Kenko & Chomei
The Literature of Reclusion
 
The devastation caused by the Gempei War led not only to the development of a new political system (the bakufu or “military government”), but also to a deeper appreciation for the Buddhist notion of “suffering” (Pali: dukkha; Japanese: ku ). The combination of a strong warrior ethic and a profound appreciation for the suffering that it produced led to the development of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic principle that would eventually be called mono no aware, which may be loosely translated as sensitivity to (the sadness of) things.”
One might conjecture that this aesthetic principle allowed the Japanese to find meaning in a world dominated by violence — a world in which a young warrior must be prepared to die in battle at a moments notice, like Atsumori from the Tale of the Heike. The notion that there is great beauty to be found in the midst of suffering is aptly symbolized by the cherry blossom (sakura), which attains the height of its beauty precisely when it falls from the tree (i.e. when it dies).
 
 
This “sensitivity to (the sadness of) things” is well expressed in the opening section of Kamo no Chomeis “An Account of My Hut” one of the most famous passages in the history of Japanese literature:
 
The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were there of old. Some were burnt last year and only since rebuilt; great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. The city is the same, the people are as numerous as ever, but of those I used to know, a bare of one or two in twenty remain. They die in the morning, they are born in the evening, like foam on the water.
 
 
Whence does he come, where does he go, man that is born and dies? We know not. For whose benefit does he torment himself in building houses that last but a moment, for what reason is his eye delighted by them? This too we do not know. Which will be first to go, the master or his dwelling? One might just as well ask this of the dew on the morning-glory. The dew may fall and the flower remain — remain, only to be withered by the morning sun. The flower may fade before the dew evaporates, but though it does not evaporate, it waits not the evening. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 197-8; cf. Kenko and Chomei, 5)
  • How does this passage express mono no aware?
  • What are the ‘bubbles’ and how are they related to the ‘houses’?
 
Kamo goes on to recount a series of natural disasters that hit the capital (Kyoto):
 
 
The Great Fire
In the forty and more years that have passed since first I became aware of the meaning of things, I have witnessed many terrible sights. It was, I believe, the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month of 1177, on a night when the wind blew fiercely without a moment of calm, that a fire broke out toward nine o’clock in the southeast of the capital and spread northwest. It finally reached the gates and buildings of the palace, and within the space of a single night all was reduced to ashes. ... Several thousand men and women lost their lives, as well as countless horses and oxen. Of all the follies of human endeavor, none is more pointless than expending treasures and spirit to build houses in so dangerous a place as the capital. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 198-9)
 
The Whirlwind
Again, on the twenty-ninth day of the fourth moon of 1180, a great whirlwind sprang up in the northeast of the capital and violently raged as far south as the Sixth Ward. Every house, great or small, was destroyed within the area engulfed by the wind. ... People said in wonder, “We have whirlwinds all the time, but never one like this. It is no common case — it must be a presage of terrible things to come.” (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 199)
 
The Famine
Again, about 1181 — it is so long ago that I cannot remember for certain — there was a famine in the country which lasted two years, a most terrible thing. ... The number of those who died of starvation outside the gates or along the roads may not be reckoned. There being no one even to dispose of the bodies, a stench filled the whole world, and there were many sights of decomposing bodies too horrible to behold. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 202)
 
The Earthquake 
Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before. ... It is needless to speak of the damage throughout the capital — not a single mansion, pagoda, or shrine was left whole. ... The intense quaking stopped after a time, but the after-tremors continued for some while. Not a day passed without twenty or thirty tremors of a severity which would ordinarily have frightened people. ... After-tremors continued for three months. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 203-204)
  • What is the significance of these four natural disasters?  What do they symbolize for Kamo?
 
Kamo was not immune to the effects of these disasters; after losing his hereditary position as the Shinto priest of the Kamo shrine he built a small cottage (a tenth the size of his previous home) where he lived a simple life for many years. He finally became a Buddhist priest at the age of 50 and then built an even smaller hut — an aesthetic masterpiece of rustic simplicity that ultimately served as the model for the kind of tea hut that would be used for the Japanese tea ceremony:
 
 
The Ten Foot Square Hut
Now that I have reached the age of sixty, and my life seems about to evaporate like the dew, I have fashioned a lodging for the last leaves of my years. It is a hut where, perhaps, a traveler might spend a single night; it is like the cocoon spun by an aged silkworm. This hut is not even a hundredth the size of the cottage where I spent my middle years. ...
       Since first I hid my traces here in the heart of Mount Hino, I have added a lean-to on the south and a porch of bamboo. On the west I have built a shelf for holy water, and inside the hut, along the west wall, I have installed an image of Amida. The light of the setting sun shines between its eyebrows. On the doors of the reliquary I have hung pictures of Fugen and Fudo. Above the sliding door that faces north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and a lute.

