Written in a small hut
I have been reading and rereading a small book, from which I often lift my eyes – sometimes seeing this world in which we live more clearly, and sometimes seeing it blurred by my tears. The book is Hojoki, written 800 years ago by the reclusive Japanese poet Kamo no Chomei. “Hojoki” means something like “written in a small hut.” The English translation by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins is further subtitled “Visions of a Torn World.”
Writing in the little cabin to which he had retreated from a severely damaged world, Chomei celebrated the resilience of human nature, which is capable of enduring even the harshest circumstances that a seemingly indifferent nature can deal us – and the cruelties of human nature. The good news, he said, is that we are resilient; the bad news is that we have to be.
His book begins by amending Heraclitus’ famous statement that you cannot step into the same river twice, in words so cherished that Chomei’s original manuscript in his handwriting still exists: “The river’s flow is constant, although the water always changes; and where water cascades into pools, bubbles appear – and then burst. So it is with us, and the homes in which we live.”
The world that had been torn apart was that of the capital city Heian-ky, “peaceful capital,” now known as Kyoto. In eight short years the tranquility of four centuries – a golden age, during which Japanese culture had flourished – came to an abrupt and tragic end. Hundreds of thousands of people died. The city suffered a great fire in 1177, followed by an enormous tornado, a drought that produced a two-year famine followed by plague, then a devastating typhoon and flood, and finally a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1185.
During this brief time, Japan also suffered the political storms of intrigue and open rebellion; the government abandoned the capital as a great civil war erupted, with an eventual coup that introduced six centuries of feudal shogunate states composed of (often marauding) samurai warriors. With the fires and floods, the earthquakes, rising seas and climate change – and with the political upsets that are ushering in great changes in our governments – do we find ourselves there again, today? And if so, what do we do?
Here in the peaceful Valley of the Moon, with the illusion of living in a paradise at some safe distance from the torn world beyond, we may think we are sheltered from the storms and devastations spread across the country, and across the planet. We may sympathize with the agonies that we hear about, and congratulate ourselves with some satisfaction that we have managed – so far – to dodge bullets headed our way. But to what purpose?
I think of Henry David Thoreau, whose essay “Civil Disobedience” prepared the political actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I think of why Thoreau had returned from a two-year retreat in his own small hut, at Walden Pond. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” he wrote. There he had drilled down deeply within himself – as had Chomei – learning the lessons of the natural world around him and within him, and so was ready to address the complicated world of 1850s society. And so he returned to help define the Transcendentalist Movement, with whom he found his place in the world.
Those particular years before the Civil War saw an amazing variety of reform movements emerge and flourish in New England, establishing values recognizably fundamental to today’s liberal politics. They actively promoted women’s rights, pacifism, prison reform, abolition of imprisonment for debt and slavery, an end to capital punishment, an improvement of the conditions of the working classes, a system of universal education, and an improvement of the condition of the insane and congenitally enfeebled. These were the Transcendentalists, who believed in the inherent goodness of nature – and people.
There may be a harsh day dawning now, but we need not be victims, nor passive. What we must do in these dangerous times – in what is arguably one of the most perfect places on this planet – is pay attention to what we are feeling and learning, undistracted, recognizing an unconstrained nature within us and about us, living life as well as we can.
What we do is make use of our opportunity to drill down to discover who it is we are, and what is right and true. Then, seeing ourselves in this world more clearly – though our eyes may be filled with tears – we can be deliberate with self-confidence, not defensive, resentful, and reactive; and we will find ways to speak and act responsibly, in a world that needs to hear our voices, and to benefit from our good works.