For centuries people have stood in awe of the Buddha and his attainments and have strived to express their feelings in stone and bronze and with brush and ink. Some have been moved by what the Buddha said, its logical consistency, its scope and its humanism. Others have been inspired by the personality of the Lord himself, his manner and conduct, and even his physical form. The joyful faith and appreciation that is evoked on recollecting the Buddha’s personality and singing his praise gives such people the strength they need to walk the Path. For them the Dhamma comes alive through the life and example of the Buddha.
Such a person was the poet Matrceta. He was born in India in about the first century A.D., and was converted from Hinduism to Buddhism by the great philosopher Aryadeva. He wrote about a dozen works, some of such beauty that he came to be regarded as one of India’s greatest poets. I-tsing, the Chinese pilgrim who traveled through India in the seventh century A.D., says of Matrceta’s poems:
These charming compositions are equal in beauty to the heavenly flowers and the high principles which they contain rival in dignity the lofty peaks of a mountain. Consequently in India all who compose hymns imitate his style, considering him the father of literature. Even men like Bodhisattvas Asanga and Vasubandhu admire him greatly. Throughout India everyone who becomes a monk is taught Matrceta’s two hymns as soon as they can recite the five and ten precepts.
I-tsing also recounts a beautiful legend that was told about the poet indicating his wide popularity: While the Buddha was living, he was once, while instructing his followers, wandering in a wood among the people. A nightingale in the wood, seeing the Buddha,… began to utter its melodious notes, as if to praise him. The Buddha, looking back at his disciples, said: “That bird transported with joy at the sight of me unconsciously utters its melodious notes. On account of this good deed, after my passing away this bird shall be born in human form, and named Matrceta, shall praise my virtues with true appreciation.”
Other than these few scraps of information we know nothing of Matrceta and today his name is remembered only for its association with his greatest work, the Satapañcasatka.
The name Satapañcasatka literally means “Hymn in a Hundred and Fifty Verses,” although there are actually a hundred and fifty-two, or in some versions, a hundred and fifty-three verses in the work. It lies very much within the bhakti or devotional genre of Indian literature but is refreshingly free from the florid style that so often characterizes such works. Shackleton-Bailey notes that the “style of the Hymn is simple and direct, free from swollen compounds and elaborate conceits.” Warder says that “the restraint of these verses is that of complete mastery of the medium, able to express rich meaning with a few carefully chosen words and without the support of outward display.” He goes on to say that the verses “are handled with a kind of reticence suggestive of the poet’s humility and detachment, both of which are probably sincere.” Certainly all who are familiar with the Hymn in its original Sanskrit acknowledge the great beauty of both its language and meaning. In ancient India numerous commentaries were written on the Hymn. It was popular with the followers of all schools of Buddhism and was translated into several different languages. Taranatha, the great Tibetan historian, says the Hymn had an important part to play in the spread of Buddhism outside India, and should it become as well known as it once was it may continue to create an interest in the Buddha and his teachings.
Centuries before Matrceta, the householder Upali was so inspired by the Buddha’s presence that he too composed a hymn of praise. When asked why he had done so he replied:
“It is as if there were a great heap of different flowers which a clever garland maker or his apprentice might string into a variegated garland. Likewise the Lord has many splendid qualities. And who would not give praise to one worthy of praise?”
There can be no doubt that Matrceta’s hymn likewise is an expression of a deep devotion to the Buddha and an admiration of his qualities. But quite apart from the author’s motive in writing it, the value and indeed the purpose of the Hymn to the Buddha is twofold. First it is meant to awaken our faith. Matrceta recognized as did the Lord himself that faith has the power to arouse a tremendous amount of positive zeal and energy. Long before we have directly experienced it, faith keeps our eyes fixed firmly on the goal. When we stumble and fall, faith picks us up; when doubt causes us to falter, it urges us on; and when we get side-tracked, it brings us back to the Path. Without faith in the Buddha and the efficacy of his Dharma we would never even bother to try to put the teachings into practice. As Nagarjuna says: One associates with the Dharma out of faith, but one knows truly out of understanding; understanding is the chief of the two, but faith precedes.
The Buddha’s qualities are worthy of respect in themselves, but when they are described so fully and so beautifully in verses like those of Matrceta, our faith can only be strengthened and grow.
The other purpose of the Hymn is to urge us into action. Matrceta highlights the Buddha’s gentleness, his non-retaliation, his patience and his other qualities, knowing that when we have a deep admiration for someone it is natural to try to emulate him. One feels that he used his poetic skills to the full in the hope that we would be inspired enough to make the Buddha our model and follow his example. When we read that the Buddha extended the hand of friendship to all without exception we feel we should try to do the same. On being reminded that the Buddha endured abuse and hardship without complaint we find the strength to be a little more forbearing. When brooding over our imperfections casts us down, nothing fills us with new determination and vigor more than calling to mind the Buddha’s attainments. The receptive mind will transform admiration into action.
The Hymn may have another value as well: as an aid to meditation. In concentration meditation thoughts are silenced, in mindfulness meditation they are observed with detachment, but in recollection meditation thoughts are directed to a specific subject which is then carefully pondered upon. The Buddha says: “Monks, whatever a monk ponders on and thinks about often the mind in consequence gets a leaning in that way,” and this is certainly true. Any type of thought that is prominent in our mind will have an influence upon our personality and behavior. To consciously and intentionally think positive thoughts will, in time, allow such thoughts to arise quite naturally, and from that will spring deeds associated with such positive thoughts. In practicing the Recollection of the Buddha, Buddhanussati, one sits silently, and having made the mind receptive, thinks about the Buddha’s many deeds and qualities. In time, faith and devotion, both of which are important spiritual faculties, begin to gain in strength, thus adding energy and even fervor to our practice. Those who do this meditation usually either read or recite the well-known Iti’pi so formula to help guide their thoughts. But they may find that reading extracts from the Hymn to the Buddha can be used together with this formula, or at times as a substitute for it, with very positive results.
D.R. Shackleton-Bailey has done a complete English translation of the Hymn to the Buddha and Edward Conze has translated parts of it. Both these translations are literal and scholarly but do not give sufficient regard to the spirit of the work and the author’s intention in writing it — to inspire and to uplift. By reworking these two translations and occasionally referring to the Sanskrit text with the help of my friend, Ven. Hippola Paññakithi, I have attempted to produce a readable rendering of this beautiful and important work. Those interested in a scholarly version of the Hymn are advised to read Shackleton-Bailey’s translation with its copious notes on language, manuscript variations and textual difficulties.