Essays in Idleness
The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko
Translated by Donald Keene
Columbia University Press, New York (USA), 1967 (1332)
213 pages, including index

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 3)

Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire. What a foolish thing a man's hear is! Though we realize, for example, that fragrances are short-lived and the scent burnt into clothes lingers but briefly, how our hearts always leap when we catch a whiff of an exquisite perfume! The holy man of Kume lost his magic powers after noticing the whiteness of the legs of a girl who was washing clothes; this was quite understandable, considering that the glowing plumpness of her arms, lefs, and flesh owed nothing to artifice.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 8-9)

It is excellent for a man to be simple in his tastes, to avoid extravagance, to own no possessions, to entertain no craving for worldly success. It has been true since ancient days that wise men are rarely rich. (...)

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 17-18)

A certain hermit once said, "There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky." I can understand why he should have felt that way.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 22)

In all things I yearn for the past. Modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased. I find that even among the splendid pieces of furniture built by our master cabinetmakers, those in the old forms are the most pleasing. And as for writing letters, surviving scraps from the past reveal how superb the phrasing used to be. The ordinary spoken language has also steadily coarsened. People used to say "raise the carriage shafts" or "trim the lamp wick," but people today say "raise it" or "trim it." When they should say, "Let the men of the palace staff stand forth!" they say, "Torches! Let's have some light!" Instead of calling the place where the lectures on the Sutra of the Golden Light are delivered before the emperor "the Hall of the Imperial Lecture," they shorten it to "the Lecture Hall," a deplorable corruption, an old gentleman complained.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 23)

What a foolish thing it is to be governed by a desire for fame and profit and to fret away one's whole life without a moment of peace. Great wealth is no guarantee of security. Wealth, in fact, tends to attract calamities and disaster. Even if, after you die, you leave enough gold to prop up the North Star, it will only prove a nuisance to your heirs. The pleasures that delight the foolish man are likewise meaningless to the man of discrimination who considers a big carriage, sleek horses, and jeweled ornaments all equally undesirable and senseless. You had best throw away your gold in the mountains and drop your jewels into a ravine. It is an exceedingly stupid man who will torment himself for the sake of wordly gain.

To leave behind a reputation that will not perish through long ages to come is certainly to be desired, but can one say that men of high rank and position are necessarily superior? There are foolish and incompetent men who, having been born into an illustrious familar and, being favored by the times, rise to exalted position and indulge themselves in the extremes of luxury. There are also many learned and good men who by their own choice remain in humble positions and end their days without ever having encountered good fortune. A feverish craving for high rank and position is second in foolishness only to seeking wealth.

One would like to leave behind a glorious reputation for surpassing wisdom and character, but careful reflection will show that what we mean by love of a glorious reputation is delight in the aprobation of others. Neither those who praise nor those who abuse last for long, and the people who have heard their reports are likely to depart the world as quickly. Before whom then should we feel ashamed? By whom should we wish to be appreciated? Fame, moreover, inspires backbiting. It does no good whatsoever to have one's name survive. A craving after fame is next most foolish.

If I were to address myself to those who nevertheless seek desperately to attain knowledge and wisdom, I would say that knowledge leads to deceit, and artistic talent is the product of much suffering. True knowledge is not what one hears from others or acquires through study. What, then, are we to call knowledge? Proper and improper come to one and the same thing —can we call anything "good"? The truly enlightened man has no learning, no virtue, no accomplishments, no fame. Who knows of him, who will report his glory? It is not that he conceals his virtue or pretends to be stupid; it is because from the outset he is above distinctions between wise and foolish, between profit and loss.

If, in your delusion, you seek fame and profit, the results will be as I have described. All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 34-36)

I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of "having nothing to do." I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone.

If a man conforms to society, his mind will be captured by the filth of the outside world, and he is easily led astray; if he mingles in society, he must be careful that his words do not offend others, and what he says will not at all be what he feels in his heart. He will joke with others only to quarrel with them, now resentful, now happy, his feelings in constant turmoil. Calculation of advantage will wantonly intrude, and not a moment will be free from considerations of profit and loss. Intoxication is added to delusion, and in a state of inebriation the man dreams. People are all alike: they spend their days running about frantically, oblivious to their insanity.

Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of elightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy, at least for the time being.

It is written in Maka Shikan, "Break your ties with your daily activities, with personal affairs, with your arts, and with learning."

