Monday, October 31, 2016

Currently Reading 10.31.16

One Japanese text I often revisit is Tsurezuregusa (also known as Essays in Idleness) by Yoshida Kenkō. Tsurezuregusa is a compilation of brief life lessons and inklings of insightful social commentary by the likes of a Japanese Buddhist monk. From the essays, comes one quote that I’ve always found intriguing in my day to day life.

When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. After the others have gone to bed, I pass the time on a long autumn’s night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand. As I tear up scraps of old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of the calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time. Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year. What a moving experience it is! It is sad to think a man’s familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone.


In such a brief snippet, Kenkō paints a very realistic and relatable scene of late-night internal stirrings that recalls memories of my own life. It often surprises me at how relatable the writings of a Buddhist monk in 14th century Japan can be. Kenkō inspires the reader to cherish the emotional and spiritual connections they have made throughout their life, which are capable of transcending death itself. It is the spirit of the letter itself, with the memories and feeling attached to it that surface in our mind and that is what Kenkō calls both the “hardest [feeling] to fight against…” and a “moving experience…!” One can immediately sense the happiness and sadness that permeates throughout Tsurezuregusa. It’s possibly one of the reasons I appreciate Kenkō’s writings; they are both consumed with a romanticized view of the world while also being grounded in the physical reality of things. Memories of the past are splendid, moving, and beautiful things, but no man or woman can resist the call of death itself.

Kenkō highlights the mentality of even our contemporary thinkers, of the bastardization of language and the recurring sense of nostalgia that plagues our world. Kenkō says:

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.


Glorifying the past is one that continues to persist in the modern tradition, where we believe any disengagement from the norms of society are also a threat to society. Though I can’t say I necessarily agree with what Kenkō is saying, he is right in his assumptions that ‘modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased.’ The master cabinetmakers that he cites are men who put every ounce of their being into their trade, creating a work of art that will stand the test of time long after they are dead. Modern fashions threaten this notion as cheaper, less personal, products with shorter lifespans become increasingly present in modern society.

Just look at how we treat smart-phones, as these handheld devices with a set lifespan that often is just under 2-years (sometimes even less). Technology is tearing away our spiritual connections in life, severing the sentimental ties we once held for every aspect of life that the Buddhist Kenkō held with the highest regard.

We cannot live forever in this world; why should we wait for ugliness to overtake us? The longer man lives, the more shame he endures. To die, at the latest, before one reaches forty, is the least unattractive. Once a man passes that age, he desires (with no sense of shame over his appearance) to mingle in the company of others. In his sunset years he dotes on his grandchildren, and prays for long life so that he may see them prosper. His preoccupation with worldly desires grows ever deeper, and gradually he loses all sensitivity to the beauty of things, a lamentable state of affairs

Perhaps a bit more forward of a statement than others, Kenkō warns of an emotional disconnection that is ugly and monstrous. Though I don’t think we should all opt out of life at 40 because it all goes downhill from there, I can relate to what Kenkō is saying. Once we realize our impending obsolescence, we become concerned with leaving a legacy behind. Kenkō sees this in the sweet and happy image of a grandfather doting on his grandchildren, despite it being a ‘preoccupation with worldly desires…’ This worldly distraction numbs the individual of their pursuit of beauty in all things and I think this is very much the case in our own contemporary society.

We are so consumed with what we’ll leave behind that we hardly take a second to appreciate the beauty of our everyday existence. We foster connections for the sake of forward movement as opposed to emotional and spiritual attachment. I like to think this is why I’ve chosen to pursue Japanese literature on an academic level. Though I am as guilty as anyone else, I admire the insightful thinking of Kenkō and consistently aim to use the Essays in Idleness to pursue happiness in a world where being idle is synonymous with failure.

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