A few posts back, I quoted the following line of verse by Ryokan: "If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things." This bit of advice has been around in all ages and in all places. Acting upon it in one's own life is, of course, another matter entirely.
The line kept bouncing around my head. I seemed to recall that Samuel Johnson had said something along the same lines. (As Walter Jackson Bate writes in his biography of Johnson: "Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us.") I eventually found what I was looking for in one of my journals: I had recorded Johnson's thoughts for future reference.
"Every man has experienced, how much of this ardour has been remitted, when a sharp or tedious sickness has set death before his eyes. The extensive influence of greatness, the glitter of wealth, the praises of admirers, and the attendance of supplicants, have appeared vain and empty things, when the last hour seemed to be approaching; and the same appearance they would always have, if the same thought was always predominant. We should then find the absurdity of stretching out our arms incessantly to grasp that which we cannot keep, and wearing out our lives in endeavours to add new turrets to the fabrick of ambition, when the foundation itself is shaking, and the ground on which it stands is mouldering away."
Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, Number 17 (May 15, 1750).
The Chinese poet Su Tung-P'o (also known as Su Shih) (1037-1101) beautifully expresses the same thought in a more oblique fashion:
Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko --
Before you have been there, you have many regrets;
When you have been there and come back,
It is just simply misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko.
Su Tung-P'o (translated by R. H. Blyth), in Haiku, Volume One: Eastern Culture (1949). I think that perhaps Blyth should have omitted the phrase "it is just simply" from the final line.