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In Celebration of Idleness

by Micheal Lewin

I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of having nothing to do? I am happiest when I have nothing to do.”

Kenko Yoshida ( 1283 – 1350 )

At the age of 41 Kenko Yoshida gave up his life as an officer in the Imperial Palace Guards and became ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. The reason for this dramatic decision remains unclear. Some speculate that it was grief over the death of Emperor Go-Uda. Others claim it was an unhappy love affair with the daughter of a government official. Whatever the reasons surrounding Yoshida’s departure from a worldly life one thing, I feel, is for certain, Yoshida felt a deep need to thread a spiritual path – a path of realization that might give him insight and understanding into the very nature of reality. As a Buddhist monk Yoshida led a solitary, contemplative existence in rural Japan spending his days in thoughtful reflection, meditation and writing. Eventually the culmination of his inspiring thoughts found expression in the work entitled Tsurezuregusa ( Essays in Idleness ). Originally written on scraps of paper that were pasted onto the walls of his hermitage, they were published in book form posthumously. Over the centuries his writing has emerged as work of noted literary merit – a high water mark in Japanese medieval literature.

Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of enlightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy….”

Kenko Yoshida

Despite its age the Tsurezuregusa is still considered of value and relevance to modern day Japan, that is why it is on the high school curriculum. But there is an irony here because Yoshida’s challenging words could be seen to undermine the entire structure and operation of industrial, capitalistic societies in which modern Japan is situated. If Yoshida returned to Japan now he would be very disappointed. For similar to other modern day economies, Japan has pushed ahead with industrialization and urbanization – involving vast scales of production, enormous consumption levels, a magnitude of waste and pollution on an unprecedented level and poor land management. I cannot help but think that once Yoshida was exposed to all this he would quickly return to his hermitage, in the remote backwaters of the countryside, thinking that everyone had gone mad. But it’s worse……Common trends running throughout prosperous, capitalist economies, including Japan, are those of increasing levels of stress, increasing levels of mental ill health, a consistently rising rate of suicide and specific to Japan, the emergence of the ‘ hikikomori ‘ phenomenon ­ young people who are seriously alienated from their families and communities so much so that they confine themselves to their bedrooms, often for years.

Individuals in contemporary societies ­ where busyness is almost pushed into neurosis – could undoubtedly learn something of real value and merit from Yoshida. I know I could because my life has been filled with activity, much of which focused around the issues of competition, recognition and reward that now seems so pointless……I almost lost the ability to relax my body and mind, to put aside my self-generated busy schedules in order to gain a softer, spiritual presence that could open me up to greater insight and inspiration. But eventually I learnt – eventually I started to recognize the benefits of threading the Buddhist path…


It is an exceedingly stupid person who will torment himself for the sake of worldly gain

Kenko Yoshida

Often we are so preoccupied in our pursuit of worldly gain that we allow our minds to take us off, fully engaged with ‘ striving,’ ‘achieving, ‘ and ‘ performing ‘, leaving our bodies behind – ignored. Until illness sets in that is, then we become painfully aware that we are suffering. Idleness ( using the term in the Taoist sense, as reflected in the work of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu ) leads to a relaxed state of being, both mentally and physically, that seems to be more in tune with the natural rhythms of life. It’s a gentle presence that doesn’t feel the need to be constantly running off some place doing this and fixing that in a state of anxiety and driven concern. It’s a slowing down process that allows us to notice the world around us. Especially, the natural world which knows something about harmonious presence, patience and rest. Rushing headlong through life – trying to meet constant deadlines and targets, trying to achieve set quotas, measured output ­ only helps to imprison our attention in the wrong areas and contributes to the development of a desensitized state of being. We are not here solely to work and produce, manufacture and market, we are here to listen, contemplate and understand……..


