥ |
hato 'ham iti kāṣṭhena
viṣasāda mahīṃ likhan ||
After the Lord of the Śākyas had said this,
the Flower-Arrows god, face downcast,
thinking "I am undone", sank down,
writing on the earth with a stick.
This is reminiscent of a famous verse from Kālidāsa's Kumārasaṁbhava , and the (probably intended) contrast between the two verses is itself suggestive.
evaṃ vādini devarṣau pārśve pitur adhomukhī |
līlākamalapatrāṇi gaṇayām āsa pārvatī || 
While the divine Sage was thus speaking,
at the side of her father, face downcast,
Pārvatī counted the lotus petals of her play.
Kālidāsa celebrates the budding presence of the God of Love in Pārvatī’s mind, as she is thrilled to hear a discussion about her future husband; Haribhaṭṭa describes the Love God’s defeat at the time of the Buddha’s Awakening. Pārvatī is holding lotus-petals; Māra is holding a wooden stick.
Another important type of mixed verse/prose works is Sanskrit drama (nāṭaka), and here king Harṣadeva deserves special mention. The patron of the great Chinese monk Xuanzang composed the Nāgānanda , an outstanding drama based on the traditional story of Jīmūtavāhana, prince of the Vidyādharas. While perfectly at ease within the conventions of court poetry, including the depiction of love and attraction, Harṣadeva's Nāgānanda is suffused with Buddhist reflections on compassion and on the futility of hatred, and on impermanence and the inevitability of death. The following words are spoken by a brave Nāga boy to his mother, who is suffering from extreme sorrow as her child will soon be sacrificed to the voracious bird Garuḍa:
yadā jātam anityatā |
dhātrīva jananī paścāt
tadā śokasya kaḥ kramaḥ ||
Impermanence embraces the new-born,
like a midwife, first,
and the mother, afterwards:
what proper place is there for sorrow?
Another genre where Buddhist poets excelled is the "good-sayings" (subhāṣita), collections of proverb-like verses often dealing with universally applicable principles not so specific to the Buddhist tradition. One such collection of verses is attributed to the Buddha himself, and preserved in different versions as the Udānavarga (Sanskrit) , Dhammapada (Pāli), Dharmapada (Prākr̥t and Gāndhārī). This collection often uses similes (upamā) to exemplify key Buddhist teachings:
nāsti kāmasamo hy ogho
nāsti doṣasamo grahaḥ |
nāsti mohasamaṁ jālaṁ
nāsti tṛṣṇāsamā nadī ||
There is no flood like desire,
There is no possession like hatred,
There is no net like delusion,
There is no river like craving.
Other significant collections are Ravigupta's Āryakośa, Vararuci's Gāthāśataka, Ratnamati's Prakaraṇa , and several others. One of the largest anthologies of good sayings extant in Sanskrit is by a Buddhist abbot, i.e. Vidyākara's Subhāṣitaratnakośa . The Subhāṣita genre became also well-established in Tibet, one of the greatest examples being Sakya Paṇḍita, an early and influential master of the Sakyapa school, known to have been fluent in Sanskrit from an early age.
Ārya Śāntideva's "Entrance into the practice of the Bodhisattvas" (Bodhicaryāvatāra)  partly resembles a collection of good sayings, yet in many ways defies classification. It is written in a number of rather different literary registers, resembling court poetry in places, while being very dramatic in others; some verses are indeed "good-sayings", in both content and style, while an entire chapter is written in the confident and terse tone of a Madhyamaka philosophical text, with the usual alternation of objections and rebuttals. The work is a compendium of Mahāyāna practice, covering the six perfections (pāramitā) which may be said to function as its main structural guideline. The "Compendium of Perfections" by Āryaśūra is another such guide, containing numerous excellent verses and organized even more systematically in terms of the six perfections.
Other guides to Buddhist practices were written in the form of versified letters; among these, the "Letter to a Friend" (Suhr̥llekhā) and the "Garland of Gems" (Ratnāvalī ) of Nāgārjuna deserve special mention, not just for their content and style, but also for being very influential in India and Tibet; another remarkable epistle extant in Sanskrit is Candragomin's "Letter to a disciple" (śiṣyalekhā ), also outlining the Buddhist path for a disciple. These letters exemplify the friendly and respectful relationship between Buddhist masters and their patrons, who received advice on a number of different topics, both worldly and supramundane.
