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p. 30 p. 31


The Buddhism of the Nō plays is of the kind called the "Greater Vehicle," which prevails in China, Japan and Tibet. Primitive Buddhism (the "Lesser Vehicle"), which survives in Ceylon and Burma, centres round the person of Shākyamuni the historical Buddha and uses Pāli as its sacred language. The "Greater Vehicle," which came into being about the same time as Christianity and sprang from the same religious impulses, to a large extent replaces Shākyamuni by a timeless, ideal Buddha named Amida "Lord of Boundless Light," perhaps originally a sun-god, like Ormuzd of the Zoroastrians. Primitive Buddhism had taught that the souls of the faithful are absorbed into Nirvāna, in other words into Buddha. The "Greater Vehicle" promised to its adherents an after-life in Amida's Western Paradise. It produced scriptures in the Sanskrit language, in which Shākyamuni himself describes this Western Land and recommends the worship of Amida; it inculcated too the worship of the Bodhisattvas, half-Buddhas, intermediaries between Buddha and man. These Bodhisattvas are beings who, though fit to receive Buddhahood, have of their own free will renounced it, that they may better alleviate the miseries of mankind.

Chief among them is Kwannon, called in India Avalokiteshvara, who appears in the world both in male and female form, but it is chiefly thought of as a woman in China and Japan; Goddess of Mercy, to whom men pray in war, storm, sickness or travail.

The doctrine of Karma and of the transmigration of souls was common both to the earlier and later forms of Buddhism. Man is born to an endless chain of re-incarnations, each one of which is, as it were, the fruit of seed sown in that which precedes.

The only escape from this "Wheel of Life and Death" lies in satori "Enlightenment," the realization that material phenomena are thoughts, not facts.

Each of the four chief sects which existed in medieval Japan had its own method of achieving this Enlightenment.

(1) The Amidists sought to gain satori by the study of the Hokke Kyō, called in Sanskrit Saddharma Pundarika Sūtra or "Scripture of"

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the Lotus of the True Law," or even by the mere repetition of its complete title "Myōhō Renge Hokke Kyō." Others of them maintained that the repetition of the formula "Praise to Amida Buddha" (Namu Amida Butsu) was in itself a sufficient means of salvation.

(2) Once when Shākyamuni was preaching before a great multitude, he picked up a flower and twisted it in his fingers. The rest of his hearers saw no significance in the act and made no response; but the disciple Kāshyapa smiled.

In this brief moment a perception of transcendental truth had flashed from Buddha's mind to the mind of his disciple. Thus Kāshyapa became the patriarch of the Zen Buddhists, who believe that Truth cannot be communicated by speech or writing, but that it lies hidden in the heart of each one of us and can he discovered by "Zen" or contemplative introspection.

At first sight there would not appear to he any possibility of reconciling the religion of the Zen Buddhists with that of the Amidists. Yet many Zen masters strove to combine the two faiths, teaching that Amida and his Western Paradise exist, not in time or space, but mystically enshrined in men's hearts.

Zen denied the existence of Good and Evil, and was sometimes regarded as a dangerous sophistry by pious Buddhists of other sects, as, for example, in the story of Shunkwan (see p. 227) and in The Hōka Priests (see p. 165), where the murderer's interest in Zen doctrines is, I think, definitely regarded as a discreditable weakness and is represented as the cause of his undoing.

The only other play, among those I have here translated, which deals much with Zen tenets, is Sotoba Komachi. Here the priests represent the Shingon Shū or Mystic Sect, while Komachi, as becomes a poetess, defends the doctrines of Zen. For Zen was the religion of artists; it had inspired the painters and poets of the Sung dynasty in China; it was the religion of the great art-patrons who ruled Japan in the fifteenth century. 1

It was in the language of Zen that poetry and painting were discussed; and it was in a style tinged with Zen that Seami wrote of his own art. But the religion of the Nō plays is predominantly Amidist; it is the common, average Buddhism of medieval Japan.

(3) I have said that the priests in Sotoba Komachi represent the Mystic Sect. The followers of this sect sought salvation by means of charms and spells, corruptions of Sanskrit formulae. Their principal

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[paragraph continues] Buddha was Dainichi, "The Great Sun." To this sect belonged the Yamabushi, mountain ascetics referred to in Tanikō and other plays.

(4) Mention must be made of the fusion between Buddhism and Shintō. The Tendai Sect which had its headquarters on Mount Hiyei preached an eclectic doctrine which aimed at becoming the universal religion of Japan. It combined the cults of native gods with a Buddhism tolerant in dogma, but magnificent in outward pomp, with a leaning towards the magical practices of Shingon.

The Little Saint of Yokawa in the play Aoi no Uye is an example of the Tendai ascetic, with his use of magical incantations.

Hatsuyuki appeared in "Poetry," Chicago, and is here reprinted with the editor's kind permission.


32:1 See further my Zen Buddhism & its relation to Art. Luzac, 1922.

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