Tamamura Kyo: "Reclusion and Poetry: Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki and Hosshinshu" in Aesthetics, no. 13, 2009, p. 153-166.

Together with the poet Saigyo and essayist Kenko, Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216) was a famous recluse of medieval Japan. His famous work Hojoki deals with his ten-foot square hut as a model of both dwelling-place and the universe, while his Hosshinshu is a fascinating collection of Buddhist tales illustrative of the lives and ideals of hermits. Together these works craft a response to the dichotomy of eremitic life: aesthetics or ethics, a life of refined and simple pleasures (among them poetry) versus a life of deliberate austerities and renunciations. Tamamura's article addresses the issue using these two classic works of Chomei.

Hojoki paints the dark age of the capital's fortune as a metaphor for life itself: earthquake, fire, floods, famine -- all visit the hapless city, but disaster and misfortune also visit the hapless individual. Hojoki, Chomei writes, is about the "hardship of being in the world, fragility, and the vainness of one's dwelling and one's own body." His own fortunes bring Chomei to retire from court and move to the outskirts of the city, to live in seclusion.

But seclusion is still living in a given place and being prey to its vagaries.

If you reside in a narrow region, you will not be able to avoid neighboring fire. If you live in an outskirts, you will have to put up with inconveniences of transport and security. Those who are energetic would torture themselves with greed, while those who are lonely would be made light of. If you have much property, you fear losing it; if you don't you will be envious [of those who have].

In short, as long as one is subject to the vicissitudes of the world, there is suffering, and to resist only brings frustration and sorrow. It does not matter where one lives -- these mental quandaries follow. Chomei concludes that the question itself -- to follow the world's ways or to resist them, to find a perfect "where" to go or do a perfect "what" -- is not the right question.

In Hosshinshu, Chomei presents hermits and investigates their motives in leading eremitic lives. Concerning one hermit's example, Chomei  hits upon an insight:

This is what a man of wisdom always does when he tires to seclude himself. Though his body is in the middle of a crowd, he conceals his knowledge and never lets it be known. A man may well escape to mountains and forests, yet this is just the behavior of those who are not able to conceal their wisdom.

Thus, as Tamamura observes, Chomei presents reclusion as "a kind of state of mind rather than a concrete activity." Chomei assembles his hermitage as a makeshift hut, almost by accident, in a circumstantial place. It is a home but he can abandon it at any time. His hut is as temporal as life itself. He takes to himself the advice of the Buddha to govern one's heart and and not be governed by it. One inevitably touches things, but one should not be touched by them. The Buddha does not say not to touch things, but rather not to be touched by them. Only in such a "dwelling" can one escape fear.

Chomei is not seem completely motivated by religious sentiment. In Hojoki, he records how he thoughtfully arranges the objects of his hut, how he take s up his koto and biwa (lute) when the mood strikes him, how he doesn't recite prayers or sutras if he doesn't feel like it. "I am willing to be lazy. No one blames me for that. I never feel ashamed," he says. Chomei doesn't make a special effort to pursue a regimen because there is no "sphere" (kyogai) anyway, by which he means that there is no environment or inclination to evil, lust, desire, or impiety. In this regard, Chomei has created the conditions that dispel the negative "sphere," instead pursuing the natural, the harmonious, the universal.

In turn, Chomei's immediate environment, what he has arranged or placed himself in, becomes his "sphere." Thus the conditions around his hermit hut are the conditions of his mind and heart.

In the silence of the night, moonlight through the window makes me recall old colleagues, and monkey cries soak my robe with tears. Fireflies in bushes deceive me as if they were bonfires of cormorant fishing, and rain in the dawn  is like a breeze that blows leaves from the trees. When there are cries of mountain birds, I am reminded of my parents' voices. When I happen to find deer approaching me, I realize how far I have removed myself from the world.

Tamamura compiled the above citations from disparate parts of Hojiki, but the sentiment runs throughout the book. The passages are, in fact, based on poems. Other passages show Chomei's clear evocation of a Buddhist episteme, and the notion of a "sphere" becomes the key to building an eremitic life on a firm philosophical foundation.

This introduces the fourth and final section of Tamamura's article: "Buddhism and Poetry." Chomei has presented the notion that a sensitivity or awareness of one's surroundings or "sphere" allows a person to define notions like "the world" and what it means to be in the world or secluded from the world. Seclusion does not mean absenting oneself from reality but only from the conventionally defined or experienced "spheres" of others. Seclusion is presenting or moving oneself into other extant spheres, which in turn are disengaged from worldly spheres or environments. Poetry is such a specific sphere.

I constructed my hermitage for my own sake, not for others. This is because I have nobody to walk with, nobody to count on; this is the way the world goes and the way I live. ... As for friendship, people esteem wealth and connections. Sympathy and affection are not necessarily valued. There are no good friends other than music and poetry.

Poetry sprouts a seed in the heart that moves the reader or hearer to contemplate other "spheres." True poetry does not start with intellectual, social, or political purposes but with individual feelings and emotions evoked from the heart. These may be as simple as laments, and develop from there to more complex rules of structure and expression, but must always begin with the heart.

Tamamura summarizes:

Chomei wanted in his reclusive life to relate to the human heart, acknowledging its tendency to be moved, and poetry was for him an important and essential means for this. Buddhism, of course, was also a vital element for hermits, yet it basically relegates the human heart to evil. In this sense, for Chomei, poetry and Buddhism were like two wheels of a car, the basis on which to ground his reclusive life. In other words, Chomei's reclusive life would become complete when the two sides work harmoniously.

Tamamura's article usefully points out the necessary foundations for true poetry, especially when reclusion is seen as an aesthetic and ethical approach. Kamo no Chomei's life and works address the issues in a way that few eremitic sources do, and thus remain an essential inspiration.

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