Hosshinshu: Kamo no Chomei's Hermit Stories

The spiritual crisis of medieval Japan (12th-14th centuries) witnessed the emergence of a new class of writings: the literature of reclusion. Through poetry, essay and stories, this form of literature specifically addressed the question of how best to separate oneself from inimical society and its values and, by extension, from the impermanence  of human existence.

Three types of recluses were discussed, based on the varying degrees of their reclusion:

  1. hijiri, holy men whose rejection of the world was complete and who hid themselves from society as hermits,
  2. tonsiesha, those who admired the hijiri and even imitated their eremitism but who could not embrace the harshness of their material lives nor the absolute human separation this entailed and,
  3. inja, those who rejected society and relationships to pursue aesthetic expressions of their freedom in reclusion.

Ippen is representative of the hijiri, as are Gempin Sozo and Zoga Shonin, the latter two described by Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216) in his Hosshinshu, a collection of 102 stories and legendary vignettes. The compilation was made years after Chomei's Hojoki, his famous reflective essay about the tumult of his time, from autocratic government and fickle masses to the series of natural disasters that overwhelmed the capital and threw daily life into chaos. The Hojoki concluded with Chomei's description of the ten-foot square hut which became his home as a recluse.

But despite his faith and motivated in part by his belief in mappo, the eminent last age, Chomei realized that he was not a hijiri. He was too attached to literature, to music, to an aesthetic simplicity that was what one observer has called frankly a dandyism. Chomei understood that he was a tonseisha, not a hijiri, or worse an inja or sukimono, that is, a secular aesthete.

This much Chomei already acknowledged toward the close of his Hojoki:

The teachings of the Buddha warn us against feelings of attachment. So now it must be wrong for me to love this thatched hut of mine, and my fondness for quiet and solitude must be a block to my salvation. Why have I wasted precious time in the recital of these useless pleasures?

So he embarked on the Hosshinshu years later.

The Hosshinshu

As translator Ury describes them, the Hosshinshu are "tales of men who have sought seclusion from worldly life and its distractions, and who have fiercely guarded that seclusion either by flight or, if need be, by deliberately seeking the ridicule and contempt of their fellow men." 

Chomei himself said,

I collected and wrote down stories read and listened to here and there, without looking for profound doctrines. ... I did not write down tales coming from countries far away like India and China, neither did I collect stories of Buddha and Bodhisattvas unsuitable for me. I have only recorded those easily understood stories of people of our country, which I had occasion to listen to.

Marra elaborates:

Most of the holy men portrayed in the Hosshinshu share several common characteristics. They wander either in deep mountains, mountain valleys, city streets, or far away countries; they all live in a mental state of reclusion, even if they love to mix with other people in order to sustain their life; they tend to possess as little as possible in order to reduce to a minimum their cravings; whenever their peace of mind is in danger, they immediately conceal themselves and their actions, and in order to do so, they even pretend to commit crimes.

A guide to reclusive behavior, so to speak, was found in the Chinese Buddhist Tendai document Mo-ho chiuh-kuan or Great Concentration and Insight composed by Chih-i in the latter sixth century. This work, according to Marra, is

an exhortation to conceal our virtues, to show our flaws and our madness, and to hide our body. Three verbs describe the behavior of a holy man: to give away, to hide, and to leave. To give away fame and wealth, the source of boundless craving; to hide the performance of good actions which have a meaning in themselves and which are not done in anticipation of a possible reward; to leave our environment in order to reduce to the minimum our attachment to the world.

The immediate consequences of the teachings were the practice of secret charity, the exposure of sins, eccentric behavior and wandering in distant places. These are all ways to escape from the net of fame and wealth threatening even those monks surrounded by too many pupils and public rewards.

Chomei's own comment embodies this ethos:

It is a fact that men who truly have faith will fear being reverenced by others and concealing their virtue they will appear to exhibit only faults. For even if someone forsakes worldly life, if he does it with the thought of hearing people say how noble is his renunciation and how worthy his religious practice, then this is far worse than the pursuit of worldly fame.

Story Summaries

What follows is a summary of half a dozen representative stories or setsuwa from Kamo no Chomei's Hosshinshu.

Gempin Sozu was an educated monk but "he profoundly detested worldly life and also had no fondness for the society of the temple." He built a thatched hut by a river. Reluctantly he once obeyed a summons to audience by the emperor on one occasion, but thereafter contemptuously refused a subsequent emperor's appointment to a senior grade of a religious office. Having had enough of imperial solicitations, Gempin disappeared altogether, to the disappointment of many.

