Kenkō was a Japanese Buddhist monk who was probably born in 1283 and probably died in 1352 (nobody knows for sure).
This pocket-sized book is one of eighty 80p ‘Little Black Classics’ and is a much reduced version of his Essays In Idleness.
Despite its 14th century provenance it has a remarkably contemporary application. It illustrates that the vanity of human wishes change little from century to century or from country to country.
“There is nothing finer than to be alone with nothing to distract you” he writes. This reminds me of a greetings card I once received containing a pearl of 21st century wisdom: “There’s nothing at all wrong with doing nothing at all”. Suffice to say that Kenkō was more than well-primed to counter any accusations that he was just a lazy sod.
The basis of his idleness is his belief that becoming absorbed in insatiable desires for more sex, wealth and even knowledge merely leaves you constantly dissatisfied. “Nothing in the world can be trusted”, he argues and furthermore “It is foolish to be in thrall to fame and fortune, engaged in painful striving all your life with never a moment of peace and tranquility”.
Fundamental to his rejection of the capitalist dream is what he calls the “transient phenomenal world”; which in plain words means that he knew that life is too short.
The acceptance of our mortality is central to his writings. His is a recognition that death is the ultimate leveler. The fear of death is the main reason why we should love life.
To achieve a state of joy he advocates living modestly cultivating as few needs as possible. “Some things are necessary for day-to-day living, but one should have nothing else”.
A cup of sake and a good book are viewed as sufficient. This extends to the severing of close human ties and becoming completely self-dependent. “The one thing a man should not have is a wife”, he affirms.
Kenkō took the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment to extremes and his radical asceticism is unlikely to win over legions of followers.
Still, there’s plenty of wisdom in these pages and it’s a useful reference book for those seeking justifications for doing nothing.