There’s a dread that we normally keep at the far edges of our minds but which occasionally – particularly at 3am on a restless night – floods our thoughts: if we don’t constantly strive to achieve, if we slip up or if some new catastrophe strikes the economy, we’ll lose pretty much everything and will have to end up living in a caravan, a tiny one-room flat or – god forbid – a hut in the middle of nowhere.
The bleakness of this image spurs us to ever more frantic efforts. We’d settle for almost anything to avoid it: oppressively long working hours; a job that holds no interest; risky money-making schemes; a loveless marriage that keeps us in the family home or, maybe, decades of suffering the whims of a grim relative for the sake of an inheritance. The hut is a symbol of complete disaster and humiliation.
It’s in this fear-laden context that we might consider the case of a man called Kamo no Chomei, who was born in Japan around 1155. His father was the well-to-do head of a prominent religious shrine near Kyoto, which was then the capital, and Chomei grew up in luxurious circumstances. He received a refined education and in the early part of his adult life, had an elegant social circle. When he was still in his twenties, his grandmother left him a big house and his future looked bright. But then it all started to go wrong. He made enemies and was sidelined in his career; he got into financial difficulties and by the time he was fifty, he had alienated his former friends, had practically no money left – and was going bald.
Kano no Chomei
Chomei was forced to reform his existence and exist on the most slender material base. Far out in the country, where no-one else wanted to live, he built himself a tiny hut – just ten feet by ten. It was, he reflected, one hundredth of the size of the mansion in which he’d grown up. It wasn’t even a permanent structure; his situation was so precarious he had to ensure that his home could be dismantled and carted away.
A modern reconstruction shows just how small and basic it was – but doesn’t convey it’s isolated position, in the hills at Toyama, which was considered the back of beyond. Rotting leaves collected on the roof, moss grew on the floor; the water supply was just a rickety bamboo pipe leading from a nearby stream to a little pool by the door. Chomei cooked outside, though eventually he rigged up a small awning to keep the rain off in wet weather; he slept on a pile of bracken on the floor; he had no furniture; he lived mainly on nuts, berries and wild root vegetables which he foraged from the woods – and quite often he went rather hungry. The only people he saw was a peasant family who lived at the foot of the hill, who his former grand friends would have dismissed as lowly rustics. He could only afford clothes made from the coarsest cloth and they soon became mere rags, leaving him indistinguishable from the beggars he used to see in the city. It was here, and in this way, Chomei lived for fifteen years, up to his death in his mid-sixties.
And it was also here that he wrote a short book, pointedly entitled The Ten Square Foot Hut – one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. It’s not – as we might expect – a lament, poring over the misfortunes and betrayals that led him to this degraded condition. Instead it’s full of good cheer, happiness and pleasure; the most touching line in the whole of the essay is the simple affirmation: ‘I love my little hut, my lonely dwelling.’
What – we can ask – was it that enabled Chomei to find fulfillment in such an apparently unpromising place? It wasn’t that he was naturally drawn to a minimal material life: no-one who’d known him earlier, in his days of prosperity, would have imagined he’d thrive under such circumstances – least of all himself. He wasn’t someone who for years had been hankering for the simple life. He moved to the hut in desperation and against his inclinations; it was only once he was there that he discovered that he liked it and that it was, in fact, his ideal home.
Chomei was guided by a distinctive philosophy. And this is a principle of hope, for we can’t magically take on another individual’s personality but we can understand, and perhaps come to share, their ideas. Temperament may be fixed but philosophy is transferable. From his book, we can identify five crucial ideas that together transformed what could have been a purely grim experience into a time of deep and tranquil satisfaction.
1. Beauty is very important
It seems like a strange place to start: normally beauty looks like the outcome of immense wealth: elegant possessions, a gracious home and trips to Venice and St. Petersburg. But these expensive things are just the most obvious instances of beauty. As our taste becomes more sensitive and more expansive, the link with money falls away because a great many truly lovely sights are readily available almost everywhere to those who know how to look.
Around his modest home, Chomei – with a sensitive eye – discovered endless sources of beauty: autumn leaves, fruit trees in blossom, melting snow, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees and the rain beating down on the roof. All were free. He was entranced by flowers: ‘In spring I gaze upon swathes of wisteria that hang shining in the west, like the purple clouds that bear the soul to heaven.’ He found a delightful spot on the hillside: ‘If the day is fine I look out over Mount Kohata, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi’ and ‘at night, the fireflies in the nearby grass blend their little lights with the fires the fishermen make at distant Makinsohima: no one owns a splendid view.’
It’s partly the idea of pervading ugliness that makes a lower-level economic life so frightening. Chomei’s antidote is stress the continuing opportunities for visual delight, even on the most minimal of incomes.
2. Time is more important than money
Although we say time is precious, our actions reveal our real priorities: we devote a huge portion of our conscious existence to making, and trying to accumulate, money. We tend to have a highly concrete and detailed sense of accounting around finances, while time invisibly slips away.
Chomei, on the contrary, has a keen sense of the value of his own time, without interruptions, impediments, duties: ‘I can choose to rest and laze as I wish, there is no one to stand in my way or to shame me for my idleness.’
