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The Kindness of Strangers 1: The Value of Begging

bowlMany of the respected masters of haiku were Buddhist monks. Many wandered on foot, from temple, to temple. Almost all of them were begging. They were a cherished part of the community. They would chant sutras and write poems for people and be given a few sen in return. Their abilities never questioned or wasted.
 
Within many faiths, charity is a part of practice. To give, unconditionally to those in need, those who have less, benefits both the giver and the recipient.
 
With austerity arriving again at our doors, begging and giving have yet again become part of our daily lives. Is there poetry in begging? Of course there is.
 
He who was called the beggar monk wrote many favorite haiku. Taneda Santoka walked, wrote and drank sake until his death on October 11, 1940. These are some of his poems:

My begging bowl
Accepts the fallen leaves

Chanting the sutras
I receive the rice;
The shrikes sing

The warmth of the food
Passes from hand to hand

If I sell my rags
And buy sake
Will there still be loneliness?

Sometimes I stop begging
And gaze at the mountains

Homeless poets are still a fact of life in our modern times. The American haiku poet Patrick Frank wrote as a homeless person for a year in New England, USA in the 1990s. He now lives in Asheville NC, USA and is an advocate for the poor. His poetry collections include Things That Matter, On the Blue Ridge Line, and Back to the Sun. His one-line haiku have much in common with the writings of Santoka.

head down standing in line a homeless man

making a space in my single room, and in my heart

homeless, alone, but the snow falls gently

dawn walking downtown homeless, but at peace

I walk miles down the highway, my bag stuffed with poems

 
—Anna Maris

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The Kindness of Strangers is a six-part consideration by Swedish poet Anna Maris of haiku written in consideration of poverty, homelessness, begging and our responses to these issues.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Dear Ellen. Lorin and others who have commented,
    Thank you kindly for your posts and your interest in this subject. I have thoroughly enjoyed both reading the poems of others and reflecting on them. I do not know of the poet you mention, Ellen, but I will certainly seek out and read Charlotte Digregorio and all other tips of great writers that are mentioned in this thread (not to mention you who post). Many of the poets that I have read for inspiration are not homeless themselves, but write from a number of points of view on begging – as spectators, in metaphors and as volonteers to a simple life. Here, I agree with you, Lorin, that it is much easier to have a romantic view on poverty when you yourself happen to be privileged. Having too little or having too much can both act as curses on creativity. With regards to the awful freudian slip on shrikes and other spelling mistakes, this is all my fault, and due to the fact that I am not the best proofreader (even in my two first languages). But I am sure that my editor will amend at the earliest opportunity.
    Thank you again for your posts and your encouragement. I invite you to follow the series for the next five weeks.
    All the best
    Anna Maris

  2. Dear Anna, As you may know, Charlotte Digregorio is a contemporary haiku poet who also writes about people who are homeless. She has a page on the Haiku Registry and also blogs with WordPress. Ellen

  3. I’m wondering about this translation:

    Chanting the sutras
    I receive the rice;
    The shrieks sing

    What might the Japanese word be, that has been translated into English as ‘shrieks’?
    Certainly, Santoka is said to have been an alcoholic and quite possibly had his share of shrieking headaches, but somehow I don’t think the ‘heebie-jeebies’ or the like are intended here.

    Maybe some kind of bird? Wildly guessing by association ‘shrikes’?

    Lorin

  4. Like Lorin has said homelessness seems to be swept under the carpet ..both here and certainly in the USA as I saw for myself when after the conference at Long beach , I spent ten days in San Francisco.
    It was hard to watch people who had become invisible to their own society and certainly not regarded as a cherished part of the community like the Buddhist monks mentioned above.

  5. In reality, not everyone has experienced homelessness. Most poets, I’ve found, and especially the ‘bohemians’, come from middle-class to wealthy backgrounds and have always had that ‘invisible’ support propping them up.

    I commend this initiative of Anna Mari’s and particularly look forward to haiku from women who have been homeless, since homeless women, including those with children, have tended to get swept under the carpet in modern society… in urban Australia , anyway, and I suspect it’s not so different anywhere else.

    And from my experience, they try harder not to be homeless.

    – Lorin

  6. A wonderful post and reminder, Jim, on how well off many of us are who do nothing but complain, to ourselves and others.

    Thanks,
    Don

  7. very happy to find this here, a great theme in today’s world, thanks & very much looking forward to further commentaries!!

  8. This is an exciting series, thanks for part one, and eagerly awaiting more. Thank you.

    I’ve helped or tried to help a number of homeless people for a long time now. It can happen to anyone, even a Wall Street financier who was in a British TV documentary.

    warm regards,

    Alan

  9. Thank you – I look forward to this new series of posts by Anna Maris. My father’s parents were from Sweden.

    There’s a good program here in Wisconsin called the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative. They have a website.

    Blessings, Ellen

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