Idleness by the Numbers

The medieval Japanese scholar Kenko, idling away his hours at the inkstone.

I’ve been too busy, so today I looked back at Essays in Idleness, by the medieval Japanese monk and scholar Yoshida Kenko (1283-1352). I need Kenko to remind me what it’s all about. “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,” he wrote. As in Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook, his breezy confessions were often quite profound.

I’m including some of my favorites below, the ones that remind me to slow down a bit, especially because it’s almost spring:

#13 “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.”

#19 “The changing of the seasons is deeply moving in its every manifestation….” While some like autumn best, Kenko is partial to spring. “The cries of the birds gradually take on a peculiarly springlike quality, and in the gentle sunlight the bushes begin to sprout along the fences. Then, as spring deepens, mists spread over the landscape and the cherry blossoms seem ready to open, only for steady rains and winds to cause them to scatter precipitously. The heart is subject to incessant pangs of emotion as the young leaves are growing out.”

#75 “I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of ‘having nothing to do.’ I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone….People are all alike: they spend their days running about frantically, oblivious to their insanity.”

137 “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.”