Years later an old disciple of Gempin traveling to a far northern province came to a river crossed by a ferry. The traveler recognized the ferryman, a disheveled old monk, as Gempin. He held back tears but revealed nothing. At the same time, Gempin had recognized the traveler, and when the traveler came to the river on his return trip, the ferryman was gone, another having replaced him. The man asked the people about the previous ferryman. Yes, a monk had been here as ferryman, they told him, not the usual low fellow who takes such work. He never accepted a fare, wanting only a little food and to purify his heart repeating the nembutsu. Something must have happened one day because he vanished and no one knows where he has gone.

Byodo Gubu was an eminent monk of the Tendai sect who one day experienced enlightenment (i.e., "the realization of the impermanence of our evanescent existence") and at that moment left everything, went out dressed as he was and wandered to the river. He took a boat to a distant province, where he begged his food, wandering and sleeping anywhere. It so happened that the provincial governor had a former disciple of Gubu named Acarya as administrator. Coming back from travels and arriving at the governor's mansion, Acarya saw a beggar-monk in the courtyard pursued and harassed by an unruly , jeering crowd. Recognizing the old emaciated monk and overcome with pity, Acarya descended to the courtyard to bring Gubu into shelter. But Gubu refused, and left. Acarya ordered a search for him but the old man could not be found. Years later, a dead man was found near an unfrequented mountain stream, facing west, hands clasped in prayer. Acarya went and tearfully recognizing Gubu, and performed the last rites.

The learned monk Zoga Shunin was the son of an imperial advisor who experienced an "awakening of faith" and sought "a chance to make himself unwanted." At the conclusion of a monastic disputation, when leftover food was tossed into the courtyard for beggars, Zoga darted out of the congregation to grab and eat it. Zoga trumped up quarrels with commoners and insulted authorities, assuring no further obligations to them. In a welcoming procession at the palace one day, Zoga girded himself with a fish as a sword and rode a runty cow instead of a horse. At the palace door he shouted to the guests: "Painful indeed are wealth and fame. Only beggars are happy." Upon his death, Zoga called for a go board and donned saddle-flaps on his head to perform a dance.

Though deemed a madman by all, Kamo no Chomei notes that Zoga "acted with the sole thought of departing this realm of appearances; for just this reason we have judged him a precious example."

A certain man owned fifty hectares of prosperous grain fields, but one day he realized the vanity of possessions. "Such is the world that he who was seen yesterday has vanished today; the house that flourished at morning has decayed by evening. Once you've closed your eyes forever, of what use are the things you've prized and hoarded? How wretched to be shackled with bestial greed for ephemeral things and sink forever into the three evil paths!"

So the man set out for the capital, where his thirteen-year old daughter found him and begged him to return, but the man put her off, even drawing his sword. Leaving her in tears, he ascended Mt. Koya, build a hut, and took up religious austerities. The fame of his virtue spread. His daughter became a nun, and living at the foot of the mountain, served her father's needs, such as laundering, for the rest of his life.

A respected old holy man informed a trusted disciple that he wished to live in discretion with a female companion in a hut at the back of an old property. The disciple judged this a disgraceful desire but said nothing and found a seemly widow for his master's purpose. The disciple had food deposited near the hut and adhered to his promise to never approach the hut or let others do so. Many years later, the woman emerged and tearfully told the disciple that the master had died. The disciple went in and saw the dead master, sitting with mala in hand. The woman explained how they had lived in abstinence, he passing the time in prayer and meditation, encouraging and instructing her. She valued his example, and as a widow had already renounced the world, she continued, glad to witness the example of virtue, even to the self-effacement of his insisting that no one be summoned, even at the point of death.

An articulate monk made an unusual request of the master of the governor's house. He explained that "a comely young lady" of his acquaintance had come into an "interesting condition" and that he needed provisions for her. The monk asked to take the things himself. The governor's administrator was scandalized but he said nothing. He brought the provisions but put a servant to follow the monk. The monk departed for a deep mountain valley and a thatched hut where he laid out the provisions. The servant took note of all this; with darkness upon him he settled in a nearby tree to sleep. During the night he was awakened by the monk's "sublime recital of the Lotus Sutra, and he was unable to check his tears."

The servant returned and related the details to the astonished governor, who recognized the monk's ruse and exclaimed, "He was no ordinary being!" With that h sent the servant back to the monk with more provisions, which the monk accepted without reply. Some time later, wanting to confirm the monk's well-being, the governor sent his servant for news. This time the hut was empty. The first set of provisions was gone but the second set lay where the servant had placed it, now scattered by birds and wild animals.


Marian Ury (translator), "Recluses and Eccentric Monks: the Hosshinshu by Kamo no Chomei" in Monumenta Nipponica, v. 27, no. 2, 1972, p. 153-173; Michele Marra, "Semi-recluses (Tonseisha) and Impermanence (Mujo): Kamo no Chomei and Urabe Kenko" in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, v. 11, no. 4, December 1984, p. 313-350; Burton Watson (translator), "Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut by Kamo no Chomei" in Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life. Boston, Shambhala, 1994.