Saigyo in Three Nō Plays

The Japanese Nō play evolved from a medieval form of indigenous theater called Saragaku, which combined music, dance, song, and story with interludes of comic relief. By the fourteenth century, the Sarugakno Nō, literally "best of Sarugaku," had become a "serious dramatic performance," as Arthur Waley explains, with stylized personae, dance, chant recitation, and storyline more reflective of Japanese aesthetic, dramatic, and folkloric religious themes.

Although minor and unattributed Nō plays emerged in the early fifteenth century, a major codification of ritual and thematic elements was achieved by Kwanami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384) and his son Seami (or Zeami) Motokiyo (1363-1444). Zeami refined may of his father's plays and essentially established the form of the Nō drama thereafter, including technicalities of stage, music, costumes, props, as well as texts, themes, characters, chants, and plotlines. The nearest Western equivalents of Greek or Elizabethan theater tangentially approximate the Nō plays. But the Nō plays are deeply grounded in Japanese and Buddhist elements of aesthetics, religion, and views of human and universal nature.

The Nō plays are usually set in locales of historical or legendary significance. Similarly, plots and characters are drawn from legends, epics, classics, poems, and the history of shrines, holy sites, and historical places. The plays are classified as god plays, warrior plays, and women plays, according to their protagonists, but many are classed as miscellaneous, with different theatrical schools performing plays to their preferred style. Of the extant 250 Nō plays, those of Zeami dominate the genre. Zeami also wrote extensive commentaries on acting, setting, staging, and managing Nō theater.

Among the themes and figures comprising Nō subjects is the beloved Japanese poet and hermit-priest Saigyo (1118-1190). Saigyo is the only poet celebrated in No plays, and certainly the only hermit. The includsion both testifies to the esteem for Saigyo and to the charateristic insightfulness of Zeami, who composed two of the three. Zeami's play Euguchi features Saigyo in the context of an interpretation of one of his representative poems. Zeami's Saigyo-zakiura (Saigyo's Cherry Tree) features Saigyo in the context of a favorite nature image in Japanese culture. The third Nō play, Yugyo yanagi (The Priest and the Willow), by Kajiro Nobumitso (1435-1510), also alludes to a poem of Saigyo for setting and storyline.

Euguchi, by Zeami

As with many Nō plays, Eguchi opens with a monk and his companions announcing their pilgrim travels. They arrive at the village of Euguchi,and the priest observes a cairn, which a villager indicates is the grave of the Lady of Euguchi, a harlot, poet, and manifestation of the bodhissattva Fugen. Says the villager: "Even the venerable Saigyo wrote a poem for her, and I gather she have him a lively reply."

The villager recommends that the priest honor her memory. The latter acknowledges  and thanks the villager, who exits. The priest then recalls Saigyo's poem describing his request for a night's lodging in a harlot's inn one night after traveling alone by foot and exhausted:

To scorn the world
and all its ways:
that is hard -- but you,
the least moment's refuge
you cling to as your own!

The priest recites Saigyo's poem aloud, and at that moment an old woman appears. She asks him to recite the harlot's response [not contained among Saigyo's collected poems]:

You are one, I hear,
who scorns the world,
and my sole care
is to say: set not your heart
upon a moment's refuge.

The old woman assures the priest that the Lady "clung to nothing as her own" and is ashamed that the poet had said this of her, for she was counseling him to recognize his own contradiction. The old woman avers that "she cared for him who had renounced the world." Indeed, she continues, none should heed or give credence to worldly gossip said of her, and least should Saigyo have done so, for the woman who had lived in the house he come upon had many secret regrets and sorrows. She had herself renounced the world as a source of solace.

The old woman's presence begins to fade, and the priest and his companions then recognize the old woman as the ghost of the Lady of Eguchi. The chorus then intones:

Perhaps the same tree sheltered us,
perhaps we drank from the same stream:
for you see me now, the phantom
of the Lady of Eguchi! So she cries,
only her voice remaining , and she is gone.

