Yoshida Kenko was a courtier in 14th century Japan, who retired from the palace, became a Buddhist monk and started writing his observations about life. They are brief – some take a page or two, some are only a few sentences long – but they are pithy. His collection, Essays in Idleness,* has been a favorite of mine for years. He says as much in 100 pages as Montaigne says in 1000, and more than the entire self-help section at Barnes&Noble says at all. Some of what he writes is unintelligible to those not familiar with court manners in 14th century Japan (that would include me), but most of his little essays are, to borrow a phrase from Hopkins, “counter, original, and spare.”
In #52 he tells the story of an old priest who had longed, his entire life, to make a pilgrimage to a certain shrine. Finally, in old age, he sets out on foot to visit the shrine. He arrives at the site and worships at two buildings at the foot of a hill. What he doesn’t know is that the main shrine is at the top of the hill. He goes home thinking that the holy site was “more sublime than he had heard.” But he wonders why everyone there kept going up the hill. Kenko’s moral is: “A guide is desirable, even in small matters.”
That is not the moral I take from this humorous story. Maybe the moral should be – “Do your homework before setting out on a pilgrimage of a lifetime.” Maybe it should be “People really are dense.” Maybe it should be, “Don’t leave home until you know where you are going.” But the part about the guide would never have occurred to me. I grew up being told to think for myself, to “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2.12 – which is taking this verse out of context, mind you), to be responsible for my own course. “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley, you’ve got to walk it by yourself,” the old song goes.
I always admired the self-taught, self-made man: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison. Perhaps it’s just the individualism that seems to be indelibly printed upon the American fabric having its effect (all the men I mentioned above are Americans), but the notion that you have to carve out your own path through the forest seems obvious to me. If the priest in the story above had done a little research, asked a few questions, shown a little curiosity he would have known what was at the top of the hill, and he could have climbed it alone.
Yet a disciple is, by definition, one who follows. When Jesus called someone didn’t he say “follow me”? Didn’t Jesus also promise to be with us “all the way, even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28.20). Has he intended for any of us to be an autodidact, a knight errant, a lone wolf? Was it Jesus’ notion that he would provide us with redemption, then push us out of the nest to fly solo? Do any of us really believe we are up for a solitary journey home?
So I guess Yoshida Kenko was right. Even in small things, a guide is desirable – actually, He is necessary.
* Essays in Idleness, by Yoshida Kenko. Cosimo Classics, 2009.