Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, by Kamo-no Chomei (1155–1216), is both historical testament and poem. As historical testament, it relates much of the sense and feel of late-twelfth-century Kyoto, a city that for all its noted artistic refinement and cultural achievement was frequently subjected to disaster, both manmade and natural. Kamo-no Chomei experienced these disasters firsthand: fires, floods, earthquakes, and famines. This narrative poem recounts those experiences, and struggles to come to terms with what meaning life can have in a world buffeted by change and shaped by events beyond an individual’s control.
Kamo-no Chomei became a Buddhist monk at the age of forty-nine and left Kyoto to live in relative seclusion in the nearby mountains. Four years later, he moved deeper into the mountains, built a hut near Hino, and composed Hojoki; the title refers to the size of his hut and means “Writings from a Place Ten Feet Square.”
A Japanese classic for nearly a thousand years, Hojoki has been translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins and is now accessible to English-language readers. The poem is narrated by a persona Chomei creates, a character who charms his way into the reader’s heart. Perhaps more than anything else, the [End Page 209] poem’s strength resides in the authority of this speaker. Chomei was there. He suffered. We see what he sees—the streets littered with dead and dying, starved and starving—and find the view compassionate and alive. His voice is angry and joyful by turns.
For all its historical detail, Chomei’s world also brings us face-to-face with our own search for understanding, peace, and a spirituality that is grounded in reality. In a thousand years, the human heart has not changed much, and we remain as vulnerable as ever to war and natural disasters. And this is why Chomei’s poetry remains new.
Some of the real beauty of Hojoki resides in the way it moves through time. Built of many small, songlike stanzas that weave their way through the work, Hojoki carries the reader forward and back, through harrowing experiences and lighter moments. The general movement reminds one of a Noh play in which the dancer moves so slowly that the viewer feels physically drawn into the drama by the studied tension that each step creates.
Throughout, Chomei’s narrator longs for a quiet heart. His hut brings some measure of peace, but he has chosen to live in exile and poverty. Aware of the flow and flux and constant change of human existence, he aims to liberate himself from the mental disquiet brought about by worldly cares. He wants to live light, to grow with less:
A house and its master are like the dew that gathers on the morning-glory. Which will be the first to pass?
Chomei doesn’t have an answer for the suffering he sees in the world, but he does have a way of living with it. He transforms anguish into compassion. Nowhere is this more poignant than in his befriending a ten-year-old boy, which he describes towards the end of the poem:
We pick buds and shrubs and gather bulbs and herbs. Or go to the fields at the foot of the hill and gather fallen ears of rice and make different shapes.
When the day is fine we climb to the hilltops and look at the sky above my former home.
Chomei savors life and shares it bounteously. He has time for the child because he knows how the world can be, because he walked streets where starving children [End Page 210] clung to the breasts of their dead mothers. The difference in the ages of Chomei and the boy is the difference between innocence and experience: “to understand the world of today hold it up to the world of long ago.” Despite all he has experienced, or because of it, he is capable of this...