Like the end of an act, a natural break occurs at this point. In the next scene, the village is seeking out the priest to see if he is still at the gravesite. The priest asks the villager to relate all he knows of the Lady of Eguchi, and so learns the story of the monk Shoku, devotee of Kannon-Fugen, granted a dream-vision of a riverboat with the chief harlot and her ten women, all singing. Closing his eyes, Shoku sees Fugen and a retinue chanting, but opening his eyes he sees the harlot again. To his amazement, the vision sontinues until at last Fugen's boat becomes a white elephant ascending the heavens. 

The priest thanks the village for his story. The villager encourages the priest to stay and recite sutras for the deceased Lady, suggesting that having seen the ghost they may also witness "another wonder." The villager exits. The holy men recite sutras by the grave. At once, "a boat appears with girls singing aboard, and lit up by the moon. Astonishing!" Like Odysseus, the priest watches and listens to the sirens, "most seductive in their gay finery." The women, the Lady, and the chorus then sing a complex sentiment of Buddhist doctrine of transmigration and impermanence, of the sorrows of yearning, desire, the evanescence of love, returning to Saigyo's shortsightedness.

We set our heart
one moment's refuge,
Did we not, no sad world would be. ...

O blossoms, O autumn leaves,
O moon, O snows forever falling. ...

Yes, all things are a moment's refuge.
Never set your heart upon them;
that was my [the Lady's] warning to him [to Saigyo].
I will leave you now, she cries;
revealed as the bodhisattva
Fugon, the All-Wise. ...

Saigyo-zakura (Saigyo and the Cherry Tree), by Zeami

Unlike Eguchi, with an unnamed priest as Saigyo's counterpart, this play features Saigyo himself. The play's exchange between Saigyo and the spirit of the cherry tree on the grounds of Saigyo's hermitage parallels the exchange of Eguchi: the impatient sentiment of Saigyo's poem is refuted by a hovering spirit or ghost. "Both plays suggest," notes translator Royall Tyler, "that one cannot escape this world by leaving it, since there is nowhere else to go."

As the play opens, Saigyo is in his hermitaage and tells his manservant not to permit visitors to the cherry tree in his garden this spring. The manservant acknowledges but wonders to himself what now to tell the numerous visitors already queued to see the famous cherry blossoms of this particular tree, of such repute that they journey from the capital every year to view them. The servant hopes to catch Saigyo in a good mood and change his mind. The visitors wait. Saigyo is strolling reflectively in the garden.

The plot is based on the incident described by Saigyo in one of his poem. The poem is recited in the play, with the prose preface: "When he meant to remain quiet, and people came to see his flowers." The poem is brief:

"Flowers! Do let's look!"
and on they came,
amateurs in droves,
Ah, lovely blossoms,
this is all your fault!

In the garden, Saigyo happily reflects on the beautiful spring and the flowers; the servant judges him approachable. He informs Saigyo of the visitors from the Capital. Saigyo reacts: "What a bother! I retired to this mountain dwelling just so as to get away from the world and all its vexations. And now those blossoms have betrayed my retreat to everyone!" Saigyo relents. The visitors enter, expressing their esteem. The visitors also voice a sentiment expressed as well by the chorus:

This hillside spot, however secluded,
is still the blossoming Capital, too.
How then can he who has left the world
hide himself away among the blossoms? ...
No, renunciation is all very well
but outside this world there is nowhere at all.
Where could one settle and never move on?

As is customary, the visitors remain overnight and depart in the morning.

Then the tree spirit in the form of an old man emerges, repeating Saigyo's poem, asking Saigyo (asleep in the dawn and dreaming) why he blames the tree's blossoms. Saigyo apologetically explains that he lives alone on the mountainside "to avoid the world of sorrows and to clear my mind of all its vexations." That is why he found visitors disruptive, he says.