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 66-67)

A screen or sliding door decotared with a painting or inscription in clumsy brushwork gives an impression less of its own ugliness than of the bad taste of the owner. It is all too apt to happen that a man's possessions betray his inferiority. I am not suggesting that a man should own nothing but masterpieces. I refer to the practice of deliberately building in a tasteless and ugly manner "to keep the house from showing its age," or adding all manner of useless things in order to create an impression of novelty, though only producing an effect of fussiness. Possessions should look old, not overly elaborate; they need not cost much, but their quality should be good.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 70)

Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton'a replied, "It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful." This opinion demostrated the excellent taste of the man. People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Kōyū say, "It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better."

In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, "Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished." In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 70-71)

Nothing stood in the way of the lay priest of Chikurin'in and minister of the left rising to be prime minister, but he said, "I doubt that being prime minister will make much difference. I'll stop at minister of the left." He subsequently took Buddhist orders.

The Tōin minister of the left, impressed by his stort, himself never entertained any ambitions of becoming prime minister.

The old adage has it, "When the dragon has soared to the summit he knows the chagrin of descent." The moon waxes only to wane; things reach their height only presently to decline. In all things, the principle holds true that decline threatens when further expansion is impossible.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 71)

A certain man who was learning to shoot a bow aimed at the target with two arrows in his hand. His teacher said, "A beginner should not hold two arrows. It will make him rely on the second arrow and be careless with the first. Each time you shoot you should think not of hitting or missing the target but of making this one the decisive arrow." I wonder if anyone with only two arrows would be careless with one of them in the presence of his teacher. But though the pupil is himself unaware of any carelessness, the teacher will notice it. This caution applies to all things.

A man studying some branch of learning thinks at night that he has the next day before him; he plans in this way always to study more diligently at some future time. How much harder it is to perceive the laziness of mind that arises in an instant! Why should it be so difficult to do something now, in the present moment?

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 78)

Someone told the story, "Let's suppose a man has an ox to sell. A buyer says he will pay the price and take the ox the following day. During the night the ox dies. The prospective buyer profits and the prospective seller loses."

A bystander, hearing the story, remarked, "The owner of the ox certainly suffered a loss, but at the same time he secured a great profit, too. You see, living creatures never realize how close they are to death. This was true of the ox, and the same is true of human beings. Unpredictably the ox died; unpredictably to the owner survived. A day of life is more precious than then thousand pieces of gold; the worth of an ox weighs less than a duck's feather. The man who gains a fortune at the cost of a single coin cannot be said to have suffered a loss." At this everybody laughed at him. "You needn't lose an ox in order to learn the value of life," they said.

The man continued, "People who hate death should love life. How is it possible for men not to rejoice each day over the pleasure of being alive? Foolish men, forgetting this pleasure, laboriously seek others; forgetting the wealth they possess, they risk their lives in their greed for new wealth. But their desires are never satisfied. While they live they do not rejoice in life, but, when faced with death, they fear it —what could be more illogical"

"People fail to enjoy life because they do not fear death. No, it is not that they have no fear of death; rather, they forget how close it is. But if a man said he was indifferent to such external distinctions as life and death, he could certainly be said to have grasped the true principles." At this, everybody laughed at him all the more.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 78-79)

Examples of anachronistic commentary on minor things:

I once asked an expert in court usage to which loop on a box the cords should be attached. He answered, "Some say the left side, others the right. Since there is no agreement, either will do. Most document boxes have their cord attached on the right. The cord of a toilet-article box is normally attached on the left."

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 80)

These are the things I found most to my taste when I read the book called Ichigon Hōdan, which records the sayings of the great priests:

  1. When in doubt whether or not to do something, generally it is best not to do it.
  2. A man concerned about the future life should not own even a miso pot. Owning valuables, even if they happen to be personal copies of sutras or images of guardian Buddhas, is harmful to salvation.
  3. The hermit's way of life is best; he feels no want even if he has nothing.
  4. It is good for the man of high rank to act like a humble person, for a scholar to act like an ignoramus, for the rich man to act like a pauper, and for the talented man to act awkwardly.
  5. There is only one way to seek Buddhist enlightenment: you must lead a quiet life and pay no heed to worldly matters. This is the first essential.

