Friday, March 20, 2015

Watch out for the easy places

Sage climbing advice from a literary essayist of the Kamakura period

Snowsqualls harried us as we approached the hut. Getting there involved a climbing traverse across a slope so icy that the ski-crampons could hardly bite. We found it a bit sketchy. Afterwards, the Sensei said that in such places she always recalls the advice of Kenkō. Who was he, I asked. He published a blog called Tsurezuregusa, she said - only Sei Shonagon ever got more page views, they say. Suitably admonished, I looked up the relevant passage. It runs like this:-

A man who was famous as a tree climber was guiding someone in climbing a tall tree. He ordered the man to cut the top branches, and, during this time, when the man seemed to be in great danger, the expert said nothing. Only when the man was corning down and had reached the height of the eaves did the expert call out, "Be careful! Watch your step coming down!" I asked him, "Why did you say that? At that height he could jump the rest of the way if he chose." "That's the point," said the expert. "As long as the man was up at a dizzy height and the branches were threatening to break, he himself was so afraid I said nothing. Mistakes are always made when people get to the easy places."

Sage advice, that. According to Donald Keene, whose masterly translation is quoted above, Yoshida Kenkō was a Buddhist priest who lived from 1283 to 1350. The essays collected in Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) centre around court life and customs around Kyoto. But the paragraph above makes me wonder if he didn't, in his younger days, sneak out and climb a famous mountain or two.

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