A History of Japanese Literature/Book 5/Chapter 2

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If there are many arid wastes in Japanese literature, there are also some pleasant oases, and of these the Tsure-dzure-gusa is surely one of the most delightful. It is a collection of short sketches, anecdotes, and essays on all imaginable subjects, something in the manner of Selden's Table Talk. The author is known to us as Kenkō-bōshi, bōshi being an honorific epithet something like our Reverend. He was a man of good family, and traced his descent through various distinguished personages from the Shinto deity Kogane no Mikoto. For many years in the service of the Mikado Go Uda no In, his writings show an intimate acquaintance with the ways and customs of the Imperial palace. On the death of his master in 1324, Kenkō became a Buddhist monk, and retired from public life, spending the remainder of his days in various secluded spots in the neighbourhood of Kiōto. The date of his death is not positively known, but there is nothing improbable in the statement that he died in 1350, in his sixty-eighth year.

Very contradictory views of his character have been taken by native writers. Some call him a profligate, unscrupulous, common priest, and quote an old scandal told in the Taiheiki, of his writing for Kō no Moronao the letters which he addressed to the wife of Yenya Hangwan urging his adulterous suit. But the Taiheiki is a very dubious authority, and there are other reasons for questioning the truth of this story. Kenkō's admirers maintain that he was a truly pious man.

Judging from his writings, there would appear to have been two personalities in Kenkō, the shrewd, polished, and somewhat cynical man of the world, and the Buddhist devotee, the former element of his character having a decided preponderance. His religion was to all appearance sincere, but was certainly not profound. Like Horace, whom he much resembles in character, he had his pious moods, but was very far indeed from being a saint. A professor of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, he has much to say, and says it well, of the uncertainty of life, the folly of ambition and money-getting, and the necessity for putting away the lusts of this wicked world and preparing betimes for eternity. But the old Adam is never far off. His unregenerate nature is not to be suppressed, and gives evidence of its existence ever and anon in passages which his devout admirers would willingly forget.

His religion was not of that robust kind which thrives amid the cares and distractions of the world, and by which ordinary life may be made "a perfumed altar-flame." He has left on record his opinion (which is indeed a commonplace of the sect to which he belonged) that true piety is impossible except in seclusion from the world. The quiet of his own hermitage having once been disturbed by the visit of a hunting party, he composed a poem complaining that the world pursued him even there, and changed his abode to a still more remote locality. But with all his precautions he never attained to Nirvana, if by that term we are to understand the holy calm of mind which is the result of long-continued meditation on divine things.

The name Kenkō, which he selected when he became a monk, is characteristic of his spiritual condition. He retained the two Chinese characters with which his lay name Kaneyoshi is written, simply altering the pronunciation to something which with a little goodwill might be allowed to stand for a Buddhist priestly designation. This is much as if a man named Oliver were to enter religion as "Brother Oliverus," instead of adopting a saint's name from the calendar.

There is much self-revelation in Kenkō's writings. The personality which they portray is not a wholly lovable one. There is something wrong about the man who abhorred matrimony (not that celibacy and chastity were with him convertible terms), thought children a mistake, and declared that after forty life was not worth living. The following anecdote, which he himself relates, throws some light on his curiously mixed character:—

"Even men from whom we should not expect much feeling sometimes say a good thing. A certain wild savage of terrible appearance, meeting a neighbour, asked him, had he any children. 'Not one,' was the reply. 'Then you cannot know the Ah-ness of things, and your doings must be with a heart devoid of feeling.' This is a very fearful saying. It is no doubt true that by children men become conscious of the Ah-ness of all things. Without the path of the natural affections how should there be any sentiment in the hearts of such persons?"

To know the Ah-ness of things (mono no aware wo shiru) is a phrase which is constantly recurring in Japanese literature, especially during the classical period. The learned critic Motoöri discusses it at great length in his treatise on the nature of poetry entitled Iso no Kami Shi-shuku-gen. It means to have a sensitive, emotional nature, the cœur sensible of the French, and applies more particularly to a capacity for receiving the impressions produced on man by Nature in her various moods.

