Why you don’t need money to have more freedom and happiness.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- The difference between convertibility and intrinsic value.
- Why being a minimialist with little possessions won’t make us happy, nor will having great wealth.
- What is taught in the Hojoki, the ancient Japanese version of Thoreau’s Walden.
- Why walnuts are better than coconuts. .
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The Man Who Turned His Back On The World
“On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does its water ever stay the same. The bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings.”
These are the opening lines to Hojoki, an essay on impermanence written by Kamo no Chomei, a Buddhist monk that lived near Kyoto, Japan around 1200 AD.
The Early Years
Chomei was not always a monk. His father was a famed Shinto priest who oversaw the prestigious Kamo Shrine in Kyto.
Chomei was destined to take over his father’s position. At age seven, he was given a court rank, a sign of imperial favor that signaled the prestige and prominence that awaited him as he matured.
In his late teens, Chomei’s father took ill and died. The role of Kamo Shrine superintendent passed to another family so Chomei lost his place as heir apparent. At the same time, the wealth Chomei expected as an inheritance was somehow lost by his grandmother.
This change in circumstances forced Chomei to make his own way in the world without the advantages of wealth and prestige.
Chomei scraped together a living as a musician and poet. Together with the citizens of Kyto he suffered through the wars, fires, famine and political upheaval that plagued the Japanese capital.
When Chomei was in his mid forties he was selected by the Emperor Gotoba to help compile an imperial anthology. He was a diligent worker and when the task was completed, the Emperor offered Chomei a reward for his service—a position as a Shinto priest at a smaller shrine within the Kamo Shrine complex.
This position would restore some of the former prestige that Chomei’s family once possessed.
But it was not to be. The Kamo Shrine superintendent objected to the appointment, stating his son had the right to the position.
Becoming A Monk
It was at this point, Chomei abandoned all thoughts of obtaining rank or wealth. He shaved his head and beard and became a Buddhist monk.
He wrote, “All told I spent thirty troubled years withstanding the vagaries of the world. At each new setback, I understood how wretched my luck is. And so, in my fiftieth year, I came to leave my home…and turned my back on the world. I had never had wife and children, so there was no close ties that were difficult to break. I had no rank and salary to forgo. What was there to hold me to the world?”
He first joined a community of monks, but in 1208 he left to live alone in a ten-foot square hut he built himself.
In Hojoki, Chomei describes the hut and its contents with the same mixture of pride, joy and detail as Thoreau does in Walden.
There he lived the rest of his life, passing his days meditating, writing, playing music, and gathering food.
He writes of those who spend their wealth, time and worry building great houses to impress others, only to see them burned to ashes in the great fires that swept through Kyoto.
“And how many houses…have been lost in all those fires? In all this, my mere passing shelter has remained tranquil and safe from fears. Small it may be, but there is a bed to sleep on at night, and a place to sit in the daytime. As a simple place to myself, it lacks nothing.”
Still, when Chomei travels to Kyoto he is reminded what he lacks when compared to others.
“When I chance go down into the capital, I am ashamed of my lowly beggar status, but once back here again I pity those who chase after the sordid rewards of the world.”
When Chomei has nothing to compare himself with, he is again pleased with his standing, “I love my hut, my lonely dwelling.”
With time, though, this pride and attachment to his simple life and few meager possessions begins to bother him.
“The Buddha’s essential teaching is to relinquish all attachment. This fondness for my hut I now see must be error, and my attachment to a life of seclusion and peace is an impediment to rebirth. How could I waste my days like this describing useless pleasures?”
He doesn’t have an answer to his conundrum.
He owns little but finds pleasure and joy in the little he owns. In his mind, he has failed in his quest to become undetached from the things of this world and considers himself unworthy for salvation.
Perhaps what Chomei lacked was balance. In his quest to give up worldly attachments to things physical, he also gave away the intangibles that bring meaning to life: family, friends, service to others and a cause to embrace.
Without these greater goods and higher purposes, our focus turns to worldly pleasures and materialistic pursuits even if we own very little.