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Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki

Yoshida Kenkō


Two medieval Japanese classics in one.

Hojoki is a a short, simple parable of a monk's efforts towards enlightenment. There's a sting in the tail whereby, after describing his efforts to simplify his life, Chomei (the author) then concludes that he's become too attached to his own efforts, that his road to enlightenment is actually a source of attachment in its own right. In that sense the essay is almost a lengthy Zen koan on the dangers of pride, attachment, and effort.

Kenko's Essays in idleness is much harder to define, by contrast. It's part philosophy, part a gossipy history of events and anecdotes in a lost era. There are some fabulously quotable sections:

What happiness it is to sit in intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of the world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone.


It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and coming with someone from the past whom you have never met

Amongst the anecdotes are some really wonderful examples of Japanese manners that are to some degree maintained into the present, for example of the right (and wrong) ways to put oneself forward to do something for someone else, without in the process claiming any undue worth or ability for oneself. And it's fascinating that Kenko, writing in the twelfth century, complains in surprisingly modern terms about how is age is shallow and uncultured compared to elder times: a complaint that never seems to age. It's precisely this mixture of the sublime and the commonplace that makes the Essays such a joy for me.

4/5. Finished 27 February 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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