Like a Dream

Poetry in Buddhist IndiaAndrew Schelling

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WHEN THEY FIRST EMERGED in India in the fifth century B.C.E., Buddhist communities took a stubbornly antagonistic stance toward poetry. Early Indian monks and nuns subsisted on one begged meal a day, owned a robe, a bowl, and a razor, and spurned the arts as a fearsome distraction. Their early documents, all bone and sinew, condemn the arts as diversions from the clear stream of Buddhist practice. Suffering, samsara, the wheel of rebirth, and a potential release from the iron tongs of existence—these concerned the first Buddhists. As for poetry—its musical enthusiasms seemed a venal snare, distracting, disastrous. Fixing a cold eye on "unprofitable talk," the Digha Nikaya, an early canonical text, enjoins against:

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