The last few days, my wife has been rolling her eyes because, as I reread Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness, I chuckle to myself or say, “Whaaaat?” Sometimes I ask to read an essay aloud to her, and she nods indulgently. She liked the story of the man who ate radishes every morning and then, when attackers assailed his house, was protected by two strangers who, after helpfully defeating the invaders, announced they were radishes.
Much of the time, these essays fit the expression, “I guess you had to be there.”
But not always.
Yoshida Kenko (C. 1283-1352) was a former emperor’s advisor who, after a well-connected public life, retired to seclusion as a Buddhist priest. Essays in Idleness is a collection of 243 separate pieces he wrote in his remaining years, published posthumously. He discusses public and private life, ostentation and simplicity, contemplation and action, skill and sincerity, growing old and growing cranky. Some “essays” are two pages and some are two sentences, but none last long enough to turn anyone away. Here’s the whole of #229 to illustrate the book’s style and tone:
They say that a good carver of images always uses a slightly blunt knife. The knife of Myokan did not cut at all easily.
At first these thoughts can seem banal—many are—but if you can take the time to think about them, they usually offer something curious to consider. The carver who uses a slightly blunt knife must have to work a little harder, but perhaps his tool slows him down as well, and who says a task worth doing well should be fast or easy? As Kenko expresses elsewhere, the key to artistry isn’t skill but care. That could be Myokan’s secret… whoever he is. Could that be Kenko’s secret?
Kenko’s work is rife with lost names, and it often recounts stories of foolish priests or unassuming people who unexpectedly spout some pithy and admirable answer, or the opposite, or something between. The 53rd essay describes a well-loved and promising young acolyte who, after drinking at his ordination, puts an iron pot on his head. It isn’t enough to wear it as a hat, so he pulls it over his ears and nose. Only, he can’t get it off again, so the other students walk the acolyte into town where a healer tries to understand what the boy is saying inside his pot. The healer shrugs and says, in effect, “Hey, I wasn’t trained to take iron pots off people’s heads!” So they resign themselves to the boy’s death. Finally someone says, “Suppose he does lose his ears and nose, so far as living goes there is no reason he should not survive.” It takes some tugging, but they get the pot off. His ears and nose also come off. Kenko ends with, “He escaped with his bare life, suffering afterwards for many a long day.”
Sometimes I’m unsure whether to laugh or cry at these stories. I receive limited clues to how Kenko feels—and fewer about how I’m supposed to feel. The boy should not have pulled a pot over his head, that’s plain, but, having made such a stupid momentary decision, should his life be over? Who hasn’t put a figurative iron pot over his or her figurative head? Does Kenko feel for what he himself calls “suffering”?
Many pieces in this collection explain the derivation of words, and others describe the usefulness of developing good handwriting (#35), how much taller head-dresses are these days (#65), the efficacy of certain herbs in treating snakebites (#96), and how a powder made from deer horns shouldn’t be smelled because it contains “A small insect that which enters by the nose and feeds on the brain” (#149). Here’s the entirety of #46:
Near Yangiwara there was a priest known as His Reverence Robbery-by-Violence. This name was given to him because he had several times been the victim of robbers.
Yet, if many of these essays seem to emerge from an inky sea, their wisdom does too. Because Kenko says anything and everything, a reader learns his prejudices, his affections, and, most of all, his voice. When Kenko turns to more serious matters, you hear him as if he has been whispering to you all along. “When in the space of a day, nay, even an hour,” Kenko writes in #188, “a number of tasks present themselves, we should perform that one of them which is even by a little the most profitable.” His advice is simple enough, but, in the next essay, he uses that observation to address the unanticipated urgencies that fill our daily lives and delay our deeper spiritual aspirations. We settle small things, he says, “The thing that was troublesome passes off without difficulty,” but “the thing that should have been easy causes great anxiety.” Here, as elsewhere, he spoke to me.
Reading Kenko teaches me not to ride in carriages with five straps (#64) and to know when the blossoms are prime (#161). It also demonstrates the value of writing playfully, with filters off. The mixture of high and low, mundane and cosmic, idiosyncratic and universal, make his personality and perspective vivid seven centuries later. He lives by what he preaches—give your earnest and sincere self, don’t posture.
In #19, he writes, “I have let my pen run on aimlessly, because a man is ill at ease if he does not say the things he feels,” then adds, “and, after all, this is to be thrown away and not to be seen by others.” As often as I laughed reading Essays in Idleness, I also thought what a loss it would be if Kenko’s expectation of invisibility came to pass.