After Kenko

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Yoshida Kenkō (1283?-1350?), a guard to a Japanese emperor. Following the emperor’s death, Kenko (born Urabe Kaneyoshi) turned to a life of contemplation as a Buddhist monk.  During those years, he wrote Tsurezuregusa, which translates as Essays in Idleness or Notes from the Leisure Hours.  This collection of 243 short pieces, published posthumously, includes compositions that might be three sentences or three pages, all discussing the commonplace issues of life.

I encountered them first when Phillip Lopate included them in the “Forbearer” section of The Art of the Personal Essay.  It may be a misnomer to call him a forbearer, as the first essayists to use the term “essay” wouldn’t have known anything about his work; however, his pithy and personal style anticipates the same reflective style discovered in the west much later.  At the same time, however, Kenko’s work is his own.  His homespun wisdom and quiet observations are endearing and enduring because they seem unadorned, unostentatious—qualities less common in western essayists.

At first, I thought I might write about Kenko but decided it might be more fun to admire him by imitating him.  The excerpts below don’t come close to the original—and I can’t help some of me intruding into the pieces I’ve written—but I offer these essays in the spirit of mental exercise and experimentation…


No one who knows you well will think you a risk-taker.  To them, you behave as you behave, and, if they love you, as you ought to behave.  Our greatest risks are in actions we undertake without forethought.

We buy a house not thinking about how the roof might someday leak or how our finances may run low, and we may have to choose how dear that house is.  Then we might consider what chances we took blithely, but before then, no.

Perhaps it’s too hard to look ahead and see all those risks aligned to meet us.  Perhaps it is the way we are, insisting that most of the things we are doing right now must be safe.


A sensible person knows not to criticize another’s heroes.  What can be gained by trying to persuade someone not to revere a beloved figure?  You have little chance of success, but, if you do, what have you done but taken direction from someone’s life and given them greater cause to resent you?


Here is a story of friend I knew in school.  He ran for a minor office, treasurer or secretary of his class, and made a campaign speech quoting wildly and broadly from strange sources.  He thought many of these quotations were funny, and they might have been… on the page.  Yet when he said them in front of an audience expecting responsibility, seriousness, and purpose, his classmates did not seem to know how to respond and met his cleverness with silence.  He fell flat.  The collective effect of his speech was strange.  They thought him strange and didn’t elect him.

In the school year that followed, the student government decided they needed direction and asked the student body for suggestions.  To that purpose, they placed a locked suggestion box in the cafeteria.  So, nearly every day after this box appeared, this failed candidate would finish lunch, pull a pencil from his pocket, and, on a little scrap of paper, jot down a sentence or two, fold it several times, and discreetly drop it in the slot as everyone rushed to class.

His classmates didn’t seem to notice, but if they had, they would have wondered, as I did, what he was writing.  He didn’t hesitate to tell me when I asked: he was offering an piece-by-piece plan to convert our high school to the sort of bumper cars you find at amusement parks.  The stairs would become shoots and inclines.  Halls would have traffic lights.  The classrooms would be outfitted with poles and speakers like those found at drive-ins.  Gym would be stockcar-type racing and, naturally, demolition derby.

The year stretched on, and he began to submit tiny drawings, minimally labeled, as if whoever would be reading them already knew where they fit in the overall plan.

How strange it must have been when the student government finally thought to open that box, and all those scraps of paper tumbled out!  With the fragments out of order, they probably didn’t trouble to piece them together in any way.  Perhaps they thought they were dealing with a madman.

But, some time later, when the principal of the school made an announcement at lunch telling students not to abuse the student government box because, after all, they just wanted to make school life better, I looked over at the failed candidate and, unnoticed by him, I saw his face break into a broad and open smile. I watched him carefully after that, but I never saw him make another suggestion.


With some friends, you only carry on one conversation, so that, even after years of being separated, you drop back into what each of you once said.  That’s the way the mind works, as if time meant nothing to it.  You find a photo beneath a dresser you’re moving, and the people in it are with you again, smiling as vividly as they did then, as they might be at that moment.


Try as we might, we can’t stop thinking how others see us.  The intentions and effects of our words so seldom match, and, just as one person will say a blossom is faint pink and another say it’s more purple than pink, you would struggle to move either to agree.

So, when a friend says to me, as one did the other day, “She doesn’t begin to understand me,” I’m tempted to say, “perhaps she does, just not as you wish.”

It’s rare to understand yourself as others might, because that would mean seeing yourself from outside when the heart of human experience is only having your one mind, and its one, one-way, window of senses into the world.  When we read what we’ve written, intention seems woven into it.  The very fabric of our thoughts seems represented there.  But it might be a great gift to see the true fabric, to discover whether it holds together and fits the world or whether it’s as insubstantial as a ruined spiderweb.

Instead, the fabric we imagine grows stronger and thicker, in our minds, at least.  Experience assures us we understand, and who can really see the actual world through all the layers of surmise we’ve accepted and stopped questioning?

I wonder who of us could handle knowing ourselves as others know us.  Sometimes, when you are riding a bus or passing through a garish hotel lobby or mindlessly staring at shop windows, you catch an unfamiliar reflection.  You recognize you there, but the reflected you is not looking back, and, suddenly, you’re a stranger and stranger than you’ve ever been.  Your eyes keep flitting back, expecting that person to be gone, hoping and not hoping for it.

Everyone likes to talk about how much they dislike the sound of their own voice on an answering machine.  I’ve seen people hold the phone away to avoid listening to their own voice asking for a message.  But I wonder why—if that sound is the sweetest sound in our own heads most of the time—what soul leaves our voices when they enter the world?

We mean to say something clearly and are heard entirely differently.  A desperate sea lives in the gap between what we mean and how we’re understood—one that sometimes seems as vast and airless as space… and as little subject to influence or intention.

Most of us are living out in that space all the time and can’t know it.


To hear an ancient author as if he were a branch finally grown long enough to tap the window or a household pipe that has always been shuddering to life unnoticed—what a strange thing reading is!


Filed under Essays, Kenko, Memory, Teaching, Writing

2 responses to “After Kenko

  1. David – these perceptive short pieces made for great reading. They seem deceptively simple and hide the labour that must have gone into them. Just, plain, excellent food for thought! G

    Thank you. I enjoyed writing in this form—and I didn’t actually feel I was stretching that much to do it. Kenko has such a sympathetic voice, and it isn’t hard to enter a conversation with him. I recommend it! Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  2. My God, you are a breath of fresh air. I have not read much of your writing at all, but I’ve read enough to know that I will be reading you in the future.
    I’m not commenting on this particular post, but to ask your permission to use your “ANGER” image from 10/3/07 Ruminations.

    Thank you!

    You have my permission to use the “anger” image, but I’m not sure how meaningful that permission will be. My ugly confession is that I found it on the web myself.

    You’ll notice that I don’t tag my work here with pictures. I grew uncomfortable with “image shopping” and didn’t much like people visiting my site just to find images as I had. I’m sure I have fewer visitors because I don’t include photos, but I’m happier this way.

    Thanks for visiting–I hope you’ll visit again.

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