Noh Theatre


A Noh theatre performance

Noh theatre has strong roots in the Shinto tradition and was also influenced by the Buddhist tradition. Zeami (1363 – 1443) is credited with having perfected Noh as it exists today. An important rule of aesthetics Zeami used was the hana or flower, which can be explained as the effect felt between the actor and audience when a perfect balance of performance and reception is achieved; a kind of mystic suspension.

To know the meaning of hana is the most important element in understanding Noh, and it`s greatest secret. -- Zeami

This mystic suspension is the experience of Divine Presence, a state of transcended awareness in the actor and audience, brought about by the performance of the actor. A flower is used to symbolize this state.

The whisteria spirit
The Golden Flower is the light. One uses the Golden Flower as a symbol. It is the true energy of the translucent great one, the Elixir of Life. -- The secret of the Golden flower
The whisteria has attained enlightenment and is blooming. It is the flower blooming in an enlightened heart. -- Whisteria, a Noh play
Look at this surprising flower, which cannot be seen and yet its fragrance cannot be hidden.
-- Bahauddin Walad (12th C, Sufi scholar and poet)
In chaste hearts, uninfluenced by the power of outward change, there blooms a deathless flower that breaths on earth, the air of paradise. -- Michelangelo (16th c. Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet) translated by Wordsworth

It is a rare occurrence when the actor and audience both experience a transported state in which their Higher Selves are present. It can occur in any great performance, but usually happens by accident. Even though the performer may have a sense of how extraordinary the experience was, he is usually not able to bring it about again and his whole life may be dedicated to experiencing it again. This experience is what unknowingly attracts many musicians and actors to performing. That is to say, an extremely sensitive and small part in them that strives for the highest, is attracted to it, while the rest of the lower self is attracted to being the center of attention and blind adoration. For Zeami, being able to bring about this experience was the center of Noh drama.

The actor‘s performance, as seen from the audience, is an objective vision of oneself. In other words, the self you are(normally) aware of is the imaginary self, but not the self you see in detachment. When you look at your art with the attitude of detachment, you are looking at your art from the same consciousness with the audience, and only then you can fully discern your own self-image. -- Zeami, 「Kakyo」A Mirror to the Flower

The word Noh means skill or ability; the ability to bring out hana.

Mahavairocana Buddha, seated on a lotus flower, with the Mudra of the Six Elements,
Tokyo National museum, 12th Century AD
In order to understand the Flower you should first observe a flower blooming in nature, and then understand this as a metaphor for the principle of the Flower in all things. -- Zeami (15th c. Japanese actor and playwright)

The growth of a flower begins with a seed, which symbolizes the desire to be present. From the seeds, roots grow into the ground, symbolizing this desire penetrating one`s whole being. The stem of the flower supports the flower itself and represents tools and techniques by which the flower — Divine Presence — is established.

Just as the pure and fragrant lotus flower grows out of the mud of a swamp rather than out of the clean loam of an upland field, so from the muck of worldly passions springs the pure Enlightenment of Buddhahood. -- Buddha

Through continuous prayer, the heart, like good soil, begins to produce by itself Divine Flowers.
-- Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text)

In his book Fushikaden Zeami writes about the origin of Sarugaku Noh theatre, as it was called in his time. He connects it`s origin to the myth about the Shinto Goddess Amaterasu. Amaterasu means Shining Heaven or She who shines in the Heavens.

Amaterasu emerging from a cave
The beginnings of sarugaku in the age of the gods occurred when Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, concealed herself in the heavenly rock cave, and the whole earth fell under endless darkness. All the myriad deities gathered at the heavenly Kagu mountain in order to find a way to calm her. They played sacred music (Kagura) to accompany their comic dances. In the midst of this the goddess Ame no Uzume came forward, holding a sprig of salami wood she raised her voice and, in front of a fire that had been lighted, she pounded out the rhythm of her dance with her feet and became possessed by divine inspiration as she sang and danced. The sun goddess, hearing the voice of Ame no Uzume from within, opened the rock door slightly. The land became light, and the faces of the gods shone white. It is said that such entertainments marked the beginning of Sarugaku. -- Zeami, Fushikaden.

Amaterasu retreated into a cave because her brother, the storm-God Susano no Mikoto, who represents the lower self, ravaged the earth. Her disappearance deprived the world of light and life and as a result, demons ruled the earth. Amaterasu symbolizes the light of the presence of the Higher Self. When this is lost, the demons — the thoughts and emotions going round in our head — are controlling our life in the state of sleep or darkness. This myth has only an inner meaning related to the awakening of a man`s Higher Self. Since Zeami relates the origin of Noh to this myth, he implies that the inner meaning of Noh is the same as the inner meaning of the myth.

