Idleness to Subtle yet Profound Thougths

Yoshida Kenko or Kaneyoshi was a Japanese monk of 12th century (1283 – 1352 AD) to seek seclusion and isolation from city life to pen this classic poems under ‘Essays in Idleness’ which is a celebrated classic in Japanese Literature, along with The Pillow Book and Hojoki. This reminds me of the musings by an equally creative French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who wrote on similar genre. Writing without a topic in mind and not methodically but write about random topics that entertain, inform, cajole, interest the author (posthumously the readers) during his lifetime which may capture practices, customs, incidents, popularities and teachings of their time. There’s always timeless advices to heed and benefit from reading this genre.

Excerpts from translation to prose which excited and piqued me and which may be beneficial to those want to get a gist and glimpse of this sage’s writings. The full book is available @ http://djm.cc/library/The_Miscellany_of_a_Japanese_Priest_Gusa_Porter.pdf. I find the Penguin Classics – Kenko and Chome – Essays in Idleness and Hojoki, Translated by Meredith McKinney – a better translation than the online one.

On Love
Nothing so distracts the human heart as sexual desire. How foolish men’s hearts are! Aroma, for instance, is a mere transient thing, yet a whiff of delightful incense from a woman’s robes will always excite a man, though he knows perfectly well that it is just a passing effect of robe-smoking. The wizard priest of Kume is said to have lost his supernatural powers when he spied the white legs of a woman as she squatted washing clothes. I can quite believe it — after all, the beautiful, plump, glowing flesh of a woman’s arm or leg is quite a different matter from some artificial allurement.

On Women
Beautiful hair on a woman will draw a man’s gaze but we can judge what manner of person she is and the nature of her sensibility even by simply hearing her speak from behind a screen. A mere unintended glimpse of a woman can distract a man’s heart; and if a woman sleeps fitfully, and is prepared to endure impossible difficulties heedless of her own well-being, it is all because her mind is on love. Yes indeed, the ways of love lies deep in us. Many are the allurements of our senses, yet we can distance ourselves from them all. But among them this one alone seems without exception to plague us all, young and old, wise and foolish. So it is that we have those tales of how a woman’s hair can snare and hold even an elephant, or how the rutting stag of autumn will always be drawn by the sound of a flute made from the wood of a woman’s shoe. We must discipline ourselves to be constantly prudent and vigilant lest we fall into this trap.

On Reading
It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met. As to books — those moving volumes of Wenxuan, the Wenji of Bai Juyi, the words of Laozi and Zhuangzi. There are many moving works from our own land, too, by scholars of former times.

On Boundless Ambition
What prevented the lay priest Chikurin In,838 who was a Sa-daijin, from being promoted to the rank of Prime Minister ? He simply said, ‘ It is not a prize that I wish for; I intend to stop at my present rank and entered the church. But DöIn, who was also a Sa-daijin, was so impressed with this, that he too gave up all desire of becoming Premier. They say that the dragon who has reached the heavens fears (a fall). The moon when full begins to wane ; where there has been increase there is bound to be decrease ; and in every case he who has reached the very front soon gets a set-back.

On Deceit
No human heart is quite guileless; there is some deceit In al But why should there not be the occasional person who is honest and upright? One may not be without guile oneself, but it is human nature to envy others who are wise and good. Really stupid people who come across the rare wise man, however, will hate him. ‘He turns up his nose at small gains because in his heart he hopes for bigger ones,’ they sneer. ‘It’s all a hypocritical pose, intended to impress and make a name for himself.’ Such a man scoffs so contemptuously because the other’s nature differs from his own, but this only reveals what he him- self is like — a born fool, who has no hope of transcending his own nature. Even the pretense of turning down a chance Of some small gain would be beyond him; likewise the merest imitation of wisdom. If you run about the streets pretending to be a madman, then a madman is what you are. If in pretense of being wicked you kill a man, wicked is what you are. A horse that pretends to fleetness must be counted among the fleet; a man who models himself on the saintly Emperor Shuni will indeed be among his number. Even a deceitful imitation of wisdom will place you among the wise.

