Kamo no Chomei

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Transitory Man and His Dwellings

Gale and Fire Storm

Political Upheaval

Death from Famine

Destruction by Earthquake

The Move Towards Tranquility

The Ten Foot Hut

Contemplation of Scenery

Poetry and Music

Enjoying Simple Company

Unwearying Beauty

A House for My Own Needs

Rely On Your Own Feet

Achieving a Mind at Rest






Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) was born into a family of Shinto priests in Kyoto, Japan, and began his career as a poet at the imperial court. Later, the retired Emperor appointed Chomei (or Komei) to the Poetry Bureau, made up of Japanís leading poets. There Chomei published an essay on poetic technique. He later gave up Shintoism and became a Buddhist monk, spending much of his time as a hermit living in a small, isolated hut. Chomei wrote the essay An Account of My Hut (Hojoki), in which he describes the advantages of a life of isolation and tranquility compared to the turbulence, hazards and upheavals of city life.


The essay, recognized as a masterpiece in the Japanese essay tradition, is believed to be autobiographical. In it, Chomei explains that he enjoyed the pleasures of writing and music in his hut, two activities that are more often associated with participation in society rather than a life of solitude. He also writes of the pleasures of enjoying the phenomena of nature, reading Buddhist texts, and engaging in simple forms of companionship. Chomeiís elegantly written and structured text offers a powerful argument in the humanistic tradition that sees virtue in the simple, rural life. Extracts from his essay follow.



1 Transitory Man and His Dwellings


Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitation.

    In the stately ways of our shining capital the dwellings of high and low raise their roofs in rivalry as in the beginning, but few indeed there are that have stood for many generations. This year falling into decay and the next built up again, how often does the mansion of one age turn into the cottages of the next. And so, too, are they who live in them. The streets of the city are thronged as of old, but of the many people we meet there how very few are those that we knew in our youth. Dead in the morning and born at night, so man goes on forever, unenduring as the foam on the water.

And this man that is born and dies, who knows whence he came and whither he goes? And who knows also why with so much labor he builds his house, who knows which will survive the other? The dew may fall and the flower remain, but only to wither in the morning sun, or the dew may stay on the withered flower, but it will not see another evening.

    During the forty years or so that I have lived since I began to understand the meaning of things I have seen not a few strange happenings.



2 Gale and Fire Storm


In the third year of the era Angen [1175 CE], and the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month I think it was, the wind blew a gale, and at the hour of the Dog (8 p.m.) a fire started in the south-east of the Capital and was blown across to the north-west. And everything as far as the Shujaku Gate, the Daikyoku Hall and the Office of Internal Affairs was reduced to ashes in a single night. They say it started at Higuchi Tominokoji in a temporary structure used as a hospital. Now as the flames came on they spread out like an opened fan, and the remoter houses were smothered in smoke while those nearer roared up in flames. The sky was dark with ashes and against this black background the fire glowed red like early dawn, while everywhere the flames driven by the wind went leaping on over a space more than a hundred yards wide. And of those caught by it some fell choked in the smoke, while others were overtaken by the flames and perished suddenly. And those few who managed with difficulty to escape were quite unable to take their goods with them, and how many precious treasures were thus lost none can tell.

    Of the palaces of the great nobles sixteen were entirely destroyed, and of the houses of lesser people the number is unknown. One third of the city was burnt and many thousands must have perished, and cattle and horses beyond reckoning. The handiwork of man is a vain thing enough in any place, but to spend money and time on building houses in such a dangerous spot as the capital is foolish indeed beyond measure.



3 Political Upheaval


And in the Waterless Month (sixth) [of the fourth year of the era Jisho] . . . suddenly and without warning the capital was moved. And this was a most extraordinary thing, for they say that the capital was first fixed here in the August Age of the Mikado Saga, and so it has remained for all these centuries. And thus to change it without any good reason was a very great mistake, and it was no wonder that the people should complain and lament. Still that was, of course, quite unavailing, and all the inhabitants, beginning with His August Majesty the Mikado, and the ministers and great nobles of the court, had perforce to remove to the new capital at Naniwa in Settsu.

    And of those who wished to get on in the world who would stay in the former capital? All who coveted court rank, or were the expectant clients of some great lord, bustled about to get away as soon as possible. It was only a few inflexible people who had nothing to hope for, who stayed behind in the ancient capital.