The singing and dancing of the goddess Ame no Uzume that lured Amaterasu out of her cave and made her light shine upon the world — the Higher Self shining the light of awareness into the present moment — has an inner meaning refering to making the effort to awaken one`s Higher Self.

Lord Shiva dancing, Rijksmuseum,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Whenever you hear about dancing and music, do not take these things in a material or worldly manner: they are spoken of simply by way of illustration... for the things they denote are spiritual and inexpressible. -- Symeon Metaphrastis, Philokalia, (Greek Orthodox Christian text)
All of Creation is merely a part of Lord Shiva's dance, the cosmic dancer. When a foot comes down, all that is ceases to be. When his foot lifts again, the dream of life continues. -- Bhagavad-Gita (Hindu text)
Dance, dervish, dance, bring the face of God before you. -- Hafiz

The Noh stage

The Noh stage, which came from Kagura, a Shinto theatrical dance, symbolizes Divine Presence, and the way to achieve it.

A Noh stage

A Kagura stage
At the back of the stage, a wooden wall called Kagami-ita (Mirror wall) harbors the divinity: an aged pine tree painted on this wall symbolized the residence of the Kami. The stage represents the world of the present, and the backstage the world of the dead. -- Arata Isozaki (20th c. Japanese architect)

The square stage symbolizes Divine Presence, while the pine tree also represents the presence of the God within.

I have become one with the tree of life. My glory rises like the mountain peak. I have realized the Self.
-- Upanishads (Hindi text)

A Himorogi

A Himorogi

The Noh stage was probably also influenced by Himorogi. Originating in ancient times, a himorogi refers to a square, temporarily erected sacred space or altar used as a locus of worship. The square area is demarcated with branches of green bamboo or sakaki at the four corners, between which are strung sacred border ropes (shimenawa). In the center of the area a large branch of sakaki is erected as a physical representation of the presence of the Kami or God, the Higher Self.

Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life. -- The Bible, Proverbs 13:12

When we are longing for something that is not in the present moment, we cannot be present and we are psychologically speaking, sick. When we have the desire to be present, or when we have reached a state of prolonged presence, we are a Tree of Life.

A diagram of a Noh stage

The kagami-no-ma (mirror room) is placed just at the stage entrance. -- Arata Isozaki

A Noh actor preparing to go on stage

In the mirror room, the Noh actor, fully dressed and preparing to go on stage, gazes into a mirror to concentrate on his role, and then puts on his mask. The mirror symbolizes a heart yet without presence, but with the desire to be present. If the heart is completely pure, it can reflect the image of God, prolonged presence. The actor looking into the mirror symbolizes focusing on, and strengthening the desire to be present.

Being a Sufi is a matter of deflecting the heart‘s mirror from this world and turning it towards God. -- Tashkandi (15th c. Sufi)
He who possesses the Heart becomes a mirror with six faces; through him God looks toward the six directions. -- Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet)

The actor tries to reach a state in which he can see the character he`s going to play objectively, in the same way the audience sees him. This can only occur when the Higher Self is present. Although the mirror is a symbol of a heart desiring to be present, looking in a mirror can help to reach this state.

Freedom is when one sees oneself impartially as one does an interesting stranger, without praise or blame.
-- Rodney Collin (20th c. Fourth Way spiritual teacher)

The Noh Mask

A Noh mask

The word personality comes from persona (Latin) and means mask. Everybody wears many masks in a day. One mask for one`s job (or sometimes two, one for one`s superiors and one for one`s subordinates), one for one`s friends, one for one`s spouse and one for one`s children. One mask for when one is in a good mood and another for when one is angry, and so on.

I have never been aware before how many faces there are. There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several. -- Rainer Maria Rilke (20th c.German poet) Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
If you wish to see the face of the Beloved, turn to your heart and make it the mirror! -- Kāshghari (15th c. Nakshbandi Sufi)

The face of God or the Beloved, refers to the state of presence. The Noh mask shown here, symbolizes having the desire to be present. Putting it on, symbolizes letting go of all other faces, all other personalities, all other desires, all other I`s.

