Contributed by the Editor.
The Buddhist sin of attachment: it appears as a repeated theme in noh. It becomes the pervading emotional force which won’t allow the sentimental dead to pass on (Tōru,) that causes vengeful still living spirits to possess the bodies of others (Aoi-no-Ue,) that brings ghost warriors to return to the shrine of their masters (Tomoe,) or a an unrequited lover to relive one hundred nights of patient torment (Kayoi-Komachi.)
Attachment in the Buddhist realm requires two elements: the attacher and that to which they are attached. Furthermore it implies that the object of attachment is somehow separate from the self. Underlying the fabric of many noh stories are the Buddhist Noble Truths – that life is suffering, that the origin of suffering is attachment, that the cessation of suffering is possible and that the way beyond the cycle of rebirth is the release from the cravings and delusions which bring about attachment.
In the play Aoi-no-Ue a shinto priestess is sought out to diagnose the grave illness of Hikaru Genji’s wife Lady Aoi. The priestess can divine the identity of the vengeful spirit of Lady Rokujō, but she is powerless to dispel her. Lady Rokujō’s attachment to Genji, her need to be loved is what converts her attachment to jealousy causing her rage to inhabit the helpless Aoi. It is only through the power of an ascetic, mountain-dwelling Buddhist priest calling out to the Myō-ō that her spirit can be calmed, and eventually brought to enlightenment. The lesson, it may be, is that attachment to the worldly realm of feelings, longings and resentments is destructive not just to the one who feels, but to all who surround them: only through the forced abandonment of desire can balance be restored.
In Atsumori the lines of attachment may be more complex. Although a monk and ostensibly released from worldly encumbrance; is it Renshō’s attachment to his past which brings him back to the site of the battle of Ichi-no-tani to pray for his Taira enemy? Atsumori’s attachment to his flute, and to his perceived honor is what leads to his undoing: instead of fleeing with his comrades aboard the ships in Suma Bay he chooses to return to the shore to recover his lost posession – out of fear that his rivals will think him weak or flustered for forgetting it. At least in Atsumori the spirit is not driven off by prayer (as it is in Funabenkei, or the ogre in Korozuka,) but prayer instead brings revelation about the nature of the relationship between victor and vanquished. There is no need for enmity after death.
Fudō Myō-ō then is the central deity we might look to in the quest for the conversion of anger into salvation. His furious glance and wrathful countenance are calculated to frighten us into accepting his truth. Immovable in his faith, wreathed in flames meant to burn away the material, we discover that he is after all not without compassion.
But how can we study noh without attachment? How can we look at the mask and say to ourselves “it is merely a thing” – with simultaneous awareness that it is the embodiment of a life? How can we hold the nohkan, and press its music forth with the breath of our own bodies without feeling the tug of innermost longing? How is it possible to stand on the stage looking out into the darkness, and in no way feel the stirrings of desire? I don’t have the answer, and can only presume that might be possible. Clearly I haven’t come to that place in the cycle of my lives yet – so, it seems, I’m due for another turn on the Great Wheel.