Kenkō: Medieval Japanese Buddhist Wisdom

Yoshida Kenkō (1283 – 1350) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and poet, best known for his posthumously published collection of short statements and essays known as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure that demonstrate the essence of the Way in Buddhism, including the realisation of the Impermanence of All Things and the Transience of Life. Drawing from folklore and classics, Kenkō also provides short morality tales, pointing out the dangers of pride and greed, and advocating temperance in life and moderation in all things that are not necessities to life. He shares his thoughts on the beauty of nature, aesthetics, nostalgia, life at court, and on Japanese poetry, festivals and architecture. Most of his self-professed “ramblings” are either delightful or deeply profound and I am sharing some of them here:

It is most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met”.

In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging. Does the love of man and woman suggest only their embraces? No, the sorrow of lovers parted before they met, laments over promises betrayed, long lonely nights spent sleepless until dawn, pinning thoughts for one in some far place, a woman left sighing over past love in her tumbledown abode – it is these, surely, that embody the romance of love“.

 Kenkō by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1840s).

Wisdom lies in understanding your own limits, and swiftly relinquishing what lies beyond reach.

It harms a man more to wound his heart than to hurt his body.

Even people who seem eminently intelligent will judge others yet have no knowledge of themselves. It makes no sense to lack self-knowledge while understanding those around you. He who knows himself must be said to be the man of real knowledge” (Kenkō).


9 thoughts on “Kenkō: Medieval Japanese Buddhist Wisdom

    1. An interesting question. It is definitely in the book as I wrote it here, but I doubt the author hints at some transcendence (though it is also possible), perhaps even a case of wonky translation (to include the author’s intended poeticism) or even a typo.


      1. Thanks for checking – the first possibility is always a mistranscription, a missing word, a don’t that should have been do (my fingers do this to me sometimes or vice versa).

        A mistranslation is much harder to track down unless there are two that you can compare.

        The statement was intriguing – like you I wonder if there was a transcendence, but I don’t know the author.

        Probably not worth the effort unless you are a scholar. ‘Marriage made in heaven, but the spouses were never allowed by their families to meet’? Not sure that is very Japanese or Buddhist!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Possibly. I have been studying Japanese for these past three years, but I don’t have the original to compare otherwise I would have at least made an attempt out of curiosity. The Japanese always put verbs at the end, like it is here, and they can be rather enigmatic in their statements, so your interpretation of “heavenly marriage or meeting” may as well be right. They are also very economical with their statements so Kenko or the translator might have simply omitted such words in this sentence as “properly” met, “even” met or “hardly” met.

          Since “met” presupposes some physical contact or meeting, it was not uncommon in Kenko’s time for a young man and a woman from well to do families to “know (of) each other” through an intermediary’s tales or gossip only (without ever properly meeting) and even possibly developing some platonic relationship at distance (as some Japanese tales of the past allude to).


          1. Fascinating – and the degree of ‘arranged’ that goes with marriage varies over a wide spectrum, from cultures where the woman (it’s usually the woman) has no say to ones where she may reject a suitor.

            It depends on the need for progeny and labor – cultures get that way for a reason, but the reason can also get a culture stuck in a pattern that isn’t helpful for the long term, even for them, much less for them in our kind of modern world. It has been difficult even to raise the age of marriage for girls to something that would allow them enough education to contribute more to their families.

            Liked by 1 person

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