As some countries take tentative steps toward reopening amid the ongoing pandemic, it seems an apt moment to experience Japanese Buddhist thought and the comfort found in simplicity.

As part of its newest releases, the pocket-sized “Penguin Great Ideas” series offers up some timely reading on two centuries of Japanese Buddhist literature in “Three Japanese Buddhist Monks.” Composed of three short texts by Saigyo (1118-90), Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216) and Yoshida Kenko (1283-1352), the book explores the evolving revelations of Japanese medieval Buddhist thought in one easy-to-read paperback.

Three Japanese Buddhist Monks, by Saigyo, Kamo no Chomei and Yoshida Kenko
Translated by Meredith McKinney
112 pages

“Chomei and Kenko are considered classics of Japanese literature in general, and they usher in the beginnings of the medieval Buddhist take on the world that became so important to both Japanese literature and Japanese life,” says translator Meredith McKinney.

Particularly revealing about society at that time, McKinney adds, was the trend away from materialism and toward the simplicity of a reclusive life. “The question of reclusion, which was not such a big thing in early Buddhism in Japan, was beginning to come into its own,” she says. “These works detail how to live as a Japanese Buddhist monk without actually living in a monastery…. It’s a place where literature meets Buddhism very powerfully.”

Reclusion is something many in the modern world have become familiar with amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone has more or less experienced periods of reclusion in the past year or two,” McKinney points out. “And it’s been a fascinating experience — paring down to the essentials that we ignore in the busy, hectic life that everybody leads. Reclusion is always somehow hovering there in the background of what Buddhism is — but it’s not often in the foreground of what people generally think about Buddhism.”

The book opens with “The Monk Who Built a Hut and Meditated in the Depths of Mount Utsu,” a short poetic narrative traditionally attributed to Saigyo from the “Senjusho,” a collection of Buddhist tales from the early Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Before he became known by his pen name Saigyo (“Western Journey”), Sato Norikiyo was a member of a wealthy noble family in Kyoto and an elite soldier serving the emperor. At the age of 22 he decided to end his military career and renounce society. He then became an itinerant poet-monk.

The short descriptive piece was not, in fact, penned by Saigyo, but rather a Saigyo enthusiast whose name has been lost to history. Still, it captures the essence of his conflicted worldview — rejecting a life of court luxury and society, yet unable to completely embrace a life of reclusion — and also marks an important appearance of Zen in Buddhist literature.

“The narrative introduces Zen,” explains McKinney, “and this is very early on when Zen was just starting to come into Japanese Buddhism. These days, many people overwhelmingly associate Zen with Japanese Buddhism, but Saigyo was actually from a pre-Zen world. Yet the story depicts a meeting with a Zen monk. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of Buddhism in Japan.”

The middle text, “The Ten-Foot-Square Hut” by Chomei, explores reclusion as a total escape from a world ravaged by fire, famine, plague and natural disasters — all of which the narrator witnessed throughout his lifetime. Choosing a life of solitude away from such “strange and dreadful” events of widespread suffering, Chomei writes, “Knowing what the world holds and its ways, I desire nothing from it, nor chase after its prizes.”

Chomei celebrates his life of solitude, whittled down to the simplest of pleasures. Yet in the last pages, Chomei questions his strong love for his hut, doubting any human’s ability to truly escape from all attachments.

This austere view is balanced by the last and longest text, an excerpt from Kenko’s “Essays in Idleness.” With its wide-ranging and perceptive look at how to live meaningfully within a Buddhist context yet still among other people, it’s a perfect complement to the first two texts.

Of the three monks, McKinney finds Kenko the most relevant to today’s world.

“Kenko was such a social person,” she says. “Although he writes as a monk, he’s not primarily talking out of a sermon tradition but from a personal observation tradition. He gives a whole new perspective with lively approachability on what being a Buddhist monk in the world is all about. With Kenko, you come close to our reality — live on the edge of the city and keep one eye on society and one eye on your salvation.

“It’s easy for us to look back at a world that is different from ours and see it through our own eyes. But to get beyond our own eyes to feel it — the way it was felt as an experience — that seems to be the most essential thing for understanding classical literature or any literature outside of your own culture.”

McKinney says she’s spent a lot of time recently rereading classical Japanese literature. Although “The Ten-Foot-Square Hut” and “Essays in Idleness” are extracts taken from her translation of the complete texts, also published by Penguin seven years ago, the Saigyo excerpt was completely reworked for this edition.

“When I first translated this text, I was still finding my way into Buddhist literature, and I had not yet understood the full context of it,” she says. “Whereas in the subsequent 20 years, I’ve spent so much time back there in classical texts that I feel I’ve grown into (reading) them better.”

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