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Kenko had little trouble living with the idea that things were getting worse. "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty," he wrote. (Kikuchi Yosai / Wikipedia.org)

The Timeless Wisdom of Kenko

A 14th-century Japanese essayist's advice for troubled times runs the gamut from quirky to prescient

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Around the year 1330, a poet and Buddhist monk named Kenko wrote Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa)—an eccentric, sedate and gemlike assemblage of his thoughts on life, death, weather, manners, aesthetics, nature, drinking, conversational bores, sex, house design, the beauties of understatement and imperfection.

For a monk, Kenko was remarkably worldly; for a former imperial courtier, he was unusually spiritual. He was a fatalist and a crank. He articulated the Japanese aesthetic of beauty as something inherently impermanent—an aesthetic that acquires almost unbearable pertinence at moments when an earthquake and tsunami may shatter existing arrangements.

Kenko yearned for a golden age, a Japanese Camelot, when all was becoming and graceful. He worried that “nobody is left who knows the proper manner for hanging a quiver before the house of a man in disgrace with his majesty.” He even regretted that no one remembered the correct shape of a torture rack or the appropriate way to attach a prisoner to it. He said deliberate cruelty is the worst of human offenses. He believed that “the art of governing a country is founded on thrift.”

One or two of his essays are purely informational (not to say weird). One of my favorites is essay 49, which reads in its entirety: “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.”

A sailor in rough seas may grip the rail and fix his eye on a distant object in order to steady himself and avoid seasickness. I read Kenko’s essays for a similar reason.

Kenko lived on a different planet—planet Earth in the 14th century. But if you proceed on the vertical from the 14th century to the 21st, you become aware of a time-flex in which his intimations of degeneracy and decline resonate with our own. A kind of sonar: from Kenko our own thoughts bounce back across time with an alienated charm and a laugh of recognition.

Kenko had been a poet and courtier in Kyoto in the court of the emperor Go-Daigo. It was a time of turbulent change. Go-Daigo would be ousted and driven into exile by the regime of the Ashikaga shoguns. Kenko withdrew to a cottage, where he lived and composed the 243 essays of the Tsurezuregusa. It was believed that he brushed his thoughts on scraps of paper and pasted them to the cottage walls, and that after his death his friend the poet and general Imagawa Ryoshun removed the scraps and arranged them into the order in which they have passed into Japanese literature. (The wallpaper story was later questioned, but in any case, the essays survived.)

Kenko was a contemporary of Dante, another sometime public man and courtier who lived in exile in unstable times. Their minds, in ways, were worlds apart. The Divine Comedy contemplated the eternal; the Essays in Idleness meditated upon the evanescent. Dante wrote with beauty and limpidity and terrifying magnificence, Kenko with offhand charm. They talked about the end of the world in opposite terms: the Italian poet set himself up, part of the time, anyway, as the bureaucrat of suffering, codifying sins and devising terrible punishments. Kenko, despite his lament for the old-fashioned rack, wrote mostly about solecisms and gaucheries, and it was the Buddhist law of uncertainty that presided over his universe. The Divine Comedy is one of the monuments of world literature. The Essays in Idleness are lapidary, brief and not much known outside Japan.

Kenko wrote: “They speak of the degenerate, final phase of the world, yet how splendid is the ancient atmosphere, uncontaminated by the world, that still prevails within the palace walls.” As Kenko’s translator Donald Keene observed, there flows through the essays “the conviction that the world is steadily growing worse.” It is perversely comforting to reflect that people have been anticipating the end of the world for so many centuries. Such persistent pessimism almost gives one hope.

There is consolation in knowing, too, that Kenko was a sailor at the rail, fixing his eye across the water: “The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.” Kenko is like a friend who reappears, after a long separation, and resumes your talk as if he had left the room for just a moment.

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