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Jack Stoneman on Hermits in Huts: Who’s to Benefit?

Modern lessons we can learn from 13th century Japanese recluses

Ever felt curious about the life of a hermit? Or maybe, especially with recent events, wondered if you yourself are turning into one? In this article Jack Stoneman, Japanese Section Head and Associate Professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages discusses prominent thinkers in 13th-century Japan who were infamous self-isolators. Read on to find out more about these ancient self-isolators!

行く河の流れは絶えずしてしかも元の水に非ず

The flow of the river is unceasing, and yet it is not the same water as before

十九コヴィドの流れは絶えずしてしかも元のウイルスに非ず

The flow of COVID-19 is unceasing, and yet it is not the same virus as before

The image of a recluse in a small hut is ubiquitous in Asia’s literati tradition 文人 (Ch. wenren, Jp. bunjin). The Chinese poet Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365?–427) left his government post to retreat to rural life, providing a model for centuries of self-isolaters.

The Japanese Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明 (1155-1216) also shunned society in favor of seclusion, as recounted in Hōjōki 方丈記 (An account of my ten-foot-square hut, 1212), the famous first line of which is quoted above. Images of hermits in huts recall both of these famous examples.

Chōmei used the distance he created (physical and philosophical) between himself and the capital to comment on the ephemeral and vain pursuits of secular society. He also recounted several disasters of his time to prove the fleeting nature of human life, including the great famine and epidemic of 1181-1182, in which over 42,000 people died in the capital alone. The reclusive life Chōmei describes is at times idyllic, and yet he laments that he has become too attached to even his tiny hut. Recent research has shown that Chōmei was known as a cantankerous curmudgeon before leaving the capital, and so maybe his self-isolation did everyone a favor. For those who are longing for more human interaction during this crisis, perhaps a period of social distancing can in fact help us avoid the more prickly people in our lives—for a while. According to Chōmei, monkish solitude can also provide perspective, helping us to understand more deeply what really should matter to us in this life and the next.

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