Part of my Knowledge Base.


Premise

You should carefully consider which among the main things you want in life is the most important, and renounce all the others to dedicate yourself to that thing alone

Highlights

  • Among the many matters that press in on us on any day, at any given moment, we must give ourselves to the most productive, by no matter how little – ignore the rest,and devote yourself entirely to the most important thing
  • If you find yourself reluctant to abandon the others, you will never achieve your primary aim
  • The urge to cling to one thing while grasping for another will cause the loss of both
  • Swiftness will always bear fruit

A man decided to make his son a monk. ‘Study the laws of karmic cause and effect,’ he told him, ‘and make your living by preaching.’ The lad did as instructed. First, in order to be a successful preacher, he learned how to ride a horse – he had no palanquin or carriage, after all, and it seemed to him that, if his services were called for and a horse were sent to fetch him, it would be a sorry business if he had a bad riding seat and fell off. Next, he learned some popular songs, for a monk can be regaled with sake after the service is over, and the client would be very unimpressed if he couldn’t entertain the gathering in some way. When he had finally gained some competence in these two skills he felt the urge to improve them further, and in the end he grew old having devoted all his time to them with none to spare for learning how to actually preach. He is not the only one; all of us have this experience. While we are young, we have all manner of ambitious plans for the future – to make a success of ourselves in life, achieve grand things, learn skills, study. But there seems plenty of time to fulfil our wishes, and we dawdle on the way, letting ourselves be distracted by the passing concerns of everyday life, so that we grow old having in fact done nothing much. Regret them as we might, there is no regaining our lost years, and, like a wheel running ever faster downhill, debility overtakes us, while we have succeeded in learning no skill and never achieved the success we dreamed of in life. Thus, you should carefully consider which among the main things you want in life is the most important, and renounce all the others to dedicate yourself to that thing alone. Among the many matters that press in on us on any day, at any given moment, we must give ourselves to the most productive, by no matter how little – ignore the rest,and devote yourself entirely to the most important thing. If you find yourself reluctant to abandon the others, you will never achieve your primary aim.

It is like a go player who never wastes a move, but gets the better of his opponent by sacrificing the small in favour of the large. Here, it is easy to sacrifice three stones to gain ten, but not so easy if you must lose ten to gain eleven. He should always pursue a course that gains him more, even if it is a single extra stone, but when the profit is so marginal a player is often loath to sacrifice the ten precious stones he has accumulated. The urge to cling to one thing while grasping for another will cause the loss of both. If a man in the capital has urgent business in the eastern hills, but once he arrives at the door realizes that he would gain more by going to the western hills, he should turn around then and there and go west. ‘Now that I’m here, I may as well finish my business in the East,’ he may think. ‘After all, no day was fixed for that other matter.

I’ll make a decision about it once I’m home.’ But the moment’s lazy impulse will lead to a lifetime’s negligence. You must be very wary of this.

Once you are committed to achieving your one aim, there is no use grieving over the failure of the others. Nor should you be ashamed to be mocked by others. Unless you forego the many, you will not attain that one great thing. Here is a strange and marvellous tale: someone at a gathering mentioned that there were varying names for types of plume grass, such as masaho and masoho, and added that the holy man of Watanabe knew the poetic teachings on this matter. The monk Tōren was among those who heard this.

It was raining at the time. ‘Can someone lend me a raincoat and rain hat?’ he said. ‘I’m off to find this holy man and learn the details of this matter from him.’‘No need to be so hasty,’ people said. ‘Wait till the rain’s over.’‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ replied Tōren. ‘Does a man’s life wait for a break in the weather? I may die, the holy man may die, and then there would be no chance to ask.’ Whereupon he hurried off, and the story goes that he received his answer.

‘Swiftness will always bear fruit,’ as the work known as the Analects says. We should seize the moment to turn our thoughts to that one great matter of the Buddhist Truth with the same alacrity with which Tōren pursued his urge to learn about the plume grass.

Resources

  • Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō