Simple Living in 2021 — Lessons from Kamo no Chōmei

depiction of Kamo no Chōmei by Kikuchi Yōsai (1781–1878)

“So briefly rests the dew upon the bush clover

Even now it scatters in the wind.”

-death poem of Lady Murasaki from the Tale of Genji (c.1010) reflecting on the brevity of her own life

A new year is upon us. The tumultuous year 2020 has begun to fade into the background, though the international pandemic and related crises remain. The past decade has seen the emergence of two phenomena that can be immensely impactful — allowing people to live meaningful lives with less : minimalist living and the tiny house movement. The Minimalists — Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus — just released a new documentary on Netflix called Less Is Now which focuses on the former. In it they detail their shift towards more meaningful lives. Living more intentionally, however, goes back way before the emergence of minimalism as a noticeable phenomenon over the past decade. Japanese monk and recluse Kamo no Chōmei (c.1155–1216) lived a minimalist lifestyle in a tiny house outside Kyoto in a time of war, famine, and natural disaster. His lifestyle developed as the result of his reflection on the calamities which befell Japan during his lifetime. He was one who reflected on living with less because people had less, and because of the anxiety so many experienced worrying about their possessions in a city doomed by warfare, fires, and earthquakes. Kamo no Chōmei’s vision of living with less was prophetic and remains deeply relevant in the world of today in which a deadly pandemic has altered the way of many of us live our daily lives.

What benefits does minimalism have in the world of social distancing, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders? One might be tempted to argue for the opposite. After all, there were those who stacked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the outset of this pandemic in the United States early last year. A closer look, however, revels that this kind of hoarding is not at all beneficial in times of crises and results in pitting people against each other, as well as increasing the likelihood of the spread of the virus through reckless panic shopping. Calm and reasoned responses are essential. Moreover, the global economy, even if greatly constrained, will still accommodate to demand. An intentional life with less — the essentials and little more — is not only consistent with, but beneficial during, times of great crises. This can be seen in the example of Kamo no Chōmei.

Kamo no Chōmei’s philosophy developed out of the hell which surrounded him. His masterpiece Hojoki (Account of My Hut (1212)) begins with vivid descriptions of the calamities which befell Kyoto in the late-12th century. It was out of this context that Chōmei extracted his personal philosophy/way of living. It is important here to note that the two actually relate to each other quite strongly — his abstract philosophical views and the way he acted in the world. Too often in the modern world, we have philosophers who argue for all sorts of things and claim all sorts of official positions but live lives that have little or nothing to do with those ideals. Indeed, this is true for many people across the board. Your values are not necessarily what you say they are. Nor are they necessarily what you write and expand upon in books, articles, and lecture. They are found in your everyday actions! Abstract theory, rhetoric, and writings are all good and well but only as sides to action — the main course, so to speak. This is why someone like Kamo no Chōmei ranks above practically all academic philosophers in terms of authenticity. His writings are grounded in experience and, thus, convey great wisdom.

“All human undertaking is folly, but it is most particularly futile to spend your wealth and trouble your peace of mind by building a house in the perilous capital.” -Kamo no Chōmei, Hojoki (1212)

Kamo no Chōmei was fascinated by the way great nobles of his time spent lavishly on mansions and hoarded wealth despite the precarious nature of the times. Wealth, he understood, was valuable as a means of security but became a liability when spent to display affluence. He noted that few of the great mansions still standing in his own day were even that old, and that many of the buildings of old had not survived the ravages of time. In our own time too, we can see that money is far better used as security than spent to impress people whose opinions we really don’t care about. Wealth affords us the potential to build a stable lifestyle and counterbalance the uncertainties that life throws at us to a considerable degree. However, it also offers us the chance to expand our problems to an infinite degree. This is where wisdom becomes an absolute necessity.

“Wealth brings great anxiety, while with poverty come fierce resentments. Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection. Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.” -Kamo no Chōmei, Hojoki (1212)

It is the creative, exploratory individual who seems most conscious of the constraints that social convention places on the individual. Chōmei was clearly conscious of the ways that these can ruin a perfectly good mind and limit the individual to a great degree. It was in his own lifetime that the stale conventions of the imperial court — the emperor and noble families of the capital — lost power to the provincial warrior elite (the people who would become the samurai). Superficial cosmopolitanism of the capital — the closest thing Japan had to an affluent, Hollywood-style insular decadence — had doomed the Imperial Court. Chōmei himself worked for the emperor, was of noble birth, and lived for years in the capital. He abandoned that world and chose to live as a recluse, freeing himself. Poetic conventions of the Imperial Court allowed one limited artistic expression in the realm of the abstract but practically none in the real world. By leaving, Chōmei created for himself the opportunity to actually live his values!

“The habit of walking and working is good for the health. Why sit idly about, after all?” -Kamo no Chōmei, Hojoki (1212)

my step count for the previous few days — walking is essential to health

Grounded in Buddhism but decidedly modern, Kamo no Chōmei’s minimalist outlook offers bits of wisdom to help improve our lives. Money is essential, but far more important as security than as a means to buy an endless array of trinkets or as a means of displaying status to impress people we often don’t really like to begin with. Chōmei was indebted to no one and lived freely until the end of his life. While his life was an attempt to free himself from attachment to the world, he failed in this — and even chided himself at the end of his text for his attachment to his simple lifestyle. One can sympathize with Chōmei and view his attachment more sympathetically, from a modern humanist perspective. The goal of a minimalist lifestyle should not be nonattachment but cultivating a passionate appreciation for the simple pleasures that life has to offer as well as a respect for our labors in life. Kamo no Chōmei was not a failure in that he became attached to his simple lifestyle. Rather, he was a success at being a human living a simple lifestyle. Buddhism offers tremendous insights but also deep constraints when taken to an extreme. In the end, I would argue that Chōmei’s humanity won out and his immortal text Hojoki stands as a testament to a life well lived.

To bring us back to the beginning, life really is transient, like the dew drop on a plant’s leaf about to scatter in the wind. This is what Lady Murasaki was getting at in having her namesake character in the Tale of Genji create a final poem on her deathbed. Time is a non-renewable resource but also the medium in which the open and creative mind can use to create a masterpiece. A minimalist perspective and the whole of 2021 ahead of us, we have much to work with.

Happy New Year! Best Wishes for 2021!


Note : all quotes from Hojoki are taken from Meredith McKinney’s 2013 translation of the text published by Penguin Classics.



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