Sometime in late last year, somewhere in Hubei Province in central China, probably in the city of Wuhan, a spiked virus measuring nanometers in size made the jump from another species to infect a human being. Like other viruses, this vampire—a novel coronavirus later dubbed “COVID-19”—was incapable of living on its own, but was in search of a host it could latch onto in order to reproduce. It found a convivial home in the person of “Patient No. 1.”
Since then the offspring of this first generation virus have infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide in the worst pandemic humanity has experienced in a century. Strong and weak, rich and poor alike have all been affected—although admittedly not equally. (Nature does not discriminate; economic choices do.) And now an estimated one-third of the world’s population is under lockdown, while we rely on desultory attempts at social distancing to break the murderous grip of little COVID-19.
At times like these, when fear is rife and the whirling wheel of fate seems monstrous and empty, many people begin to question the nature of human destiny and turn to books for solace and insight on how to carry on. There are, of course, the Bible and other religious works. Sales figures on Amazon show that works by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the other stoics are also much in favor, as is Albert Camus’s existentialist novel The Plague (La Peste).
Record of the Ten-Foot Square Hut
To these I would add a beloved Japanese classic, the Hojoki (Record of the Ten-Foot Square Hut), a short book written by the recluse Kamo no Chomei at the beginning of the Kamakura period in the late 12th century, at a time when the Heian court was losing control to the newly rising samurai class. Although not a Buddhist work in the strict sense, its main themes are mujo, or the impermanence of life, and a desire to abandon worldly attachments and become one with nature.
The book divides neatly into two halves. The first consists of a cavalcade of horrors that afflicted Kyoto, the city where Chomei was born and lived most of his life. The latter half describes in loving detail his solitary life in his hut on Mt. Hino, his finale abode after serial career disappointments and disillusionment with the age caused him to flee the capital.
The book begins with a famous passage comparing life to the current of a river, unceasing—although the water we see never remains the same. The dwellings of human beings, like those human beings themselves, are but foam that appears on stagnant pools, “now vanishing, now forming, never staying but for a brief moment.”
Chomei then goes on to describe several disasters that befell the capital. First, there was a devastating fire that “opened like a fan,” turning palaces into “ash and dust,” with the wind spreading the flames far and wide, leaping spaces over a hundred yards wide. Another year saw the arrival of a great typhoon that flattened whole sections of the city and darkened the sky with dust, family treasures, shingles and other rubble carried aloft.
Chomei’s disaster narrative is a literary exercise rather than a historical or political record. Yet, it is very moving. For example, in describing the effects of a two-year famine that was followed by pestilence, Chomei writes, “I also saw a small child who, not knowing that his mother was dead, lay beside her, sucking at her breast.” The streets of Kyoto were strewn with corpses—tens of thousands of them—and Buddhist priests went about marking the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet AUM on their forehands so that Amida Buddha would come to take them to the Western Paradise.
The great Meiji era novelist Natsume Soseki, who did the first English translation of the Hojoki in 1891 when he was still a university undergraduate, labeled Chomei a “misanthrope.” In an essay accompanying the translation, he castigated his “angry isolation and sullen estrangement from mankind,” as well as “his one-sided view of life, his complete renunciation of social and family bonds.”
But the fact is that Chomei seems to never have had many of these ties to begin with. Although we really know little about his life, we do know that he was a lifelong bachelor. Why was that? Certainly in that age most men of his class were married. Did he disdain to accept the responsibility, or was he early on relegated by his peers to the category of “loser.” Was it his personality that prevented him from succeeding his father as one of the head priests at the important Shimogamo Shrine? Why did he refuse substitute posts offered by the emperor?
We simply don’t know.
I question whether Chomei ever really was the “misanthrope” Soseki describes or the lonely seeker of enlightenment that seems to be the popular impression. For example, a true misanthrope would attack those who had caused him so much grief and lash out against his fellow human beings. Although we can detect dissatisfaction that he was thwarted from obtaining high status, Chomei names no enemies and describes the horrors he directly witnessed (but did he really?) in a generally detached tone. It is as though the torments spawned by differences in wealth and status are themselves disasters wrought by nature.