There were other things, but I don't remember them.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 81-82)

Bits of chauvinistic culture here and there, which are fully expected from a book written in 14th century Japan, though:

...One might wonder, then, what exalted creatures women must be to inspire such fear in men. In fact, women are all perverse by nature. They are deeply self-centered, grasping in the extreme, devoid of all susceptibility to reason, quick to indulge in superstitious practices. They are clever talkers, but may refuse to utter a word when asked even some perfectly unobjectionable questoin. One might suppose this meant they were cautious, but they are equally apt to start discussing, quite unsolicited, matters better passed over in silence. Their ingenuity in embroidering their stories is too much for the wisdom of any man, but when, presently, their fictions are exposed, they never perceive it. Women are devious but stupid. How disagreeable it is to be forced to cater to their wishes in order to please them. What woman is worthy of such deference? Even if such a thing as an intelligent woman existed, she would surely prove to be aloof and unendearing. Only when a man enslaved by his infatuation is courting a woman does she seem charming and amusing.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 90)

The people of former times never made the least attempt to be ingenious when naming temples or other things, but bestowed quite casually whatever names suggested themselves. The names given recently sound as if they had been mulled over desperately in an attempt to display the bestower's cleverness, an unfortunate development. In giving a child a name, it is foolish to use unfamiliar characters. A craving for novely in everything and fondness for eccentric opinions are the marks of people of superficial knowledge.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 99)

The most important qualifications of a man are familiarity with the classics and a knowledge of the teachings of the sages. Next is handwriting; even if a man does not make this art his chief study, he should learn it anway, for it will help him in his learning. Next, he sthould study medicine. A knowledge of medicine is indispensable in order to keep oneself in good health, to help others, and to fulfil one's duties of loyalty and filial affection. Next, archery and riding certainly deserve attention, for they are listed among the Six Arts. A knowledge of letters, arms, and medicine is truly essential. Any man who would study these arts cannot be called an idler.

Next, since food nurtures man like Heaven itself, a knowledge of how to prepare tasty food must be accounted a great asset in a man. Next comes manual skill, which has innumerable uses.

As for other things, too many accomplishments are an embarrassment to the gentleman. Proficiency in poetry and music, both noble arts, has always been esteemed by rulers and subjects alike, but it would seem that nowadays they are neglected as a means of governing the country. Gold is the finest of the metals but it cannot compare to iron in its many uses.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 104-105)

A man who wastes his time doing useless things is either a fool or a knave. Many things must be done, like it or not, for your country or lord, and they leave you little time of your own. Consider: for his own welfare a man has no choice but to labor so he may secure food, clothing and shelter. Man's worldly necessities do not go beyond these three. When he can live peacfully, neither hungry nor cold nor buffeted by the wind and rain, he is happy. But all men are prey to sickness, and when sickness strikes, the pains are hard to bear; the healing art should not be forgotten. Adding medicine gives four essentials. If a man needs but cannot obtain them, he is poor; if he lacks none of the four, he is rich. If one seeks to obtain more than these four, it is extravagance. Why should anyone who is modest in his demands for these four ever feel that he has not enough?

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 105)

Some other surprisingly modern comments:

As a rule, people who take pleasure in killing living creatures or making one creature fight another, are themselves akin to the beasts of prey. If we carefully observe the countless varieties of birds and beasts, even tiny insects, we shall discover that they love thei children, long to be near their parents, that husband and wife remain together, that they are jealous, angry, greedy, self-seeking, and fearful for their own lives to an even worse degree than men because they lack intelligence. How can we not feel pity when pain is inflicted on them or people take their lives?

A man who can look on sentient creatures without feeling compassion is no human being.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 108)

The intelligent man, when he dies, leaves no possessions. If he has collected worthless objects, it is embarrassing to have them discovered. If the objects are of good quality, they will depress his heirs at the thought of how attached he must have been to them. It is all the more deplorable if the possessions are ornate and numerous. If a man leaves possessions, there are sure to be people who will quarrel disgracefully over them, crying, "I'm getting that one!" If you wish something to go to someone after you are dead, you should give it to him while you are still alive. Some things are probably indispensable to daily life, but as for the rest, it is best not to own anything at all.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 126)

A certain sense of ironic detachment in the humor:

The imperial bodyguard Hata no Shigemi once said of Shingan, the lay prince of Shimotsuke, a member of the retired emperor's guard, "His face has the marks of a man who will fall from his horse. You should urge him to be careful." Nobody took his words seriously, but Shingan one day fell from his horse and died. People were then convinced that the opinions of anyone expert in this art were to be trusted like divine pronouncements. They asked Shigemi what signs enabled him to make the prediction. He said, "Shingan sat unsteadily in the saddle and liked high-spirited horses. Those were the signs he carried. When have I ever been mistaken in a prediction?"

