On leaving no possessions

APRIL 27 05

In 14th century Japan, Kenko wrote in his 'Essays in Idleness', in Donald Keene's translation:

The intelligent man, when he dies, leaves no possessions. If he has collected worthless objects, it is embarrassing to have them discovered. If the objects are of good quality, they will depress his heirs at the thought of how attached he must have been to them. It is all the more deplorable if the possessions are ornate and numerous. If a man leaves possessions, there are sure to be people who will quarrel disgracefully over them, crying, 'I'm getting that one!' If you wish something to go to someone after you are dead, you should give it to him while you are still alive. Some things are probably indispensable to daily life, but as for the rest, it is best not to own anything at all.

This reminds me of when a girlfriend's father died. Because her parents had divorced and her father had gone on to have other children in another marriage, there was a squabble over the will among the various parties. She asked my advice about whether she should stake her claim with the rest of them. We discussed it. My view was that it wasn't worth the bother of involving herself. This made up her mind and a cheerful lightness came to her face, now she no longer had it weighing on her thoughts. We sat down and had a cup of tea.

I thought to ask, which I hadn't before:

'Did he have anything much, your dad?'

'He had an oil tanker.'

'Your father owned an oil tanker? What, you mean like a little tug kind of thing?'

'Oh no, proper oil tanker. Thousand foot.'


'Does that make a difference?' she asked.

'Do you want an oil tanker?'


'Then it doesn't make any difference.'

We drank our tea. It's best to let things go if it's going to involve a lot of fussing around. You can never lose anything that's really yours. Not having, not wanting, gives you something else.