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One man, a quintessential recluse. A man who having had enough of the vicissitudes of the material life ensconces himself in a tiny hut, adequate to house the most rudimentary of life’s necessities. A mere ten feet square and less than seven metres high, the humble dwelling has bracken for bedding, two or three scriptures of Buddhism, a standing screen, a cooking stove and a verandah. Set apart from the hustle and bustle of the city and nestled in between the magisterial isolation of formidable mountains, the man who has taken tonsure (a form of embracing the life of a mendicant) attempts to find a reconciliation between the asceticism and aestheticism.
The other, an intrepid spectator of the microcosm that is humanity, is both the observer and the observed. Born into a family of hereditary Shinto priests, this innately curious individual is given the title of a monk (gobo) and becomes a mendicant in his early twenties. Where a recluse observes the world from afar, the city dwelling monk adopts an outside in approach. Although an integral part of his community in the physical sense, he is spiritually removed from them and is an unbiased chronicler of the foibles and frailties of his fellow men.
Two men, separated in methods but united in intent. Two Buddhist monks who lived within two hundred years of one another yet found solace in grasping the essence of an ephemeral life. Two intrigued seekers who identified Impermanence as the only plausible element that signified permanence. While Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216) retreated to the silence of a simple hut and a plebian living, Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350), led a comfortable yet introspective life. Chomei’ s Hojoki and Kenko’s Essays in Idleness are two masterpieces that are manifestos for selflessness and ceilings on desire.
Meredith McKinney, a visiting fellow in the Australian University in Canberra and a PhD holder in medieval Japanese literature, does a yeoman service to the English speaking word by rendering an arresting, lucid and concise translation of Hojoki and Essays in Idleness. Slim, alluring and lingering, Essays in Idleness and Hojoki is a compilation of random ruminations and spontaneous convictions.
In Hojoki, Chomei launches into a detailed description of three natural calamities that devastated the Higuchi Tominokoji, Nakamikado Kyogoku and Jisho areas. A raging fire and a remorseless earthquake spared neither prince nor pauper. Palaces lay razed to the ground and huts vanished into the cavernous jaws of mother earth. The futility of spending money on constructing temporary edifices of pleasure is one that is befitting of ruin. “Yes, take it for all in all, this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent…”
Chomei’ s deliberate retreat from the city served as a constant reminder about the ephemeral nature of life and the purpose of living. In fact during the last years of his spiritual life he even berated himself for possessing a desire to lead a life of desirelessness.
If Hojoki serves as a sombre and stark warning about the futility of hankering after desire, Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness is an exercise in radical stream of consciousness that blends the esoteric with the absurd. Written in the style of a spontaneous rant/outburst, Essays in Idleness holds forth of myriad topics ranging from the metaphysical to the philosophical. Some of his reflections shock and stun his readers. For example, he argues that a human being has no right to live beyond the age of forty. “The longer you live, the greater your share of shame…. Their greed for the things of this world grows ever deeper till they lose all their ability to be moved by life’s pathos and become really quite disgraceful”.
One of the highlights of Kenko’s enduring work is the collection of some extraordinary stories. From a drunken acolyte getting his head stuck inside a pot following a drunken frenzy, to a temple priest who became a priest without a temple when the holy place was accidentally burnt down, and foxes attacking and biting monks, the stories combining wit and wisdom have at their nub the inescapable fact that whatever has attained its apogee must thereafter decline.
Kudos to Ms. McKinney for the stellar efforts in translating two works that embody an innate element of complications and arcane intricacies.
Hojoki and Essays in Idleness – a journey towards detached attachment.