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Yoshida Kenko

Japanese Philosopher

1283?-1350?


ESSAYS OF YOSHIDA KENKO

Narrated by David Drummond

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READING AND WRITING

To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the ink slab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, truly this is a queer and crazy thing to do!

It is desirable to have a knowledge of true literature, of composition and versifying, of wind and string instruments; and it is well, moreover, to be learned in precedent and court ceremonies, so as to be a model for others. One should write not unskillfully in the running hand, be able to sing in a pleasing voice and keep good time to music; and, lastly, a man should not refuse a little wine when it is pressed upon him.

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations—such is a pleasure beyond compare.

DWELLINGS

A house should be built with the summer in view. In winter one can live anywhere, but a poor dwelling in summer is unbearable. Deep water does not give a cool sensation. Far cooler is a shallow running stream. A room with sliding doors is lighter than one with doors on hinges. When the ceiling is high the room is cold in winter and difficult to light. As for construction, people agree in admiring a place with plenty of spare room, as being pleasing to the eye and at the same time useful for all sorts of purposes.

There is a charm about a neat and proper dwelling house, although this world, it is true, is but a temporary abode. Even the moonshine, when it strikes into the house where a good man lives in peaceful ease, seems to gain in friendly brilliancy. The man is to be envied who lives in a house, not of the modern, garish kind, but set among venerable trees, with a garden where plants grow wild and yet seem to have been disposed with care, verandas and fences tastefully arranged, and all its furnishings simple but antique.

A house which multitudes of workmen have devoted all their ingenuity to decorate, where rare and strange things from home and abroad are set out in array, and where even the trees and shrubs are trained unnaturally—such is an unpleasant sight, depressing to look at, to say nothing of spending one’s days in there. Nor, gazing on it, can one but reflect how easily it might vanish in a moment of time.

The appearance of a house is in some sort an index to the character of its occupant.

Once in the month of September I passed over the plain of Kurusu and sought out a certain village among the hills beyond, when, threading my way far down a narrow moss-grown path, I came upon a lonely hut. There was never a sound to greet me, save the dripping of water from a pipe buried in fallen leaves, but I knew that someone lived there, for sprays of chrysanthemum and maple leaves bestrewed the shelf before the shrine, and “Ah!” thought I, “In such a place a man can spend his days.” But as I stood and gazed in wonder, I perceived in the garden beyond a great orange tree, its branches weighted down with fruit. It was strongly closed in on all sides by a fence. This broke the spell, and I thought to myself, “If only that tree had not been there!”

MOURNING

There is no such mournful time as follows on a death. For the days of retirement a crowd of people go up together to some mountain village, into a cramped and incommodious house, and there they busily perform the offices for the dead. So the appointed time passes with unwonted quickness. The last day is pitiless indeed; for in silence they gather together their possessions, each for himself, and go their several ways. Only when they have returned to their own homes will they begin to feel exceeding sad.

Months and years pass by, and still they do not forget, though, as the saying goes, the departed grows more distant every day. However that may be, they seem not to feel so deeply as at the time of death, for now they chatter and laugh together. The body is laid to rest upon some lonely mountainside, where the mourners come on rare appointed days. Soon the tablet is overgrown with moss, buried in fallen leaves, and looks in time as if none came to visit there save even storms and the nocturnal moon.

There may be some who will recall the dead, and think of him with grief. But soon they themselves must pass away. Then how can later generations grieve, who know him only by repute? After a time they go no longer to his tomb, and people do not even know his name or who he was. True, some feeling folk may gaze with pity on what is now but the growth of grasses of succeeding springs; but at last there comes a day when even the pine trees that groaned in the storms, not lasting out their thousand years of life, are split for fuel, and the ancient grave, dug up and turned to rice field, leaves never a trace behind.

THOUGHT IMPRESSIONS

Are we only to look at flowers in full bloom, at the moon when it is clear? No, to look out on the rain and long for the moon, to draw the blinds and not to be aware of the passing of the spring—these arouse even deeper feelings. There is much to be seen in young boughs about to flower, in gardens strewn with withered blossom. Men are wont to regret that the moon has waned or that the blossoms have fallen, and this must be so; but they must be perverse indeed who will say, “This branch, that bough is withered, now there is nothing to see.”

In all things it is the beginning and end that are interesting. The love of men and women—is it only when they meet face to face? To feel sorrow at an unaccomplished meeting, to grieve over empty vows, to spend the long night sleepless and alone, to yearn for distant skies, in a neglected house to think fondly of the past—this is what love is.

Rather than to see the moon shining over thousands of miles, it sinks deeper into the heart to watch it when at last it appears toward the dawn. It never moves one so much as when seen in gaps between the trees, pale green over the tops of the cedars on distant hills, or behind the clustering clouds after showers of rain. When it shines bright on the leaves of oak and evergreen, and they look wet, the sight sinks deeply into one’s being, and one feels “Oh! for a friend with whom to share this!” and longs for the capital.

And must we always look upon the moon and the blossoms with the eye alone? No, in the very thought of it, in the spring though we do not go abroad, on moonlit nights though we keep to our room, there is great comfort and delight.

A well-bred man does not show strong likings. His enjoyment appears careless. It is rustic boors who take all pleasures grossly. They squirm and struggle to get under the blossoms, they stare intently, they drink wine, they link verses, and at last they heartlessly break off great branches. They dip their hands and feet in springs; they get down and step on the snow, leaving footmarks; there is nothing they do not regard as their own.

As soon as we hear a person’s name we form in our minds a picture of his appearance; but when we come to see him, he is never the man whose face we had imagined.

I suppose we all feel, when we hear stories of ancient times, that the houses were more or less the same as people’s houses nowadays, and think of the people as like people we see about us. And am I alone in having sometimes within me a feeling that words I have just heard, or things I have just seen, have happened once before? When, I cannot recollect, but none the less they certainly have happened.

TIME’S URGENCY

A man who would be a success in the world must first of all be a judge of moods, for untimely speeches will offend the ears and hurt the feelings of others, and so fail in their purpose. He has to beware of such occasions.

But falling sick and bearing children and dying—these things take no account of moods. They do not cease because they are untimely. The shifting changes of birth, life, sickness, and death, the real great matters—these are like the surging flow of a fierce torrent, which delays not for an instant but straightway pursues its course. And so, for both priest and layman, there must be no talk of moods in things they must needs accomplish. They must be free from this care and that, they must not let their feet linger.

It does not turn to summer after spring has closed, nor does the fall come when the summer ends. The spring ahead of time puts on a summer air, already in the summer the fall is abroad, and soon the fall grows cold. In the tenth month comes a brief space of spring weather. Grass grows green, plum blossoms bud. So with the falling of leaves from the trees. It is not that the trees bud, once the leaves have fallen, but that because they are budding from beneath, the leaves, unable to withstand the strain, therefore must fall. An onward-urging influence is at work within, so that stage presses on stage with exceeding haste.

This again is exceeded by the changes of birth, age, sickness, and death. The four seasons have still an appointed order. The hour of death waits for no order. Death does not even come from the front. It is ever pressing on from behind. All men know of death, but they do not expect it of a sudden, and it comes upon them unawares. So, though the dry flats extend far out, soon the tide comes and floods the beach.

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