Along the east wall I have spread long fern fronds and mats of straw which serve as my bed for the night. I have cut open a window in the eastern wall, and beneath it have made a desk. Near my pillow is a square brazier in which I burn brushwood. To the north of the hut I have staked out a small plot of land which I have enclosed with a rough fence and made into a garden. I grow many species of herbs there. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 206-7)
  • How would you compare Kamo’s hut with the “Great Houses” of Kyoto?
  • Which would you prefer?  Why does Kamo prefer his tiny hut?

Despite the simplicity of the hut, however, Kamo still chides himself for his sense of attachment (which is regarded as the cause of suffering in Buddhism):

Now the moon of my life sinks in the sky and is close to the edge of the mountain. Soon I must head into the darkness of the Three Ways: why should I thus drone on about myself? The essence of the Buddha’s teaching to man is that we must not have attachment for any object. It is a sin for me now to love my little hut, and my attachment to its solitude may also be a hindrance to salvation. Why should I waste more precious time in relating such trifling pleasures?
       One calm dawning, as I thought over the reasons for this weakness of mine, I told myself that I had fled the world to live in a mountain forest in order to discipline my mind and practice the Way. “And yet, in spite of your monk’s appearance, your heart is stained with impurity. Your hut may take after Jomyo’s, but you preserve the Law even worse than Handoku. If your low estate is a retribution for the sins of a previous existence, is it right that you afflict yourself over it? Or should you permit delusion to come and disturb you?” To these questions my mind could offer no reply. All I could do was to use my tongue to recite two or three times the nembutsu, however unacceptable from a defiled heart.
       It is now the end of the third moon of 1212, and I am writing this at the hut on Toyama. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 211-2)
  • What is the underlying message of An Account of My Hut?
  • How would you compare An Account of My Hut with The Tale of the Heike?  How are they similar? How do they differ?
 
 

Essays in Idleness
Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350)
Kenko was born in around 1283, into a world that had come to its own awkward accommodations with a complex reality. The fierce clashes that Chomei had witnessed a little over a hundred years earlier had irrevocably shifted power from the old imperial court system based in Kyoto to a new clan warrior shogunate that ruled from the provincial stronghold of Kamakura, near present-day Tokyo. Kyoto, where Kenko was born and lived, remained the nominal capital, with a still-functioning court and reigning emperor, but these trappings of power were largely empty, and the Kamakura government maintained a base in Kyoto through which it controlled local affairs. ... Like Chomei, though perhaps for different reasons, Kenko chose to avoid direct mention of the political upheavals and occasional outright warfare of his day, although they form the backdrop to much that he describes, and would have touched him closely at times. He frequently laments the past, when the courtly culture that he loved was in its heyday and unsullied by the rougher ways of the contemporary world, but he was a pragmatic man. Where Chomei was prone to gloom and to impulsive reactions that led him to flee the mundane world and bury himself ever deeper in the hills, Kenko, for all his admonitions to do likewise, was in fact far too intrigued by the world to turn his back on it. The contradictions that drove Chomei to despair and self-accusation sit happily together in Kenko’s writing, and in his life. His times demanded adaptability to an often inconsistent and multi-layered world, and he was a man well suited to his times. ...
 
 
Essays in Idleness reflects this open, fluid approach to life that was so in tune with the changeable times. It shifts with sometimes breathtaking ease between religious diatribe and cheerful personal anecdote, pedantic stipulations on correct court procedure and musings on how to gamble, become rich or drink with friends. There are common themes that reappear throughout the work — a concern with propriety is one (many parts of Essays in Idleness can be read almost as a gentleman’s manual), together with a focus on past precedent that can at times seem ridiculously fussy and hidebound. Though he was often willing to put aside his prejudice against the boorish military classes who flooded the capital, his heart remained with the old high culture of Japan’s past, still represented by the court and its traditions, and he was intent on shoring up what he could of this rapidly fading world and its sensibility.
 
