The inherent suitability of the poetic form for communicating the ineffable has long been known to poet-practioners in all mystical traditions. Poetry offers possibilities of indirection and evocation far beyond those of any prose style. The open-endedness of a poem serves the same function as the blank space in a Ch'an painting, allowing the audience to resonate (yü-yün, Japanese yoin) with the work and, most importantly, with the artist. In this way, "Artistic appreciation is...transformed into meditation."
This paper discusses the pivotal role played by poetry,as it evolved from the Sanskrit gāthā found in Buddhist sūtras, within the Ch'an sect of Buddhism. After a brief review of the poetic component in early Buddhist literature, we will consider the indigenous Chinese tradition of poetically-expressed philosophy that influenced the evolution of sinitic Buddhism. The creative mergence of these diverse sources within Ch'an is then considered through examples of the upāyic application of poetry in terms o f a three-fold process of awakening.
The opening section describes the poetic path to enlightenment, focussing on the function of gāthās in the Buddhist literature. Of primary importance here is an understnading of why and how poetry could function as a vehicle of Dharma in the sūtras from the very inception of Buddhism.
The poetic precursors in the Taoist tradition are then considered. Two roots of the Chinese poetic tradition generally have been identified-the Shih Ching (Classic of Poetry) emphasized by the Confucian school and the Ch'u Tz'u (Elegies of Ch'u or Song of the South) displaying affinities with Taoist philosophy. The latter currents were best able to resonate with Buddhist thought, as exemplified in Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, the Neo-Taoist currents in Liu I-ch'ing's New Tales of the World (Shih-shuo Hsin-yü), and the transitional, Buddhist tinged lines of T'ao Ch'ien.
The Ch'an synthesis reflects a threefold process of enlightenment, sometimes characterized as the Way of the Ancient masters, The Ch'an of Voidness, and the Ch'an of the Patriarchs. This same process can be traced in certain poetic expressions of the Ch'an practitioners, including Hui-Neng, Pai-chang Huai-hai, and Hsiang-yen Chih-hsien. A more in-depth epistemological analysis of the threefold experience of awakening is presented in terms of the famous enlightenment poem of Ch'ing-yüan Wei-hsin. The ex- position aims to demonstrate that, building on Indian sources, and enriched by Chinese poetic and Taoist traditions, Ch'an poetics evolved into a powerful upāyic tool.