Square face mask from the National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City

Master with a square third eye,
14th-15th Century, Tibet

The face forms a square in itself.
-- Leonardo da Vinci
In the square inch field of the square foot house, life can be regulated. The square foot house is the face. The square inch field in the face: what could that be other than the heavenly heart? -- The Secret of the Golden Flower

Sometimes the Lord is absent from us; at other times He is present within us. He is absent when we contemplate Him indistinctly, as though in a mirror.He is present within us when we contemplate Him face to face. -- Philokalia, Maximos the Confessor
The Face of Ra is uncovered, O Amun-Ra, Lord of the Sixth Day Festival. -- Egyptian text, Ritual of the Divine Cult

The Stage Curtain

A five-colored curtain at the entrance of the bridge to the stage

The veil over the face of the Egyptian Sun-God Ra, Divine Presence, is uncovered. After the actor puts on his mask, a Five-Colored curtain, which separates the mirror room from the bridge, is raised and the actor enters the bridge. A curtain is a symbol for the veil that separates the state of waking-sleep a man spends most of his life in, from the state of Divine Presence.

At first you find yourself behind the veil, even if you are practicing remembrance. After that comes unveiling, which is presence.
-- Qushayri (12th c. Persian Sufi)

The five colors of the curtain purple, white, red, yellow, and green symbolize the Five Elements earth, water, fire, wind, and air - which separate this world from that of the Pure Land.

The five meditation Buddhas seated on Lotus flowers, Tibet

A diagram of the five meditation Buddhas and some of there aspects

The esoteric five symbolic elements are the five syllables, the five Buddhas. -- Kukai (9th c. Founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism)

The five elements, the five syllables and the five meditation Buddhas, all refer to the first five syllables of a six syllable mantra to reach Buddha`s Pure Land, the state of Divine Presence.

Consciousness was combined with earth, water, fire, wind and space as an element pervading them all; these together comprised the universal body of the Six Great Elements. -- Taiko Yamasaki (Shingon, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism)

The Hashikagari (bridge to the stage)

Pharaoh walking with a Ka on his head, Egyptian museum, Cairo

After the actor steps on the bridge, he crosses it extremely slowly. Noh has also been defined as the art of walking. Walking is so important in Noh that one of the highest compliments that can be paid to an actor is that his walking is good.

Walk in the Dharma; walk in righteousness. -- Buddha

A Noh actor sliding his feet
The Lord has awakened in us a great longing for that sweet experience of His presence within; but it is by daily growth that we acquire it; it is by walking that we grow, and it is by forward efforts we walk, so as to be able at last to attain it.
-- St. Augustine (4th c. Christian saint)

Walking is another symbol for engaging the state of presence.

The bridge (Hashigakari) connecting the stage to the backstage symbolizes the space between the world of the present (the stage) and the world of the dead. (backstage) The bridge-like passage represents the descent of the spirit to earth. -- Arata Isozaki

The bridge connects the stage, which symbolizes Divine Presence, with the world of the dead, which symbolizes the state of waking-sleep that man spend his life in. The bridge symbolizes a tool to reach Divine Presence. In the front of the bridge are three small pine trees (Jp. matsu) increasing in size, symbolizing the gradual descent of Divine Presence into the heart. The large pine tree on the back of the stage represents a prolonged state of presence.

Three pine trees (matsu) increasing in size

The first stage of remembrance is the remembrance of the tongue, then the remembrance of the heart, then the appearance of the Divine Presence in the reciter of remembrance, making him no longer need to practice remembrance. -- Al-Ghazali (11th c. Persian Sufi mystic)

Izanagi and Izanami standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven

The Hashigakari

The Hashikagari symbolizes the same as the Floating Bridge of Heaven that Izanagi and Izanami stand on, in the creation myth of the Kojiki.

Izanagi no Mikoto (Exalted Male) and Izanami no Mikoto (Exalted Female) descended from Heaven and went to the bridge between Heaven and Earth, --the Floating Bridge of Heaven and churned the sea below with a Heavenly Jeweled Halberd. -- Kojiki (Shinto text)

Heaven symbolizes the state of Divine Presence, Earth, the good soil, symbolizes the heart longing for presence, while Hell symbolizes the rest of the lower self, which is not interested in presence.

Hell is energy acting of it`s own impulse. Heaven is energy obeying something higher. -- William Blake (18th c. English poet and painter)

The Noh stage represents Heaven, while the mirror room represents earth. The bridge represents the place or means to create prolonged presence.

We must stand on the Floating Bridge to be able to execute divine deeds by calming our spirit and returning to God. -- Ueshiba Morihei (Founder of Aikido)
The most excellent of those who perform good deeds are those who most often remember God in all situations.
-- Ibn Ata’Allah (12th c. Egyptian Sufi)

Divine or good deeds are deeds that bring us back to the state of presence and we must stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven to return to this state. The Hashikagari symbolizes a prolonged effort to reach Divine Presence, which follows the arousal of the heart in the Mirror room. Through this effort the spirit, prolonged presence, comes down from Heaven.

