Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hojoki













Hojoki, also known as, 'An Account of my Hut', is a 13th century essay by Kamo no Chomei, a monk who turned away from society and became a recluse, constructing a hut on a mountain side, on the outskirts of Kyoto. An important work as it offers first hand accounts of historical events that took place whilst he was writing it, also containing his own observations of his life. Although it can be seen as a chronicle of the events of his time, it's not strictly a historical document, the second half of the book, (and it's a slim volume), he reflects on why he's turned away from the world, and describes the nature around his hut, and explores the spirituality of the ascetic existence. Henry David Thoreau's  'Walden', is sometimes likened to it.

It starts with an observation similar to one made by
Heraclitus, and follows with giving examples of the impermanence of life and living. Then gives an account of some things he has seen in his 40 years, whilst he lived in the city, the great fire of Jisho 1 (1177), which engulfed the old capital, destroying buildings and taking the lives of the people who were caught by it. Also a whirlwind that hit the capital in 1180, noting the destruction to property, houses being reduced to their bare frames, and observes the human suffering. As the year 1180 came to an end, the Imperial Court was moved from Heian-kyo to Fukuhara, and Chomei writes of the anxiety that it caused the people, great mansions and buildings were dismantled and floated down the Yodo River, to the capital's new location. After this disruption, the then Emperor, (Emperor Takakura or Emperor Antoku?), decides to return the capital back to Heian-kyo. Due to drought a famine broke out in the area and the frustration and sufferings of the people are mentioned, some giving up farming due to the unsuccessful crop, the famine was harsh, as he observes people walking in the street would drop dead due to the starvation, the corpses stacked up along the banks of the Kamo river. In 1185 a earthquake hit Kyoto causing huge devastation, recalling a tragic scene involving the death of a child crushed by a collapsing wall. After the initial quake, Chomei notes that the number of after quakes was nearly 20-30 tremors a day, taking up to three months for the quake to completely dissipate.

In the second part of this short book Chomei tells us of his frugal life, turning his attention to more spiritual reflection, and how he came to choose a life of seclusion, at the age of fifty he built his own dwelling, as he could no longer afford the up keep of a house passed on to him, and then when he's sixty years old, he builds his hut, roughly ten foot square, and if needs be could be moved on two carts. He gives a little tour of his hut, and it's setting, and his observations of the changing seasons, which provokes his thinking concerning his own transience. He explains that he rarely travels into the capital anymore, but when he does he returns feeling sorry for the people living there, rushing around in the pursuit of wealth and honour. Initially he hadn't intended to stay in his hut for a long time, but at the time of writing, he has stayed five years. There are many different editions of this interesting book about, but I think the most recent is the one at Stone Bridge Press.



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