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Yoshida Kenkō : Essays in Idleness

Painting of the priest Yoshida Kenko

by Utagawa Hiroshige

Extract from :

Yoshida Kenkō

Essays in Idleness



Here are some things that particularly spoke to me among the teachings I read in a book called Superb Small Sermons (Ichigon hōdan), a collection of the teachings of venerable holy men :

– When hesitating between doing and not doing something, it is generally better not to do it.

– One with his thoughts fixed on the world to come should not own so much as a pickling jar. Even the possession of a fine copy of the sutras or a nicely made Buddhist image is wrong.

– The highest way of living for those who take the tonsure is to aim to lack nothing while owning nothing.

– Monks of high degree should become as lowly monks, a wise man should become foolish, a wealthy man poor, a skilled man talentless.

– If you wish to follow the Buddhist Way, you should simply retire and make time in your life, and not let your mind dwell on worldly matters. This is the most important thing.

I have forgotten the others.


A man famed for his tree-climbing skills once directed another to climb a tall tree and cut branches. While the fellow was precariously balanced aloft, the tree-climber watched without a word, but when he was descending and had reached the height of the eaves the expert called to him,

‘Careful how you go ! Take care coming down !’

‘Why do you say that ? He’s so far down now that he could leap to the ground from there,’ I said.

‘Just so,’ replied the tree-climber. ‘While he’s up there among the treacherous branches I need not say a word – his fear is enough to guide him. It’s in the easy places that mistakes will always occur.’

Lowly commoner though he was, his words echoed the warnings of the sages.


There are seven types of people one should not have as a friend.

The first is an exalted and high-ranking person. The second, somebody young. The third, anyone strong and in perfect health. The fourth, a man who loves drink. The fifth, a brave and daring warrior. The sixth, a liar. The seventh, an avaricious man.

The three to choose as friends are – one who gives gifts, a doctor and a wise man.


One’s education must first of all be directed to a thorough knowledge of the classics and an understanding of the teachings of the sages. Next, you should learn to write with a fine hand, even if you don’t make a specialty of it, as an aid to learning.

After this, you should study the medicinal arts. Without these, you cannot look after your own health, help others or perform your filial obligations.

Next, you must devote some time to archery and horse riding, skills which are listed among the Six Arts. A knowledge of the classics, the martial arts and medicine is absolutely essential, and no one who studies these can be accused of a useless life.

Next is food, ‘man’s very heaven’, as the saying goes. The knowledge of how to concoct fine flavours must be deemed a fine virtue in a man. And next is fine handiwork, which is useful in all manner of ways.

Aside from these, it is a matter of shame for a gentleman to cultivate too many accomplishments.


Anyone who wastes time in worthless pursuits must be called a fool or a villain. Obligation compels us to do many things for the sake of lord and nation, and we have little enough time left for ourselves.

Think of it like this : we have an inescapable need, first, to acquire food, second, clothes, and third, a place to live. These and these alone are the three great necessities of human life. To live without hunger or cold, sheltered from the elements and at peace – this is happiness.

Yet we are all prey to sickness, and once ill the wretchedness of it is hard to bear, so we should add medical treatment to our list. Thus, we have four things without which a man is poor, while a man who lacks none of these is rich. It is sheer self-indulgence to pursue anything beyond these four.

With these four in moderation, no one could be said to lack anything in life.


To parade your own knowledge and pit it against others is like a horned beast lowering its head at an opponent, or a fanged animal baring its teeth.

It is a virtue in a man to be humble about his own merits and not vie with others. A sense of superiority to others is very wrong. One who considers himself superior through birth, skill or eminent forebears, even if he never expresses this, is full of error in his heart. One should take care to put such things out of one’s mind.

There is nothing like pride for making a man look a fool, provoking criticism from others and inviting disaster. One truly skilled in his art will be all too aware of his own faults and thus never satisfied with himself, which means he will never be proud.


It is a grave mistake for a foolish fellow who has to his credit the single fact that he is very good at the art of go, to decide that an intelligent man who happens to have no skill at go is therefore his intellectual inferior, or for someone skilled in any of the crafts to think himself superior because others do not understand his specialty.

Scholar priests who know nothing of meditation, and meditation monks who eschew scholarship, are both wrong to judge each other as inferior.

One should never feel rivalry towards those in other fields, or pass judgement on them.


It is best to keep the peace with others, bend your own will to conform with theirs and put yourself last and others first. Those who enjoy the competition of games of every kind do so because they love to win. They delight in their own superior skill. Clearly, then, the loser must feel equivalently downcast. Nor does one derive any enjoyment from choosing to lose in order to please one’s competitor. It is unethical to give yourself pleasure by depriving others of it.

When relaxing with close friends, too, some enjoy proving their own wit superior by setting others up and deceiving them. This is most discourteous. Such behaviour has led to much long-standing bitterness, begun innocently enough at a social gathering. All these evils spring from a love of contest.

If you wish to be better than others, you should aim to excel them through study; by pursuing truth, you will learn not to take pride in your virtues or compete with others. It takes the strength conferred by study to enable you to relinquish high office and to turn your back on gain.


Someone told the following tale. A man sells an ox. The buyer says he will come in the morning to pay and take the beast. But during the night, the ox dies. ‘The buyer thus gained, while the seller lost,’ he concluded.

But a bystander remarked, ‘The owner did indeed lose on the transaction, but he profited greatly in another way. Let me tell you why. Living creatures have no knowledge of the nearness of death. Such was the ox, and such too are we humans. As it happened, the ox died that night; as it happened, the owner lived on.

One day’s life is more precious than a fortune’s worth of money, while an ox’s worth weighs no more than a goose feather. One cannot say that a man who gains a fortune while losing a coin or two has made a loss.’

Everyone laughed at this. ‘That reasoning doesn’t only apply to the owner of the ox,’ they scoffed.

The man went on. ‘Well then, if people hate death they should love life. Should we not relish each day the joy of survival ? Fools forget this – they go striving after other enjoyments, cease to appreciate the fortune they have and risk all to lay their hands on fresh wealth. Their desires are never sated. There is a deep contradiction in failing to enjoy life and yet fearing death when faced with it. It is because they have no fear of death that people fail to enjoy life – no, not that they don’t fear it, but rather they forget its nearness.

Of course, it must be said that the ultimate gain lies in transcending the relative world with its distinction between life and death.’

At this, everyone jeered more than ever.


The monk Zehō is among the finest scholars in the Pure Land sect, yet he doesn’t parade his learning; he lives in calm seclusion, chanting the nenbutsu day in day out. An exemplary existence.

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