He has time to practice playing the lute, or biwa; ‘my skills are poor’ he admits but then he had no audience, he isn’t trying to please or impress anyone: ‘I play music, I sing alone, simply for my own fulfillment.’
He read and re-read the same few favourite books, which he came to know almost by heart; he had time to reflect and to write; he meditated, took long walks and spent a lot of time contemplating the moon.
His activities were self-directed: he did them simply because he found them enjoyable, not because anyone had asked him or because they were expected of a civilised individual. And he had this luxury only because he disregarded the nexus of money, and the pursuit of status which is so closely connected to it.
Theoretically Chomei could have found a job, however lowly. But he prefered to cut down his expenses to zero in the name of something truly valuable: his time.
3. Everything is transient
Chomei opens his book with a metaphor comparing human life to a river: ‘On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does the water ever stay the same. The bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings.’ He’s reminding himself – and us – of the half-terrifying, half-consoling fact that our existence and all our pleasures and troubles are fleeting.
Because our lives are so brief it is the quality of our experiences, rather than the extent of our possessions that matter. The more we have, the more we are exposed to random misfortune; a fashionable home will soon be dated; our prestige in the eyes of others will fluctuate for trivial reasons; we might build a palace and die before it is completed; and the monuments we hope will allow our names to last get misinterpreted or torn down. The simple hut makes an accommodation with impermanence: it might get blown down in a storm or washed away in a flood, officials might arrive at our door and tell us we have to leave; but our needs have been pared down to so little that chance has less to work on.
4. ‘Worldly’ people are less happy than they seem
A thought that erodes our willingness to live a simpler life – in a hut, if need be – is the haunting fear that other people are having a wonderful time. Perhaps we could manage to get by, but we’d always be conscious of how much we were missing.
Chomei is continually reminding himself that a ‘worldly’ life – which in his early and middle years he knew intimately – carries a heavy load of limitations, defects and sorrows. The life of the well-to-do is less enviable than it outwardly seems. The fashionable world is full of what he calls ‘cringing’ – ‘You worry over your least action; you cannot be authentic in your grief or your joy.’ In high society, it is always paramount to consider how any opinion will be judged by the other members of the social beehive; envy is widespread; and there is constant anxiety around losing status – which takes the satisfaction out of prosperity: ‘without a peaceful mind, palaces and fine houses mean nothing.’
Chomei’s aim isn’t to disparage the rich: ‘I am simply comparing my past, worldly life with my present one’ – and the balance of pleasures and contentment is distinctly in favour of the latter. Chomei bolsters his hold on the truth: what he’s missing isn’t worth regretting.
Chomei is just one hut dweller; but there have been many. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (early 400s – 323 BC) lived for years in a barrel, or perhaps a very large ceramic pot, in the marketplace of the wealthy city of Corinth. On one occasion he was visited by the Emperor, Alexander the Great. Thomas Christian Wink, Diogenes and Alexander, 1782
Alexander approached and asked if Diogenes wanted or needed anything. ‘Yes’ replied the philosopher, ‘move a little to the side, you are blocking the sunlight.’ Many onlookers mocked him for missing his opportunity for riches, but the Emperor was reported to have remarked: ‘Truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.’
In more recent times, in 1846, around the age of 30, the American writer Henry David Thoreau – a graduate of Harvard and heir to a prosperous pencil manufacturing business – moved into a wooden cabin by the side of a small lake in Massachusetts, where he would spend the next two years. It was marginally bigger than Chomei’s modest home and more stoutly constructed and better equipped, having the luxury of a fire-pace and a writing desk. But the moral Thoreau drew was almost identical: to those who are inwardly free, there are riches enough available in a hut.
Interior of Thoreau’s cabin, Walden Pond, Massachusetts.
In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche spent the summer months living in a single, small room, which he rented in a house in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland. The room where Nietzsche lived, in total, for several years.
He saw almost no-one, went for long walks in the mountains and stuck to a plain diet. It was far from hideous, but it was very much more basic than the standard of accommodation that, at the time, a distinguished professor – which Nietzsche had been up to this point – would have been expected to enjoy, But he did and he came back for several months almost every year for the rest of the decade.
In the winter of 1913-14, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who at the time was extremely wealthy – designed and had built for himself a small hut on a isolated hillside overlooking a fjord in Norway.
Wittgenstein’s tiny residence, Skjolden, Norway
He was to spend much of this time there over the next two decades, until the deteriorating political condition of Europe made it impossible. In 1936 he wrote to a friend: ‘I do believe that it was the right thing for me to come here, thank God. I can’t imagine that I could have worked anywhere as I do here. It’s the quiet and, perhaps, the wonderful scenery; I mean, its quiet seriousness.’
What these cabin and hut dwelling people have to teach us isn’t that we ourselves should go off and inhabit miniscule cabins or live in a single small room. Rather, they are showing that it’s possible to live in a materially minimal condition, while being good humoured, ambitious and in search of true fulfilment. They are dismantling our fear that material modesty has to mean degradation and squalour. We can, if we embrace their ideas, live more simply anywhere, including a hut. And in the meantime, we can afford not to be so afraid.