Excerpts from "Essays in Idleness"
The Tsurezuregusa Of Kenko
(Translated by Donald Keene)
What follows are some of my favorite essays or parts thereof from a collection written by the Japanese Buddhist Zen priest Kenko between 1330 and 1332.
They are taken from a small pocket book entitled "Essays in Idleness" published by Charles E. Tuttle Co.
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. Calculations 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 enlightenment, 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."
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 demonstrated 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 Koyu say, "It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist of 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.
Nobody begrudges wasting a little time. Does this represent a reasoned judgement or merely foolishness, I wonder. If I were to address myself to those who are lazy out of foolishness, I should point that a single copper coin is of trifling value, but an accumulation of these coins will make a rich man of a poor man. That is why a merchant so jealously hoards each coin. We may not be aware of the passing instants, but as we go on ceaselessly spending them, suddenly the term of life is on us. For this reason, the man who practices the Way should not begrudge the passage of distant time to come, but the wasting of a single present moment.
If some man came and informed you that you would certainly lose your life the following day, what would you have to look forward to, what would you do to occupy yourself while waiting for this day to end? In what does the day we are now living differ from our last day? Much of our time during any day is wasted in eating and drinking, at stool, in sleeping, talking and walking. To engage in useless activities, to talk about useless things, and to think about useless things during the brief moments of free time left us is not only to waste this time, but to blot out days that extend into months and eventually into a whole lifetime. This is most foolish of all.
Hsieh Ling-yun edited the translation of the Lotus Sutra, but his mind was constantly preoccupied with his hopes for advancement; Hui-yuan therefore denied his admission to the White Lotus society.
A man who fails even for a short time to keep in mind the preciousness of time is no different from a corpse. If you wish to know why each instant must be guarded so jealously, it is so that a man inwardly will have no confusing thoughts and outwardly no concern with worldly matters; that if he wishes to rest at that point, he may rest, but if he wishes to follow the Way, he may follow it.
From Essay 137 (My personal favorite)
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring -- these are even more deeply moving.&nnbsp; Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.
In all things, it is the beginnings and the ends that are interesting. Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each other's arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a delapidated house -- such a man truly knows what love means.
The moon that appears close to dawn after we have long waited for it moves us more profoundly than the full moon shining cloudless over a thousand leagues. And how incomparably lovely is the moon, almost greenish in its light, when seen through the tops of the cedars deep in the mountains, or when it hides for a moment behind clustering clouds during a sudden shower! The sparkle on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with moonlight strikes one to the heart. One suddenly misses the capital, longing for a friend who could share the moment.
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.
You may intend to do something today, only for pressing business to come up unexpectedly and take up all of your attention the rest of the day. Or a person you have been expecting is prevented from coming, or someone you hadn't expected comes calling. The thing you have counted on goes amiss, and the thing you had no hopes for is the only one to succeed. A matter which promised to be a nuisance passes off smoothly, and a matter which should have been easy proves a great hardship. Our daily experiences bear no resemblance to what we had anticipated. This is true throughout the year, and equally true for our entire lives. But if we decide that everything is bound to go contrary to our anticipations, we discover that naturally there are also some things which do not contradict expectations. This makes it all the harder to be definite about anything. The one thing you can be certain of is the truth that all is uncertainty.
From Essay 240
The man who has never hesitated under a cloudy moon on a night fragrant with plum blossoms, or has no memories of the dawn moon in the sky as he started to walk through the dewy gardens inside the palace gate, had better have nothing to do with love.
The full moon does not keep its roundness even a little while; it at once begins to wane. The man indifferent to such things may not see much change in the course of a single night. The worsening of an illness too does not pause in its headlong course, until the hour of death approaches. However, as long as a man's illness is not so critical that he is actually confronted by death, he grows accustomed to the idea that life will go on much the same forever, and only after he has accomplished many things in this life will he turn to quiet practice of the Way. But when a man is suddenly taken ill and faced by death, he realizes he has accomplished not one of his plans. He helplessly regrets the years and months of laziness, and resolves that if he should recover this time and live out his full life, he will unflaggingly strive days and nights on end to accomplish this or that. The sickness in the meanwhile grows steadily worse, until he loses consciousness and, in a state of violent agitation, breathes his last. This is true of the vast majority of people. Everyone should waste no time in taking this to heart.
If you imagine that once you have accomplished your ambitions you will have time to turn to the Way, you will discover that your ambitions never come to an end. In our dreamlike existence, what is there for us to accomplish? All ambitions are vain delusions. You should realize that, if desires form in your heart, false delusions are leading you astray; you should do nothing to fulfill them. Only when you abandon everything without hesitation and turn to the Way will your mind and body, unhindered and unagitated, enjoy lasting peace.