Hojoki: Kamo no Chomei's Account of His Hut

Troubled times foster reflective personalities. Popular culture may become morose and fearful, but some individuals turn inward to discover in simplicity and detachment the meaning of events. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius achieve heir grandeur precisely because the author, an emperor enjoying  limitless power, nevertheless sees the vanity of his work and his times.

Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216) was no emperor, but he witnessed a chaotic and violent era in Japan. He applied his insight to an understanding of his times in the Hojoki, an account of his times and of his last dwelling-place. The rarified Buddhism of his day Chomei transformed to a tragic sense of life, lyrical and reflective. The opening phrases strike this note beautifully:

The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration; so in the world are men and their dwellings.

Chomei then describes a succession of calamities in his day: the 1177 fire that consumed Kyoto, the windstorm of 1180 that leveled much of the city, the famine that struck for the next two years, devastating town and country, leaving anguished and sickly residents wandering aimlessly, corpses littering the streets. In 1185 came a calamitous earthquake.

All these events may become prompts upon which the serious-minded person may reflect. But Chomei is specifically interested in how society in distress is just a continuum of everyday human behavior.

Those who are powerful are filled with greed; and those who have no protectors are despised. Possessions bring many worries; in poverty there is sorrow. He who asks another's help becomes his slave; he who nurtures others is fettered by affection. He who does not, appears deranged. Wherever one may live, whatever work one may do, is it possible even for a moment to find a haven for the body or peace for the mind?

Then, at the age of fifty, having long since lost his ancestral home and livelihood, did Chomei became a monk-hermit, renouncing the world. "Not having any family, I had no ties that would make abandoning the world difficult. I had no rank or stipend. What was there for me to cling to?" At age sixty, he built his hut.

It is a bare ten feet square and less than seven feet high. ... I laid a foundation and roughly thatched a roof. ... I have added a lean-to on the south and a porch of bamboo. Along the west wall I built a shelf for holy water and installed an image of the Buddha. The light of the setting sun shines between its eyebrows. ... On the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.

Chomei's bed on the east wall was a straw mat and fern fronds. There, too, is a window, desk, and brazier.

Outside the hut is a fenced garden to the north and a rock pool to the south with a bamboo pipe draining water. The woods are close, providing plenty of brush-wood, and only to the west is a clearing beyond vines and overgrown valleys.

In this forest retreat, Chomei witnesses the signs of change in the seasons: wisteria blossoms in spring, summer cuckoos, autumns insect chirping, and snow in winter.

There are no visitors so he takes his idle ease. When not in prayer or reading, he reflects on old places visited or strums the lute. Depending on the season he will pick fruits, nuts, or greens, gather rice husks to weave or flowers, or pursue a day trip to the mountains, an ancient temple or a famous gravesite. "And sometimes," he writes, "as is the custom of old age, I awaken in the middle of the night. I stir up the buried embers and make them companions in solitude."

Chomei sums up the hermit way of life:

Knowing myself and the world, I have no ambitions and do not mix in the world. I seek only tranquility; I rejoice in the absence of grief.