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Matrceta's Hymn to the Buddha
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:
I-tsing also recounts a beautiful legend that was told about the poet indicating his wide popularity:
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:
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.
1 No faults in any way are found in him;
3 The only Protector,
4 Even the most spiteful man
5 To be born human and encounter the great joy
6 So how could I not put voice to good use now,
7 Though I know that the Sage's virtues
8 Homage to you, O Self-developed One
9 Their number? They are infinite.
10 Having brushed aside doubts
11 You were kind without being asked,
12 You gave even your own flesh
13 A hundred times you ransomed your own body and life
14 It was not fear of hell or desire for heaven
15 By always avoiding the crooked
16 When attacked you used your fiery power
17 The joy beings feel on saving their lives
18 No matter how often murderers cut you to pieces,
19 That seed of perfect enlightenment,
20 "Nirvana is not won without perseverance":
21 Your progress towards excellence never faltered
22 But you did not practice in order to experience
23 For the happiness which, though sublime,
24 You imbibed good speech, bad speech you shunned like poison,
25 Purchasing words of wisdom even with your own life,
26 Thus striving through the three incalculable aeons
27 By not envying the superior,
28 You were devoted to virtues for their own sake,
29 So much good have you gathered by your deeds
30 You dissolved and uprooted your faults,
31 You struck at faults with your might
32 Step by step you nurtured the virtues
33 All worldly objects of comparison
34 How can they be compared with your virtues --
35 When measured against the unfathomable
36 When matched with your calm equanimity,
37 Beside the radiance of your wisdom,
38 The purity of the moon, the sky or a pool in autumn
39 I have compared you with all that is admired in the world,
40 For there is only one thing that resembles you,
41 But if something were to be found comparable to you,
42 Your victory over Mara evokes wonder in people
43 Even those who lash out in fury to assault you
44 What is truly wondrous is this:
45 He who is amazed at your victory over opponents,
46 You have overcome three things with three things:
47 Good deeds you praise, bad deeds you blame,
48 Is any praise high enough for you
49 You did not cling to virtue
50 How permanently calm your mind is can be known
51 Even the foolish acknowledge the purity of your mind.
52 Lovely yet calming, bright but not blinding, gentle
53 The joy one feels on beholding you for the first time
54 Each time it is seen, your form gives joy;
55 Your body is worthy as a receptacle
56 Where else could the virtues of a Tathagata
57 Your body seems to say to your virtues:
58 You long bound yourself to compassion in order to free
59 Which shall I praise first, you or the great compassion
60 Although you preferred the delights of solitude,
61 Like a mighty dragon drawn from its lake by a spell,
62 Though abiding in deep tranquillity, the development of
63 Your powers, your lion's roar
64 Your compassion was kind only towards others,
65 That same compassion
66 But clearly compassion always acted in accordance
67-8 Well worded and significant, true and sweet,
69 Generally your speech was wholly sweet
70 Soft or hard or possessing both qualities,
71 Ah! How pure, perfect and excellent your actions are,
72 From your mouth pleasing to the eye, drop words
73 Your sayings are like a spring shower settling the dust of
74 They are like the sun again and again
75 Your speech is excellent in three ways:
76 When first heard your words excite the mind
77 They go to the hearts of all.
78 Truly your words are for all: they delight the wise,
79 Your sayings coax men from false views
80 Your knowledge embraces all things,
81 Because you never speak at the wrong time
82 Your dispensation and only yours is the true path:
83 If fools, because of their attachment to deluded views,
84 Remembering the suffering which you endured
85 But coming from one so kind in words and deeds,
86 Freedom, the joy of enlightenment,
87 O Great Hero, your teachings brought trembling to sectarians,
88 Even the rule of Death, which extends
89 For those who fathom your teachings can live an aeon
90 Only in your dispensation is time divided
91 What is more distressful than this, Great Sage,
92 Just to hear you brings joy;
93 People rejoice at your birth,
94 To praise you removes faults,
95 To approach you brings good fortune,
96 You are a great lake of goodness,
97 Your form is a jewel to see,
98 You are an island for those swept along by the flood,
99 To all living beings
100 You are admired for your altruism,
101 You are cherished because of your flawlessness,
102-3 You admonish the stubborn,
104 You have pity for the suffering, good-will for the happy,
105 The hostile evoke your warmth,
106 If father and mother are to be honored
107 You are a wall of safety
108 For the welfare of the two worlds
109 When worldly enjoyments are at stake,
110 O Blessed One, you have given the comfort
111 As if amazed and envious
112 Ah! How brilliant is the arising of a Buddha,
113 Fatigue, loss of the joy of solitude,
114 With mind detached, you quietly work
115 You ate poor food, sometimes you went hungry.
116 Though you are the Master, in order to serve others
117 You are the Lord, but you never lord it over others.
118 No matter who provoked you,
119 You help those who wish you ill
120 To an enemy intent on evil
121 Those who sought to give you poison and fire
122 You conquered revilers with patience,
123 You reversed in an instant
124 Through your skill in teaching the rough became gentle,
125 A Nanda became serene, a Manastabdha humble,
126 Delighted with the flavor of your teaching,
