‘Hōjōki’ by Kamo no Chōmei & ‘Essays in Idleness’ by Yoshida Kenkō (Review)

After spending last week in the twentieth century, I’m going even further back in time with my latest #JanuaryInJapan choice, in the company of two classic writers with much in common.  Both were monks, and both wrote about the ephemeral nature of existence, and the need to shun the materialistic world.  What’s more, of course, the two pieces were collected, translated and arranged by Meredith McKinney, meaning we can be sure we’re in good hands.  However, there is a slight difference between the two works.  While one of today’s choices takes things seriously at all times, the other is a little less consistent in its demands for devoutness, leading to some interesting and amusing contradictions…

Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki is a short text dating from the start of the thirteenth century, in which the author, a devout man who turned away from the world to become a monk, looks at certain dramatic events in recent history, as well as describing his decision to leave society behind.  His time in the capital coincided with a rather tumultuous period in Japanese history (related in The Tale of the Heike), and Chōmei soberly recounts details of fires in Kyoto, drought and famine, an ensuing plague and then a devastating series of earthquakes.  There’s an end-of-days feel to the events, and it’s little surprise that the writer decides that focusing on the next world might be a better idea than worrying about politics.

Chōmei has long known that the world is a mere distraction and is keen to find an alternative to his current life:

Wealth brings great anxiety, while with poverty come fierce resentments.  Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection.  Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.
Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?
p.12 (Penguin Classics, 2013)

This is where the ‘hōjōki’ of the title, a small hut in the woods, comes in. After a disappointing few years spent with other recluses, he decides to seclude himself even more, far from the temptations of the world.  What more do we really need than a roof over our heads, a water source outside and an image of the Buddha on a crude shelf?  Nothing, that’s what 😉

While short, Hōjōki is an intriguing, powerful text, and in McKinney’s prose, Chōmei’s words ring out across the centuries, warning the reader to take stock of their lives and strip their possessions back to the bare essentials.  However, a quick peep behind the curtain shows that all is not as it seems.  According to the translator’s introduction, the writer’s decision to renounce the world was due not only to piety but also to disappointed ambitions, and by all acounts he was a difficult man to live with (it seems that the other monks might have been glad to see the back of him).

Still, I enjoyed Hōjōki immensely, and it actually has a clever sting in its tale.  You see, after describing his gradual withdrawal from the world, and congratulating himself on his success in downsizing, Chōmei suddenly pulls the rug from under the reader’s feet.  Yes, it may only be a ten-foot-square hut, but it’s still a home – which means his pride in his new situation is no different from that of the ministers in their mansions…

Duly chastened, we then move on a century or so to see what another monk, Yoshida Kenkō, makes of the world in his series of short musings, Essays in Idleness.  Like Chōmei, he’s quick to warn about the folly of getting attached to earthly comforts, frequently urging the reader to get a move on and begin preparing their soul for the next world.  However, he’s not nearly as consistent in tone as his predecessor, and like an old man enjoying a captive audience over Christmas dinner, he delights in expounding on anything and everything that takes his fancy.

Essays in Idleness consists of 243 fragments, spanning about 120 pages in this edition, ranging in length from a single sentence to a few pages.  Several of these are mere amusing anecdotes, with humorous accounts of a monk who went on a pilgrimage and wondered why everyone insisted on climbing the mountain, a priest who is unable to rid himself of unwelcome nicknames (no matter what he does) and a policeman who is saved from certain death by his habit of eating two white radishes every day.  Now, that’s something you don’t get in Hōjōki.

Some sections are more serious, though.  The good monk thunders away regarding the ephemeral nature of the world, and the book is marked by constant laments about the good old days and how everything was better then, whether that be poems, utensils, furniture or the use of language.  At one point, he mourns the disappearance of buildings, reflecting on what this says about the nature of the world:

In places where such remnants no longer exist, one can sometimes still see foundation stones in the ground, but none now know what buildings these once were.
And so we see how fickle is the world in all things, for those who would plan for a time they will not live to see. (p.34)

Passages like this have a sombre, wistful tone, with the writer regretting that things must pass, even though he knows that there’s a better world ahead.

However, Kenkō is too robust a soul for this melancholy to last for long, and he’s quick to move on and attack another topic as soon as he can draw a breath.  Our friend has a tendency to lecture and then undercut himself, with contradictions abounding throughout the text: one minute he’s frowning upon people who show off their knowledge; the next he’s parading his learning like a particularly colourful (and intelligent) peacock.  One classic example of this contradictory style comes in a lengthy section where the writer expounds in disgust upon the horrendous effects of alcohol, only to then say:

Yet loathsome though one finds it, there are situations when a cup of sake is hard to resist. (p.107)

Of course there are!

For anyone who has read any classic Japanese literature, there are obvious parallels with some of the more famous works, and Kenkō himself acknowledges this, breaking off one description of the beauties of different months to comment that The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book have said it all before (not that this stops him from continuing his musings).  In fact, when you add in the anecdotes, Essays in Idleness comes across as a hybrid of The Pillow Book and The Tales of Ise, but without the interminable lists of the former and the ever-present poetry of the latter.  I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not…

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki is a must-read for followers of Japanese literature, but despite McKinney’s excellent introduction and work on the two texts, it’s not always the perfect read.  The casual reader can probably skip the vast majority of the copious endnotes, and while the short Hōjōki is wonderfully written, Kenkō’s essays can be a little repetitive at times.  It’s probably best not to rush through them too quickly as this is a book to dip into, not to devour.  Still, I certainly enjoyed my latest trip back in time, and I’m sure I’ll be taking another look at some point – even if I doubt I’ll be following the two men’s advice all that closely 😉

7 thoughts on “‘Hōjōki’ by Kamo no Chōmei & ‘Essays in Idleness’ by Yoshida Kenkō (Review)

  1. Thanks for introducing your readers to rather hidden gems. I just finished reading the classic The Book of Tea, and am currently thoroughly enjoying Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki. I just discovered it’s the first volume of a trilogy, so will staying in the company of Soseki for a while longer


    1. Emma – ‘The Book of Tea’ is one I haven’t tried yet, but ‘Sanshirō’ is an old favourite. Regarding the ‘trilogy’, they’re linked only by themes, not by character or setting, so it’s a rather loose use of the term…


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