He belonged to a brahmin family and was proficient in the Vedas. He gained repute by tapping on skulls with his finger nail and telling thereby where the owners of the skull were reborn. During three years he thus gained much money. Then, in spite of the protests of his colleagues, he went to see the Buddha, who gave him the skull of an arahant (according to the Apadāna, he saw Sāriputta first and learnt from him about the Buddha). Vangīsa could make nothing of this and joined the Order to learn its secret. He was ordained by Nigrodhakappa, and, meditating on the thirty two constituents of the body, he won arahantship. He then visited the Buddha again and praised him in various verses, full of similes and metaphors. This brought him reputation as a poet (Kāvyacitta or Kāveyyamatta). Later the Buddha declared him foremost among those pre eminent in ready expression (patibhānavantānam). His resolve to attain to this position was made in the time of Padumuttara Buddha. A.i.24; Dpv.iv.4; ThagA.ii.192ff.; AA.i.149ff.; DhA.iv.226f.; SNA.i.345f.; Ap.ii.495ff.
The Theragāthā contains numerous verses spoken by him on various occasions (Thag.1208-79; most of these are repeated at S.i.183ff ) - some of them (1209-18) uttered about himself, his attempts to suppress desires excited by the sight of gaily dressed women (Cf. S.i.185; on one such occasion, he confessed his disaffection to Ananda, who admonished him.); others (1219-22) were self admonitions against conceit because of his facility of speech; some were spoken in praise of sermons preached by the Buddha - e.g., the Subhāsita Sutta (1227-30), a Sutta on Nibbāna (1238-45), and a Sutta preached at the Pavārana ceremony (1231-7). Several verses were in praise of his colleagues - e.g. Sāriputta (1231-3), Aññā Kondañña (1246-8), and Moggallāna (1249-51). One of Vangīsa's long poems (vvs. 1263-74) is addressed to the Buddha, questioning him as to the destiny of his (Vangīsa's) teacher Nigrodhakappa. The Commentary (ThagA.ii.211) explains that when Nigrodhakappa died Vangīsa was absent and wished to be assured by the Buddha that his teacher had reached Nibbāna. But the poem is more than a question. It is really a eulogy of the Buddha. Another verse (1252) describes the Buddha as he sat surrounded by his monks on the banks of the Gaggarā at Campā.
The Samyutta (S.i.185ff.; SA.i.207ff ) devotes one whole section to Vangīsa, dealing with the incidents connected with his life and giving poems made by him on these occasions. The Milinda (p. 390)'also contains a poem attributed to Vangīsa in praise of the Buddha. According to the Apadāna (Ap.ii.497, vs.27), he was called Vangīsa, both because he was born in Vanga and also because he was master of the spoken word (vacana).
See also Vangīsa Sutta and Subhāsita Sutta.