    And those mansions that stood so proudly side by side from day to day became more ruinous. Many were broken up and floated down the river Yodo, while their pleasure grounds were turned into ricefields. And the fashions changed also in these days, so that every one came to ride on horseback, while the more dignified ox-car was quite forsaken. And everybody was scrambling to get land by the Western Sea and none cared for manors in the north and east.

    Now it happened at this time that I chanced to go down myself to the new capital in the province of Settsu. And when I came to look at it the site was cramped and too narrow to lay out the Avenues properly. And the mountains towered over it to the north while the sea hemmed it in on the south and the noise of the waves and the scent of the brine were indeed too much to be borne.

    The Palace was right up against the hills, a "Log-hut Palace" built of round timbers. It all seemed so very strange and rough, and yet somehow not a little elegant. And as for all those houses that had been broken up and brought down, so that the river was almost dammed up by them, I wondered wherever they were going to put them, for still there was so much empty ground, and very few dwellings had been built. So the old capital was already a waste and the new one not yet made. Every one felt as unsettled as drifting clouds. And the natives of the place were full of complaints over losing their land, while the new inhabitants grumbled at the difficulty of building on such a site. And of the people one met in the streets those who ought to have been riding in carriages were on horseback and those who usually wore court costume were in military overcoats. The whole atmosphere of the capital was altered and they looked like a lot of country samurai. And those who said that these changes were a portent of some civil disturbance seemed to be not without reason, for as time went on things became more and more unquiet and there was a feeling of unrest everywhere.

    But the murmurings of the people proved of some effect, for in the following winter they were ordered back to the ancient capital But all the same the houses that had been destroyed and removed could not at once be restored to their former condition.



4 Death from Famine


And if this were not enough, in the era Yowa [1181 CE] I think it was, but so many years have elapsed that I am not certain, there were two years of famine, and a terrible time indeed it was. The spring and summer were scorching hot, and autumn and winter brought typhoons and floods, and as one bad season followed another the five cereals could not ripen. Spring plowing was in vain, and the summer sowing was but labor lost. Neither did you hear the joyous clamor of the harvest and the laying up of stores in autumn and winter.

    Some deserted their land and went to other provinces, and others left their houses and dwelt in the hills. Then all sorts of prayers were said and special services recited, but things grew no better. And since for everything the people of the capital had to depend on the country around it, when no farmers came in with food how could they continue their usual existence? Though householders brought out their goods into the street and besought people to buy, like beggars with no sense of shame, yet no one would even look at them, and if there should be any ready to barter they held money cheap enough, but could hardly be brought to part with grain. Beggars filled the streets and their clamor was deafening to the ears.

    So the first year passed and it was difficult enough to live, but when we looked for some improvement during the next it was even worse, for a pestilence followed, and the prayers of the people were of no effect. As the days passed they felt like fish when the water dries up, and respectable citizens who ordinarily wore hats and shoes now went barefooted begging from house to house. And while you looked in wonder at such a sight they would suddenly fall down and die in the road. And by the walls and in the highways you could see everywhere the bodies of those who had died of starvation. And as there was none to take them away, a terrible stench filled the streets, and people went by with their eyes averted. The ordinary roads were bad enough, but in the slums by the river-bed there was not even room for carts and horses to pass.

    As for the poor laborers and woodcutters and such like, when they could cut no more firewood and there was none to help them, they broke up their own cottages and took the pieces into the city to sell. And what one man could carry was hardly enough to provide him with food for one day.

    And it was a shocking thing to see among these scraps of firewood fragments with red lacquer and gold and silver foil still sticking to them. And this because those who could get nothing else broke into the mountain temples and stole the images and utensils and broke them up for kindling. It must be a wretched and degenerate age when such things are done.

    Another very sad thing was that those who had children who were very dear to them almost invariably died before them, because they denied themselves to give their sons and daughters what they needed. And so these children would always survive their parents. And there were babies who continued to feed at their mother's breast, not knowing she was already dead. . .

    And the number that they counted within the city, in the space of four or five months, between the First and Ninth Avenues on the north and south and between Kyogoku and Shujaku on the east and west, was at least forty-two thousand three hundred. And when there is added to this those who perished before and after this period, and also those in the River-bed and Shirakawa and Western City quarters, they must have been almost beyond count. And then there were all the other provinces of the Empire. It is said that not long ago in the August Age of the Mikado Sutoku-in in the era Chosho [1132 CE] there was such a visitation. But of that I know nothing. What I have seen with my own eyes was strange and terrible enough.



