Kenko's Esteem for Hermits in his Essays in Idleness

The Tsurezuregusa or Essays in Idleness of Yoshida no Keneyoshi (that is, Kenko) is a posthumous collection of essays and aphorisms on disparate topics, probably assembled in their existing sequence by Kenko himself. Kenko (1283-1350) realized the fleeting nature of his affectation. "Mine is a foolish diversion," he writes, "but these pages are meant to be torn up, and no one is likely to see them" (19). In his introduction, he elaborates:

I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.

Kenko published some poetry but it has not survived and contemporaries thought it mediocre. Indeed, much of the Essays is not memorable, being fleeting experiences and observations jotted down, often ephemeral gossip. Translator Donald Keene has noted the inconsistency of a too-worldly interest in court detail, ritual,  and the doings of others despite Kenko's expressed esteem for hermits and apparent lack of acquaintance with nature and wilderness. These are valid points identifying clear weaknesses not only of the Essays but also flaws of personality in an old and sedentary bureaucrat turned monk. In that regard, Kenko is, perhaps, too idle, too reflective. 

Kenko's best essays are reflections on aesthetics, behavior, impermanence, and the downward trajectory of his age. In this regard, The Essays are considered a classic of Japanese literature, exhibiting the era's discursive and reflective style of writing and thought. Kenko served in the imperial court and apparently composed the essays out of boredom, despite the turbulent events around him, including the overthrowal of the emperor whom he served, a year of usurpation, and the emperor's restoration. Eventually, Kenko retired at 42, became a Buddhist monk (his family descended from Shinto priests), and resided alone for the rest of his life in a temple outside the capital Kyoto.

Kenko is observant but traditional, nostalgic, sentimental, even anachronistic. Sometimes he is a philosophical skeptic, but usually he expresses Buddhist themes without overt religious sentiment. His sensitivity to impermanence shapes his ethics and aesthetics. Though typical of the intellectuals of his era in this regard, Kenko writes primarily of solitude, quiet, and aloneness. He writes expressively and in an engaging, wistful tone, the strength of the collection.

Esteem for hermits

The essays are crowned by Kenko's clear esteem for hermits, as in these passages:

The hermit way of life is best; he feels no want even if he has nothing. (98)

People today cannot compare in resourcefulness with those of the past. They go into the mountain forests to live as hermits only to find the life unendurable without some means of allaying their hunger and shielding themselves from the storms. As a result, how can they help but display at times something akin to a craving for worldly goods? (58)

It is excellent for a man to be simple in his tastes, to avoid extravagance, to own no possessions, to entertain no craving for worldly success. [The hermit Hsu Yu refused to drink stream water from a gourd given to him as a gift and scooped water with his hands rather than acquire a possession.] What a clean detachment must have been in his heart! Sun Ch'en slept without a quilt during the winter months. All he had was a bundle of straw that he slept on at night and put away in the morning. (18)

Kenko notes, adding to the last paragraph above, that the Chinese esteemed these hermits so much that they included them in standard biographies, but that in Japan simplicity is no longer valued, and hermits like Hsu Yu and Sun Ch'en would not even be mentioned.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Kenko's writing turns to advice. He recommends to the sufferer of misfortune "to shut his gate and live in seclusion, so quietly, awaiting nothing, that people cannot tell whether or not he is at home" (5). He refers admiringly to a court bureaucrat who spoke of wanting "to see the moon of exile, though guilty of no crime," a clear and admirable expression of desire for reclusion (5).

Like the Chinese poet Tao Chien, Kenko tells us that

The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known. (13)

Among his preferred reading, Kenko includes the poet Po Chu-i and the Taoist classics of  Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.

Kenko warns against a "desire for fame and profit" as "foolish" and "a delusion" (38). Several essays admonish against wasting time on useless activities, an affliction of youth. Indeed, "you must not wait until you are old before you begin practicing the Way," he advises. "[We] should bear firmly in mind that death is always threatening, and never for an instant forget it" (49). "I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone" (75).

Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of enlightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy. ... (75)

Instability and impermanence characterize everything. "Times change and things disappear," Kenko muses in a typical reflection. "Joy and sorrow come and go; a place that once thrived turns into an uninhabited moor; a house may remain unaltered but its occupants will have changed" (25)

The trees in the garden are silent. With whom is he to reminisce, Kenko wonders. "I feel this sense of impermanence even more sharply when I see the remains of a house which long ago, before I knew it, must have been imposing. The sight of ruined palaces, halls, and temples, some mere foundation stones, acutely awakes this sense of impermanence" (25).

"What a wonderfully unhurried feeling it is to live even a single year in perfect serenity!" (7) But this serenity is the product of practice in pursuing the Way. "We cannot trust in anything. The foolish place great trust in things. ... If you trust neither in yourself nor in others, you will rejoice when things go well, but bear no resentment when they go badly. ... Heaven and earth are boundless. Why should human nature be dissimilar?" (211)

And so the simplicity of our lives requires unattachment because all else is impermanent, especially possessions. Says Kenko: "The intelligent man, when he dies, leaves no possessions" (140). Echoing the hijiri and later wandering mendicant monks, Kenko argues that we cannot claim anything anyway, neither possessions, accomplishments, deeds, fame, nor ambitions.

If you imagine that once you have accomplished your ambitions you will have time to turn to the Way, you will discover that your ambitions never come to an end. In our dreamlike existence, what is there for us to accomplish? All ambitions are vain delusions, you should realize that, if desires form in your heart, false delusions are leading you astray; you should do nothing to fulfill them. Only when you abandon everything without hesitation and turn to the Way will your mind and body, unhindered and unagitated, enjoy lasting peace (241).


Kenko's Essays in Idleness reflect the cultural esteem for eremitism current in the Japan of his era. Although his solitude was personal, echoing the values of the dilletante and the aesthete, his remarks reveal his sincere esteem for hermits.


Standard translations are Essays in Idleness, The Tsurezuregus of Kenko. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967 and The Tzuredzure gusa of Yoshida no Kaneyoshi. Translated by George Sansom. Yokohama: Asiatic Society of Japan Transactions, 1911, reprinted Ware, Herfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1999.