Buddhist poets wrote very many praises of the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, and of Bodhisattvas and meditational deities . The One Hundred and Fifty Verses of Mātr̥ceṭa seem to have been particularly popular; Nandipriya's extensive commentary on this work still survives in the Tibetan Tangyur (Śatapañcaśatkanāmastotraṭīkā, Brgya lṅa bcu pa źes bya ba’i bstod pa’i ’grel pa, Tg bstod tshogs ka 116a5-178a1.). Mātr̥ceṭa's verses use accessible language, with strong echoes from different types of Buddhist literature, and transmit a sense of great devotion all the more highlighted by the poet's restrained and measured diction:
cittaratnasya tasya te |
tvam eva vīra sārajño
dūre tasyetaro janaḥ || 
Seed of perfect awakening,
gem of your mind:
you, hero, know its essence,
others - are far.
Buddhist praises often have didactic purposes; some of them (like Nāgārjuna's Catuḥstava) expound philosophical ideas of specific schools, while praises of Bodhisattvas and meditational deities often facilitate readers/listeners in acquiring familiarity with important features that become the focus of recollection and or formal meditative contemplation.
Buddhist authors also wrote on prosody (chandas), offering their own poetic examples for different types of Sanskrit meter. Two notable works on Sanskrit poetry are the Chandoratnākara of Ratnākaraśānti  and the Vr̥ttamālāstuti of Jñānaśrīmitra , by two great contemporary Vikramaśīla masters who were active on several intellectual fronts and well-known exponents of Yogācāra thought. The Vr̥ttamālāstuti is particularly striking: it consists in verses of praise of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Mañjuśrī, which at the same time offer information about the verse that is being exemplified, such as its name and the position of the caesura (yati). A simple example, for the śaraṇa meter:
vilokaya manāk |
jaḍaṁ janam imam
Be well-disposed, Bhagavat!
Look a bit at this dull person,
whose only refuge is you.
Pāli poetry follows very similar patters as Sanskrit poetry, in terms of prosody, vocabulary, genres, and poetic conventions; indeed several Pāli authors were well conversant with Sanskrit and even composed works in that language (such as, for example, the Anuruddhaśataka). Sanskrit meters and poetic conventions were more broadly very influential throughout South-East Asia even in respect to vernacular languages (Thai, Burmese, etc.), also thanks to the popularity of literary aesthetic ideas from the tradition of Alaṁkāraśāstra ("The science of ornaments") regarding the purposes and nature of literature.
While discussing praises, literary praises of meditational deities have been briefly mentioned; this brings us into the fold of Buddhist Tantric poetry, which is esoteric in character and thus often laden with evocative symbols meant to be understood only thanks to one's relationship with a living master. Notable are the "Songs of Practice" (Caryāgīti ), written in Apabhraṁśa rather than Sanskrit, and including among their authors the "Great Accomplished Ones" (mahāsiddha), such as Saraha, Śāntipā, and many others.
Buddhist poetry in Asia
- Notable examples in the Tibetan tradition are works of Milarepa.
- Chinese Buddhist Tradition is particularly rich in poetic expression. In the poetry of Bai Juyi, for instance,we see a tension between the secular and Buddhist poetic expression: many Buddhists considered poetry as an attachment and advocated against it, despite the fact that the scriptures revered by them were abundant in poetic forms. Bai is credited with the coinage of the expression kyōgen kigo (狂言綺語, lit. "deranged words and embellished language"), which, to his view, referred to futility of poetic expression in comparison to Buddhist practice. Perhaps, the most successful Chinese Buddhist poet to resolve this paradox was Jiao Ran 皎然 (730-799), who proposed treatment of poetry as an intellectual instrument of Buddhist practice. Chan Buddhism (Ch. Chan; Jap. Zen) provided a rich ground for Buddhist poetry. Chan Buddhists created a complex language in which indirection, suggestion, ambiguity, paradox, and metaphor are prized over straightforward explanation. This complex language of Chan literature is also applied in Chan poetry. Chan Buddhists asserted that though enlightenment cannot be explained in ordinary terms, poetry, as a special language, can point the way. As the Chan monk Juefan Huihong (1071–1128) wrote, “The subtleties of the mind cannot be transmitted in words, but can be seen in words.” In Chan poetry, images as simple as the moon, clouds, boats, reflections in water, plum and lotus, bamboo and pine took on complex connotations based in Chan ideas, famous verbal exchanges, and Chan and Buddhist texts.
