Lesson 4: Selection from Essays in Idleness 1
(Citation from Donald Keene “Selection from Essays in Idleness” Kodansha International, 1999)
What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when 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.
The man who forgets the wise principles of the reigns of the ancient emperors; who gives no thought to the grievances of the people or the harm done the country; who strives for the utmost luxury in everything, imagining this is the sign of magnificence; who acts as if the world were too small for him seems deplorably wanting in intelligence.
You will find in Lord Kuj?’s Testament the instruction, “Make do with whatever you have, from your court costume down to your horses and carriages. Do not strive for elegance.” Again, you will find among the writings of the Retired Emperor Juntoku on court ceremonial, “The clothes worn by the emperor should be simple and unassuming.
Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire. What a foolish thing a man’s heart is!
Though we realize, for example, that fragrances are short-lived and the scent burnt into clothes lingers but briefly, how our hearts always leap when we catch whiff of an exquisite perfume! The holy man of Kume lost his magic powers after the whiteness of legs of a girl who was washing clothes; this was quite understandable, considering that the glowing plumpness of her arms, legs, and flesh owed nothing to artifice.
How delightful it would be to converse intimately with someone of the same mind, sharing with him the pleasures of uninhibited conversation on the amusing and foolish things of this world, but such friends are hard to rid. If you must take care that your opinions do not differ in the least from those of the person with whom you are talking, you might just as well be alone.
You might suppose that a man who listens in general agreement to what the other person is saying, but differs on minor points―who may contest an opinion, saying, “How can I possibly agree?” or argue, “It’s precisely because of this that that is the case”―would be a great comfort when you were bored, but as a matter of fact, if ever anything is said which might require a word of apology―of course, even when conversing with people who are not of the same mind, differences over the usual insignificant gossip do not matter―one realizes sadly what a great distance separates this man from the true friends of one’s heart.
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. It has been true since ancient days that wise men are rarely rich.
In China there was once a man called Hsu Yu who owned not a single possession. Someone, seeing him use is hands to scoop up water for drinking, presented him with what is known as a “sounding gourd.” For a time Hsu Yu hung it on the branch of a tree, but it rattled when the wind blew. “How noisy!” he said, and threw it away. Hsu Yu went back to drinking water scooped up in his hands. 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 at night and put away in the morning.
When a person who has always been extremely close appears on a particular occasion reserved and formal towards you, some people undoubtedly will say, “Why act that way now, after all these years?” But I feel that such behavior shows sincerity and breeding.
On the other hand, I am sure I should feel equally attracted if someone with whom I am on distant terms should choose some occasion to speak to me with utter frankness.
Kin'yo, an officer of the second rank, had a brother called the High Priest Ry?gaku, an extremely bad-tempered man. Next to his monastery grew a large nettle-tree which occasioned the nickname people gave him, the Nettle-tree High Priest. “That name is outrageous”, said the high priest, and cut down the tree. The stump still being left, people referred to him now as the Stump High Priest. More furious than ever, Ry?dgaku had the stump dug up and thrown away, bur this left a big ditch. People now called him the Ditch High Priest.
The cloistered emperor, having decided to introduce water from ?i River into the pond of his Kameyama palace, commanded the inhabitants of ?i to build a waterwheel. He paid them generously, and the men worked hard for several days to construct it. But when the wheel was put in place it failed to turn at all. The men tried in various ways to repair it, but it stood there useless, stubbornly refusing to turn. The emperor thereupon summoned some villagers from Uji and ordered them to build a waterwheel. They put one together without difficulty and presented it. The wheel turned perfectly and was splendidly efficient at drawing up water.
Expert knowledge in any art is a noble thing.
There was in Tsukushi a certain man, a constable of the peace it would seem, who for many years had eaten two broiled radishes each morning under the impression that radishes were a sovereign remedy for all ailments. Once some enemy forces attacked and surrounded his constabulary, choosing a moment when the place was deserted. Just then, two soldiers rushed out of the building, and engaged the enemy, fighting with no thought for their lives until they drove away all the enemy troops. The constable, greatly astonished, asked the two soldiers, “You have fought most gallantly, gentlemen, considering I have never seen you here before. Might I ask who you are?” “We are the radishes you have faithfully eaten every morning for so many years,” they answered, and with these words they disappeared.
So deep was his faith in radishes that even such a miracle could occur.
As soon as I hear a name I feel convinced I can guess what the owner looks like, but it never happens, when I actually meet the man, that his face is as I had supposed. I wonder if everybody shares my experience of feeling, often I hear some story about the past, that the house mentioned in the story must have been rather like this or that house belonging to people of today, or that the persons of the story resemble people I see now.
It has happened on various occasions too that I have felt, just after someone has said something or I have seen something or thought of something, that it has occurred before. I cannot remember when it was, but I feel absolutely certain that the thing has happened. Am I the only one who has such impressions?