Contributed by David Surtasky
A third-category play, attributed to Zeami
Once, many years ago, a Monk and his attendants decided to travel all the way to Kyoto from the East. It was early spring, and still just a bit cold. The Monk had never seen the capital before, and was eager to go there just in time to see the flowers in bloom.
Their travel was pleasant. They passed the Kasumi checkpoint, shrouded in early morning mist. For many days they traveled, and came to the fields of Musashino. On they went, through Musashino and ocontinued towards the mountains. Over the mountains as if walking through clouds. Finally, in the distance they could see Kyoto. Even though it had been a long journey, they traveled well and were happy.
Arriving in Kyoto they came upon Tōboku-in Temple, and were greeted by the sight of an aged, but beautiful, plum tree in blossom. A Man from the Area was near the temple gate, and informed the monks that the name of the tree was Izumi-shikibu. Enchanted by the delicate blossoms, the monks decided to sit and enjoy the view and fragrance for some time.
Just then, a young Woman appeared at the gate. “Pardon me,” the Woman said, “I do not mean to intrude. What did that man tell you was the name of this plum tree?” “Izumi-shikibu, I was told,” replied the Monk.
“Ah. Please, you should not call it by that name. This is the name that common people might give it. You should call the tree ‘Kōbunboku’ or ‘Ōshukubai.’ Once this temple was used as the court of Jōtōmon-in. The Lady Izumi-shikibu planted that plum tree and named it Nokiba no Ume. It grew and blossomed, and stories say that she never tired of looking at it. Please, while you look at these elegant blossoms, take a moment to recite the sutras. Even if you have little time, this will bring you closer to the Buddha.”
“Thank you. So this is the famous Nokiba no Ume that the Lady Izumi-shikibu planted? Tell me, is that small building over there where her bedroom was?” the Monk asked. “Yes. That was her bedroom. It is still as it was, and you can see the same view that she did,” replied the young Woman. “Indeed, it is interesting. A memory of bygone days preserved here along with its name.”
As if longing for its master, the plum blossoms were said to become more beautiful and fragrant each year. The atmosphere of the temple, the gate, and the small garden were most graceful, and made the Monk feel a sense of nostalgia. With but a gentle breeze, the petals of the blossoms could fall like snow. A memory of the Lady Izumi-shikibu, it was a reminder of her good taste, and great beauty. The Monk contemplated the story of the tree, and thought about spring; how transitory it was, how fleeting.
“I do not belong to this world,” the young Woman revealed. “Are you a flower falling from the tree,” the Monk said in surprise, “or are you the bird that makes the flowers fall?”
As the sun began to set, the flowers of the tree were lit like fire before evening fell. The young Woman stepped nearer to the tree, and then beyond their view, disappearing as if into the plum tree.
The Man from the Area arrived again, and the Monk told him the story of meeting the mysterious Woman. The Man recounted the story of the beautiful tree, and of the Lady who planted it. He said that they must have met the spirit of the Lady Izumi-shikibu, and encouraged them to stay before the tree during the night and to offer prayers for the comfort of the Lady.
Staying beneath the blossoms of Nokiba no Ume, the Monk and his companions began to pray. The moon shone brightly. In a clear voice the Monk recited a sutra in memory of the Lady.
Drawn by the sound of the sutra, the spirit of the Lady Izumi-shikibu appeared. Her robes were scarlet, and glowed deeply in the light of the moon. “Was that the Hiyu-hon you chanted?” she asked. “It reminds me of when I was still of this world,” she continued, “When this temple was still the court, Fujiwara no Michinage had ridden by in his carriage and recited that very verse. Inside the temple I could hear him, and I wrote a poem straight away. ‘Beyond the gate, a carriage passing, the sound will help us flee this burning house. Listening to the sound, I will be able to leave this burning house, and become a Buddha.’ Hearing you recite it just now fills me with the memory.”
“Yes.” replied the Monk, “Even though I come from the countryside, far in the East, I have heard this famous poem. You must already be enlightened, just as your poem says!”
“Most certainly,” the Lady replied, “I have left the burning house. Through the merit of my poems, I have become a Bodhisattva devoted to song and dance. I live here, now, at this temple. Just has the moon becomes free of the horizon, so have I become free of the burning house. 今は、すでに. I have traveled in three carriages on the road of Buddha’s law, and have left the three realms of this world. I have reached enlightenment.”
The Lady Izumi-shikibu proceeded to preach to the Monk and his companions:
Virtuous poems are the words of the Buddha. They are like sermons, for which we should pay heed. Poems have the power to move the heavens and the earth, and even to soften the hearts those who are evil. With poems, even we can touch the hearts of the gods. Here we are, in a holy place. This temple spreads its protection, and expels the demons from the devil’s gate. The brook running here comes from the Kamo River beyond the mountains, and flows on to the Shirakawa, and then on and on to the sea. The sound of waves, and of wind, reaches out to your heart. This space and this time allow you the chance to find a place of eternal peace. The pond in the garden is filled with water, and appears just as a poem.
Many come to this temple, to gaze upon the Buddha and listen to his words. Some people come for this reason, others are just passers-by. Day after day, more people. Day, night, morning, evening, endless people. When the heat of summer is quelled by the winds from the pines in Okutani, then autumn will come again. The coming of autumn reminds us to receive the Buddha’s teaching, and the passing nature of all living things. The moon reflects in the pond, and shows us an image of the Buddha. Here, at Tōboku-in, the positive East and negative North are merged. It can be no surprise that the temple prospers.
Then, with great elegance, the spirit of Lady Izumi-shikibu began to dance.
“The darkness of a spring night can hide the color of plum blossoms, but it cannot hide their fragrance. The fragrance lingers, and cannot be hidden,” the Lady Izumi-shikibu said. “Once I knew the fragrance of love, but now it is useless to remember it. Yet, I miss it, so deeply that my tears have stained my sleeves. I am ashamed to show the last remains of my longing, and now I must depart.”
Saying such, it was in time that a flower should return to its root, that a bird returns to its nest. In Lady Izumi-shikibu’s former bedroom, a candle burned, a flickering reminder of the burning house. And yet, this place was where she had come to dwell. The Lady moved off, her flowing sleeves gracing the ground.
The Monk awoke from his dream.
[EDITOR’S NOTE ~ The ‘burning house’ refers to the Hiyu chapter of the Lotus Sutra wherein a parable is told of a rich man with a burning house: His children are playing inside and they are so absorbed in their games that they will not come out, even though the man calls to them, and even though the house is engulfed with flame. The man then called to the children and said: “Come out! Outside the gate are the carriages that you have always wanted: goat-carts, deer-carts, and carriages pulled by oxen. Why not come out and play with them instead of remaining inside?” When they came out from the house they were greeted with a magnificent carriage draped in precious jewels and drawn by white bulls. In this parable the ‘burning house’ is our world, ravaged with the fires of desire, age, sickness, and death. The man is the Buddha, calling us away from our distractions, out from the burning house and presenting us with a greater gift: Enlightenment.]