Are things getting worse? I’m not certain, but it surely does seem like it. But then people my age apparently always think so, or so I’ve heard. I doubt that’s always been true. Only a few centuries have passed since progress was enshrined and held holy, and the retrograde looked on with a special horror. Even if the past seems like a better, healthier, less dangerous time to some of us, our expectation in the West has been that the world is progressing towards a better day.
I recently read about Kenko, a Buddhist monk living in Japan around the year 1330, who wrote a work of 243 essays entitled “Essays in Idleness” (Tsurezuregusa). Author Lance Morrow, writing about the monk in the June 2011 Smithsonian, describes Kenko as “charming, off kilter, never gloomy. He was almost too intelligent to be gloomy or, in any case, too much of a Buddhist.”
Kenko apparently believed that “the world is steadily growing worse.” He didn’t find the notion depressing. He cherished the precarious. “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” He proposed a civilized aesthetic:
Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Perfection is banal. Better asymmetry and irregularity.
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.
According to Morrow,“It was believed that Kenko brushed his thoughts on scraps of paper and pasted them to the cottage walls, and that after his death his friend the poet and general Imagawa Ryushun removed the scraps and arranged them into the order in which they have passed into Japanese literature.”
And then down to me, these wonderfully fresh perspectives on reality, this many centuries later.