Kenkō would doubtless have spurned the idea that for an accomplished gentleman, scholar, and poet like himself paternity was necessary in order to awaken the emotional sensibilities, though in the case of "such persons" as the rude peasant of his story this might very well be the case.

The followers of the various forms of religion and ethics practised in Japan have all claimed Kenkō as a teacher of their own set of doctrines. It is true that although he is in the main a Buddhist, he had, with the liberal comprehensiveness characteristic of the Japanese nation, more than a mere tolerance for other faiths. He not only showed a reverence for the Shinto deities, but was a profound student of the Confucian moral philosophy, and even of Taoism, that mass of vague speculations attributed to Laotze and his disciple Chwangtze. But it is a mistake to regard him as a partisan of any particular creed, or as a moral teacher at all. He tells us himself in the opening sentences of the Tsure-dzure-gusa that it was written to while away the live-long days of tedium (tsure-dzure), sitting with his ink-slab before him, and jotting down all manner of trifles as they presented themselves to his mind. If one of his latest editors is correct, it was not even written for publication, but was collected after his death into its present form by some unknown person.

Kenkō was a lover of antiquity, whether in the shape of old works of art, the old customs and forms of speech which lingered (and still linger) about the Mikado's palace, or old books. He speaks in terms of special admiration of the Genji Monogatari and the Makura Zōshi, on which his own style was evidently modelled. It contrasts strongly with the idiom charged with Chinese vocables, metaphors, and allusions, which in his day had well-nigh supplanted the old Japanese of the Heian period. Kenkō, in a word, is a belated classic. He has no objection to a useful Chinese word or an apt illustration from Chinese history, but his purer taste rejects the pompous platitudes and pedantic show of learning which too often disfigure the works of imitators of Chinese models. His essays read like the conversation of a polished man of the world, and have that appearance of simplicity and ease of expression which is in reality the result of consummate art.

Those who wish to enter on the study of the older Japanese literature cannot make a better choice than the Tsure-dzure-gusa. It is not so difficult as the Genji Monogatari or the Makura Zōshi, and the new edition called the Tsure-dzure-gusa Kōgi affords every help in the way of explanation to those who have made sufficient progress in Japanese to avail themselves of it. The lover of curious books will prefer the quaint old block-printed editions of 1672 and 1688, both of which have numerous notes.

Kenkō had a high reputation as a writer of Tanka. He was one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" (a phrase borrowed from Indian mythology), as the four chief poets of his day were termed. Fortunately, most students of Japanese will say, the exercise of Kenkō's poetic talent has been diverted into other channels. The Tsure-dzure-gusa is not besprinkled with Tanka.

Some Extracts from the "Tsure-dzure-gusa"

"When I was eight years of age, I asked my father, 'What sort of thing is a Buddha?' He replied, 'A Buddha is something which a man grows into.' 'How then does one become a Buddha?' said I. 'By the teachings of a Buddha.' 'But who taught the Buddha who gives us this teaching?' 'He becomes a Buddha by the teaching of another Buddha who was before him.' 'Then what sort of a Buddha was that first Buddha of all who began teaching?' My father was at an end of his answers, and replied, laughing, 'I suppose he must have flown down from the sky or sprung up from the ground.' He used to tell his friends this conversation, much to their amusement."

"However accomplished a man may be, without gallantry he is a very lonely being. Such a one reminds me of a costly wine-cup that has no bottom."

"That man is to be envied whose mind is fixed on futurity, and to whom the way of Buddha is familiar."

"What strikes men's eyes most of all in a woman is the beauty of her hair. Her quality and disposition may be gathered from the manner of her speech, even though a screen be interposed. There are occasions too when her very posture when seated leads a man's heart astray. Then, until his hopes are realised, he bears patiently what is not to be borne, regardless even of his life. It is only love which can do this. Deep indeed are the roots of passion, and remote its sources. It is possible to put away from us all the other lusts of this wicked world. But this one alone it is very hard to eradicate. Old and young, wise and foolish, all are alike its slaves. Therefore it has been said that with a cord twined of a woman's hair the great elephant may be firmly bound; with a whistle carved from a woman's shoe the deer in autumn may without fail be lured.

"It is this beguilement which we must chastise in ourselves, it is this which we must dread, it is this against which we must be on our guard."