127 Because you knew time and temperaments,
128 Having first scrubbed clean the garment of the mind
129 There is no expedient or opportunity
130 To train people in different situations,
131 They were pure and friendly, honored and praised,
132 Difficult it is to speak well and then do good.
133 By your purity alone you could have cleansed the whole universe.
134 You rose up for the welfare of all beings
135 I know not how to repay you
136 Established in the Dharma by you,
137 You look upon those who slumber and gently awaken them.
138 You have declared the destruction of the defilements,
139 Those who work for the welfare of the world
140 If your good qualities could be given to others,
141 Out of compassion for the world
142 Many personal converts have you trained, Subhadra being the last.
143 Powdering your bones into tiny pieces
144 "My Dharma body and my physical body both exist
145 Having given your entire Dharma body to the virtuous,
146 What steadfastness! What conduct!
147 Yet even to you whose speech and actions are so helpful
148 O ocean of good, treasury of gems,
149 Your virtues are limitless
150 Only you can measure your own qualities
151 I have hardly begun to sing your praise
152 Through the merit arising from my good deed,
All references to the Pali Nikayas are to volume and page number of the Pali Text Society editions.
 A. K. Warder, Indian Kavya Literature (Delhi, 1974), Vol. II, Chapter 7, contains a detailed and informative analysis of the style, contents and alliterations in Matrceta's works and of their place in the Indian Kavya tradition.
 D. R. Shackleton-Bailey, The Satapañcasatka of Matrceta (Cambridge, 1951).
 Indian Kavya Literature, Vol. II, p.234.
 Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhayaya, Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India (Calcutta, 1980), Chapter 18.
 Majjhima Nikaya, II:387.
 Ratnavali 5.
 Majjhima Nikaya, II:115.
 Edward Conze, Buddhist Texts Through the Ages (New York, 1954).
 Here and in verses 13, 17 and 18 reference is to the Buddha sacrificing his life in former births as recounted in the Jataka Stories.
 A mixture of truth and falsehood, useful and useless.
 It is said to take a bodhisattva at least three incalculable aeons to attain full enlightenment. See Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London, 1932).
 Atmasamtane: literally, "the flow (of consciousness) that makes up the self." Pali, cittasantati.
 Mara: evil personified, the Tempter in Buddhism.
 Arahant: literally, a saint. Tirthika: an adherent of a non-Buddhist sect
 Tathagata: An epithet of the Buddha meaning the "Thus Come One" or the "Thus Gone One." The thirty-two major marks and the eighty minor signs are special features of a Buddha's physical body.
 Samsara: the beginningless round of birth and death.
 In one of his former lives the Buddha was born as a musician and used his skills to convert the gods. See Guttila Jataka.
 On the ten psychic powers, see Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary (Colombo, 1972) under Iddhi. The "lion's roar" is the Buddha's bold and confident claim to enlightenment. The meaning of this verse is that compassion, the nugget is the most important thing while the powers, etc., "the glitter," are just a by-product of that compassion.
 Here and in verses 65 and 66 compassion is personified as one who acts for the sake of others even to the extent of causing discomfort to the Buddha.
 The taste of liberation (vimuttirasa) -- Udana 56.
 The ancient Indians believed that nectar fell from the moon.
 The garuda is a mythological bird, the natural enemy of the serpent.
 Sakra is the king of the gods in Vedic mythology. He has a scepter of unbreakable hardness.
 Ekayanam: literally, the one way, thus "the true path."
 Namuci: another name for Mara.
 The triple world: the world of desire, the world of form and the formless world. See Buddhist Dictionary under Loka.
 For the notion that those who have mastered the teaching can live for an aeon, see Digha Nikaya, II: 103,118.
 The "two worlds" are the world of gods and the world of humans.
 The pairs of opposites are praise and blame, cold and heat, sickness and health, ease and discomfort, etc.
 Buddhadharmata. See Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Vol. III (Colombo, 1973), p.435.
 For a description of the hardships and simplicity of the Buddha's life similar to those mentioned here, see Anguttara Nikaya, 1:34.
 Nanda was so distracted by sensual thoughts that he was unable to meditate -- Udana 21. Manastabdha was so proud that he would not even respect his parents -- Samyutta Nikaya, I:177. Angulimala was a terrible murderer -- Majjhima Nikaya, II: 98-103. All were skillfully transformed by the Buddha.
 Devadatta was the Buddha's evil cousin who caused a schism in the monastic community and even tried to kill the Buddha.
 Shackleton-Bailey includes, prior to this verse, a verse of which he notes that its grammatical peculiarities and exclusion from early texts are "sufficiently strong grounds for doubting its authenticity." I have therefore decided to omit it.
 As he lay on his death-bed the Buddha taught and made a disciple of Subhadra. See Digha Nikaya, II:149, 153.
 Here and in verse 145 the Buddha's teaching or Dharma body, which lasts as long as people understand and practice his teachings, is compared with his physical body which disintegrates at death. See I.B. Horner's discussion on dhammakaya in Milinda's Questions (London, 1963), p:xl
Matrceta's Hymn to the Buddha
The Wheel Publication No. 360/361
Copyright © 1989 Ven. S. Dhammika
For free distribution only.
Buddhist Publication Society • P.O. Box 61
This edition was transcribed from the print edition in 1995 by Jane Yudelman under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.
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