Kenko

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Authors born between 1100 and 1300 CE

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Contents

Introduction

Friendship

Reading and Writing

Fondness for Women

Frugality

Dwellings

Travel

The Past

Mourning

Propriety

Drunkenness

Thought Impressions

Time’s Urgency

Source

 

 

Introduction

 

Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350 CE) in his early career as a Japanese court official also emerged as a celebrated poet. At age 41 he became a Zen Buddhist monk. His subsequent Essays in Idleness shows the application of Zen to a philosophy of social life. In Kenko’s writings we see the Buddhist ideals of naturalness, humility, simplicity, and meditation worked out in relation to daily affairs. Kenko’s Essays, probably written about 1340 CE, contains 243 sections of various lengths, from short aphorisms to meditations covering several pages.  A note of resignation that sometimes occurs in Kenko’s thought is probably due to the experiences of the turbulent period in which the writings were composed—rather in the way that Epictetus was influenced by the times in which he lived.

        Kenko ranged widely in his choice of subjects, touching on ardent love, social etiquette, house design, drunkenness, thought impressions, and the brief span of life. He urged his readers to make the most of their time on earth, but in this he stressed the virtues of contemplation and thought. In one remark he suggested that the pleasure of reading a book alone in the lamplight is beyond compare.

 

 

Friendship

 

1    It is a joyful thing indeed to hold intimate converse with a man after one's own heart, chatting without reserve about things of interest or the fleeting topics of the world; but such, alas, are few and far between. Not that one desires a companion who will sit opposite and never utter a word in contradiction—one might as well be alone. Far better in hours of loneliness the company of one who, while he will listen with respect to your views, will disagree a little, and argue, saying "Yes, that is so, but . . . ," or "For this reason such and such is the case."

     And yet, with those who are not of the same way of thinking or are contentious, a man can discuss only things of passing interest, for the truth is there must not be any wide gulf between bosom friends.

 

2    Though the breeze blow not, the flower of the heart of man will change its hue. Now looking back on months and years of intimacy, to feel that your friend, while you still remember the moving words you exchanged, is yet growing distant and living in a world apart—all this is sadder far than partings brought by death.

 

3    Although some will say, "After all this time, why stand on ceremony?'' I myself feel that it is a sign of genuine and proper feeling when even the most inseparable friends treat one another, if the occasion demands, with due reserve and decorum. On the other hand, it is sometimes well for people who are not intimate to speak freely.

 

 

Reading and Writing

 

4     To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the inkslab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, truely this is a queer and crazy thing to do!

 

5    It is desirable to have a knowledge of true literature, of composition and versifying, of wind and string instruments; and it is well, moreover, to be learned in precedent and court ceremonies, so as to be a model for others. One should write not unskillfully in the running hand, be able to sing in a pleasing voice and keep good time to music; and, lastly, a man should not refuse a little wine when it is pressed upon him.

 

6    To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations—such is a pleasure beyond compare.

 

 

Fondness for Women

 

7    However gifted and accomplished a young man may be, if he has no fondness for women, one has a feeling of something lacking, as of a precious wine cup without a bottom. Admire the condition of a lover! Drenched with dews and frosts and aimlessly wandering; ever concerned to shun the world's reproof and escape his parents' reproaches; hither and thither pursued by doubt and distress; and spending his nights withal sleepless upon a solitary couch.

    But it is well that a man do not become addicted to lewdness, a constant and familiar companion of women.

    Of all things that lead astray the heart of man there is nothing like fleshly lust. What a weakly thing is this heart of ours. Though a perfume, for example, is but a transient thing, and though he knows full well that incense is burned to give an odor to garments, yet a man's heart will always be stirred by a vague perfume.

    The Magician of Kume, the legend runs, lost his magic power through looking at a maiden washing clothes. This may well have been, for here was no charm from without, but the real beauty of plump and glistening limbs.

 

 

Frugality

 

8    It is well for a man to be frugal, to abstain from luxury, to possess no treasure nor to covet this world's goods. Since olden times there has rarely been a sage who was wealthy.

 

9    In China there was once a man called Hsu Yu. He had not a single possession in the world. He even scooped up water with his hands, until a friend gave him a gourd. But one day, when he had hung it from a branch, it rattled in the wind; whereupon, disturbed by the noise, he threw it away and once more took to drinking from his clasped hands. How pure and free the heart of such a man.

 

10    A certain recluse, I know not who, once said that no bonds attached him to this life, and the only thing he would regret leaving was the sky.

 

 

Dwellings

 

11    A house should be built with the summer in view. In winter one can live anywhere, but a poor dwelling in summer is unbearable. Deep water does not give a cool sensation. Far cooler is a shallow running stream. A room with sliding doors is lighter than one with doors on hinges. When the ceiling is high the room is cold in winter and difficult to light. As for construction, people agree in admiring a place with plenty of spare room, as being pleasing to the eye and at the same time useful for all sorts of purposes.

        There is a charm about a neat and proper dwelling house, although this world, it is true, is but a temporary abode. Even the moonshine, when it strikes into the house where a good man lives in peaceful ease, seems to gain in friendly brilliancy.