 
The interest in aesthetics that is another strong thread running through this work also surely springs in part from this desire to stem the tide of coarseness and vulgarity that came with military rule and the waning of courtly values. Aware — the poignant sense of the brevity of things — is a key concept for Kenko, expounded most famously in the opening paragraphs of section 137. He is surprised to discover this sense of pathos even in the ‘alarming-looking ruffian’ of section 142, but it is above all the sensitivity to beauty and refinement of the old culture that embodies all things good for Kenko. His ideal man or woman is one who displays an innate understanding of this sensibility, and many of his anecdotes serve to record instances of such people. (K&K,  xviii-xxi)
 
 
 
What strange folly, to beguile the tedious hours like this all day before my ink stone, jotting down at random the idle thoughts that cross my mind ... (K&K, 21 [1])
 
When someone complained that it was a great shame the way fine silk covers are so soon damaged, Ton’a replied, ‘It is only after the top and bottom edges of the silk have frayed, or when the mother-of-pearl has peeled off the roller, that a scroll is truly impressive’ — an astonishingly fine remark, I felt. Similarly, an unmatched set of bound books can be considered unattractive, but Bishop Koyu impressed me deeply by saying that only a boring man will always want things to match; real quality lies in irregularity — another excellent remark.
       In all things, perfect regularity is tasteless. Something left not quite finished is very appealing, a gesture towards the future. Someone told me that even in the construction of the imperial palace, some part is always left uncompleted.
       In the Buddhist scriptures and other works written by the great men of old there are also a number of missing sections. (K&K, 61 [82])
 
Should we look at the spring blossoms only in full flower, or the moon only when cloudless and clear? To long for the moon with the rain before you, or to lie curtained in your room while the spring passes unseen, is yet more poignant and deeply moving. A branch of blossoms on the verge of opening, a garden strewn with fading petals, have more to please the eye. ... It is natural human feeling to yearn over the falling blossoms and the setting moon — yet some, it seems, are so insensitive that they will declare that since this branch and that have already shed their flowers, there is nothing worth seeing any longer. ... In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging. ... 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 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 man of quality never appears entrances by anything; he savours things with a casual air. Country bumpkins, however, take flamboyant pleasure in everything. They will wriggle their way in through the crowd and stand there endlessly gaping up at the blossoms, sit about under the trees drinking sake and indulging in linked verse-making together and, finally, oafishly break off great branches of blossom to carry away. ... I have observed such people behaving quite astonishingly when they come to the Kamo festival. Declaring that the procession was horribly late so there was no point in hanging around on the viewing stand, a group retired to a house behind the stands and settled down to eat, drink and play go and sugoroku, leaving one of their number back on the stand to keep watch. ‘It’s coming by!’ he shouted, whereupon they all leaped frantically to their feet and dashed back, elbowing each other out of the way as they scrambled up, nearly tumbling off in their eagerness to thrust aside the blinds for a better look, jostling for position and craning to miss nothing, and commenting volubly on everything they saw. Then, when that section of the procession had passed, off they went again, declaring they’d be back for the next one. They were clearly only there to see the spectacle.
       The upper echelons from the capital, on the other hand, will sit there dozing without so much as a glance at the scene. Young gentlemen of lesser rank are constantly rising to wait on their superiors, while those seated in the back rows never rudely lean forward, and no one goes out of his way to watch as the procession passes.
On the day of the festival everything is elegantly strewn with the emblematic aoi leaves, and even before dawn the carriages quietly begin to arrive to secure a good viewing position, everyone intrigued about which carriage is whose, sometimes identifying them by an accompanying servant or ox-boy they recognize. It is endlessly fascinating to watch the carriages come and go, some charming, others more showy. By the time evening draws in, all those rows of carriages and the people who were crammed into the stands have disappeared, and hardly a soul is left. Once the chaos of departing carriages is over, the blinds and matting are taken down from the stands as you watch, and the place is left bare and forlorn, moving you to a poignant sense of the brevity of worldly things. It is this that is the real point of seeing the festival.
 
 
Among the people coming and going in front of the stands there are many you recognize, making you realize there are not really so many people in this world. Even if you were destined to die after all these others, clearly your own death cannot be far away. When a large vessel filled with water is pierced with a tiny hole, though each drop is small it will go on relentlessly leaking until soon the vessel is empty. The city is filled with people, but not a day would go by without someone dying. And is it only one or two a day? There are times when the corpses on the pyres of Toribe, Funaoka and elsewhere further afield are piled high, but no day passes without a funeral. And so the coffin sellers no sooner make one than it is sold. Be they young, be they strong, the time of death comes upon all unawares. It is an extraordinary miracle that we have escaped it until now. Can we ever, even briefly, have peace of mind in this world?
       It is like the game of mamakodate, played with sugoroku pieces, in which no one knows which in the line of pieces will be removed next — when the count is made and a piece is taken, the rest seem to have escaped, but the count goes on and more are picked off in turn, so that no piece is finally spared. Soldiers going into battle, aware of the closeness of death, forget their home and their own safety. And it is sheer folly for a man who lives secluded from the world in his lowly hut, spending his days in idle delight in his garden, to pass off such matters as irrelevant to himself. Do you imagine that the enemy Impermanence will not come forcing its way into your peaceful mountain retreat? The recluse faces death as surely as the soldier setting forth to battle.
(K&K, 87-90 [137])