What Makes Life Truly Moving & Wonderful?

The path to self-liberation
aspires to transcend all of Samsara.

The path to total liberation
aspires to engage all in Samsara too.

The ultimate Middle Path is
to be transcendental yet engaged.

Stonepeace | Books

The book blurb of ‘Essays in Idleness [Tsurezuregusa: 徒然草] and Hojoki [方丈记: Record of Ten-Foot Square Hut]’ by Yoshida Kenkō (吉田兼好) and Kamo no Chômei (鸭长明) respectively, as translated by Meredith McKinney has this ‘quote’ – ‘If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino’s graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe’s burning grounds, but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that makes them wonderful.’ Stripped to its essential, this means that ‘if life does not ebb away like vaporising dew or thinning smoke; persisting eternally instead, this physically unmoving world would hardly be spiritually moving, for it is the fleeting nature of phenomena, that makes it amazing.’

Strangely, the ‘quote’ does not appear in either of Kenkō or Chômei’s classic medieval Japanese writings, though they do speak of the bittersweetness (and/or sweetbitterness) of life and its impermanent experiences. Both being monastics, Chômei’s featured essay is a rather terse reflection on his renunciation from worldly matters to live as a mountain hermit in a small hut. Kenkō’s diverse collection of actual and heard city incidents, opinions and advice however, probably reflects a mix of mundane and supramundane matters, that he considered interesting and valuable? Perhaps the duo represents inclinations towards opposite ends of spiritual engagement versus social engagement?

Reading their works evokes a sense of lamentation versus hope, and clinging versus detachment. Are they not of their personal struggles on treading the Middle Path, of their occasional tottering from one side to the other in the quest for balance while moving forward towards enlightenment? The blurb ‘quote’ seems to encapsulate the precarious state of being on the brink of romanticising the fleeting as the enduring yet endearing. Wondrous as the impermanent might seem, its nature brings no lasting blissful refuge, even if there is an endless flow of change. The authors’ dread of disasters and wars leading to sudden death on top of the brevity of life are as valid in their times as now. For the spiritually maturing, this spurs deep existential angst.

Such sorrow marks the beginning of realisation of the First Noble Truth, of the dissatisfactory nature of the state of the world and our lives. While this might sound negative, it is what moves us to discover pure peace of mind despite the instability of it all. If we are attached to the fleeting instead, imagining there is True Happiness within, it would be looking for a sturdy needle amidst countless haystacks in vain, for there is only ever-decaying hay, without any needle hidden at all. Yet, we must plant our crops, to ‘make hay while the sun shines’, as we have to work with the fleeting nature of the material world to harvest non-fleeting spiritual liberation. The trick is to treasure the fleeting in this moment in time, without mistaking these means as the end for all time.

Even if the finitely fleeting gives us a sense of precious uniqueness of the moment, it is paradoxically not so unique, for it is but of the infinitely varied workings of nothing other than impermanence and unsubstantiality. Realisation of this leads to spiritually permanent and substantial bliss, which is much more wonderful than being restlessly ‘stuck’ in fleeting rebirths, which we should never be satisfied with. Even after attaining liberation, we should not become complacent, as there are others still ‘stuck’ with the fleeting, who require our skilful rescue. Thus do the Bodhisattvas and even Buddhas endeavour on, yet ever at ease, smiling their smiles of perfect compassion and wisdom. Now, this has got to be the epitome of what is truly moving and wonderful!

Because everything changes
from moment to moment,
we should treasure everything
in this moment.

Because everything changes
from moment to moment,
we should not be attached to anything
in this moment.

Stonepeace | Books

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Excerpts From ‘Essays In Idleness And Hojoki’

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