Sometimes the quest for material prosperity is just a distraction that keeps us from asking and listening to the deeper questions in life. The preciousness of our time, the special rewards of connecting with it mindfully, are greater than the value of any stock market’s business, a greater indication of well being than the Financial Times Index. Yet our modern, market place culture, that dominates so many lives, relentlessly goes on, ignoring our deeper needs. Time is not given to us for the pursuit of financial gain, as if it was the only reward in life, it is given so that we may develop as full beings to make our lives spiritually fulfilled. Developing a clarity of vision, a matured insight that expresses and reinforces our spiritual growth can only come from our engagement with prolonged periods of stilled, quiet time. There is no other way. All the world religions recognize this. Sacred scriptures contain profound wisdom and should be studied for their richness and depth of thought but ultimately the truth we seek, in all its spiritual complexity, lies within us. It may be hidden, denied, ignored or even forgotten but this is where it resides ­ deep within our Buddha heart/mind. So our journey of exploration, our quest to understand the deeper questions of life is one of seeking out committed periods of stillness, solitude and silence where we may be opened up to receive sampajanna – full awareness, full understanding….


Another vital epiphenomenon ( by-product ) of our restful states is that of creativity. For in the stillness and quiet of our relaxed poise we can start to enter into streams of rich imagination, inspired creativity that will inform our artistic expression. Throughout the ages many artists, composers, writers and poets have written extensively about this process. The writer Octavio Paz once amusingly cited a French poet who, whilst asleep, had a sign pinned on his bedroom door stating: “Do not disturb ­ poet at work.” This isn’t as frivolous as it may first appear for even in a state of sleep, inspiration can surface within us leading to new understanding, fresh insight upon awakening. Scientists as well, have made innovative and imaginative leaps in their research whilst connected to the creative mode of stillness and quiet. Many leading researchers, from Marie Curie to Einstein, have spoken about this process. Curie once said that when she and her husband were working it was: “…as if in a dream, “ in the full presence of ”…..peace and meditation, which is the true atmosphere of the laboratory.


The Chinese Zen Master Josho, was passing the main hall of the monastery of which he was the abbot, and saw a monk worshipping. So Josho hit him with a stick. The monk protested saying: “ After all worshipping is a good thing.” To which Josho replied: “ A good thing isn’t as good as nothing.”

A Buddhist Story

Many Buddhist practitioners, in trying to gain insight into the nature of reality, seek engagement with the simple, contemplative life and Kenko Yoshida was no exception. His time was spent in rural solitude undertaking basic chores that befitted a Buddhist monk. This left ample time for him to write down his spiritual insights and offer up his astute observations on the human condition – in all its rich complexity. His imperative, which lies at the heart of Buddhism, was to peel back ever-deepening layers of understanding and as a consequence, reveal a fuller appreciation of life. We still have Kenko Yoshida’s words published today, 600 years after he first wrote them down on scraps of paper. But I’m unaware of any publication that has survived this length of time, which studied the state of the medieval equivalent of the Japanese Stock Market or the value and stability of the medieval equivalent of the yen.

Slowing down to greet a relaxed, quiet simplicity, allowing its presence to fill our lives is a gift that we can all receive ­ gratefully. For it presents us with the possibility of securing tranquillity of mind, spiritual insight and creative inspiration. Offerings that can transform our lives for the better and who among us can afford to say no to these wondrous gifts?


Michael has been involved in a number of Buddhist organizations, over the years, arranging programmes and events, editing newsletters and sitting on a number of committees. He is a Trustee of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, he sits on the Executive Committee of the Lifestyle Movement ( dedicated to simple, green living ) and is a member of the Gandhi Foundation. Recently he spent two years living in community, in a Franciscan Friary, engaging his time with meditation, walking, yoga and writing. He has spent the last twenty years teaching and supporting a variety of different groups ( eg, young offenders, children with special needs and adults with learning difficulties ). He currently works with people who have mental health needs. He holds a degree in psychology and qualifications in teaching. He writes, on a regular basis, for a number of Buddhist / spiritual magazines both in the UK ( where he lives ) and abroad. He recently had a book published entitled: BUDDHIST REFLECTIONS ON DEATH, DYING AND BEREAVEMENT

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