On the Difficulty of an Easy Task
A man famed for his tree-climbing skills once directed another to climb a tall tree and cut branches. While the fellow was precariously balanced aloft, the tree-climber watched without a word, but when he was descending and had reached the height of the eaves the expert called co him, ‘Careful how you go! Take care coming down. ‘Why do you say that? He’s so far down now that he could leap to the ground from there,’ I said. ‘Just so,’ replied the tree-climber. ‘While he’s up there among the treacherous branches I need not say a word his fear is It’s in the easy places that mistakes will always occur’ Lowly commoner though he was, his words echoed the warnings of the sages. Apparently one of the laws of also states that if you relax after achieving a difficult kick, this is the moment when the ball will always fall to the ground.

The Accomplishments of a Gentleman
One’s education must first of all be directed to a thorough knowledge of the classics and an understanding of the teachings of the sages. Next, you should learn to write with a fine hand, even if you don’t make a specialty of it, as an aid to learning. After this, you should study the medicinal arts. Without these, you cannot look after your own health, help others or perform your filial obligations. Next, you must devote some time to archery and horse riding, skills which are listed among the Six Arts. A knowledge of the classics, the martial arts and medicine is absolutely essential, and no one who studies these can be accused of a useless life. Next is food, ‘man’s very heaven’, as the saying goes. The knowledge of how to concoct fine flavors must be deemed a fine virtue in a man. And next is fine handiwork, which is useful in all manner of ways. Aside from these, it is a matter of shame for a gentleman to cultivate too many accomplishments. Skill in the art of poetry and music is the acknowledged path of the truly refined sensibility, esteemed by ruler and subjects alike, but in our present age they have clearly grown increasingly unrealistic as a means of governing the country — just as gold, for all its glory, cannot compete with all the practical uses of iron.

The Necessities of Life
Any one wastes time in worthless pursuits must be called a fool or Obligation compels us to do many things for the sake of lord and nation, and we have little enough time left ourselves. Think of it like this: we have an inescapable need, first. to acquire food. second, clothes, and third, a place to live. These and these alone are the three great necessities of human life. To live without hunger or cold, sheltered from the elements and at peace — this is happiness. Yet we are all prey to sickness, and once ill the wretchedness of it is hard to bear, so we should add medical treatment to our list. Thus, we have four things without which a man is poor, while a man who lacks none of these is rich. It is sheer self- indulgence to pursue anything beyond these four. With these four in moderation, no one could be said to lack anything in life.

Against Leaving Property After Death
A sensible man will not die leaving valuables behind. A collection of vulgar objects looks bad, while good ones will suggest a futile attachment to worldly things. And it is even more unfortunate to leave behind a vast accumulation. There will be ugly fights over it after your death, with everyone determined to get things for himself. If you plan to leave something to a particular person, you should pass it on while you are still alive. Some things are necessary for day-to-day living, but one should have nothing else.

On Ominous Incident
When the now-deceased Tokudaiji Mlinister of the Right; r was Superintendent of Police, he was one day holding court at his central gate?’ when the ox of one of the officers, Akikane, broke loose, got into the court room, scrambled up on to the Superintendent’s seating platform and there settled down to chew its cud. “lhs was deemed a disturbingly untoward event, and everyone present declared that the beast should be taken off for Yin-Yang divination to determine the meaning.  However, when the Superintendent’s father the Minister heard of this, he declared, ‘An ox has no understanding. It has its four legs which can take it anywhere. There is no reason to impound a skinny beast that happens to have brought some lowly official here.’ He had the ox returned to its master, and changed the matting where the ox had lain. There were no ill consequences from the event. It is sometimes said that if you see something sinister and choose to treat it as normal, you will thereby avert whatever it portended.

On Married Life
The one thing a man should not have is a wife. One is impressed to hear that a certain man always lives alone, while someone who is reported to have married into this or that family, or to have taken a wife and be living together, will find himself quite looked down on. ‘He must have married that nondescript girl because he thought she was something special,’ people will say scornfully, or if she is a good woman they will think, ‘He’ll be so besotted that he treats her like his own personal Buddha. The impression is even more dreary when she runs the house well. It is depressing to watch her bear children and fuss over them, and things don’t end with his death, for then you have the shameful sight of her growing old and decrepit as a nun. No matter who the woman may be, you would grow to hate her if you lived with her and saw her day in day out, and the woman must become dissatisfied too. But if you lived separately and sometimes visited her, your feelings for each other would surely remain unchanged through the years. It keeps the relationship fresh to just drop in from time to time on impulse and spend the night.

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