[Editor’s Note: Shakkyo (石橋) is a felicitous piece, most often performed at the conclusion of a full program of noh. The shishimai dance (lion dance) performed near the play’s conclusion is energetic and intentionally exciting. According to the-noh.com “Shakkyō is classified into one of the hiraki-mono. Hiraki-mono is a kind of an initiation ceremony in the Noh world, which demonstrates that the performer has reached a specific level of learning in his or her Noh training.” As such, the below summary of this piece does scant justice to the physically demanding aspect of the performance, and it can be said that the summary is of little value without the splendid dance. Nevertheless, this summary is offered as an お歳暮 (year end gift) with hopes that it bring good fortune and auspiciousness to all who read it. Please, perhaps take the opportunity to share it with your friends.]
Contributed by David Surtasky
a fifth category play by an unknown author
Many, many years ago there was a Chinese Monk named Jakushō, who had also once been known as Ōe no Sadamoto. He had given up his former name when he renounced the world, and had chosen to devote himself the Way of Buddha. Over the years he had traveled, visiting India and worshiping at many famous places there. He continued his pilgrimage when he returned to China, traveling to various temples, and eventually found himself before the spectacular Mount Shōryōzen. He had heard of the mountain, and also of the famed stone bridge that stood there. He had in his mind that he would wait for a passerby, and perhaps someone from the area might arrive and tell him the story of the bridge. Then, he felt, he might cross over it and visit the mountain.
It was a fine day in early summer, and a Young Woodcutter was making his way towards the bridge. The day was so pleasant, and the breeze so refreshing, that the burden of firewood he carried felt as light as snow. The sun was only beginning to flee to the horizon, and in the distance he could hear the song of lumberman and the flutes of those tending to their flocks. Truly, the world was a transient place, and all people carried the burdens of their karma as they traveled through it. Yet still, the Young Woodcutter thought, it might be understood to be pleasant enough while it lasted.
The Young Woodcutter had walked deep down the mountain paths, and behind him clouds grew in the East. Remembering other travelers who might have lost their way, he could understand how they felt. He could hear the sound of the river dashing in the gorge by the mountain, but the wind was motionless through the pine trees. It seemed as if time itself stood still in the verdant green of his surroundings.
Jakushō saw the boy approach, and stood by the path calling out to him “Pardon me, woodcutter! I’m so sorry to trouble you, but may I ask a question?” “Yes,” said the Woodcutter, “what is it that you want?” Jakushō replied, “Can you tell me, is this the famous Stone Bridge?” “Why of course!” said the Woodcutter, “It is the most famous Stone Bridge, for beyond it lies the Pure Land. Certainly, confronting such a thing, you should pray most sincerely!”
“Ah,” declared Jakushō, “Then this is the bridge I have heard of! Knowing this to be so, I must put my faith in the hands of Buddha and cross over it without delay!”
The Woodcutter looked troubled at his suggestion. “Just a moment,” he said, “for many years holy men and saints have dedicated themselves to their training, suffered the greatest austerities, spent years in this place and at long last were able to cross this precarious bridge. I’ve heard it said that even a lion bides its time when approaching its smallest desire. Do you think, truly, that you have attained such strength of spirit – greater than these other devout men – that you should be able to simply cross the bridge as soon as you arrive? Do you believe your fortitude is so great? Your thinking is a bit dangerous, I believe.”
Jakushō felt keenly disappointed. “Well,” he said, “looking at it in that way, I presume that you feel that simple Buddhist training would not be enough …”
“Look here,” the Woodcutter said “this great waterfall cascading into the gorge starts in the clouds and thunders down deeply into the mist.” “Yes, I can see,” said Jakushō, “the bridge is quite narrow, and barely fixed in the rocks.”
Green with slick moss, and high above the gorge, the nature of the bridge makes steps unsteady. Floating above the gorge as if floating in the air, it takes one’s thoughts away. Although straight, it is as narrow as a single foot. “Look! Beneath the bridge, the mist is as impenetrable and formless as Hell. One can understand, attempting to cross the bridge might be perilous indeed,” said the Woodcutter. The Stone Bridge had stood here since the origin of the world, hewn by the Gods with rain and dew so they themselves might cross it. This bridge is so named 天浮橋 (Ame-no-ukihashi; the Floating Bridge of Heaven.)
Throughout the world there are bridges of many sorts. Bridges have great merit, allowing us to go from here to there, to rise above disasters, to succeed in many endeavors.
Yet, human hands did not work this stone bridge.
In the distance, waves crash and thunder almost like storms in the heavens. The mountains, rivers and lakes tremble, the earth and sky are not still. The Stone Bridge looks like a rainbow as the sun begins to set.
Looking down into the gorge far below the bridge, Jakushō felt his knees shake. As the cool, moist air rose from the depths, it seemed as if his blood began to freeze. So doing, he felt he was confronting his own transience. He began to understand without the help of the Gods and Buddha’s, no one might be able to cross over into the Pure Land. From the far bank by the mountain he could hear the music of the shō, mingled with flute and harps. As frightening as it was, it was wondrous as well.
The Woodcutter looked at Jakushō. “Perhaps,” he said, “if you cast off your impatience and waited here for just a bit, your understanding of this mystery would increase.” So saying Young Woodcutter became thin like the mist, and with the early summer breeze disappeared. In awe, Jakushō decided to wait at the foot of the bridge, and perhaps some greater miracle might be revealed.
At the moment the sun was just beneath the peak of mountain, and the moon just above the trees, a messenger of Manjusri Bodhisattva appeared in the form of a fearsome lion. Before the amazed monk Jakushō, the lion began to dance. The music of the Gods accompanied this celestial creature, and the sweet scent of peonies filled the air. The lion shook its head, and flowers began cascading from heaven. Playfully, the lion graced the petals with its paws, and rolled about in the carpet of color. Beat the drums, sound the flute! Indeed, this was the Lion King, who carried Manjusri Bodhisattva on his back. The trees and flowers bowed before the Buddha, as the lion celebrated the desire for peace in the world.