 

12    The man is to be envied who lives in a house, not of the modern, garish kind, but set among venerable trees, with a garden where plants grow wild and yet seem to have been disposed with care, verandas and fences tastefully arranged, and all its furnishings simple but antique.

        A house which multitudes of workmen have devoted all their ingenuity to decorate, where rare and strange things from home and abroad are set out in array, and where even the trees and shrubs are trained unnaturally—such is an unpleasant sight, depressing to look at, to say nothing of spending one's days in there. Nor, gazing on it, can one but reflect how easily it might vanish in a moment of time.

        The appearance of a house is in some sort an index to the character of its occupant.

 

13    Once in the month of September I passed over the plain of Kurusu and sought out a certain village among the hills beyond, when, threading my way far down a narrow moss-grown path, I came upon a lonely hut. There was never a sound to greet me, save the dripping of water from a pipe buried in fallen leaves, but I knew that someone lived there, for sprays of chrysanthemum and maple leaves bestrewed the shelf before the shrine, and "Ah!" thought I, "In such a place a man can spend his days." But as I stood and gazed in wonder, I perceived in the garden beyond a great orange tree, its branches weighted down with fruit. It was strongly closed in on all sides by a fence. This broke the spell, and I thought to myself, "If only that tree had not been there!"

 

 

Travel

 

14    It wakes one up to go away from home for a time, no matter where. Exploring and rambling about the countryside you come upon a host of unusual sights in rustic spots and mountain hamlets. You get a messenger to take letters to the capital, and you write and say "Do not forget to send me so-and-so at the next opportunity.'' All this is in its way amusing. Of course you have a thousand things to think of in such a place.

        Pleasant also to slip away and go into retreat in some mountain temple.

 

 

The Past

 

15    In hours of quiet thought one cannot but be overcome by longing for the past.

        When, to while away the long nights after folk have gone to rest, we go through our old belongings, sometimes, as we throw away such scraps of paper as we do not want to keep, the handwriting of one who is no more, or an idle sketch maybe, will catch the eye and vividly recall the moment it was made.

        It is affecting, too, after the lapse of many years, to come across the letters even of one who is still living, and to call to mind the year and the occasion when they were written.

        The things they were wont to use have no heart, yet remain unchanged throughout the long, long years. A melancholy reflection.

 

 

Mourning

 

16    There is no such mournful time as follows on a death. For the days of retirement a crowd of people go up together to some mountain village, into a cramped and incommodious house, and there they busily perform the offices for the dead. So the appointed time passes with unwonted quickness. The last day is pitiless indeed; for in silence they gather together their possessions, each for himself, and go their several ways. Only when they have returned to their own homes will they begin to feel exceeding sad.

        Months and years pass by, and still they do not forget, though, as the saying goes, the departed grows more distant every day. However that may be, they seem not to feel so deeply as at the time of death, for now they chatter and laugh together. The body is laid to rest upon some lonely mountainside, where the mourners come on rare appointed days, soon the .tablet is overgrown with moss, buried in fallen leaves, and looks in time as if none came to visit there save even storms and the nocturnal moon.

        There may be some who will recall the dead, and think of him with grief. But soon they themselves must pass away. Then how can later generations grieve, who know him only by repute? After a time they go no longer to his tomb, and people do not even know his name or who he was. True, some feeling folk may gaze with pity on what is now but the growth of grasses of succeeding springs; but at last there comes a day when even the pine trees that groaned in the storms, not lasting out their thousand years of life, are split for fuel, and the ancient grave, dug up and turned to rice field, leaves never a trace behind.

 

 

Propriety

 

17    One should never make a show of having a deep knowledge of any subject. Well-bred people do not talk in a superior way even about things they have a good knowledge of. It is people who come from the country who offer opinions unasked, as though versed in all manner of accomplishments. Of course some among them do have a really enviable knowledge, and it is their air of self-conceit that is so stupid.

        It is a fine thing when a man who thoroughly understands a subject is unwilling to open his mouth, and only speaks when he is questioned.

 

18    When in the presence of a new acquaintance, to carry on a conversation in fragments, laughing and exchanging meaningful looks with a companion who knows the phrases and names of things you commonly use, makes the stranger feel as if he understood nothing—this is ignorant behavior, and a sure sign of ill breeding.

 

19    In the Province of Inaba there was a girl, the daughter of a certain lay priest of noble family, whose hand was asked in marriage by many that heard of her beauty. However, this girl ate nothing but chestnuts, never touching rice or other grain, and her parents therefore refused, saying that such an unusual thing ought not to be seen by others.

 

 

Drunkenness

 

20    This is a story of the priests of the Ninnaji. They had a feast to celebrate the farewell to the world of a young acolyte about to enter the priesthood. In their revels they became drunken, and the acolyte, beginning to feel merry, took a three-legged iron pot that lay nearby and put it on his head. Then, though it fitted very tight, he flattened out his nose, pulled the pot over his face, and began to dance. The whole company grew merry beyond measure, until after performing awhile, he at length tried to pull it off—but in vain!

