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Zeami’s The Deserted Crone, a traditional example of Japanese theater, may initially appear irrelevant to the beliefs and concepts of the Buddhist religion. However, by paying close attention to the symbolism and archetypes woven into the simplistic plot, the Buddhist ideas about material possessions, fears, and desires can be recognized as a true underlying theme throughout the entire play. Zeami uses archetypes such as the old woman’s ghost, a laurel tree, and a mountain to represent one of the most important of the Buddha’s teachings: all feelings of pain, suffering, and agony experienced in a person’s lifetime are caused solely by that person’s desire for secular things; all desires, by fear of losing those things.

Traditionally, the shite, or protagonist, of a No play, was used to represent a specific, intense emotion. The shite in The Deserted Crone is the ghost of an old woman who feels shame, loneliness, and despair upon being abandoned atop a mountain by her beloved nephew; in this case, the old woman’s attributed emotion would be that of loneliness or grief. The Noble Truths--guidelines and concepts created and taught by the Buddha--reveal that the Buddhist concept of the ideal life is one lived without the restraints of desire and fear. The purpose of portraying these emotions through the archetype of the ghost is to demonstrate that the woman grew so psychologically attached to her nephew and feared being separated from him so much that “her heart’s attachment to this world turned her to stone”. Through the archetype of the lonely, haunted ghost, Zeami illustrates the consequences of developing desires for material objects or other people.

Another of the Noble Truths of Buddhism is the belief that all existence or life on earth is suffering. In this play, the archetype of the tree can be thought of as a symbol of life in general. Each time the image of the tree is mentioned in the dialogue between the characters, it is directly associated with something that has a negative nature. For instance, the Villager tells the Traveler that the old woman died and was turned to stone beneath a laurel tree on top of the mountain; later, the ghost of the woman herself tells the Traveler that “[her remains] are (here) in the shadow of the little laurel tree”. Here, images of death and sadness are closely attached to the tree, or life.

Buddhists also believe that everything one does in one’s life--every action, every word, every thought--should be helping one to achieve the ultimate goal of nirvana. Consequently, anything that does not contribute to this purpose, and likewise anything that works against it, is considered sinful. The journey toward nirvana is represented by the ascension of the mountain, an act that nearly every character in the play takes part in. The old woman’s sinful behaviors--namely, her fear of losing her nephew--distract her during her journey up the mountain, causing her death. This represents the degree of severity that Buddhists placed on attaining nirvana rather than becoming preoccupied with earthly things.

Because the old woman feared the loss of her nephew, because of the “dark confusion of [her] heart’s attachment”, and because she failed to focus entirely on achieving nirvana, she was left to die atop the mountain and her lonely, anguished spirit was doomed to remain there forever. A mountain, a ghost, a tree--these are examples of archetypes utilized in The Deserted Crone to reveal the belief that material things serve merely as distractions from one’s true purpose in life, which is attaining the state of nirvana.

[© Shameli]