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Yoshida Kenkō, , . Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō
1998, Columbia University Press.
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Publisher’s Note: Despite the turbulent times in which he lived, the Buddhist priest Kenkō met the world with a measured eye. As Emperor Go-Daigo fended off a challenge from the usurping Hojo family, and Japan stood at the brink of a dark political era, Kenkō held fast to his Buddhist beliefs and took refuge in the pleasures of solitude. Written between 1330 and 1332, Essays in Idleness reflects the congenial priest’s thoughts on a variety of subjects. His brief writings, some no more than a few sentences long and ranging in focus from politics and ethics to nature and mythology, mark the crystallization of a distinct Japanese principle: that beauty is to be celebrated, though it will ultimately perish. Through his appreciation of the world around him and his keen understanding of historical events, Kenkō conveys the essence of Buddhist philosophy and its subtle teachings for all readers. Insisting on the uncertainty of this world, Kenkō asks that we waste no time in following the way of Buddha. In this fresh edition, Donald Keene’s critically acclaimed translation is joined by a new preface, in which Keene himself looks back at the ripples created by Kenkō’s musings, especially for modern readers.

Comment: The writings of Kenkō, a 14th century court poet turned Japanese Buddhist priest, reflecting on a wide range of ordinary and extraordinary subjects in the random style of zuihitsu (“follow the brush”) Japanese composition. His essays were highly influential on Japanese aesthetics, especially the value placed on impermanent, irregular, and imperfect beauty, and the place of understatedness in a turbulent world. This text is best accessed by a reader with a basic understanding of Japanese aesthetics and Buddhism.

Related reading:

  • Robert E. Carter The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.
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