"One day in the tenth month [about our September] I took a walk over the plain of Kurisu, and exploring a certain hill-district which lay beyond, was threading my way along a narrow moss-grown path, when I came upon a lonely cottage. No sound was to be heard except the dripping of water from a pipe buried under fallen leaves. It was, however, inhabited, as I gathered from the chrysanthemums and red autumn leaves which bestrewed the domestic shrine. 'Ah!' thought I, 'to spend one's days even in such a spot!' But whilst I stood gazing I espied in the garden beyond a great orange-tree with branches bending to the ground. It was strongly fenced off on every side. This [evidence that covetous desires had penetrated even here] somewhat dispelled my dreams, and I wished from my heart that no such tree had been."

"If we take a pen in hand, it suggests writing; if we take up a musical instrument, the very act of doing so prompts us to make music; a wine-cup suggests drinking; dice make us think of gambling. Our hearts are inevitably influenced by our actions. We should therefore be careful to abstain wholly from unedifying amusements.

"If we thoughtlessly glance at a verse of the Sacred Scriptures, what goes before and after presents itself to our minds without our effort, and this may lead to a sudden reformation of the errors of many years. If we had never read the Scriptures, how should we have known this? Such is the virtue of association.

"If, even without any pious intentions whatever, we kneel down before the Buddha, and take in our hands the sacred book and the bell, a good work goes on of itself within us. If, even with wandering minds, we take our seat on the rope-mat, unawares we become absorbed in devout contemplation.

"At bottom, action and principle are one. If we are careful to avoid offences in our outward actions, the inner principle becomes fortified. We should therefore beware of making a profession of unbelief, and treat religion with all honour and respect."

"There are many things in this world which to me are incomprehensible. I cannot understand how any one can find pleasure in urging people to drink against their will, as is done the first thing on all occasions. The victim in his distress knits his brows, and watches an opportunity when no one is looking to spill the liquor or to steal away. But he is caught, detained, and made to drink his share as if there was nothing the matter. The nicest fellows suddenly become madmen, and give way to absurd conduct. The healthiest men, before our very eyes, become afflicted with grave illness, and lay themselves down unconscious of past and future. A sorry way indeed of celebrating a festal occasion! Until the morrow they remain lying in a drunken state, with aching heads, and unable to eat, as if far removed from life, taking no thought for the next day, and too ill to attend to important business, public or private.

"It is not kindly or even courteous to treat people in this way. If we were told that such a custom existed in some foreign country (being unknown in Japan) we should think it most strange and unaccountable."

Here follows a description of a drunken debauch which is somewhat too graphic for transference to these pages. Kenkō goes on to say—

"In this world strong drink has much to answer for. It wastes our means and destroys our health. It has been called the chief of the hundred medicines, but in truth it is from strong drink more than aught else that all our diseases spring. It may help us to forget our miseries, but, on the other hand, the drunken man is often seen to weep at the remembrance of his past woes.

"As for the future world, strong drink is pernicious to the understanding, and burns up the root of good within us as with fire. It fosters evil, and leads to our breaking all the commandments and falling into hell. Buddha has declared that he who makes a man drink wine shall be born a hundred times with no hands."

It must not be supposed from this that Kenkō was a total abstainer, as he ought to have been if he kept his vows as a Buddhist monk. On the contrary—

"There are times when wine cannot be dispensed with. On a moonlight night, on a snowy morning, or when the flowers are in blossom and with hearts free from care we are conversing with a friend, it adds to our pleasures if the wine-cup is produced."

Kenkō goes so far as to allow that with intimate friends it is permissible occasionally to drink deeply.

"There is no greater pleasure than alone, by the light of a lamp, to open a book and make the men of the unseen world our companions."

"Nothing opens one's eyes so much as travel, no matter where."

"I love to shut myself up in a mountain temple and attend to the services to Buddha. Here there is no tedium, and one feels that his heart is being purged of its impurities."

