Essays in Idleness

by Yoshida Kenkō (~1319-1331)

A modest book that changed the way I write.

This book was an odd journey. I didn’t immediately respond to Kenkō’s writing. Many of the entries seem like the musings of a cantankerous, judgmental, and isolated man. It’s not that I disliked him. I simply didn’t find him engaging.

But I kept reading - partially due to the surprisingly contemporary feel of so many entries. I am fascinated by artifacts that seem to transcend time. Essays on Idleness is from the 1300s. The book’s familiarity may be due to the timeless nature of Buddhist wisdom or the cultural stereotypes that endure over centuries. This assertion could be written today:

We would be no worse off if we lacked all things Chinese, aside from medicine. Chinese books are widely found in our country now, and are perfectly easy to make copies of. It is quite ridiculous the way such a throng of ships makes the difficult crossing from China, all crammed to the gunwales with useless objects.

Speaking of Chinese exports, I enjoy the game of Go immensely. Kenkō makes several references to the ancient game.

[A holy man once declared] those who devote themselves day in day out to playing go or sugoroku are committing a sin more heinous than the Four Transgressions or the Five Wickednesses.

Kenkō is quoted more than once in another book I happened to read and review this year, A Short Treatise Inviting the Reader to Discover the Subtle Art of Go. That text was written by French Oulipo luminaries Pierre Lusson, Georges Perec, and Jacques Roubaud in 1969. Essays on Idleness has certainly made its way around the world.

Essays in Idleness started to plant roots over the course of my reading. I began to enjoy Kenkō’s observations. I even adopted his style in my own practice of journaling. Our reasons for writing seem to run parallel:

Things thought but left unsaid only fester inside you. So I let my brush run on like this for my own foolish solace.

Kenkō enjoys making amusing observations about religious orthodoxy. He recounts a story where a man commands his horse to lift its leg as it is being bathed. A saint passes by and mishears the command ‘Ashis! Ashi!’ (literally ‘Leg! Leg!’) as ‘Aji! Aji!’, the name of the first vowel in Sanskrit and a religious symbol of the origin of all things. The saint figures that the man has found enlightenment. In reality, the man is just giving instructions to his horse.

But Kenkō also offers sharp critiques of orthodoxy:

There are endless examples of something that attaches itself to another, eats away at it and harms it. A body has fleas. A house has rats. A nation has robbers. A lesser man has wealth. An honourable man has moral imperatives. A monk has the Buddhist Law.

While also espousing the urgency and necessary of religious practice:

The truly momentous events of life – the changes from birth through life, transformation and death – are like the powerful current of a raging river. They surge ever forward without a moment’s pause. Thus, when it comes to the essentials, both in religious and in worldly life, you should not wait for the right moment in what you wish to achieve, nor dawdle over preparations.

The book certainly has something to offer the Buddhist. But I would say that its timelessness is a reflection of Kenkō’s mundane humanity. He is grumpy and flawed while being imbued with perfect wisdom. This is a familiar reality available to any reader of this book.

The computer scientist Alan Kay once described what makes a good essay. I think it captures Essays On Idleness nicely.

A well-written essay is something where the author knows a little bit about you, somehow, and tells you in the beginning of the essay what you need to know and answers questions that the author somehow knows that you have. It’s amazing how well good authors can do this. They prepare you for the whammy, two-thirds of the way through, and for the last third of the thing, where they actually get you to elevate your thinking—it’s incredible, isn’t it?

Just know that the whammy might not arrive until you have your own moment of idleness.