A scribe, writing in Japan of the 1320s, would have had no shortage of subject matter. The island nation had by then withstood two Mongol invasions –through almost divine intervention – but at the cost of financial and political instability.
Kings became paupers, samurai became Buddhists, and a pensive monk sat before his ink stone and wrote:
What a strange folly, to beguile the tedious hours like this…jotting down at random the idle thoughts that cross my mind.
Yoshida Kenkō, in a deeply personal collection of essays, leaves behind a concise glimpse into a time long past – yet timeless.
Kenkō describes the day to day observations of a wandering monk’s life, in all of its impermanence and wisdom. He writes almost as if he did not expect to be read, in short, snappy appraisals (and judgements) of everyday happenings – of kings, paupers, recluses and maidens. Passages sometimes read as a series of gripes – though very few seem unfounded. Kenkō grumbles freely about that which he dislikes – cluttered seating areas, too many children, those who chase after fleeting pleasures – though there is also much that he appreciates about life. In a lot that he writes, is a reverence for the minimalism of life, free of excessive craving or unnecessary aversion.
Kenkō is not wholly detached from the world, and prefers to live within it, engaging with it at the right moments. He does not dismiss that which is impermanent, but relishes it in all of its sublime poetry.
It is the ephemeral nature of things that makes them wonderful.
In a vividly descriptive passage, he makes sharp judgements on the consequences of the drinking culture – which makes drunkards of otherwise respectable men, doing unspeakable things on walls and making a ruckus. The act of forcing one to drink is:
…boorish and cruel… anyone from a land that lacked this custom would be amazed and appalled to hear of its existence in another country.
But there is also a beauty in the casual glass, and Kenkō concurs. “Yet, loathsome though one finds it, there are situations when a cup of sake is hard to resist. On a moonlit night, a snowy morning, or beneath the flowering cherry trees, it increases all the pleasures of the moment to bring out the sake cups.”
If he can seem judgemental in one passage, he can descend into sudden profundity in the next. Kenkō at his most stark can seem prudish, but in his humane moments, he can pierce through the everyday and find those fleeting beauties that lie within.
Kenkō’s habit of inserting abrupt anecdotes can be quite funny, as well, mixed as they are in between a mileue of deliberated wisdoms, moral anecdotes and descriptive passages.
A certain novice monk in Inaba was rumoured to have a beautiful daughter, and many men came asking for her hand. But the girl ate nothing but chestnuts and never touched grains, so her father declared that she was too eccentric to be marriageable, and rejected them all.
Occasionally, he can be sexist, seeing in women only cause for temptation; sexual desire shown as the ruin of monks and men alike. Yet, he also has a deep respect for love, when it exists in brief moments – a long conversation with a lady at night, a wandering lover “drenched by the frosts or dews of night…his heart beset with uncertainties, yet for all that sleeping often alone, though always fitfully.”
A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is an effortlessly good read. The wisdom Kenkō has captured is priceless – not just of a 13th century Buddhist monk, but that of the kings, thinkers and ordinary people he came across.
No single quote can do justice to the power of each passage – for which Kenkō writes the kind of leads with an art that journalists spend years trying to perfect today. In his own words, he puts down what I love most about this compilation:
It is a 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.
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