The Seasons—Spring

"It is change that in all things touches us with sympathy. Every one says, and not without some reason, that it is chiefly the autumn which inspires this feeling. But it appears to me that the aspects of nature in spring, more than at any other time, make our hearts swell with emotion. The songs of birds are especially suggestive of this season. With the increasing warmth the herbage in the hedge comes into bud, and as the spring grows deeper the hazes are diffused abroad and the flowers show themselves in all their glory. Sometimes with continual storms of wind and rain they are dispersed agitatedly, and nothing but green leaves is left. All this affects our hearts with constant trepidation.

"The flowering orange has a great fame. But it is the perfume of the plum-tree which makes us think longingly of the past. Then there are the gaily-coloured kerria and the wistaria of obscurer hues. All these have many feelings associated with them which it is impossible to leave unmarked."

"In our hours of quiet thought, who is there who has no yearnings for all that has passed away?

"When every one has retired to rest, to while away the long hours of night we put in order our little odds and ends of property. Among scraps of paper thrown away as not worth preserving, a handwriting or a sketch thrown off for amusement by one who is no more, catches the eye and brings up vividly the time when it was made. It is affecting too, after years have passed, to find a letter even from one who is still alive, and to think that it was written at such a date, on such an occasion.

"The articles their hands were familiar with remain unchanged (they have no hearts!) for all the long years that have elapsed. Alas! alas!"

"The man who writes a bad hand should not be deterred by that circumstance from scribbling letters. Otherwise he gets his friends to write for him, which is a nuisance."

"He is a fool who spends his life in the pursuit of fame or gain."

"The venerable priest Hōzen, being asked by a man whose drowsiness at prayers interfered with his religious duties, how he should remove this hindrance to devotion, replied, 'Pray earnestly enough to keep yourself awake.' This was an admirable answer.

"The same priest said, 'If you think your salvation is assured, it is assured; if you think it is not assured, it is not assured.' This is also an admirable saying.

"Another admirable speech of his was to this effect: 'If, notwithstanding that you are perplexed by doubts, you continue your prayers, you will be saved.'"

Kenkō with some friends once attended a race-meeting, not, one would think, a fit place for a Buddhist recluse to be seen. A crowd got between their carriage and the course, shutting out their view.

"We all got down and tried to push our way forward to the rails, but the press was too great for us to get passage. At this juncture we observed a priest who had climbed up a tree and seated himself in a fork to see better. Being drowsy, he was continually dozing over, and awaking just in time to save himself from falling. Everybody shouted and jeered at him. 'What a fool,' cried they, 'this fellow is to let himself fall asleep so calmly in such a dangerous position!' Upon this a thought flashed on me, and I exclaimed, 'Yet here are we, spending our time in sight-seeing, forgetful that death may overtake us at any moment. We are bigger fools even than that priest.' The people in front of us all looked round and said, 'Nothing can be more true. It is indeed utter folly. Come this way, gentlemen.' So they opened a passage and allowed us to come forward. Now this remark of mine might have occurred to anybody. I suppose it was the unexpectedness of it at this time which caused it to make an impression. Men are not sticks or stones, and a word spoken at a favourable moment sometimes finds its way to the heart."

A commentator says that "this chapter is intended to impress us with the uncertainty of human things." The reader may draw his own moral.

"Beware of putting off the practice of religion until your old age. The ancient tombs are mostly those of young people."

"When we hear a man's name we try to form to ourselves some idea of his appearance, but we invariably find, on afterwards making his acquaintance, that we have been quite wrong."

"I wonder if it is only I who have sometimes the feeling that speeches which I have heard or sights that I have seen were already seen or heard by me at some past time—when, I cannot tell."

"Things which are in Bad Taste

Too much furniture in one's living room.
Too many pens in a stand.
Too many Buddhas in a private shrine.
Too many rocks, trees, and herbs in a garden.
Too many children in a house.
Too many words when men meet.
Too many books in a book-case there can never be, nor too much litter in a dust-heap."

"It is not only when we look at the moon or flowers with our eyes that they give us pleasure. On a spring day, though we do not leave our house; on a moonlight night, though we remain in our chamber, the mere thought of them is exceedingly cheering and delightful."

If Wordsworth had been a Japanese scholar, he might have been charged with plagiarising from this passage his

"inward eye
That is the bliss of solitude."

  1. Translated by Rev. C. S. Eby, in the Chrysanthemum, vol. iii.