To exemplify the use of specialized Buddhist metaphor, this well-known poem by Hanshan (Tang Dynasty) will suffice:
My mind is like the autumn moon,
- Korean poets wrote mostly in Classical Chinese.
- Japanese poets also contributed to Buddhist poetic tradition in classical Chinese (e.g. the poetic genius of Kūkai inspired many poets of later generations.) Kūkai, in turn was influenced by Jiao Ran's Shi shi 詩式, as the latter is included in Kūkai's magnum opus of poetics, the Bunkyō hifuron 文鏡秘府論.
Japanese Buddhist Poetry
1. The earliest extant collection of the Japanese poetry, the Man'yōshū, contains a preface (Jp. jo 序 or daishi 題詞) to two poems on the love of parents towards their children: "Sakyamuni expounds truthfully from his golden mouth, 'I love all things equally, the way I love my child, Rahula.' He also teaches that 'no love is greater than the love for ones child.' Even the greatest of saints cherishes his child. Who, then, among the living creatures of this world could fail to love children claimed as one's own?" There are several prefaces and poems in the Man'yōshū that mention the name of Buddha Śākyamuni (Jp. Shaka Nyorai 釋迦如来 /an honorific title of Siddhārtha Gautama), Buddhist temples (Jp. tera 寺), monks and nuns.
2. Among the treasures of Yakushi-ji Temple in Nara there are stone blocks dating from the Nara period modeled as "the footsteps" of the Buddha (Jp. Bussokuseki 佛足石). These blocks contain poems in man'yōgana that may be considered the oldest Buddhist waka (Japanese language poems) known to date. These poems are usually referred to as bussokusekika (lit. "poems on stone imprints of Buddha's feet": 仏足石歌). Consider the following example:
Both examples above have one trait in common. Namely, the focus on the physical characteristics of the Buddha is prominent: "the golden mouth" of the Buddha in the Man'yoshu and the "feet of the Buddha" in the stone inscriptions relate to the marks of perfection of the Buddha's body / speech (Skt. mahāpuruṣa, lit. [signs of] "a great person").
In the Heian period, Buddhist poetry began to be anthologized in the Imperial Anthologies (Jp. chokusenshū 勅選集. Among the 21 Imperial Anthologies, 19 contain Buddhist tanka (lit. short waka) starting with the Shūi Wakashū, compiled between 1005 and 1007 C.E.
The first Imperial Anthology to treat Buddhist tanka as a separate genre, i.e. shakkyōka （lit. "Poems of Śākyamuni's Teaching": 釈教歌）, is the Senzai Wakashū, which has an exclusive section dedicated to the Buddhist Poems in Volume 19 (第十九巻). Among the most famous poets who wrote shakkyōka are: Saigyō; Jakuren; Kamo no Chōmei; Fujiwara no Shunzei; Jien; Nōin; Dōgen, Ton'a, etc. Many of the so-called "Thirty-six Poetry Immortals" wrote Buddhist poetry.
Shakkyōka can be subdivided according to the ten following motifs:
- Buddhas and bodhisattvas;
- Eminent monks / nuns;
- A passage from a sutra;
- A passage from commentatorial corpus of the Buddhist canon;
- Buddhist Experience (meditative / devotional states);
- Mental states, such as delusion, passion, anger, etc. that are important in the Buddhist discourse;
- Religious deeds;
- Related to temples and shrines;
- Buddhist views of Nature;
- Natural phenomena alluding to Buddhist themes (e.g. transience of flowers blooming)
These motifs are not mutually exclusive and are very often combined within a given poem.
One of the most famous collections of Japanese tanka of the Kamakura period, the Hyakunin Isshu contains several shakkyōka, for instance Poem 95, by Jien (also anthologized in the Senzai Wakashū: 巻十七, 雑中, No. 1137):
Unworthy though I am,
In later periods, as tanka was slowly being overshadowed by renga and haiku – the two poetic forms that derived from tanka – such famous poets as "the seven worthies of renga", (Jp. renga shichiken 連歌七賢) of the Muromachi period, Sōgi, and still later, Matsuo Bashō, Kobayashi Issa, among many others, carried on the tradition of Buddhist poetry with their compositions.
