Noh “Taema” – an image of the Pure Land

In spite of being a beautiful Noh that endured through the ages ever since Zeami’s time (1363-1443), Taema 当麻 is considered a difficult Noh and is rarely performed. It belongs to the fifth category of Noh plays, the so called kiri-noh, as it involves the miraculous apparition of otherworldly beings.

The most recent staging of this play was held at Hōshō Nōgaku-dō on October 13th last year, with Kanze school nōgakushi Uzawa Hisa 鵜沢久 in the role of shite and Uzawa Hikaru 鵜沢光 as tsure. My discussion of this Noh will be based on that particular performance.

taema_omote6ol.aiAs most of the Noh plays created in the early Muromachi age (1336-1573), the plot of Taema originates in a legend that was well known to the audience of that time. In this case, it is the story of Chūjō hime 中将姫, a young lady who is said to have lived during the late Nara period and who later became a saintly figure due to her deep devotion to Amida Buddha. After taking Buddhist vows and entering Taema temple, she swore not to leave the temple until she sees the incarnation of Amida Buddha. One day an old nun came to her and said that her wish would come true if she gathers a large quantity of lotus stalk. After seven days the old nun appeared again and miraculously dyed all the thread made from lotus stalk gathered by Chūjō-hime in five colors.  A young woman descended from the sky and wove the lotus threads in a beautiful mandala during only one night. After the weaver returned to the celestial world, the old nun explained the meaning of the mandala to Chūjō-hime: it represented the Pure Land, inhabited by celestial beings and by the souls rescued by Amida. In the end she revealed that she herself was the incarnation of Amida Buddha and had come in human form in response to Chūjō hime’s sincere faith. After the apparition left, Chūjō-hime kept longing to be reunited with Amida and soon her soul would be welcomed in paradise by the boddhisatvas.

During Zeami’s time, the legend of Chūjō-hime was extremely popular, with people from all provinces coming in pilgrimage to Taema temple, where they could pray at the miraculously woven mandala. The Buddhist thought of previous ages (Heian and early Kamakura) had taught that women could not hope to be reborn in the Pure Land unless they are first reborn as men. However, the legend of Chūjō-hime affirmed that women were also able to gain access to Amida’s paradise and the Taema mandala was a tangible proof of Amida’s vow that no one who believes in him shall be left behind. This accounts for the great popularity of the legend and of the mandala itself. (You can read here an excellent article about Taema mandala)

Zeami’s Noh adapts the contents of the legend for the stage. An itinerant monk reaches Taema temple and meets an old nun accompanied by a young woman. They show him around the temple: the famous lake, where the lotus stalk threads have been dyed in five colors, the cherry tree on whose branches the threads had been left to dry. Enchanted by the scenery spreading before his eyes, the monk asks them who they are. After revealing that they are the old nun and the weaver from the legend about Chūjō-hime, the two disappear enshrouded in a purple cloud. In response to the monk’s prayer to see more of the revelation, the spirit of Chūjō-hime appears in second part of the play. She is now an inhabitant of Amida’s Pure Land, enjoying the heavenly music and dances of the boddhisatvas. After reminding the monk about Amida’s sacred vow to rescue all beings, she expresses her joy in a celestial dance and eventually disappears. This is when the monk wakes up from his dream.

There are several fascinating points about this Noh, whose creation is attributed to Zeami himself. With its original story being a famous legend, known beforehand by anyone, the author intently omitted some episodes, in order to concentrate on others and to even rearrange the contents to fit his auctorial purpose. The highlight of the play consists in the way the mandala is woven into the text, in a manner so subtle that it often remains unnoticed, both by audiences and by readers. In the scene where the old nun shows the monk around Taema temple, the place appears to be identical to the image of Amida’s Pure Land such as it is depicted in the famous mandala. The colors of the landscape are the five colors that the lotus threads had been dyed in and even the pond and the cherry tree remind one of the sacred realm in heaven.

With the underlying theme of Taema being the rebirth of women in the Pure Land, it is all the more significant that the main role was played by a female Noh actor. Uzawa Hisa and her daughter Uzawa Hikaru belong to the very few women Noh actors (joryū nōgakushi 女流能楽師) active at the moment. A member of the Tessenkai group for Noh studies and involved also in projects related to contemporary theatre, Uzawa Hisa’s activity spans over the borders between performing arts. She will perform Hagoromo this year in June at the Hōshō nōgaku-dō.



Small note of apology

I am sorry for having failed to update this blog in a while. I have been busy with preparing for and passing the exam which would ensure that I would be able to keep up with the Japanese stage for the next three years. Now that I have that cleared up, I should be able to get back to the kind of work I like most, i.e. writing about theatre.

I would like to thank everyone who still visited this blog and checked for updates. The feedback I received was very encouraging, so thank you very much.