But the spirit responds that any spot is a world of sorrows or, conversely, a mountain retreat. It depends on the individual. How could flowers on a tree be responsible for human vexations?

Saigyo concedes the point. The spirit replies that like all insentient trees, it has grown and flowered successively in silence, but now felt obliged to defend itself. In this blossoming, like the bird in its singing, the tree reflects its fullness of purpose, and the teaching of Buddhahood. The chorus enumerates locations in Japan famous for their cherry blossoms, linking appreciation of the blossoms to the Buddha's proferred teaching of the Lotus Sutra and the image of the flower of enlightenment.

The spirit of the cherry tree announces the approaching dawn and the end of Saigyo's dream -- dawn, when blossoms will fall, and our lives, too.

With what sorrow one sees them fade,
all the pleasures of he night!
It is so sad, the perfect moment so rare,
and the companions, too, that made it so.

Yogyo yanagi (The Priest and the Willow), by Nobumitsu

Saigyo figures prominently in this play, clearly the source of inspiration being his poem about a willow tree:

By the side of the road
Where a clear stream flowed
In a willow's shade
I thought I would pause a moment,
But stood rooted to the spot.

And, like Saigyo-zakuraia, Nobumitsu's play features a tree spirit.

The play opens conventionally with a priest and his companions traveling, in this case modeled after the hijiri Ippen spreading the Pure Land Buddhist teaching. They reach an apparent crossroads. The priest tells his companions that they will take the broad course. At that moment an old man appears to inform them that many years ago an errant priest reached this same junction but took a road now abandoned. The old man wants to show them this path.

Yes, I assure you [says the old man]. In the past, this new road did not exist. The path he took followed the riverbank, this side of the clump of trees you see over there. A famous tree known as the Withered Willow stands on that path. If a saintly priest like you would pray before it, then even a tree or blade of grass could achieve Buddhahood.

The old man invites the priest to examine the tree. The priest exclaims that it is indeed the famous Withered Willow, reduced by the dry bed and overgrown moss and ivy to a perch on a mound. The old man is encouraged to relate the story of the tree. Years ago, relates the old man, the traveling monk Saigyo passed this spot. He stopped before the willow to rest and composed a poem (quoted above). The old man then blesses the priest, approaches the tree, and disappears.

The astonished priest summons a villager to related what he knows of the tree. The villager tells the story already told by the old man and the chorus. The villager advises the priest and companions to stay and pray that they might witness another miracle. The priest and companions decide to sleep within sight of the Withered Willow. After a while, the tree spirit speaks from within the mound:

The willow tree that withered
In vain, has formed its season;
Now it has encountered
The holy Law, the teaching
of Amida, who guides
even the crooked
straight to Buddha.

And the chorus adds:

Even trees and grasses
Can attain Enlightenment,
Even an ancient willow.

Though this scene could end the play, the play contines with a commendation of Amida Buddha and reflections of the tree sprit on the karmic link between the priests Saigyo and his successor, and the tree. The tree has reached a great age, and now fortuitously having learned the Buddha's dharma, is ready to accept its passing away. The chorus intones:

The autumn winds
Blown from the west,
Sweep through the dew,
And the leaves on the tree,
Scattering dew,
Scattering leaves;
They leave nothing but
a withering willow tree.


The three Nō plays featuring Saigyo not only testify to the esteem in which the hermit-monk was held in popular Japanese culture, but to the genre's outstanding ability to integrate characters, ideas, art,and aesthetics, making the Nō plays a representative vehicle for interweaving various elements in Japanese culture in a timeless way.


Euguchi and Saigyo-zakura are published in Japanese No Dramas, edited and translated by Royall Tyler. New York: Penguin, 1992. Yugyo yanagi is translated by Janine Beichman and published in Twenty Plays of the No Theatre, edited by Donald Keen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. See also The No Plays of Japan, by Arthur Waley. London: Allen & Unwin, 1921 (and later reprints).