Buddhahood for the Nonsentient Reconsidered: The Case of Kakitsubata (The Iris) and Other Nō Plays by Konparu Zenchiku

in Journal of Religion in Japan
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Abstract

Donald Shively first considered the topic of “Buddhahood for the nonsentient” (sōmoku jōbutsu) as a theme in Nō plays back in 1957. In subsequent years there have been several major studies published on sōmoku jōbutsu in Japanese and one major study in English. This new research enables a more complex understanding of how popular conceptions of sōmoku jōbutsu play themselves out in Nō involving nonsentient beings, and in particular how the concept of Buddhahood for the nonsentient intersects with the possibility of enlightenment for women. The article takes as a case study the Nō play Kakitsubata, in which an iris, manifesting as a young woman attains enlightenment and release from her obsessive attachment to her deep purple color, which for her signals that she is the most important and beloved of the katami (fetishized poetic mementos) associated with Ariwara no Narihira, a Heian poet deified in the medieval period as the Bodhisattva of Song and Dance. In this play, as in others by Konparu Zenchiku, the solution that the playwright presents performatively to this doubled problem of salvation is ambiguous, but may well be representative of the popular understanding of the ontological and soteriological status of both nonsentient beings and women in late medieval culture.

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