Friday, December 25, 2015

Essays in Idleness, by Yoshido Kenko

"If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino's graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe's burning grounds, but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that make them wonderful." 
-- Essays in Idleness, p. 23 - 24

Proof that there's always more to learn: I honestly didn't know that urbane but contemplative memoirs by medieval Japanese monks was even a genre!

These "essays," written around 1330, are made up of 243 short prose pieces, some only a few lines long, and a few as long as three pages, with a wide variety of tones and subjects. There are platitudes, snippets of memoir, historical anecdotes, and lots of discussion on proper court etiquette, which seems a little odd for a monk, but what the heck.

One thing that intrigued me, as someone with a sideline of interest in the varieties of religious experience, is Kenko's advice that, if one feels drawn toward a spiritual life, one should drop everything and follow it. If you stop to think, or decide to deal with something else first, then ordinary daily life will start to reassert itself, and you'll never get around to it.

"Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind " (50), he says, along with: "If you plan to turn your thoughts to the Buddhist Way after you have fulfilled all your desires, you will find that those desires are endless" (139). Everything changes in the ephemeral wheel of time but human nature. I'm reminded of those New Testament stories about Jesus telling people to just leave right now and follow him, forgetting about their families, and Kenko provides a fairly practical perspective on why he'd encourage such a thing.

My Penguin edition includes reclusive monk Kamo no Chomei's much shorter Hojoki, written in 1212. A brief meditation on transience, it describes how he moved to a tiny hut in the country to live in seclusion. So basically it's what I wanted Walden to be when I tried to read it all those years ago. "Take it for all in all," he says, "this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent" (11). Which makes me glad that these works, at least, are still in print.

Kenko and Chomei. Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Translated by Meredith McKinney. London; Penguin, 2013.

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