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Buddhist Structures and Secular Themes in Zeami’s Narrative Style

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AbstractThis study is a contribution to the question of the Buddhist character of medieval Nō drama. Previous studies have analyzed references to Buddhism or expressions of Buddhist practices in Nō plays. This study, however, focuses on the discourse through which plays tell their stories. It asks how the stereotypical structure for plays established by Zeami enabled the expression of voices conceived of within a Buddhist world-view. First, techniques used in some early plays to describe Buddhist ideas are considered. Next, the structural conventions developed by Zeami to portray similar subjects are investigated. It is shown how, in plays in which ghosts appear to Buddhist priests (mugen nō), Zeami’s system was well suited to expressing the contrast between the minds of beings on the Buddhist path and those trapped in delusion. Finally, three plays are explored which used these same conventions to represent more complex characters. These can be understood as exhibiting the adequacy of the Buddhist world-view to the expression of wider themes. The last play considered, which describes an elderly poetess, is the most successful. In it, Zeami’s conventions produce both a recognizable portrait of an old woman, whilst at the same time exposing analogies between her predicament and that of deluded ghosts.

Affiliations: 1: University of


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1. Hare Thomas Blenman Zeami’s Style: The Nō Plays of Zeami Motokiyo 1986 California Stanford University Press
2. Itō Masayoshi 伊藤正義 Yōkyokushū 謡曲集 1983 Vol vol. 1 Tokyo Shinchōsha
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5. Marran Christine 懺悔 / Zange: Buddhism, Gender and Meiji Literary Confession 2012 accessed 11 September 2013 UC Berkeley Center for Japanese Studies
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9. Pinnington Noel Traces in the Way: Michi and the Writings of Komparu Zenchiku 2006a Ithaca, New York Cornell East Asia Series
10. Pinnington Noel "“Models of the Way in the Theory of Nō”" Japan Review 2006b Vol 18 29 55
11. Tyler Royall "“Buddhism in Nō”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1987 Vol 14 1 19 52
12. Tyler Royall Nō Dramas 1992 New York Penguin Books
13. Waley Arthur The Nō Plays of Japan 1921 [1976] Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo Charles E. Tuttle Company

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