Quetzalcoatl said: 'Come you, the dweller, you of the four directions, infinite being. Illuminating spirit; come!' This is how he invoked his divinity. -- Life and Teachings of Quetzalcoatl (Mesoamerican deity)

Konparu Zenchiku

Zenchiku Konparu (1405 – 1470 or 1471) was a skilled Japanese Noh actor, troupe leader, and playwright. He was trained by Zeami and his son, Motomasa and eventually married a daughter of Zeami. Zeami passed on his secret teachings to Zenchiku which resulted in one of his works Rokurin ichiro no ki — Six Circles and One Dewdrop.

The first circle is called the circle of life (jurin 寿輪), the second is called the circle of the vertical (shurin 竪輪), the third is called the circle of abiding (jūrin 住輪), the fourth is called the circle of images (zōrin 像輪), the fifth is called the circle of breaking (harin 破輪), the sixth the circle of emptiness (kūrin 空輪), the dewdrop (ichiro 一 露) is the highest, most important stage. -- Konparu Zenchiku

The circle of emptiness is the sixth circle and represents the absence of the lower self and the presence of the Higher Self.

The concept of Presence manifests as Emptiness. -- Milarepa (11th c. Tibetan yogi)

Actors should strive for unconscious performance, in which they enter the ‘circle of emptiness’; such a state of being is the highest level of artistic or religious achievement. -- Konparu Zenchiku

Unconscious performance refers to a performance in which there is an absence of discriminating awareness. Discriminating awareness or discriminating consciousness sees the outside world throught a subjective filter without illuminating one`s own inward world. Discriminating consciousness is the consciousness of the lower self, which keeps the higher Self asleep. When this consciousness is absent the higher Self can awaken. Then there is just empty self-awareness.

These six circles are the ultimate in principle and truth. In the case of the scriptures, they correspond to the heart of the esoteric teachings, the Six Great Elements that embody the Dharma Nature.
-- Shigyoku (15th c. Japanese Buddhist monk), Commentary on Six Circles, One Dewdrop
The sequential movement of the soul shall be no more than six complete circles. This marks the completion of the six stages that lead back to the region from whence it came. -- Kabbalah Zohar, Exodus

A five ringed pagoda, Kyoto, Japan

A diagram of a five ringed pagoda

Above it was explained that the colors of the curtain leading to the bridge of the Noh stage represent the five elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space.

To the body of the five elements, there is the fivefold Dharana (concentration of the mind). -- The Yoga-Tattva Upanishad (Hindu text)

Together with the element consciousness, they comprise the universal body of the Six Great Elements.The six circles and six elements represent a tool or a mantra to achieve a state of being in which one`s Higher Self is awake. Performing Noh in this state of being was the ultimate goal of the Noh actor.

Six circles, at the Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto, Japan

A tour-guide working at the Katsura Rikyu explained that the six circles on the wall of a teahouse in the garden represent the four seasons and added that scholars didn`t know what this meant. In Six Circles and One Dewdrop, the six circles are associated with the I Ching hexagram #1 Heaven. The hexagram Heaven stands for pure yang energy; the energy of the presence of the Higher Self.

The hexagram Heaven represents the advance of yang, whereby the science of building life acts with strength and uses the path of firmness. Producing things in spring is the creativity of strength. Creation means the beginning, the first arising of yang energy. Developing things in summer is the growth of strength. Development is extension, the expansion of yang energy. Maturing things in autumn is the fruition of strength. Fruition is goodness, the proper benefit of yang energy. Storing things in winter is the consummation of strength. Consummation is quiescence, the resting of yang energy. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching
The six circles and one dewdrops are not just a compendium of the teachings I received from my teacher. These principles, realized while I was in retreat at the temple of the Hatsue Kannon, are an explanation of Kannon's skillful means in benefiting the masses. They are precepts to be observed by all sentient beings. Thus I also named these symbols to Six Circles of Kannon. -- Komparu Zenchiku

Six Jizo Bodhissavas, at the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, Japan

The one dewdrop is the spirit that preserves these six states of mind. -- Konparu Zenchiku (15th c. Noh actor) Six Circles, One Dewdrop
The descent of sweet dew is purity of heart. -- Liu Yiming, Commentary on Understanding Reality
English 日本語

Copyright 2010 - 2021 Walther Sell