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“.
Continue reading “Kenkō: Medieval Japanese Buddhist Wisdom”
“Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again forever… Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity”
Graham Greene, The Quiet American .
“The vistas he saw were vistas of green foliage and forest glades, all softly luminous or shot through with flashing lights. In the distance, detail was veiled and blurred by a purple haze, but behind this purple haze, he knew, was the glamour of the unknown, the lure of romance. It was like wine to him. Here was adventure, something to do with head and hand, a world to conquer-and straightaway from the back of consciousness rushed the thought: conquering, to win to her, that lily-pale spirit sitting beside him”
Jack London, Martin Eden [1909: 52].
“Sometimes when she is able to spend the night with him they are wakened by the three minarets of the city beginning their prayers before dawn. He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumour of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city” (Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, 1992: 154).
“Knowledge itself is power…but none of…knowledge is of the least use until it is informed by understanding. Knowledge is simply a kind of fuel; it needs the motor of understanding to convert it into power”
John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos [1957: 176].
“Each face, each stone, of this venerable monument, is a page of the history, not only of the country, but of the science and the art” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame [1831: 110]).
“It was a singular destiny…for the church of Notre-Dame, at that period, to be thus beloved in two different ways, and with so much devotion, by two beings so unlike as Claude and Quasimodo – loved by the one, a sort of half-human creature, instinctive and savage, for its beauty, for its stature, for the harmonies dwelling in the magnificent whole; loved by the other, a being of cultivated and ardent imagination, for its signification, its mystic meaning, the symbolic language lurking under the sculpture on its front, like the first text under the second in a palimpsestus – in short, for the enigma which it eternally proposes to the understanding” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame [1831: 155]).
“What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is lead in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and its vacant wastes of water-and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden-it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written” [The Autobiography of Mark Twain].
“He is already part of you. Though you fly to Greece, and never see him again, or forget his very name, George will work in your thoughts till you die. It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal”
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View .
“He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure…The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to…He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on…the rest of the world might seem less empty” [Edith Wharton, 1920: 191].
“My dear fellow“, said Sherlock Holmes…”life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Adventures), A Case of Identity, 1924/2009 Ed.: 174).
“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably…They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in…You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t…[in them] you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic” (Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 1997: 229).
“There was, she thought, so much to be said in favour of a game of cards. One was not compelled to pretend, could be silent without being dull, could frown without people being overtly solicitous about one’s happiness, could triumph over a man and not have to giggle and simper when one did it. One could kill time, obliterate loneliness, have a friendship with strangers one would never see again and live on that sweet, oiled cycle of anticipation, the expectation that something delicious was about to happen” (Peter Carey, 1988: 227).
“Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily – no hourly – and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim. Between them there exists a disquiet, a strained curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally repressed need for recognition and exchange of thoughts – and also, especially, a sort of nervous respect. For one person loves and honours another only as long as he is unable to assess him, and yearning is a result of a lack of knowledge” (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice [1912:41]).
“White he watched her, exotic words drifted across the mirror of his mind as summer clouds drift across the sky…He thought of myrrh and frankincense and potpourri – or was it patchouli? and of nameless mysterious fragrances; of sloes, and of clusters of purple grapes, each richly full of blood-red juices which spilled when you crushed them between your teeth…” (1944: 22, Williams) (Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams was published 74 years ago today).
“In man, various faculties of knowledge – sensory perception, the imagination, reason and deep insight – correspond to the tiered arrangement of the macrocosm. The last rung is the direct comprehension of the divine word in meditation. The ladder extends no further, because God himself cannot be comprehended” (R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, Vol. II, Oppenheim, 1619).