An Empathetic Recluse
Chomei tells us that he turned his back on the world to seek refuge from worldly illusions in solitude and Buddhist spiritual practice after these disasters awoke him to the impermanence of all material things and the ephemeralness of human life. Be that as it may, a look at a map of Kyoto shows that Mt. Hino is located in today’s Fushimi-ku near the Uji River, only a couple of miles from the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. Even in his own day, Chomei would not have been far from the city. In fact, he says that from one of the high peaks in the area, he could see the capital. As he wittily puts it, “Fine scenery has no landlord.”
Chomei was already around 60 years old when he settled in his hut, ten feet square and under seven feet high. However, for the previous decade he had already been living in other rustic areas near Kyoto, such as Ohara. So the lifestyle was not new. At one point Chomei notes wryly that over the years, his residences had already been getting smaller and smaller, to the point where two carts would be adequate to move his hut at any time.
The dimensions of his “final” earthly abode, his hojo were patterned after the stone cave in which Vimalakirti, the “enlightened layman of Mahayana Buddhism,” was supposed to have lived. Here Chomei was alone with his poetry books, a copy of the Lotus Sutra, and a koto zither and biwa lute to console him. Tending the little garden outside the hut and collecting nuts and other food would have occupied much of his time. And there were the seasonal delights of nature all around: cherry blossoms, wisteria, summer cuckoos, cicadas chirping and the calmness of a snow-covered landscape.
Self-exile is different from separation caused by disease, war, or exile. It might be a logical reaction to the “absurdity” of the human condition, but it can be a proactive choice, nevertheless. An expression of free will—however futile—that rebels against fate.
Chomei’s case, however, may just be a passive case of throwing in the towel from weariness of the hostile world in which he lived. Indeed, his recitations of the nembutsu seem half-hearted, as if even seeking salvation is a bit of a bother. He could after all have chosen to join a religious community.
I get the feeling that like Thoreau’s description of his life at Walden Pond, Chomei exaggerates his physical isolation for literary effect. In addition, Chomei wrote two works in his later years, probably when he was living in his hut. One is the Mumyosho (Assorted Jottings) a collection of essays on poetry and other topics, while the other is the Hosshinshu, a collection of tales about hermits. What was the intended readership? Does a real recluse seek literary fame?
It does seem that the hermit was Chomei’s ideal—an ideal he admits he had difficulty living up to because of his feelings of attachment for his thatched hut. At best, Chomei should be classified as an inja—someone who rejects society and personal relationships in order to dedicate himself to aesthetic pleasures.
Another indication that Chomei was not as eager to turn his back on society as he would have us believe is his description of the delight he took in wandering the countryside with a young boy, the son of a local caretaker, with whom he made short trips to a temple tens of kilometers away and frequently enjoyed other local sights. Despite the great difference in ages, he says they got on fabulously.
Reading that, I couldn’t help but recall how in his generally clinical descriptions of the disasters that befell Kyoto, one incident of true pathos concerns a samurai boy of five or six who had been trapped when a wall collapsed after the earthquake. Chomei describes how the boy’s grieving parents wailed as they picked up his battered corpse with “eyes protruding from his head.” He adds, “Even a stern samurai at such a time thought it no shame to show signs of his deep feeling.”
Earlier, Chomei had lamented, “Take someone under your wing, and your heart will be shackled by affection.” Perhaps, having reached the twilight of his life, he regretted not having offspring.
Lasting Cultural Influence
Chomei’s description of his humble hermitage has profoundly influenced Japanese culture. For example, it was one of the inspirations for the soan chashitsu style of rustic tea hut. Needless to say, the Hojoki has also been a favorite of literary men.
In the end, it is Chomei’s weakness, his air of being human, oh so human, in his attachment to his crude abode that makes the Hojoki endearing. His descriptions of his simple life as a societal drop out, performing daily chores or rambling through nature, are somehow very comforting. Chomei may be no spiritual superman, but he makes us reconsider what are the truly important things in life.
Author: John Carroll