Sesshōseki (殺生石)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Sesshōseki (summary)

A fifth category play, attributed to Hiyoshi Saami

 Once there was a monk named Gennō. A preacher and devout disciple of the Buddha, one autumn he decided to leave the East of Japan and travel to Kyoto for his ascetic training. While making his way he reflected on himself, and the world, of its transience and impermanence and in due time came upon the field of Nasuno-no-hara.

Arriving at the field he observed a large standing stone, ancient and blackened. Gennō’s servant noticed that some birds flying over the stone faltered in their flight and dropped dead to the ground in an instant. In wonder, Gennō approached the stone.

As Gennō came closer to the ominous rock, a woman spoke out to him, warning him to keep his distance. Why? asked Gennō. The woman explained that the stone was dangerous – a sesshōseki, or life-quelling stone. Birds, animals, even insects, any living thing that touched the horrid rock would die at once. She urged Gennō to keep away.

Gennō was curious, and asked about the stone. Why should it take the life of all living things? The woman told him the rock was possessed by the Lady Tamamo, a girl who’d once served the court of the retired Emperor. Urged on to tell more, the woman spoke of the Lady and of how she brought forth her revenge:

Lady Tamamo was of unclear birth, but with her lovely clothing, her beautiful face and charming manner she was well-loved by the retired Emperor and so accepted at the court. She was knowledgeable about Buddhism and knew many Chinese and Japanese poems, and the retired Emperor thought her clever, greatly enjoying her company.

One fine fall evening the retired Emperor hosted a wonderful party, inviting many nobles who were outstanding musicians. It was to be a music party. The weather that evening suddenly turned poor, and as the sky clouded over and the moon had not yet risen – everyone rushed about to bring torches to light the darkened hall. Suddenly, Lady Tamamo began to shine with inner light. The light emanating from her pushed out into every room of the palace, making it appear as if it were lit by the moon.

Without warning the retired Emperor fell ill. One of his courtiers conducted a divination and determined that the cause of his illness was the Lady Tamamo – her transformation had weakened the spirit of the august lord. He called for an exorcism to drive off the evil that he foresaw. The Lady, finding herself to be discovered as a supernatural being disappeared at once into the dew of Nasuno-no-hara field.

Being no fool, Gennō questioned the woman about her story – how could she know so much, and in such great detail? The woman revealed herself to him as the Lady Tamamo. She had become the killing stone. In the great compassion of the Buddha’s Law, even evil creatures can reach enlightenment, so Gennō told the Lady. Promising to return once night had fallen, Lady Tamamo vanished into the rock.

Gennō’s servant was knowledgeable in many matters and explained to him all about the Lady Tamamo, how she was the actually the incarnation of a fox and that she had dwelt in China for a time before coming to Japan and the court of the retired Emperor. Moved by the knowledge of Buddha’s great mercy, Gennō decided to hold a memorial service for the Lady – hoping to bring her solace and guide her troubled spirit into Buddha-hood. Offering incense and flowers, the monk faced the deadly stone and fell deep into prayer. Encouraging the spirit to come forth, he sought to guide her to enlightenment.

As soon as night had fallen the killing stone split in two, and the Lady came forth in her true appearance as a fox spirit. The fox now had nothing to hide and spoke to Gennō of her past. She had once been a deity possessing a tomb in India; in China she had been the concubine of a King – all before becoming servant to the retired Emperor. In conceiving of the ruin of the Emperor and the destruction of Buddhism she had transformed herself into a most desirous woman, infiltrated his court and eventually brought about his illness. Her plot had been uncovered by the retired Emperor’s retainer – and so thwarted she had fled to the field of Nasuno-no-hara.

As Lady Tamamo’s true nature had been revealed to the retired Emperor, he commanded that his retainers should seek out the deceitful spirit and destroy her. Two warriors trained for one hundred days with their bows and arrows so that they might overcome and kill her swiftly. Accompanied by a large group of cavalry they enclosed the field of Nasuno-no-hara and trampled the grasses in pursuit of the evil fox spirit.

After a vigorous hunt the fox was driven to ground and, pierced by an arrow, was killed instantly. Though the life of the fox was extinguished, its maddened and obsessed spirit was turned into sesshōseki – the life-quelling rock. There in the field it remained for many years, taking the lives of anything foolish enough to approach it. Gennō’s powerful preaching touched the heart of the fox spirit, causing her to embrace Buddha’s Law. The spirit, quelled and released from obsession, became a simple stone – a lasting symbol of the Buddha’s promise of redemption: solid, firm and unwavering.


About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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3 Responses to Sesshōseki (殺生石)

  1. Pingback: Learning to Stand | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

  2. Pingback: 今何時、我々は何処ですか | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

  3. Pingback: Shunka Ayami: The Seshoseki Killing Stone, Said to Have Sealed a Vengeful Fox Demon Over 1000 Years Ago, Splits in Half

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