Chômei's An Account of My Hut

In this famous essay written in 1212, Kamo no Chômei describes the uncertainty of worldly life, and explains why he chose to "renounce the world" and become a Buddhist monk.

Excerpts from An Account of My Hut

OPENING LINES

The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration. So in the world are man and his dwellings.

OBSERVATIONS

In the forty and more years that have passed since first I became aware of the meaning of things, I have witnessed many terrible sights. ... On the twenty-ninth day of the fourth moon of 1180, a great whirlwind sprang up in the northeast of the capital and violently raged as far south as the sixth ward. Every house, great or small, was destroyed within the area engulfed by the wind. Some were knocked completely flat, others were left with their bare framework standing. The tops of the gates were blown off and dropped four or five hundred yards away, and fences were swept down. ... Innumerable treasures from within the houses were tossed into the sky. ... A smoke-like dust rose, blindingly thick, and so deafening was the roar that the sound of voices was lost in it. ... must be the blasts of Hell, I thought. ... Countless people were hurt and crippled. ... The whirlwind moved off in a southwesterly direction, leaving behind many to bewail its passage. People said, "We have whirlwinds all the time, but never one like this. It is no common case — it must be a presage of terrible things to come.

*****

Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before. Mountains crumbled and rivers were buried, the sea tilted over and immersed the land. The earth split and water gushed up; boulders were sundered and rolled into the valleys. ... The rumble of the earth shaking and the houses crashing was exactly like that of thunder. Those who were in their houses, fearing that they would presently be crushed to death, ran outside, only to meet with a new cracking of the earth. ...

*****

All is as I have described it — the things in the world which make life difficult to endure, our own helplessness and the undependability of our dwellings. And if to these were added the griefs that come from place or particular circumstances, their sum would be unreckonable. ... For thirty years I had tormented myself by putting up with all the things of this unhappy world. During this time each stroke of misfortune had naturally made me realize the fragility of my life. ...I became a priest and turned my back on the world.

*****

Now that I have reached the age of sixty, and my life seems about to evaporate like the dew, I have fashioned a lodging for the last leaves of my years. It is a hut where, perhaps, a traveler might spend a single night; it is like a cocoon spun by an aged silkworm. ... It is a bare ten feet square and less than seven feet high. ... Since I fled the world and became a priest, I have known neither hatred nor fear. I leave my span of days for Heaven to determine. ... My body is like a drifting cloud — I ask for nothing, I want nothing.

Excerpts from Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 199, 203-204, 206, 211.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Kamo no Chômei mean in the opening lines? How does his metaphor express his philosophy? Can you think of a different poetic metaphor to describe the impermanence of life?
  2. How does Kamo no Chômei characterize the times in which he lives? How do you think the era in which he lived affected the philosophy he came to take towards life? Do you have a "personal philosophy"? If so, how do you think it relates to the period of history in which you live?
  3. How does Kamo no Chômei find peace in a world of hardship?
  4. What adjectives would you use to describe Kamo no Chômei's life once he has renounced the world? What gives him pleasure? How do you think this might be different from his former life?
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