Thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, systemic police brutality and other unprecedented events, never has it been more enticing than in 2020 to abandon civilization and live in a cute hut in the woods, befriending forest creatures and making homemade soap. Yes, it would seem the “cottagecore” ideal is alive and well, but what if I told you its aesthetics are nothing new?
Enter Japanese recluse literature. Like cottagecore, this genre embraces living in harmony with nature, separate from society, but unlike cottagecore, it has no interest in romanticizing neocolonialism. Buddhist disciple Komo no Chomei was rejecting modernity in a time that would now be considered antiquity – around the turn of the thirteenth century to be exact – making him something of a hipster in the cottagecore scene.
Chomei’s masterwork, An Account of my Hermitage, establishes its themes from the get-go:
Though the river’s current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.
By equating us to the flow of water, Chomei brings into question the ephemeral nature of life. This comparison sets the tone for the rest of the piece, as he recalls several natural disasters – fire, windstorms, floods, earthquakes and famine – that spelled catastrophe for thousands of people. He also recalls human conflicts, such as the war between the Minamoto and Taira clans, but to him these are inconsequential when in the face of mother nature. To this end, Chomei paints a rather bleak picture of the human condition, and raises the question: “Where can we live, what can we do, to find even the briefest of shelters, the most fleeting peace of mind?” This is a question that I think is especially relevant today.
The remainder of the memoir is tasked with answering that question. Chomei’s solution was simple: since the source of man’s despair is his attachment to worldly desires, he would abandon them. In practice, this meant leaving the home he inherited from his grandmother and building a ten-foot square hut in the mountains where he would spend the rest of his days. With no connections to other humans and no attachment to material possessions except his hut, Chomei devoted the rest of his life to following the Way of the Buddha.
Buddhist monks were living with no attachment to the outside world long before the Western construction of cottagecore. By possessing little they suffered little; by rejecting desire they embraced enlightenment. You don’t have to be a Rinzai Zen master to see that sometimes, it’s the little things that matter the most.
Read Komo no Chomei’s memoir here.
– DJ Mango