The Hōjōki, written in 1212 by the Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei, is one of the most beloved works of medieval literature in Japan. The opening lines of his chronicle are familiar to most people:
The flow of the river never ceases
And the water never stays the same.
Bubbles float on the surface of pools,
Bursting, reforming, never lingering.
They’re like the people in the world and their dwellings.
Japanese Buddhist literature is filled with this struggle to overcome the pain of transience. There is no escape, as we all know, for bad luck is an equal-opportunity act.
In a country that is no stranger to deadly calamities, the late 12th century was particularly rough. Devastating earthquakes and fires, windstorms and terrible famine were exacerbated by continued political upheaval and violent battles in the streets. Chōmei watched as the capital Kyoto was rocked by a mega-earthquake, in which “mountains crumbled, filling rivers with rubble” and then later as disease and famine saw “starved bodies lay strewn about the street…” Horrified by the suffering and anguish of this broken world, he decided to leave the capital and take up a life of contemplation in the mountains. For, as the great literati of China before him knew all too well, when the going gets tough, the wise head for the hills!
Eight hundred years later, as we are facing our own calamities in the form of a worldwide pandemic and endless political instability, historian Matthew Stavros, an academic at the University of Sydney and former director of the Kyoto Consortium of Japanese studies, has just released a new translation of this Japanese classic.
The Hōjōki has already been translated several times, notably by Burton Watson in his book Four Huts, published by Shambhala in 1994. This edition contains four famous works by Buddhist recluses, including Bai Juyi (or Po Chü-i), Basho and Yoshishige no Yasutane as well as containing beautiful brush paintings by artist Stephen Addiss. Another prominent translation from the 1990s was by Kyoto-based translators Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins. This new translation is marked by the literary quality of Stavros’s English. Choosing to render Chōmei’s prose into verse, the English is lyrical and sounds beautiful when read aloud (there is a wonderful narration by MG Miller on Audible). The text is complemented by beautiful photographs taken by the author around Kyoto.
Opening the pages of the Chronicle, readers will feel themselves to be journeying along with Chōmei, the sixty year-old Buddhist monk, as he leaves his privileged life of rank in the capital and builds his very simple hut “deep in the hills of Hino”. In contrast to the endless string of calamities that filled the pages of the first part of his book, the second part details the great pleasure he takes in his new home, where:
In the spring,
Wisteria flowers bloom like purple clouds in the west.
The chattering cuckoos guide me,
Toward the mountain pass of death.
On autumn evenings,
The cries of cicadas fill my ears,
Lamenting this empty husk of a world.
And when the winter comes,
Snow covers the earth.
The book gets its name from Hōjō 方丈, which is an architectural term representing one square jō 丈—about ten-foot square. This word, conveying a small, cell-like space, is also used for a monk’s living quarters, especially in the Zen tradition. The hut is tiny, but somehow there is a living area, along the eastern wall in the form of his “dried bracken for a bed”. This bed is but a hand’s reach away from his musical instruments—his lute and koto—sitting beside a shelf holding his music and poetry, and a few books, “like Genshin’s The Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land”. This is the section of the hut assigned for the arts. And:
A little to the west,
There’s a shelf for offerings,
Not far from an icon of Amitabha.
When bathed in evening light
A warm glow emanates from Amitabha’s forehead
And so, Chōmei—born to privilege and talent—gives it all up to become a Buddhist recluse in the Hills of Hino. And there, in his ten-foot square hut, he realizes that everything in the world comes down to the state of one’s mind. As he says, rendered so beautifully by Stavros:
Palaces and mansions:
If the heart is not at ease,
These worldly treasures bring no pleasure.