        This sobered the feast, and they were thrown into confusion and doubt, wondering what they should do. While they were debating, the pot cut into his head, and blood began to flow and his face swelled up so that he could hardly breathe. They tried to break it, but it was not easily broken, and as the force of the blow went to his head, he could not bear it, and they were obliged to stop. They did not know what to do next, so, throwing a black gauze cloak over the three legs, which looked like horns, they led him, supported by a staff, to the house of a physician in Kyoto. People looked at them with amazement as they went along.

        It must have been a queer scene when they brought him face to face with the physician on entering his house. When he spoke, his voice was muffled, and resounded so that they could not hear what he said. The physician said that he had never seen such a case in the books, nor had he ever had any oral instruction on the point, so they were obliged to return to the temple. There his friends and relatives, with his old mother, gathered at his bedside and wept and grieved—not that they thought he could hear! At last someone said, "Suppose he does lose his ears and nose, so far as living goes there is no reason why he should not survive. Let us then pull the thing off by main force." So they thrust rice straw all round between his head and the metal, and pulled as if to drag off his head. His ears and nose were torn away, and he escaped with his bare life, suffering afterward many a long day.

 

 

Thought Impressions

 

21    Are we only to look at flowers in full bloom, at the moon when it is clear?

        No, to look out on the rain and long for the moon, to draw the blinds and not to be aware of the passing of the spring—these arouse even deeper feelings. There is much to be seen in young boughs about to flower, in gardens strewn with withered blossom.

        Men are wont to regret that the moon has waned or that the blossoms have fallen, and this must be so; but they must be perverse indeed who will say, "This branch, that bough is withered, now there is nothing to see."

        In all things it is the beginning and end that are interesting. The love of men and women—is it only when they meet face to face? To feel sorrow at an unaccomplished meeting, to grieve over empty vows, to spend the long night sleepless and alone, to yearn for distant skies, in a neglected house to think fondly of the past—this is what love is.

        Rather than to see the moon shining over thousands of miles, it sinks deeper into the heart to watch it when at last it appears toward the dawn. It never moves one so much as when seen in gaps between the trees, pale green over the tops of the cedars on distant hills, or behind the clustering clouds after showers of rain. When it shines bright on the leaves of oak and evergreen, and they look wet, the sight sinks deeply into one's being, and one feels "Oh! for a friend with whom to share this!" and longs for the capital.

        And must we always look upon the moon and the blossoms with the eye alone? No, in the very thought of it, in the spring though we do not go abroad, on moonlit nights though we keep to our room, there is great comfort and delight.

 

22    A well-bred man does not show strong likings. His enjoyment appears careless. It is rustic boors who take all pleasures grossly. They squirm and struggle to get under the blossoms, they stare intently, they drink wine, they link verses, and at last they heartlessly break off great branches. They dip their hands and feet in springs; they get down and step on the snow, leaving footmarks; there is nothing they do not regard as their own.

        As soon as we hear a person's name we form in our minds a picture of his appearance; but when we come to see him, he is never the man whose face we had imagined.

        I suppose we all feel, when we hear stories of ancient times, that the houses were more or less the same as people's houses nowadays, and think of the people as like people we see about us. And am I alone in having sometimes within me a feeling that words I have just heard, or things I have just seen, have happened once before? When, I cannot recollect, but none the less they certainly have happened.

 

 

Time’s Urgency

 

23    A man who would be a success the world must first of all be a judge of moods, for untimely speeches will offend the ears and hurt the feelings of others, and so fail in their purpose. He has to beware of such occasions.

        But falling sick and bearing children and dying—these things take no account of moods. They do not cease because they are untimely. The shifting changes of birth, life, sickness, and death, the real great matters—these are like the surging flow of a fierce torrent, which delays not for an instant but straightway pursues its course.

        And so, for both priest and layman, there must be no talk of moods in things they must needs accomplish. They must be free from this care and that, they must not let their feet linger.

        It does not turn to summer after spring has closed, nor does the fall come when the summer ends. The spring ahead of time puts on a summer air, already in the summer the fall is abroad, and soon the fall grows cold. In the tenth month comes a brief space of spring weather. Grass grows green, plum blossoms bud. So with the falling of leaves from the trees. It is not that the trees bud, once the leaves have fallen, but that because they are budding from beneath, the leaves, unable to withstand the strain, therefore must fall. An onward-urging influence is at work within, so that stage presses on stage with exceeding haste.

        This again is exceeded by the changes of birth, age, sickness, and death. The four seasons have still an appointed order. The hour of death waits for no order. Death does not even come from the front. It is ever pressing on from behind. All men know of death, but they do not expect it of a sudden, and it comes upon them unawares. So, though the dry flats extend far out, soon the tide comes and floods the beach.

 

 

Source

 

Adapted from The Tzuredzure gusa of Yoshida no Kaneyoshi translated by George Sansom. Asiatic Society of Japan Transactions, 39, 1911. A longer extract is printed in Anthology of Japanese Literature compiled and edited by Donald Keene. Grove Press New York 1955.

 

Introduction and selection of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003