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Essays in Idleness and Hojoki (Penguin…

Essays in Idleness and Hojoki (Penguin Classics) (edition 2014)

by Kenko (Author), Meredith McKinney (Editor)

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These two works on life's fleeting pleasures are by Buddhist monks from medieval Japan, but each shows a different world-view. In the short memoir "Hōjōki", Chōmei recounts his decision to withdraw from worldy affairs and live as a hermit in a tiny hut in the mountains, contemplating the impermanence of human existence. Kenkō, however, displays a fascination with more earthy matters in his collection of anecdotes, advice and observations. From ribald stories of drunken monks to aching nostalgia for the fading traditions of the Japanese court, "Essays in Idleness" is a constantly surprising work that ranges across the spectrum of human experience.… (more)
Title:Essays in Idleness and Hojoki (Penguin Classics)
Authors:Kenko (Author)
Other authors:Meredith McKinney (Editor)
Info:Penguin Classics (2014), 224 pages
Collections:Read in 2020

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Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki by Kenkō Yoshida



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Writing this, I realize that all this has already been spoken of long ago in The tale of Genji and The Pillow Book — but that is no reason not to say it again. After all, things thought but left unsaid only fester inside you. So I let my brush run on like this for my own foolish solace; these pages deserve to be torn up and discarded, after all, and are not something others will ever see. —Kenkō, Essay 19

...but it is above all the sensitivity to beauty and refinement of the old culture that embodies all things good for Kenkō. —From the Introduction

Chōmei's summary of the progress of his own life, from the fine mansion of his youth through a series of diminishing houses to the tiny 'brief dwelling' of his few final years, traces a trajectory that mirrors his slow realization of the truth of impermanence...As that end approaches with the end of Hōjōki itself, even this hut is cast away at the realization of the necessity of non-attachment, the lesson that lies behind the sermon preached by this work. —From the Introduction

I knew nothing about these two works other than their titles, so I was pleasantly surprised when I thought they were much better than anything I was expecting.

The first work, Hōjōki by Chōmei, is a beautiful short work (~15pp) reflecting on the author's life, impermanence, and his commitment to Buddhism.

The second work, Essays in Idleness by Kenkō, are a series of 243 essays about all manner of subjects. Some of his favourite subjects are philosophy, aesthetics, anecdotes, and observations of people's behaviours. They show great variety, and range from lighthearted to more serious topics, and are incredibly easy to read.

The translations by Meredith McKinney are excellent, and rendered into a beautiful English.

(In fact, I discovered that the translator, Meredith McKinney, translated The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon for Penguin, and after comparing her translation with a copy that I own translated by Ivan Morris, I bought the former straight away and will definitely be reading from her translation.)

May I suggest reading this with some calm, atmospheric music that transports you to the heights of a Japanese Mountain playing queitly in the background, as I did?

I'm all for total immersion when experiencing a piece of art, and I don't usually listen to music whilst reading (usually rain/fire/ocean sounds), but I think Skyrim Atmospheres by Jeff Beal was a great match with these works.
On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does its water ever stay the same. the bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings. —Hōjōki

And so it is with the pelasures of seclusion. Who but one who lives it can understand its joys? —Hōjōki

How could I waste my days like this, describing useless pleasures? —Hōjōki

What happiness to sit in intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this 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. —Essay 12

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. —Essay 13

Some of today's poems could be said to achieve a nice turn of phrase here and there, but somehow they just do not have the old poetry's subtle flavour of feeling that resonates beyond words. —Essay 14

At times of quiet contemplation, my one irresistible emotion is an aching nostalgia for all things past. —Essay 29

The place is large, with an ancient grove of trees, and cherry blossoms drift down in the garden —Essay 43

There are endless examples of something that attaches itself to another, eats away at it and harms it. A body has fleas. A house has rats. A nation has robbers. A lesser man has wealth. An honourable man has moral imperatives. A monk has the Buddhist Law. —Essay 97

If you wish to follow the Buddhist Way, you should simply retire and make time in your life, and not let your mind dwell on worldly matters. This is the most important thing. —Essay 98

If you wish to be better than others, you should aim to excel them through study; by pursuing truth, you will learn not to take pride in your virtues or compete with others, It takes the strength conferred by study to enable you to relinquish high office and to turn your back on gain. —Essay 130

The man of quality never appears entranced by anything; he savours things with a casual air. —Essay 137

When people get together, they are never silent for a moment. They will always talk. When you listen to what they say, a great deal of it is pointless. —Essay 164

There is so much talking when people get together. It is exhausting, disturbs the mind and wastes time better spent on other things. —Essay 170

Remember, the Buddha teaches that those who lift the wine glass either to their own lips or to others' will spend five hundred lifetimes without hands. —Essay 175

As a rule, people should display no learning or art. —Essay 232
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Yoshida, Kenkōprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kamo no ChōmeiAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
McKinney, MeredithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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