K190 Mendicant Monks by Nakahara Nantenbō 中原南天棒

A host of venerable ones,
Their begging bowls resounding like thunder—
Alms, alms!
Alms, alms!

(signed) The eighty-two-year-old fellow Nantenbō Tōjū

Nakahara Nantenbō (中原南天棒,1839-1925)
K190 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 133.7 cm × 32.9 cm.


Buddha lived entirely on alms in India, but when Buddhism spread to China and Japan, begging was for the most part impractical because of climate, social conditions, and other factors. In Japan, takuhatsu, begging in town as a group, was kept as a formal practice done periodically to remind Zen monks of the original strict rule, and to give laypeople a chance to earn merit. Nantenbō alludes to the original rule in his inscription by using the term sonja, referring to the initial generation of Buddhist monks. As the monks walk through town, they repeat the chant Hō! the Japanese word for “Dharma” (translated here as “alms”). The head monk assumes a definite martial arts stance with his staff and feet to demonstrate that there is nothing weak or ignoble about religious mendicancy. Nantenbō often paired this theme with monks returning to the monastery after completing their rounds, but here the painting was brushed to stand on its own—”here we come, ready or not.”