I ordered this short novel through Amazon after stumbling onto its very brief page on wikipedia. The premise interested me, and its status as a work of classic Japanese literature only cemented that interest, as I have always had a deep interest in historic literature from India, Japan, and the rest of Asia.
Hōjōki is a short work by Kamo no Chōmei, written in Japan in 1212. It is the account of a man who witnesses several disasters that plague the people of Kyoto. Eventually, he becomes a Buddhist monk, a recluse, and lives his final days alone in a ten-foot hut. Through the story, we see how he becomes disillusioned with society and life – but he concisely sums up the general theme of the book in the opening lines, which have, I believe, become famous in Japanese literature:
Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment…(Sadler)
This article is not a book review because it is rather silly for me to “review” a classic. Rather, I wanted to say that there is so much in this book that spoke to me very deeply, from his view of both tragedy and superficiality in society. Chomei was from a time and place that is very different than my own, yet I think, after finishing this book, that I understand him. Rather than attempting to describe the book or my reactions further, I will quote from the book itself, translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins.
Long before, in the years of Saiko there had bee an earthquake,. That one even caused the head of the Great Buddha at Todaiji to fall, as well as many other fearful things.
But from all I hear that there was no equal to this quake.
For a while right after, there was talk of the vanities of this world, and people seemed to be rid of the sinfulness in their hearts. But days and months went by, then years, and no one spoke of it again.
The lowly man, who lives beside the man of power, cannot openly rejoice, even when glad. And when sorrow becomes intolerable, he never can cry out. His anxious air, his constant fearful trembles, are those of a sparrow near the nest of a hawk.
If you conform to the world, it will bind you hand and foot. If you do not, then it will think you mad.
In their friends, people like to see a certain affluence and the ready smile. They seldom care for warmth and truthfulness. So why not find your friends in song and nature?
Reality depends upon your mind alone? If your mind is not at peace, what use are riches? The grandest hall will never satisfy.
I love my lonely dwelling, this one room hut. Somtimes I go to the capital, and am aware I look like a begging monk. But when I return, I pity those who week the dross of the world.
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