5 Destruction by Earthquake


Then in the second year of the era Gen-ryaku [1184] there was a great earthquake. And this was no ordinary one. The hills crumbled down and filled the rivers, and the sea surged up and overwhelmed the land. The earth split asunder and water gushed out. The rocks broke off and rolled down into the valleys, while boats at sea staggered in the swell and horses on land could find no sure foothold. What wonder that in the capital, of all the temples, monasteries, pagodas and mausoleums, there should not be one that remained undamaged. Some crumbled to pieces and some were thrown down, while the dust rose in clouds like smoke around them, and the sound of the falling buildings was like thunder. Those who were in them were crushed at once, while those who ran out did so to find the ground yawning before them. If one has no wings he cannot fly . . . For one terror following on another there is nothing equal to an earthquake.

    Among those who suffered was the child of a warrior some six or seven years old. He had made a little hut under the eaves of the earthen wall and was playing there when the whole wall fell and buried him. And it was very sad to see how his parents cried aloud in their grief as they picked him up all battered and with his eyes protruding from his head. Even a stern samurai at such a time thought it no shame to show signs of his deep feelings. And indeed I think it quite natural.

    The worst shocks soon ceased, but the after tremors continued for some time. Every day there were some twenty or thirty that were beyond the ordinary. After the tenth and twentieth day they gradually came at longer intervals, four or five, and then two or three in a day. Then there would be a day and then several without any shock at all, but still these after shocks lasted, it may be three months. . .

    On these occasions it is the way of people to be convinced of the impermanence of all earthly things, and to talk of the evil of attachment to them, and of the impurity of their hearts, but when the months go by and then the years, we do not find them making mention of such views any more.



6 The Move Towards Tranquility


I inherited the estate of my great-grandmother on the father's side, and there I lived for a while. But then I left home and came down in the world, and as there were very many reasons why I wished to live unnoticed, I could not remain where I was, so I built a cottage just suited to my wants. It was only a tenth of the size of my former home and contained only a living-room for myself, for I could not build a proper house. It had rough plastered walls and no gate, and the pillars were of bamboo, so it was really nothing more than a cart shed. And as it was not far from the river bed there was some peril from floods as well as anxiety about thieves.

    I went on living in this unsympathetic world amid many difficulties for thirty years, and the various rebuffs that I met left me with a poor opinion of this fleeting life. So when I arrived at the age of fifty I abandoned the world and retired. Since I had no wife or child it was by no means difficult to leave it, neither had I any rank or revenue to be a tie to hold me. And so it is that I have come to spend I know not how many useless years hidden in the mists of Mount Ohara. I am now sixty years old, and this hut in which I shall spend the last remaining years of my dew-like existence is like the shelter that some hunter might build for a night's lodging in the hills, or like the cocoon some old silkworm might spin.



7 The Ten Foot Hut


If I compare it to the cottage of my middle years it is not a hundredth of the size. Thus as old age draws on my hut has grown smaller and smaller. It is a cottage of quite a peculiar kind, for it is only ten feet square and less than seven feet high, and as I did not decide to fix it in any definite place I did not choose the site by divination as usual. The walls are of rough plastered earth and the roof is of thatch. All the joints are hinged with metal so that if the situation no longer pleases me I can easily take it down and transport it elsewhere. And this can be done with very little labor, for the whole will only fill two cart-loads, and beyond the small wage of the carters nothing else is needed.

    Now hidden deep in the fastnesses of Mount Hino, I have put up eaves projecting on the south side to keep off the sun and a small bamboo veranda beneath them. On the west is the shelf for the offerings of water and flowers to Buddha, and in the middle, against the western wall is a picture of Amida Buddha so arranged that the setting sun shines from between his brows as though he were emitting his ray of light, while on the doors of his shrine are painted pictures of Fugen and Fudo. Over the sliding doors on the north side is a little shelf on which stand three or four black leather cases containing some volumes of Japanese poems and music and a book of selections from the Buddhist Sutras. Beside these stand a harp and a lute, of the kind called folding harp and jointed lute. On the eastern side is a bundle of fern fronds and a mat of straw on which I sleep at night. In the eastern wall there is a window before which stands my writing-table. A fire-box beside my pillow in which I can make a fire of broken brushwood completes the furniture. To the north of my little hut I have made a tiny garden surrounded by a thin low brushwood fence so that I can grow various kinds of medicinal herbs. Such is the style of my unsubstantial cottage.



