Taema (当麻)

(Editor’s Note: the below summary is principally derived from “Taema a Noh Play Attributed to Zeami,” Thomas Rimer, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 25, No. 3/4 (1970), pp. 431-445. Published by: Sophia University.

The play tells of the Princess Chūjō and her association with Taema Temple, and the weaving of the famous mandala stored at the temple as a treasure. This summary stops well short of fully conveying the sensibilities surrounding the Buddhist precepts discussed, but the play is a charming piece nonetheless.)

Contributed by David Surtasky

Taema (当麻)

A fifth category play attributed to Kanze Motokiyo Zeami

leavesOne verdant spring day a number of Priests of the Pure Land sect had recently finished a pilgrimage to the auspicious shrines of Kumano, and were on their way back home. Traveling on the Yamato road, they decided to stop and pay their respects at the Taema Temple. Before long they had passed the Kii checkpoint, and along the banks of the Iwaka River. The ripples of the river cast the sunlight about their robes as they continued on towards the Futagami Mountain. The mountain, just like the clouds, had once seemed far away – but they had traveled swiftly and at last came to Taema.

Having arrived amidst the bamboo grove of the temple, the Priests set their hearts on worshiping the Buddha. At that moment a young Girl came upon the grounds with an Old Nun following her. The Nun was wizened and leaning upon a stick for support, and praise for the Buddha and his great mercy were on both their lips. They spoke of the many Buddhas and their vows, but expressed their special love for Amida and his great compassion, his promise of redemption like bathing in purest moonlight.

stone_bridgeThe head Priest greeted the pair, and asked them about the temple. Obviously they were from the area and came there often. The Old Nun and the Girl replied, pointing out the various famous sites. Over here was the temple, and over here was the pond Somedono: the Well of the Dye House, where it was said the lotus threads had been washed and purified. Here was the cherry tree, with extraordinary blossoms of five holy colors, where the lotus threads had been hung to dry. At times the flowers of the wistful cherry fell like snow, blown clear in the slightest breeze as the speaking of the Buddha’s name might blow them all into the Western Paradise.

Intrigued by the famous sites, the Priest asked if the women could tell him about the fabled mandala of Taema Temple. The Old Nun was only too happy to tell them the story:

Many years ago the Minister of the Right, Lord Toyonari had a daughter; Princess Chūjō. A beautiful young woman, for reasons related to her family she had chosen to sequester herself in the very mountains they stood in so that she might recite the sutra to Amida each day. She made a vow that unless Amida appeared before her she would never leave the hut she dwelt in. The Princess gave herself over to full and rapt devotions. Here, in the mountains, the wind through the pines was cool and the pleasant sound of the passing stream made her almost forgetful of the summer heat. Through each day and each night she prayed with fervent honesty. The light of the moon shone through her window.

One night an old nun appeared before her. Princess Chūjō asked who might you be? What a foolish thing to ask, the old nun replied, you should know since you’re the one who has called me here. In my loneliness, in my solitude among these mountains, I’ve called on no one other than Amida for my salvation, said Princess Chūjō. The old nun responded that it was the Princess’ voice that had drawn her forth, and that she was in fact Amida. With tears of joy Princess Chūjō realized her prayers had been granted and Amida Buddha had been made manifest before her. She cried out aloud that now she would be welcomed into Paradise!

bamboo_blossomsThe Old Nun and the Girl declared they had come to Taema Temple on the fifteenth day of the second month in order to perform a memorial service. With these words, the Old Nun and the Girl revealed themselves! They were truly beings from beyond this world, and as they spoke flowers fell from the heavens, wondrous fragrance filled the air and music swelled from the distance. We take our leave of you now, they said, and turning, climbed the slope of Futagami Mountain disappearing up beyond the cloud-hidden peak. The Priests were dumbfounded by this mysterious occurrence.

Just then a Man from the Area arrived. He lived quite nearby, but hadn’t paid a visit to Taema Temple in some time. Noticing the Priests, he stopped for a moment to speak with them asking where they had come from, and where might they be going? The head Priest replied that they were on a pilgrimage around the country, and wondered if the Man knew any stories about Princess Chūjō and the Temple. Surprised, the Man said yes, of course – he was from the Area so he knew just a bit about the Temple, and would be happy to tell them what he knew:

Princess Chūjō, daughter of Lord Toyonari had lived during the reign of Emperor Junnin. Through the machinations of her stepmother she was sent away and abandoned on Mount Hibari. Many people would find it hard to be left in such a pitiable state, but the Princess was dutiful and spent her days deep in meditation and in invoking the Buddha’s name. At one point, her father was out hunting and eventually found himself in the Hibari Mountains. He came across a beautiful young woman living in a shabby brushwood hut in a ravine. Lord Toyonari was surprised to come across such an elegant person living in this rude state. When asked who she was, she replied that she was the Princess Chūjō, Lord Toyonari’s daughter, and that she had been abandoned there.

The Lord Toyonari was astonished! This was his daughter! He could not understand that such an outrage had occurred. He begged Princess Chūjō for her forgiveness, and then took her back to the capital Nara. It was his intention to make the lovely girl the Empress and so he set about the preparations.

By now Princess Chūjō had no concern for such worldly matters, and thought only of enlightenment and the Western Paradise. She snuck away from Nara and came at last to Taema Temple. She cut off her long and luxuriant hair and became a nun. She prayed she might be able to worship Amida Buddha in incarnate form, and at last her prayers were answered. She begged of Amida to impart some miracle onto the sorry world that men might see it and believe, and so be lead at last into enlightenment. Amida wove a mandala from lotus threads, a wondrous picture of the figures in Paradise, and he gave the cloth to Princess Chūjō. Amida dug a well in the temple garden to wash the lotus strands in, and it was said they were dyed then in the five holy colors. Here was the miraculous cherry tree, its blossoms still tinged with five colors from the drying lotus strands!

blossomHow interesting, replied the Priest. He told the Man from the Area of the mysterious appearance of the Old Nun and Girl. Certainly you’ve witnessed a miracle, the Man said. These were the manifestations of Princess Chūjō and Amida themselves! Pray even harder, the Man urged, and perhaps your faith will permit a greater miracle yet! The Priest agreed and bent himself towards greater devotions.

Almost at once there was music from unseen musicians, and light flooding down from the sky. Princess Chūjō appeared incarnate before all those assembled – clad in lustrous white robes and bearing a scroll of the sutra. She had been never-failing in her devotions. She had sat under the Full Moon of True Enlightenment. The Princess Chūjō had returned to the dusty world in order to share the joy of Buddha’s Law. The sound of the turning Wheel of the Law could be heard as it filled up the heavens, up to the vast borders of Paradise. Unrolling the sutra she paid obeisance to the merciful promise: everyone shall be brought to Paradise, and none shall be left behind. Princess Chūjō presented the Priest with the sutra scroll, he worshiped it devoutly. She danced a beatific dance, celebrating Amida’s compassion and great resolve to bring every living thing into the joys of Enlightenment.

The bells of morning began to ring. Their sound was reverberant over Futagami. Amidst the tolling of the bells voices could be heard praising the Buddha. “Praise to Amida” the voices cried. The dreams of short night faded and the rosy hue of dawn spread over the mountain.



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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