Kyudo Notebook: Essays in Idleness

I’m in Kansai now, and have some down time while my travel partner isn’t feeling well. So I bought Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa, the Essays in Idleness, and have been enjoying it quite a bit. There are many good passages that, contrary to what the title suggest, emphasize making the most of each day, each moment. Here’s one (#92):

    A certain man who was learning to shoot a bow aimed at the target with two arrows in his hand. His teacher said, “A beginner should not hold two arrows. It will make him rely on the second arrow and be careless with the first. Each time you shoot you should think not of hitting or missing the target but of making this one the decisive arrow.”

Very true, and also interesting for a book written in the early 1330’s, a time of civil war. Sometimes people opine that this notion of not shooting to hit is some sort of modern conceit. Other times you hear people say that it doesn’t matter whether you hit or not. Both seem wrong to me. In any case, Kenkō continues:

    I wonder if anyone with only two arrows would be careless with one in the presence of his teacher. But though the pupil is himself unaware of any carelessness, the teacher will notice it. This caution applies to all things.
    A man studying some branch of learning thinks at night that he has the next day before him, and in the morning that he will have time that night; he plans in this way always to study more diligently at some future time. How much harder is it to perceive the laziness of mind that arises in an instant! Why should it be so difficult to do something now, in the present moment?

The book is full of these sorts of observations, some profound, some interesting only for the window they give on the culture of the day. Unlike Sei Shōnagon, Kenkō seems to have inhabited, and been conscious of, a world populated by more than just aristocrats, plus he seems to have lived quite a bit before he sat down, with “nothing better to do,” and wrote. [Donald Keene, trans., Tokyo: Tuttle, 1967]

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