8 Contemplation of Scenery


As to my surroundings, on the south there is a little basin that I have made of piled-up rocks to receive the water that runs down from a bamboo spout above it, and as the forest trees reach close up to the eaves it is easy enough to get fuel.

    The place is called Toyama. It is almost hidden in a tangled growth of evergreens. But though the valley is much overgrown it is open toward the west, so that I can contemplate the scenery and meditate on the enlightenment that comes from the paradise in that quarter. In the spring I behold the clusters of wisteria shining like the purple clouds on which Amida Buddha comes to welcome his elect. In the summer I hear the cuckoo, and his note reminds me that he will soon guide me over the Hills of Death of which they call him the Warden. In autumn I hear everywhere the shrilling of the evening cicada and inquire of him if he is bewailing the vanity of this fleeting life, empty as his own dried up husk, while in winter the snow as it piles up and melts seems like an allegory of our evil Karma.

    If I get tired of repeating the Invocation to Buddha or feel disinclined to read the Sutras, and go to sleep or sit idly, there is none to rebuke me, no companion to make me feel ashamed. I may not have made any special vow of silence, but as I am all alone I am little likely to offend with the tongue, and even without intending to keep the Buddhist Commandments, separated from society it is not easy to break them.



9 Poetry and Music


In the morning, as I look out at the boats on the Uji River by Okanoya I may steal a phrase from the monk Mansei and compare this fleeting life to the white foam in their wake, and association may lead me to try a few verses myself in his style. Or in the evening, as I listen to the rustling of the maples in the wind, the opening lines of the Lute Maiden by the great Chinese poet Po-chu-i naturally occur to my mind, and my hand strays to the instrument and I play perhaps a piece or two in the style of Minamoto Tsunenobu. And if I am in the mood for music I may play the piece called Autumn Wind to the accompaniment of the creaking of the pine trees outside, or that entitled Flowing Waters in harmony with the purling of the stream. I have little skill in verse or music, but then I only play and compose for my own amusement and not for the ears of other people.



10 Enjoying Simple Company


At the foot of the hill there is a little cottage of brushwood where lives the keeper of these hills. And he has a boy who sometimes comes to bear me company, and when time is heavy on my hands we go for a walk. He is sixteen and I am sixty and though the difference in age is so great, we find plenty of amusement in each other's society.

    Sometimes we gather the Lalong grass or the rock-pear or help ourselves to wild potatoes or parsley, or we may go as far as the rice-fields at the foot of our hills and glean a few ears to make an offering to the deities. If the day is fine we may climb up some high peak and look out over the Capital in the distance and enjoy the views of Mt. Kobata, Fushimi, Toba or Hatsukashi. Fine scenery has no landlord, so there is nothing to hinder our pleasure. . .

    Then on our way back, according to the season, there will be the cherry-blossoms to pluck and the maple or the bracken or some sort of berries to gather. And of these some we can offer to the Buddha and some we can eat ourselves.



11 Unwearying Beauty


In the quiet evenings I look out of my window at the moon and think over the friends of other days, and the mournful cry of the monkey often makes me moisten my sleeve with tears. I might imagine the cloud of fire-flies to be the fishing-fires at Makinoshima, or the rain at dawn to be the patter of the leaves driven by the wind. When I hear the hollow cry of the pheasant that might be mistaken for a father or mother hallooing to their children, as Gyogi Bosatsu's verse has it. When I see :the mountain deer approach me without any fear, then I understand how remote I am from the world. And I stir up the embers of my smoldering fire, the best friend an old man can find by him when he wakes. The mountains themselves are not at all awesome, though indeed the hooting of the owls is sometimes melancholy enough, but of the beauties of the ever-changing scenery of the hills one never becomes weary. And to one who thinks deeply and has a good store of knowledge such pleasure is indeed inexhaustible.



12   A House for My Own Needs


When I first came to live in this place I thought it would be but for a little space, but five years have already passed. This temporary hut of mine looks old and weather-beaten and on the roof the rotting leaves lie deep, while the moss has grown thick on the plastered wall. By occasional tidings that reach me from the capital, I learn that the number of distinguished people who have passed away is not small, and as to those of no consequence it must be very great indeed. And in the various fires I wonder how many houses have been burnt.

