Contributed by David Surtasky
a fifth category play attributed to Zeami
There was once, many years ago, a certain Monk who made his way around the provinces visiting numerous temples and shrines. He had gazed at the sky as he walked, uncertain about just where he had come from, where he was going or even what path he was following.
He had paid a visit to the famous Three Shrines of Kumano, and then found his heart set upon visiting Miyako. Traveling past the checkpoint on the Ki-no-ji road he entered the provice of Izumi, and then through the Shinoda forest. Climbing gentle slopes he looked out over the tops of the evergreen pines. After a time he reached Suminoe, then the beach of Naniwa-gata and finally arrived in the village of Ashiya.
Having arrived, the sun had become low in the sky. The Monk met a Man from the Area and asked, “Soon it will be quite dark. Please, can you offer me a place to stay for the night?” The Man from the Area said, “No, I’m afraid not. It wouldn’t be seemly for a Monk such as you to stay with someone like me. However, if you like you could spend the night in the small temple on the river bank.” “Thank you for your kindness,” the Monk said. “However,” said the Man “I must warn you, that although I really know nothing about it, I hear sometimes at night a monster appears there.” The Monk was a deeply spiritual man, and having renounced worldly concerns had little worry about such rumors and decided to spend the night where the Man suggested.
The Monk settled into the temple. It was indeed a dank and lonely place. Just after night came, the Monk could hear the sound of a boat on the river. A curious Boatman was steering a decrepit boat, little more than a moldy log, and was speaking to himself about his great sorrow, of how he felt trapped like a bird in a cage. “I am like a blind turtle, floating on a bit of wood, descending forever into darkness,” the Boatman said “But just like sodden wood, I never truly sink. Why should I continue to stay in this world? I row this boat through the veil of my tears, rising and falling as the tears become waves, steering the boat through my deep yearning for the past.”
“How strange!” thought the Monk, looking at the pitiful vessel. It was so dark he couldn’t see if anyone were rowing it. “Ah, wait! There is a strange man!” said the Monk aloud. “Strange, you say?” announced the Boatman “Perhaps you think me nothing more than a piece of sodden wood. If you find me strange, well then, please just ignore me.” The Monk was embarrassed. “I apologize,” he said “I’ve only just come from the village where they say sometimes at night this temple is visited by a monster, but you seem quite ordinary to me. I’m sorry to call you strange, it was rude of me!”
“If you spoke with a villager, they were probably a salt-maker. They bake the seawater in kilns on the beach of Ashiya.” said the Boatman, “Perhaps you should think of me as being just like them.” “But if you’re like the salt-maker, how do you have time to row a boat at night?” asked the Monk. The Boatman replied “There was an old poem: ‘In the House of Reeds, the salt-maker is busy. She works constantly, without even the time to place a comb in her hair.’ Thinking of this poem, my heart is perhaps too busy to be troubled by other worries.”
This was a strange conversation to have near the village of Ashiya, on the edge of night, on the bank of the river, by an abandoned temple. “Please stay here,” said the Boatman, “stay here this long night, and pray to lift the darkness in my heart. You, a Monk who has forsaken the world, might understand the extent of my hopelessness. I must depend on the Buddha’s Law.”
“The more we speak, the more strange you seem,” stated the Monk, “In fact, I sense that you’re not human at all. Respectfully, may I ask your name?” The Boatman sighed, and leaned on his bamboo pole. “I am the ghost of Nue, stricken and killed by Minamoto no Yorimasa’s arrow. It was many years ago, during the reign of the Emperor Konoe. I beg you, please offer prayers to bring me consolation.” “Nue? Then you were a monster! Please tell me what happened, and I will pray for your soul.” said the Monk.
Having revealed his name, the Boatman told the story: long, long ago the Emperor Konoe was suffering. As each night came he felt restless, anxious and quite ill. The holiest monks were consulted, incense was burned and secret mysterious rituals were performed; all to no avail. Each night the Emperor felt sick. It was the very worst after midnight, at the hour of two. An ominous cloud rose from the forest of Tōsanjō southeast of the palace, and settled above the Imperial residence. The cloud was dark and foreboding, covering the moon, and the Emperor felt the most profound terror at its presence.
The Lords and their retainers held a meeting. They discussed the matter and came to the conclusion that some monster or evil spirit must be the cause. They commanded the stoutest warriors to defend the palace grounds. Minamoto no Yorimasa was among those chosen. Yorimasa brought his loyal retainer I-no-Hayata with him for his vigil. Clad in his resplendent kariginu, he brandished his black bow and readied his best arrow. He waited patiently at the entrance of the mansion for the appointed hour.
As it had each night before, the dark cloud rose from the forest and enshrouded the sky. Peering at the cloud, Yorimasa could see some creature riding at its crest. Quickly he nocked his arrow, and praying to Hachiman, he let loose. His arrow flew straight and true, and he hit his mark, causing it to tumble from the sky. I-no-Hayata ran out to find the wounded creature lying on the ground, and he stabbed it repeatedly to make sure that it was dead. After it ceased thrashing, he lit a torch in order to see what it was. Horrible, oh Horrible indeed! There were few words to describe the profound ugliness; in the flickering torchlight he could see that it had the head of a monkey and the tail of a snake, legs like a tiger and its final cries where like that of the Nue bird. Having told the story, to the Monk’s amazement, the Boatman sank into the river. In the distance the Monk heard the cries of a Nue bird, and he felt a certain pity for the awful creature. All beings, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, were subject to Buddha’s Law.
Just then the Man from the Area arrived. He was concerned about the Monk, and had stopped by to check on him. The Monk told him about what he’d just witnessed, and the Man responded with amazement. Stay here, the Man said, and pray for the soul of even one who was so vile. The Monk drew out his rosary and began fervently to pray.
The Monk prayed. The sound of his sutra merged with the lapping of the river, and the waves upon the beach, the rustling of the leaves, and the waving of the grasses. Before long the Ghost of Nue appeared again. “Let us have faith in the Buddha’s mercy,” the Ghost of Nue said.
The monster’s horrible aspect did not dissuade the Monk. He had compassion for all beings, and continued to pray.
“Dwelling in Tōsanjō, I had no respect for the Buddha’s Law,” the Ghost of Nue intoned, “and each night I rose up to torment the Emperor. I felt so proud of my power, and was pleased with myself for all the suffering that I caused. Yet, as it turned out, even with my magic power, I was no match for the retribution of the Emperor.”
The Monk continued to pray. The Ghost of Nue continued to tell of his fate: “The warrior Yorimasa brought me down at the Emperor’s command. After striking me with his arrow, Yorimasa received the Shishi-ō sword from the Senior Minister’s hand. After I fell from the sky, they took my corpse and bound it in this boat and pushed me out onto the Yodo-kawa. Within the boat, my body floated down the river until it lodged here in the reeds of Ashiya beach. Slowly my corpse decayed, and I joined the ranks of those tormented in the blackness of the other world. Please, pray for my release.”
The moon hung above the edge of the mountain. In time, the moon sank below the crest of the ocean waves. Just like the moon, the Ghost of Nue sank into the water. The moonlight reflected in the river, reflected in the ocean. The waves crashed endlessly on the beach.