In the past decade, minimalism has become much more recognizable as a way of life. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus — advocates for intentional living who brand themselves ‘The Minimalists’ — helped a great deal in this process. They have written several books, numerous articles, and starred in a documentary on the subject. Simple living, as it had been know long before minimalism became common parlance, had been practiced for thousands of years. This is nothing new. Indeed, others like Marie Kondo have also gained notoriety through promoting living with less. Minimalism is timeless. It is an outlook which can bring clarity to one’s life and places heavy emphasis on the important things. Recent advocates for intentional living, however, have written about their experiences in an age of abundance and relative peace. The medieval Japanese monk and Kamo no Chōmei (c.1155–1216) came to live a minimalist lifestyle in a tiny house during a time of considerable turbulence. While the worst of 2020 pales in comparison to the late-12th century in Japan, the crises of both ages demand a clarity of vision in order to makes sense of the way people are living and what is truly important.
Kamo no Chōmei’s major work is called ‘Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut,’ written in 1212 and describing both the disasters which befell the capital as well as the simple lifestyle he devised for himself. Chōmei was a poet, essayist, and Buddhist monk who was once in the emperor’s inner circle. Family politics kept him from inheriting a shrine position and court politics kept him from advancing his career. Chōmei decided to become a recluse in 1204 and recounted, in his ‘Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut,’ the increasingly simple life he chose to live as his life went on. This work is recollection but offers insights for those who wish to live a meaningful life with less.
When Chōmei moved into his ten-foot-square hut (which was seven-feet high), he brought with him a handful of possessions. He was not a monk who was going to deprive himself of everything. He managed to pare down his possessions to only the essential — those which had practical or intrinsic value.
Kamo no Chōmei recounts how he saw the disasters of fires, earthquakes, wares, a plague, and a whirlwind struck the land in the late-eleventh century as the country plunged into civil war (1180–1185). Many died and many great mansions were lost. Reading Chōmei’s account, one can almost see him shaking his head in dismay at the repeated tragedies and the obscene luxury which was accumulated over decades, in some case, only to be lost in a day. Kyoto was an old city, even in Chōmei’s lifetime — the grandest city in Japan (and one of the only real ‘cities’ in the country before the rise of castle-towns in the sixteenth century.
“In our dazzling capital the houses of high and low crowd the streets, a jostling throng of roof and tile, and have done so down the generations — yet ask if this is truly so and you discover that almost no house has been there from old. Some burned down last year and this year were rebuilt. Others were once grand mansions, gone to ruin, where now small houses stand.” —Chōmei, from ‘Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut’
Chōmei recognized the futility of hoarding great wealth -death comes for all, the great mansions of past generations reduced to cinders and replaced by the practical dwellings of humbler people. One can draw a parallel with Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias,’ where a traveler stumbles upon the once awe-inspiring ruins proclaiming the might of the Egyptian pharaoh of over twenty centuries earlier.
To organize one’s life around grandeur and status is to life an inauthentic life. To simplify one’s life down to the essential allows one to better orient towards one’s true values. Such opulence, as enjoyed by many a noble, serves more to obscure, rather than aid, in cultivating one’s passions or orienting one towards greater values.
Chōmei spent a great deal of time, it seems from his surviving writings, to have thought about the many disasters which occurred during his lifetime and interpreted them through a Buddhist framework. Indeed, his life of simplicity was an attempt to cut himself off from the cares of the world; from becoming too attached to the world. In this goal, he failed. He became attached to his simple life in the hills outside Kyoto, though he felt bad about it.
One can see the Japanese equivalent of an almost humanist attitude developing in the aftermath of the calamitous decades of the late-eleventh century. In Europe, humanists recognized and celebrated their natural talents and humanity in general in the context that this was in line with their metaphysical beliefs, not contrary to them. Chōmei almost gets there. He recognized the reality of being in this world and the simplicity of his lifestyle brought about a genuine appreciation for life. However, he could not shake off the inhuman guilt associated with complete separation from the world. Nevertheless, his text offers shimmers of light. Human nature transcends ideological constraints.
“Since retiring here to Mount Hino, I have added a three-foot awning on the east side of my hut, beneath which to store firewood and cook. On the south I put up a veranda of bamboo slats, with an offerings shelf at its western end. Inside, there is a standing screen dividing off the north-west section of the room, where I have set up a painted image of Amida…At the room’s eastern edge I have spread a tangle of bracken to serve as a bed. A shelf hangs from the ceiling in the south-west corner, holding three black leather boxes that contain extracts from the poetic anthologies, musical treatises, ‘Essentials of Salvation,’ and so forth.” -Chōmei, from ‘Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut’
Chōmei’s humble abode was perhaps the first real tiny house. Like many modern tiny houses, it could be moved rather easily. Chōmei mentioned this in his text. Though, instead of being placed on wheels like modern tiny houses, Chōmei just made his easy to disassemble and reassemble somewhere else.
Kamo no Chōmei died in 1216 but his ‘Account of a Ten-Foor-Square Hut’ became a Japanese literary classic, an important account in Japanese history, an important work in Japanese Buddhism, as well as an early account of a minimalist lifestyle and tiny house movement. Also, we are not constrained by having to seek from other writers what Chōmei wrote. Rare for an author living 800 years ago, the original text in Chōmei’s own hand still survives. Kamo no Chōmei was not so much ahead of his time. Instead, he was able to tap into timeless elements of what it means to live an authentic and intentional life with less. Kamo no Chōmei was a true minimalist.
all quotes from ‘Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut’ are taken from ‘Essays in Idleness and Hojoki,’ translated by Meredith MicKinney