    But in this little impermanent hut of mine all is calm and there is nothing to fear. It may be small, but there is room to sleep at night, and to sit down in the day-time, so that for one person there is no inconvenience. The hermit-crab chooses a small shell and that is because he well knows the needs of his own body. The fishing-eagle chooses a rough beach because he does not want man's competition. Just so am I. If one knows himself and knows what the world is he will merely wish for quiet and be pleased when he has nothing to grieve about, wanting nothing and caring for nobody.

    It is the way of people when they build houses not to build them for themselves, but for their wives and family and relations, and to entertain their friends, or it may be their patrons or teachers, or to accommodate their valuables or horses or oxen.

    But I have built mine for my own needs and not for other people. And for the good reason that I have neither companion nor dependant, so that if I built it larger who would there be to occupy it? And as to friends they respect wealth and prefer those who are hospitable to them, but think little of those who are kindly and honest. The best friends one can have are flowers and moon, strings and pipe. And servants respect those who reward them, and value people for what they get. If you are merely kind and considerate and do not trouble them they will not appreciate it. So the best servant you can have is your own body, and if there is anything to be done, do it yourself. It may be a little troublesome perhaps, but it is much easier than depending on others and looking to them to do it.



13 Rely On Your Own Feet


If you have to go anywhere go on your own feet. It may be trying, but not so much so as the bother of horses and carriages. Every one with a body has two servants, his hands and feet, and they will serve his will exactly. And since the mind knows the fatigue of the body it works it when it is vigorous and allows it to rest when it is tired. The mind uses the body, but not to excess, and when the body fires it is not vexed. And to go on foot and do one's own work is the best road to strength and health.

    Clothes and food are just the same. Garments woven from wisteria-vines, and bed-clothes of hemp, covering the body with what comes nearest to hand, and sustaining one's life with the berries and fruits that grow on the hills and plains, that is best. If you do not go into society you need not be ashamed of your appearance, and if your food is scanty it will have the better relish. I do not say these things from envy of rich people, but only from comparison of my early days with the life I live now.



14 Achieving a Mind at Rest


Since I forsook the world and broke off all its ties, I have felt neither fear nor resentment. I commit my life to fate without special wish to live or desire to die. Like a drifting cloud I rely on none and have no attachments. My only luxury is a sound sleep and all I look forward to is the beauty of the changing seasons.

    Now the Three Phenomenal Worlds, the World of Desire, the World of Form, and the World of No-form, are entirely of the mind. If the mind is not at rest, horses and oxen and the Seven Precious Things and Palaces and Pavilions are of no use. With this lonely cottage of mine, this hut of one room, I am quite content. If I go out to the Capital I may feel shame at looking like a mendicant priest, but when I come back home here I feel compassion for those who are still bound by the attraction of earthly things. If any doubt me let them consider the fish. They do not get tired of the water; but if you are not a fish you cannot understand their feelings. Birds too love the woods, but unless you are yourself a bird you cannot know how they feel. It is just so with the life of a hermit: How can you understand unless you experience it?

    Now the moon of my life has reached its last phase and my remaining years draw near to their close. When I soon approach the Three Ways of the Hereafter what shall I have to regret? The law of Buddha teaches that we should shun all clinging to the world of phenomena, so that the affection I have for this thatched hut is in some sort a sin, and my attachment to this solitary life may be a hindrance to enlightenment. Thus I have been babbling, it may be, of useless pleasures, and spending my precious hours in vain.

    In the still hours of the dawn I think of these things, and to myself I put these questions: Thus to forsake the world and dwell in the woods, has it been to discipline my mind and practice the law of Buddha or not? Have I put on the form of a recluse while yet my heart has remained impure? Is my dwelling but a poor imitation of that of the Saint Vimalakirrti while my merit is not even equal to that of Suddhipanthaka, the most stupid of the followers of Buddha? Is this poverty of mine but the retribution for the offences of a past existence, and do the desires of an impure heart still arise to hinder my enlightenment? And in my heart there is no answer. The most I can do is to murmur two or three times a perchance unavailing invocation to Buddha.





Adapted from The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike, translated by A. L. Sadler. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1928.