From Life to Life

Semimaru, by Matsuno Sofu

Semimaru, by Matsuno Sofu

In many a Noh play, a traveler—often but not always a priest—encounters a mysterious person who, in the course of the play, is revealed to be the manifestation of a restless spirit.  This spirit, commonly that of a prominent literary or historical character, haunts the locale because, although dead, he or she remains bound to the world by obsession with one specific memory.  The memory is usually  a painful one.  A warrior might remember betrayal by a comrade in arms; a woman might have wistful recollections of lost love or beauty; a man or a woman might wallow in rage or despair at having been spurned by a lover or rejected by a parent or child.  The cure for such attachment is an act of exorcism, often involving recitation by the traveler of parts of the Lotus Sutra, but also crucially requiring an act of witness:  while in the first half of the play, the traveler interacts only with the manifestation (mae-shite), in the second half the traveler and audience encounter the suffering spirit (nochi-shite) in person and listen to his or her story.  In essence, we must let ourselves be enthralled for an hour by someone’s story in order for that person not to be in thrall to it for all time. 

In This Lingering Life, Chiori Miyagawa gestures toward this paradigm but complicates it by having characters from several Noh plays interact, and by deploying concepts from Tibetan Buddhist doctrines pertaining to the afterlife and reincarnation.  Some of the characters you will meet in the play occupy a contiguous dimension; others are—or it is suggested that they are—successive human embodiments of the same troubled soul.

The Bardo

At several points in the play, you will hear the narrator (the Woman with Tragic Hair) wonder whether she is in the Bardo.  Buddhist doctrines pertaining to the Bardo can seem bewilderingly complex, but the greatly simplified view presented here is adequate for understanding references to the concept in This Lingering Life.

Wheel of Life representing the six realms, Bhutan (from Wikipedia)

Wheel of Life representing the six realms, Bhutan (from Wikipedia)

Bardo is defined by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and other scriptural sources as a transitional state between death and rebirth into a new body.  (In This Lingering Life, the Bardo is rendered as a physical location, but most practitioners would identify it as a psychological state.)  For a period of 49 days, the soul in transit experiences visions and implicitly chooses rebirth into one of six possible realms:

  • Hell.  This realm is characterized by tortures correlating with the person’s sins or preoccupations in his or her most recent life.  Both the topography of hell and the implementation of contrapasso (a picturesque word for punishment bearing a metaphorical relation to the crime) will seem improbably familiar to devotees of Dante’s Inferno.  Painted “hell screens,” featuring vivid portrayals of hell and its torments, were used in Japanese religious ritual from the 9th century onward.
  • Hungry Ghosts.  This realm consists of beings plagued by insatiable desire.  They are most often depicted as literally hungry, hovering avidly if ineffectually over human diners.  However, on a metaphorical level, they might be hungry for other satisfactions, such as vengeance or the love or respect they feel was denied to them in life.  Several characters in This Lingering Life are either hungry ghosts or on a steady path toward this unenviable state.
  • Animals.   In Buddhist cosmology, rebirth as an animal is disadvantageous insofar as one cannot achieve enlightenment from within this state.  (A number of us have companion animals who would surely disagree on this point.)
  • Asura.  This realm consists of demigods, often characterized as obsessed with power and resentful of the Deva, or heavenly beings.  A comparison with the Titans of Greek mythology is useful for imagining the asura.
  • Human.  This realm consists, obviously, of human beings.  Rebirth as a human being, albeit troublous, is also advantageous insofar as only a human being can achieve enlightenment and escape the cycle of death and rebirth, proceeding directly to the beatific state of  Nirvana.
  • Deva.  This realm consists of heavenly beings and might seem to be the most desirable but is not considered to be, because its denizens are too complacent in their lot to achieve enlightenment.
Detail from a hell scroll, Nara National Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)

Detail from a hell scroll, Nara National Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)

The Way to Freedom

If freedom from the cycle of rebirth is the ultimate object, then ironically the means of attaining liberation is to cease to make it an object.  The practitioner must accede to a state beyond desire, a state in which apparent dichotomies, like that between good and evil or between pleasure and pain, are revealed as entirely illusory.  For most of us, the achievement of such a state, at least on a sustained basis, is terribly unlikely, but a valuable step, the Woman with Tragic Hair intuitively realizes and recommends to others, is to divest oneself of the all-consuming anger that is the surest way to be reborn into the Hungry Ghost realm.

And what of the Woman with Tragic Hair herself?  She tells us that she has wandered for 400 years, ever since she was rejected by her father ostensibly because her hair grows upward.  Not yet having achieved liberation herself, she finds herself traveling from life to life, helping others on their own way.  In this practice, she has characteristics in common with a bodhisattva as defined in Mahayana Buddhism, except that a bodhisattva is a person who could proceed directly to nirvana but chooses to be reborn out of compassion for others.

Yamauba, by Totoya Hokkei

Yamauba, by Totoya Hokkei

In the classic Zen and Japanese Culture, Daisetz T. Suzuki retells the story of the Noh play Yamauba (Old Woman of the Mountains), in which a dancer travels to a mountainous area and is surprised when darkness falls far earlier than expected.  Uncannily, an old woman suddenly appears to the dancer and her companion and offers them refuge, on condition that the dancer perform a dance in praise of the legendary Yamauba.  It is eventually revealed (as anyone familiar with the structure of a Noh play will already have guessed) that the old woman is Yamauba herself, a being who moves eternally from mountain to mountain, sometimes embodied and sometimes invisible, rendering assistance to villagers.

Suzuki identifies her with the love present deep within us and in nature, but his view is only one possible formulation.  Historically, Yamauba has also been seen as a witch, a woman who by virtue of operating on the margins of society, is feared and suspected of sinister practices.   As I read the story yesterday, I was reminded of the Woman with Tragic Hair, for whom service to others is—auspiciously in terms of her prospects for enlightenment—not a goal undertaken for instrumental purposes but seemingly inherent in her nature.   She is among the most moving characters I have encountered lately in literature or life, and it cheers me to think that many of you are destined to make her acquaintance.

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