菊の香や Kiku no ka ya
In the city of Nara
The nostalgic feeling of the ancient capital, Nara – interspersed with the scent of chrysanthemums (symbol of Japanese monarchy) and the old Buddha statues – captures well the aesthetic ideals of sabi and yūgen in this famous haiku. Although these three lines appear to be a mere utterance of almost prosaic quality, the imagery invoked is far from simplistic. Buddhas, emperors, passage of time, the ethereal beauty of flowers that presents itself obliquely, i.e., appealing to scent rather than sight – all suggest that the poet sought to use language as a medium of condensed imagery to map an immediate experience, whose richness can only be read in the blanks.
tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
This world of dew
is just a world of dew,
Here the poet uses the image of evanescence of our world, the dewdrop – one of the classical allegories of the Buddhist teaching – to express grief caused by the death of his daughter. In theory, Buddhism teaches its followers to regard all the vicissitudes of life as transitory and ephemeral, akin to magic apparitions without substance or dewdrops soon to evaporate under the sun. Yet, a father's loss of his child is more than reason can counter.
Buddhist poetry and modernity
As Japan reached the era of industrialized modernity, many of the poets of the Meiji period started to experiment with the European styles of poetic composition. Some poets, notably Miyazawa Kenji—a devout Buddhist who expressed his convictions in his poetry and fiction—often composed poems with Buddhist overtones. His Ame ni mo Makezu (雨ニモマケズ), known to practically every Japanese today, takes its theme (Chapter 14: Peaceful and Joyous Deeds / Jp. Anrakugyō 安楽行) from the Lotus Sutra 妙法蓮華經, which Kenji revered.
Another Buddhist poem that remains well known today, but for non-religious reasons, is the Iroha poem from the Heian period. Originally written in man'yōgana and attributed to Kūkai, this Buddhist poem contains every kana precisely once, and is learned in Japanese primary schools mainly for this reason. Many old-style Japanese dictionaries adhere to the Iroha order.
A modern Indian Sanskrit poet, Vanikavi Dr. Manomohan Acharya, wrote Sri Gautama Buddha Panchakam in simple and lucid Sanskrit through lyrical style.
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- I, Yon-suk (1986). "A Study: Aspects of Esoteric Buddhism in Ancient Korean Poetry". Journal of the Academic Association of Koreanology in Japan. 121: 87–118, 3.
- Gibson and Murakami (2008).
- More on Kukai's poetry, cf. R.Green: http://ww2.coastal.edu/rgreen/kukaipoetry.htm
- Preface to MYS 806 tr. in Konishi & Miner (1984: 399).
- E.g. MYS 3862, 3863; prefaces to MYS 155, 339, 394, 798, 806, 997, 1023, 1561-3, etc. Numbers of the Man'yōshū (MYS) poems follow the new system of the Shinpen Kokka taikan. "Shinpen Kokka Taikan" Henshū Iinkai (hensha). Tōkyō: Kadokawa Shoten, 1983-1992. (Shōwa 58 - Heisei 4). 新編国歌大観. 「新編国歌大観」編集委員会(編者). 東京: Kadokawa Shoten, 1983-1992. (昭和58 - 平成4).
- Adapted from Mills (1960: 237).
- for detailed information on the marks of the Buddha's body cf. http://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/refuge/the-32-major-marks-of-a-buddha-s-physical-body
- Ishihara (1980: 20-1).
- "Mount of Timber" refers to Mount Hiei. For an alternative translation, cf. Mostow (1996: 421) and U Virginia's project: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/hyakunin/frames/hyakuframes.html
- Sōzei 宗砌(?-1455), Shinkei 心敬 (1406-75), Gyōjo 行助 (1405-69), Nōami 能阿弥 (1397-1471), Chiun 智蘊 (d. 1448), Senjun 専順 (1411-76) and Sō'i 宗伊/aka. Sugihara Katamori 杉原賢盛 (1418-85?) are "the seven worthies / sages of renga" popularized by Sōgi. Ramirez-Christensen (1994: 54-5).
- For an alternative translation, see De Bary et al. (2001: 368).
- Sakaki (1999: 72)
- For an alternative translation of this poem, see this site.
- An online translation of the Lotus Sutra is available at here.
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- Buddhist Poetry Reader's Guide from Shambhala Publications
- A Sketch of Buddha's Life: contains many of the early Pali poems.
- The Dhammapada, e.g Buddha's Enlightenment poem: 153-154.
- The Senzaishu in Japanese, cf. Vol 19, 釈教.
- Selected translations and an Introduction to Waka.
- Search Engine of the Man'yoshu in Japanese.
- A fan website on Miyazawa Kenji with translations of works.
- A Buddhist poetry fan site.
- Sacred Poetry from Around the World.
- jeromes niece A collection of poetry Dharma submitted by readers.
- Buddhist Poetry Review