Tuesday, March 09, 2010


It's the turn again of Kan'ami's Noh play "Sotoba Komachi" in Religion & Theater. I've enthused about it before, a marvel of pathos - with extra helpings of medieval Japanese Buddhism too. The ancient beggar two Shingon priests encounter on their way - she sits down on a stupa thinking it just a tree stump - turns out to be the wreck of a poetess who was once the most beautiful of women. They find this out through an exchange about the stupa.

FIRST PRIEST: Excuse me, old lady, but don't you know that's a stupa there you're sitting on? the holy image of the Buddha's incarnation? You'd better come away and rest some other place.
KOMACHI: The holy image of the Buddha, you say? But I saw no words or carvings on it. I took it for a tree stump merely.
FIRST PRIEST: "Withered stumps
Are known as pine or cherry still
On the loneliest mountain."
KOMACHI: I, too, am a fallen tree ...

Taking the stupa for a dead tree stump, known only for what it once was, makes deep sense, as the play is from the period of 末法 mappô, the decline of the law, when the saving teachings of the Buddha were thought no longer to be understood by anyone.

SECOND PRIEST: The Buddha that was is gone away.
The Buddha to be has not yet come to the world. (264)

The priests explain to the old woman that the stupa is the body of Kongosatta Buddha, the Diamond Lord, of whom Earth and Water and Wind and Fire and Space are all manifestations, to which she replies, rather profoundly: The same five elements as man. (266)

It is, in fact, the stupa which has brought these three together (KOMACHI: It was because I felt it that I came perhaps) not just to utter truths of nonduality ...

FIRST PRIEST: [Your sitting on the stupa] was an act of discord.
KOMACHI: "Even from discord salvation springs."
SECOND PRIEST: From the evils of Daiba...
...Or the love of Kannon.
FIRST PRIEST: From the folly of Handoku...
...Or the wisdom of Monju.
FIRST PRIEST: What we call evil...
KOMACHI: ...Is also good.
FIRST PRIEST: Illusion...
KOMACHI: ...Is Salvation. ... (268)

... but to prove them, and for her to be released from her suffering. Amazed by her erudition, the priests demand to know who the old woman is. The court poetess Ono no Komachi, she explains, now aged, self-banished from society, and possessed by the curse of the nobleman Shii no Shosho who had courted her. Proud and cruel she told him she would be his if he came one hundred times to see her, but on the ninety-ninth, he died, his spirit of frustrated longing now possessing her. As she tells this story, his voice emerges, and later the actor changes into his splendid clothes for the final cathartic dance... which frees them both.

KOMACHI: It was his unsatisfied love possessed me so
His anger that turned my wits.
In the face of this I will pray
For life in the worlds to come
The sands of goodness I will pile
Into a towering hill.
Before the golden, gentle Buddha I will lay
Poems as my flowers
Entering in the Way
Entering in the Way. (270)

It is the hundredth visit. His love, turned to hatred, and her cruelty, turned to sorrow, give way to compassion. An endless task designed to frustrate - a hundred visits - gives way to an endless task - piling a mountain of sand - which releases. Ono no Komachi-Shii no Shosho is an object lesson in nonduality: of Buddha and human, of love and hatred, of path and attainment, of discord and salvation. And it's an object lesson in the power of performance, in the right spot, for the right audience, even in the age of Mappô. You don't have to be a Buddhist to feel at least some of the story's mysterious powers, and to be grateful at the Buddha's compassion in helping them enter in the way.

But what if there is no such thing as salvation? Yukio Mishima, while still in his twenties, wrote adaptations of five classic Noh plays, "Sotoba Komachi" among them, without salvation. In his "Sotoba Komachi," the priests' role is played by a sickly poet who sees an old hag (99 years old!) in a public park, learns she was once a great beauty, and asks her to tell of her glory days. The set changes behind them to the Rokumei dance hall in the 1880s, and he plays the part of her suitor (though neither he nor she changes costume). Echoes of Kan'ami's text resound, but the story is slightly different. Her fate it is to remain a virgin forever, as every man who has declared her beautiful has died. She tries to stop the poet, who has lost himself in the past and claims not to see her old body and ragged clothing, from declaring it, but fails; he falls dead before her, back in the park in the 1950s. The saving encounter has not happened, and we have a sense that it has not-happened to her many times, and will not-happen again and again.

Kinda grim, huh, the Mishima aesthetics of death and beauty already in full form. Must have been as devastating in its way for audiences familiar with the Noh as the "death of God" happening at the same time in Europe. Could one perform his version today to the same effect? I'm not sure. Sad we would be, but we would not expect an exit from her curse in the first place - curses are easier to imagine believing in than release from them.

A somewhat analogous challenge arose in our college's recent production of Tolstoy's "Realm of Darkness," a story of an unexpected and transcendent confession in a morally bleak world. The director had the actors play the final confession scene three times, first with a stage miracle (the roof of the house opened up), a second time as if caught in a loop (the roof stayed open), a third time sped up like an old tape. After this, the actors froze in their places until the audience had left. The point, I gather, was to hollow out the stage miracle, and our sense that redemption through confession is possible. Time may stop, but nothing changes. But does anyone expect otherwise these days, even from the theater?

Nothing but tree-stumps around here...

Sources: Kan'ami Kiyotsugu, "Sotoba Komachi," trans. Sam Houston Brock, in Anthology of Japanese Literature, ed. Donald Keene (NY: Grove, 1955), 264-70 • Five Modern Nô Plays by Yukio Mishima, trans. Donald Keene (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1957), 3-34 • First pictureSecond picture • B&W photos in the Mishima translation

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