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 130-131)

You should never put the new antlers of a deer to your nose and smell them. They have little insects that crawl into the nose and devour the brain.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, p. 134)

The mother of Tokiyori, the governor of Sagami, was called the Zen nun of Matsushita. Once, when she had invited the governor to her hermitage, the nun herself took a small knife and cut around the broken places in the paper shōji, repairing them with new paper. Her brother Yoshikage, the vice-governor of Akita Castle, who was there preparing the reception for that day, said, "Let me do it. I'll have a servant of mine repair the shōji. He knows all about such things." She replied, "I'm sure your servant's work wouldn't be any better than mine." She went on papering the shōji, one pane at a time. Yoshikage, pursuing the matter, said, "It would be far easier to repaper the whole shōji at one time. Besides, don't you think it looks patchy and ugly this way?" "I intend to repaper the whole thing after his visit, but I've purposely chosen to do it this way, just for today. I would like to have the young man notice this and realize that it is possible to go on using things by repairing just the broken parts." This was a most impressive gesture.

The art of governing a country is founded on thrift. The nun, though a woman, acted in keeping with the spirit of the sages. Truly, she was no ordinary woman, for she had as her son a man who preserved the order of the state.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 157-158)

...we must carefully compare in our minds all the different things in life we might hope to make our principal work, and decide which is of the greatest value; this decided, we should renounce our other interests and devote ourselves to that one thing only. Many projects present themselves in the course of a day or even an hour; we must perform those that offer even slightly greater advantages, renouncing the others and giving ourselves entirely to whatever is most important. If we remain attached to them all, and are reluctant to give up any, we will not accomplish a thing.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 160-161)

A certain exceedingly rich man once said, "A man's obligation is to devote himself with all his energies to making a fortune. It isn't worth living if you are poor. Only the rich man merits the name of 'man'. If you would like to make a fortune, the first thing you must do is to cultivate an approapriate frame of mind —a conviction that human life is eternal. You must never, even for a moment, consider it may be impermanent. This is the first caution. Next, you must remember never to satisfy your desires in anything. In this world, man has innumerable desires, both for himself and others. If he attempts to satisfy these desires, indulging his appetites, his money will not last long, even if he started with a million zeni. Desires never cease, but there comes a time when your fortune is exhausted. It is quite impossible to satisfy unlimited desires with limited means. If desires germinate in your heart, you should dread them as an evil passion come to destroy you, and curb them severely. Do not gratify even small wants.

"Next, if you suppose that money may be used like a servant, you will never escape poverty. Money should be feared and dreaded like a master or god, not used as one pleases.

"Next, you must never be angry or resentful when faced by humiliation.

"Next, you must be honest and abide firmly by your promises.

"Riches will come to any man who obeys these rules as he seeks after profit, as surely as fire spreading to dry wood or water flowing downstream. When he has accumulated wealth so great it cannot be exhausted, his heart will be eternally at peace and happy, though he gives no thought to carousing and fleshly pleasures, though he refrains from decorating his house, and though he never fulfills his desires."

One might suppose that the reason for seeking wealth is so we may fulfill our desires, and the reason why money is precious is that it makes it possible to obtain what one wants. But if a man has desires and does not satisfy them, has money and does not use it, he is exactly the same as a poor man. What pleasure can he derive from it? The millionaire's prescriptions seem to urge men to forego their worldly desires and not grieve over poverty. But it is better not to have money than to hope for pleasure in satisfying a desire for wealth. For the man suffering from boils, the pleasure obtained by washing them is not as great as that of being freed from them altogether. At this point poverty and wealth lose all distinction. In the final stage, those at the highest level of enlightenment are the same as those at the lowest. The man of powerful desires resembles one without desires.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 178-179)

If you wish to avoid mistakes of any kind, there is no better way than to be sincere in whatever you do, respectful to every man without distinction, and scant of words

Anybody —whether a man or woman, old or young— does well to maintain a purity of speech, but this quality in a young, handsome person produces an especially unforgettable, even seductive, appeal.

All mistakes originate whith people's acting like experts thoroughly familiar with a subject, and looking down with an air of superiority on others.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 190-191)

Man is eternally swayed by the pleasing or displeasing circumstances around him, thanks to his constant preoccupation with pleasure and pain. Pleasure is liking and loving. We never cease our pursuit of this happiness. The pleasure we desire firt of all is that of fame. There are two kinds of fame: glory derived from one's conduct, or from one's talents. The next pleasure desired is that of lust, the third of appetite. None of man's other desires can equal these three. They arise from a perverted view of life, and cause innumerable griefs. It is best not to seek them.

(Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, pp. 200-201)

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 8/10