Zazen and the art of playwriting

A new kabuki drama shows the path to enlightenment


This month, the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo is presenting two programs of kabuki plays and dance numbers starring such leading actors as Koshiro Matsumoto, Nizaemon Kataoka, Mitsugoro Bando and Sadanji Ichikawa, as well as the female-role specialists Tamasaburo Bando and Tokizo Nakamura.

The afternoon program includes two “new kabuki” plays, “Dogen no Tsuki (The Zen Master Dogen and the Moon)” by Wahei Tatematsu and Shin Hasegawa’s 1931 “Ippongatana Dohyo-iri (The Man Who Wanted to Become a Sumo Wrestler).” The selection closes with “Ninin Wankyu (Wankyu in a Dream),” a masterpiece of classical kabuki dance set to nagauta music. In this, Nizaemon Kataoka plays Wankyu, a rich Osaka merchant who went insane and finally died after spending his fortune on a courtesan named Matsuyama. The courtesan’s role is performed by Tamasaburo Bando, who wears a splendid, sheer robe decorated with matsu (pine trees).

The evening program begins with “Shunkan,” an oft-performed jidaimono (historical play) adapted from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1719 bunraku play, “Heike Nyogogashima.” Koshiro Matsumoto gives a convincing performance as the eponymous priest, who died in exile in 1179 after failing in a coup d’etat he had plotted against Kiyomori, head of the powerful Taira (or Heike) clan. The program ends with Kawatake Mokuami’s 1859 sewamono (realistic play) “Courtesan Izayoi and the Buddhist Acolyte Seishin,” in which Tamasaburo and Nizaemon make a stunning pair.

Among the two programs, of particular interest is the afternoon’s first piece, “Dogen and the Moon,” which is being staged to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the death of Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. This is a new work by Tatematsu, 54, a prizewinning novelist whose first book was published in 1979 and who has recently been much involved with global environmental conservation projects. Although he has been working on a novel about Dogen for some years, this is his first kabuki play and prior to writing it, he visited the Kabukiza every month for two years. Finally, after rewriting the script 10 times, Tatematsu recently declared that the venture turned out far better than he had expected — and that he was particularly impressed by Mitsugoro Bando in the title role. As well, he heaped praise on the sets showing summer and winter scenes around Eiheiji Temple in Fukui Prefecture — the play is being staged in conjunction with the temple’s Dogen anniversary event.

The historical figure of Dogen is a complex one, and presenting his life on the stage is an ambitious undertaking. Dogen (1200-53) preached a type of Zen Buddhism referred to as shobo, or “the law of the Buddha Sakyamuni rightfully transmitted.” He also taught the practice of zazen, meditation performed while sitting cross-legged, as the ultimate form of spiritual discipline.

Dogen’s lifework, the 95-volume “Shobo Genzo (The Essence of the Law of the Buddha Rightfully Transmitted),” is fearfully difficult even for Buddhist scholars. The more usual approach to his thought is the “Shobo Genzo Zuimonki (Records of Questions on Shobo Genzo),” written in 1235-37 by Ejo, Dogen’s foremost disciple. “Zuimonki” gives us insight into this serious-minded Zen master as a human being; it also offers instruction in self-discipline for those living outside monastery walls.

Dogen lost his parents while still a child, and, realizing the transient nature of things, he decided to become a Buddhist monk at the age of 13. He was ordained in the Tendai school a year later. Four years after his ordination, he went to Kyoto to study Zen under the great master Myozen. Then, in 1223, at age 24, he accompanied Myozen to Sung China, where he met Priest Rujing, the renowned master of Soto doctrines. Rujing was famous for his rigorous discipline, and through him Dogen came to believe that zazen was the best way to seek truth in Buddhism. In 1225, Rujing certified that Dogen had attained satori (spiritual awakening).

In 1227, Dogen returned to Kyoto and Kenninji, but after three years he moved to a sub-temple of Gokurakuji in Fukakusa outside Kyoto. In 1234, he was joined there by Ejo, who became his lifelong disciple. In 1243, Dogen moved again, settling in a newly built temple, later named Eiheiji, in Echizen. In 1247, Dogen traveled to Kamakura to see the new young shikken (regent), Hojo Tokiyori. Five years later he died in Kyoto, at 53, leaving the ever-faithful Ejo as his successor at Eiheiji.

The three-act “Dogen and the Moon” focuses on the last several years of this eventful life, in particular the 1247 trip to Kamakura. Dogen is requested to visit Tokiyori (Hashinosuke Nakamura) by the regent’s vassal, Hatano Yoshishige (Yajuro Bando), who donated land for the construction of Eiheiji. Yoshishige’s entreaty to Dogen is that he help Tokiyori, who has been suffering fear and remorse after destroying members of the rebel Miura clan. After some hesitation, Dogen consents to the trip, taking Ejo (Shucho Bando) and a young acolyte called Genmyo (Kantaro Nakamura) with him.

On reaching Kamakura, Dogen is welcomed by Tokiyori at his residence. The regent has a proposal: that Dogen become abbot of a great temple he plans to build in Kamakura. Rejecting Tokiyori’s offer, Dogen urges him to renounce all that he has attained, including the regency itself. Infuriated, Tokiyori tries to strike Dogen with his sword, but the monk is unperturbed and his composure unsettles his attacker, who finds himself unable to deliver the blow. Dogen departs Kamakura shortly thereafter, but leaves the young Genmyo behind to teach Tokiyori how to practice zazen.

When Dogen returns to Eiheiji, the temple grounds are deep in snow. The delighted priest stands in the snow, sensing the presence of the Buddha in the full moon, which has just emerged from behind dark clouds.

Genmyo then arrives with a letter from the repentant Tokiyori, stipulating the gift of a rice-producing manor to Eiheiji Temple. Dogen, however, refuses Tokiyori’s offer and disowns the young monk on the spot. As a heartbroken Genmyo takes his leave, Dogen tells him to look into the alms bowl he is holding and see the moon reflected in the tears he has shed into it.

A revelation of “the essence of the law of the Buddha,” as exemplified by the life of Dogen, Tatematsu’s drama captures the life of this great Zen master who felt the presence of the Buddha in nature. The priest is presented here not only as a Zen disciplinarian, but as a man of compassion whose life was one of quiet and profound meditation. He never swerved from the teachings he received from his Chinese mentor Rujing: to stay away from kings and ministers, and concentrate on zazen in the mountains.

We glimpse, also, the wider world of the Zen monastery, where the monks meditate while fighting off hunger and fatigue, or engage themselves in their daily chores. In this refreshing modern kabuki play, Tatematsu truly conveys Dogen’s message: Wherever we live, we can make it a place of spiritual discipline.