“Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?”
February has been a patchy reading month, it has been interesting and a bit wild, and I’ve read less than ever but as I approached the end of the month I realised that there hadn’t been anything which had really punched me in the gut, and after the soulfulness of January it felt a bit lacking. One of the last books I bought before I stopped routinely buying books was this collection of ancient Japanese texts Essays in Idleness by Kenkō and Hōjōki by Chōmei. Both writers were reclusive figures living in thirteenth century Japan, and both writers are key figures in the Japanese philosophy of impermanence – the idea that life is mere illusion, that it is temporary however much we try to fool ourselves that it is otherwise. It is both a philosophical and aesthetic concept, finding beauty in imperfection and spiritual happiness in the pursuit of truth, humility and the Buddhist faith.
The book opens with the Hōjōki, which is a mere eighteen pages long and reflects the life and thinkings of Chōmei who has retreated from the world to live in a small hut away from society. Despite its brevity, the text is quietly powerful reflecting on the transience of existence, of cities, of the benevolence (or otherwise) of leaders, and the events which led him to retreat to his small hut away from the trappings of society. Chōmei reflects upon the simplicity that arises from his unencumbered life, the focus on daily necessities without the need to adjust behaviour for social graces. Yet even this simplicity Chōmei questions, his attachment to his little hut and simple life he sees as another way in which he has failed to let go of his attachments to the world.
Essays in Idleness is a longer, more detailed work which has greater scope and depth. Comprising 243 short pieces, the subjects range from the Buddhist ideals, to the moral codes and conventions of life, life’s brevity and distractions, social refinements, matters of love and grief and beauty. It is a strange blend. At times it is reminiscent of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in fact Kenkō makes reference to The Pillow Book in a number of places, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as that text lacking a unifying theme or tone. Extracts such as this passage are strongly redolent of The Pillow Book:
“Rather than gazing on a clear full moon that shines over a thousand leagues, it is infinitely more moving to see the moon near dawn and after long anticipation, tinged with the most beautiful palest blue, a moon glimpsed among cedar branches deep in the mountains, its light now hidden again by the gathering clouds of an autumn shower. The moist glint of moonlight on the glossy leaves of the forest shii oak or the white oak pierces the heart, and makes you yearn for the distant capital and a friend of true sensibility to share the moment with you.”
In other respects it reminded me of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, particularly in the short observations and focus on a moral and philosophically stoical approach to life, like here when Kenkō reminds us of the basic necessities of human existence beyond which all is effectively luxury;
“Anyone who wastes time in worthless pursuits must be called a fool or a villain. Obligation compels us to do many things for the sake of lord and nation, and we have little enough time for ourselves. Think of it like this: we have an inescapable need, first, to acquire food, second, clothes, and third, a place to live. These and these alone are the three great necessities of human life. To live without hunger or cold, sheltered from the elements and at peace – this is happiness.”
It is a passage which could easily have been lifted from the Meditations, or any one of the stoic school of Western philosophy. I find it interesting that two thinkers, centuries and half a world apart, land on the same kind of wisdom, and it’s reassuring in a way that there are universals which transcend individual experience. And perhaps it is good to remember that often the things we think we need are nothing more than desires, motivated by social expectation, one-upmanship, or greed.
For me, Essays in Idleness was a timely read. As I mentioned in my jumble of thoughts over the weekend, I have found February a strange challenge because I had lost focus on what it was I wanted to achieve, the reason why I started this journey in the first place. I was slipping back into my old, bad habits: thinking about buying this, that or the other; researching holiday destinations; wasting my time aimlessly surfing the internet, unfocused and directionless, burning hours on nothing. I had forgotten than what I wanted was focus, deliberateness, that I wanted to dive deeply into things instead of skimming the surface. I hadn’t achieved that at all in February, I am finding that deep engagement is much more difficult to attain than I had anticipated, though perhaps I should have been expecting it and my failure to do so was nothing more than arrogance or complacency. Essays in Idleness, particularly, helped me to refocus my thoughts and energy in the direction I intended. As Kenkō writes:
Thus, you should carefully consider which among the main things you want in life is the most important, and renounce all the others to dedicate yourself to that thing alone. Among the many matters that press in on us on any day, at any given moment, we must give ourselves to the most productive, by no matter how little – ignore the rest, and devote yourself entirely to the most important thing. If you find yourself reluctant to abandon the others, you will never achieve your primary aim.”
This struck me as sound advice, though I still feel as though I am at the start just figuring out what are the main things I want in life independently of the things I have been conditioned, allowed myself to be conditioned, into believing I want. Strange to think I have reached the grand old age of 42 without having really ever understood what this is. Or perhaps I did, once, but life has caused me to let go of those aims which were silly or unrealistic, those things which didn’t really matter at all, and only now am I beginning to understand how much time, energy and money I have squandered. But perhaps that, too, is simply what I needed to do to get here, and instead of lingering on the past all I can do is find a good way to move forward. As Kenkō points out:
“While we are young, we have all manner of ambitious plans for the future – to make a success of ourselves in life, achieve grand things, learn skills, study. But there seems plenty of time to fulfil our wishes, and we dawdle on the way, letting ourselves be distracted by the passing concerns of everyday life, so that we grow old having in fact done nothing much. Regret them as we might, there is no regaining our lost years, and, like a wheel running ever faster downhill, debility overtakes us, while we have succeeded in learning no skill and never achieving the success we dreamed of in life.
Well I have learned some skills, for what it’s worth, and I am not so concerned about success, or rather I have a different view of success than my younger self did. My ambition has changed, but in a way which I think gives me a more positive road map for the future, one which engenders connection and respect and decency, which grounds me in my environment and fulfils me in a way no amount of book buying ever could. The writings of Kenkō and, to a lesser extent, Chōmei have inspired me to maintain my focus, to not give up or slip back, because time is short and this, impermanent and distracting world, can be over in a missed heart-beat. There’s no time to waste, all other thinking is mere illusion. This beautiful, profound and affecting work is one I think I will easily dip into and out of in the future, whenever I lose my way or wish to be reminded of the simple wonder of the autumn moon at dawn.