Douglas Penick

Prince Shōtoku Taishi (572-622) was the legendary hero who, at the beginning of literacy in Japan, made Buddhism and Confucian governmental principals two of the foundation stones of Japanese culture. He wrote the earliest commentaries on Buddhist Sutras and commissioned the first histories in Japanese. He is also credited with beginning the traditions of Noh theater, archery, the Tea Ceremony, sculpture and architecture, among others.

This piece is one of a series evoking the continuity of Shōtoku Taishi’s inspiration in both an inner and outer way, and deals specifically with a story that became a founding myth and with Shōtoku Taishi’s commissioning the first written history of Japan.

A new realm in each instant opens and its stories unfold. In every instant, in every flicker, in each passing perception, feeling, memory, desire, idea, spasm, prayer. Name and narrative. Here is the all-creating magic of unsought occurrence, unimagined consequence. Shōtoku Taishi, Prince and Regent, is a moment ever discovered, ever renewed.

At dawn, the courtiers assemble by the pond at Fujihara. On this day, all wear robes and hats in the colors that the Prince Regent established as suitable to their rank. These are the colors of dawn. The courtiers stand in a long line on the bank of the lake. Their colors — gold, yellow, red, lilac, silver purple, turquoise — reflect in the still water. On the surface of the lake the court and sunrise merge.

At a spring banquet, Empress Suiko proclaims:

“The ancestors ruled, walking softly on the earth, bending low beneath the sky. They joined Heaven and Earth. The powers of nature spoke in them. They built temples to the mountains and rivers. Male and female joined together in harmony. The joy of civilization extended in a hundred directions.”

Lord Soga is deeply moved. He sings to the Empress:
“I look up at the serene expanse.
From behind the veil of clouds,

She rules
From behind the veil of clouds.

There is a harmonious perfume

May this never end.

I bow at her feet.
My sons bow down.

We forever serve her
I bow to the sky and clouds and earth.

She extends her hand.
I follow.”
The Empress responds:
“This good lord has many sons.

If they were horses,
They would be celestial steeds.
That cannot tire.

If they were swords,
They would be the diamond blades
That cut through everything.

When such men serve,
No error is possible.”

Walking in a long hall. Out of the corner of my eye, a shadow crosses suddenly behind me. I must hurry.

Searching, searching, searching / aimlessly searching / unceasing searcher/
Momentary artifacts :
Conclusions / Written words.

Suddenly a huge bureau drawer pulls open. Suddenly my field of vision is filled with an array of worn brass and ormolu hardware. Antique lock-plates with keyholes in a very yellow gilt and brass, abraded to gray in their surface. I am spellbound.

There is a faint smell of perfume as if a woman had passed through the door just before me.

Shōtoku Taishi rides north through the glare of snow covered mountains. On the pass to Kataoka, a starving man lurches onto the road and falls.

The Prince stops and dismounts. He looks into the man’s eyes.

He asks the man his name. There is no reply.

Shōtoku Taishi gives the stranger rice to eat and water to drink. He removes his outer robe and wraps it around the shivering man. He asks the stranger:

“Were you raised without parents?
Or do you, like wild bamboo, grow without a lord?”

The traveler is silent

The Prince says: “Rest here in peace.” He sings:
“Even in the sunshine,
You are orphaned.

“Oh a world of sorrow
Waits for the wayfarer
Starving on Kataoka’s mountain pass.

Growing like a weed,
You have no family.

The wayfarer is starving
On Kataoka’s mountain pass.
In a world of sorrow.”
The starving man whispers:

“Even if the deep streams of Irakuga run dry
Your name, great lord
Will never be forgotten.”

Shōtoku Taishi remounts and travels on.

When the Prince arrives at his destination, he sends a messenger to see if the traveler is well.

A day later, the messenger returns. He tells the Prince:

"The man you fed and clothed has died."

Shōtoku Taishi is distressed. He sends servants to bury the stranger in a tomb beside the road.

Several days later, Shōtoku Taishi tells his attendants:

"Suddenly I am sure that the traveler I tried to help was not an ordinary man. I believe he was a holy person." He dispatches messengers to inspect the grave.

The messengers return; they say:

“The grave was not disturbed. It was still sealed. But when we opened it and looked inside, the body was gone. There was the smell of peonies. Only your robe remained. It was folded on the coffin lid."

Shōtoku Taishi sends a servant to retrieve the robe. Afterward he often wears it. The people tell this story, and it spreads far and wide. They say: “Truly this was a strange event. Only a holy person recognizes another holy person. We are fortunate to live in a world where such beings come and go amongst us"

Eji, Shōtoku Taishi’s teacher returns to Korea. Before he sets sail, he tells the Prince: “Your realization and your understanding now exceed mine.”

Lord Soga falls ill. 1,000 people take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha so that he may recover swiftly. His health is soon restored

Next Spring, peach and plum trees blossom in profusion and bear fruit in great excess.

A year later, a gourd the size of huge vase is sent to the court from Idzumo Province.

Early one afternoon, as they wait in the shadows of the throne room, Shōtoku Taishi says to Empress Suiko:

“Some say that stories have a power not unlike magic. They resemble dreams. They are born in absence, loss, incompleteness. They arise to make realities out of our desire for what we do not have before us, for what we have lost. What do you think?”

At this moment a minister enters the room. The conversation lapses.

The Empress is informed that the King of Koryū has sent a camel, two Chinese slaves with flutes and two others adept in the use of crossbows and catapults. All were captured when the Chinese Emperor staged an invasion of Koryū. They are now gifts to the Ruler of Japan.

A courier reports to the Empress on Kahabe no Omi’s mission to cut timber to build ships in Aki Province. Kahabe had been warned that one particular tree was sacred to the Thunder God. “The God of Thunder is not exempt from the Empress’ command.” Kahabe laughed, and cut down the tree. Roars of thunder shook the sky, and rain poured down. Kahabe drew his sword and shouted: "If this god has the power, let him kill me and me alone. The others are acting on my orders." The rain stopped.

The Thunder God turned into a fish that fell from the sky into a stream. It became entangled in the roots of a tree. Kahabe killed it, roasted it and served it to his officers.

Officials report to the Empress that, in the Gamafu River, they have seen a fish the size and form of a man

The Empress receives a report that two men were left abandoned on the Island of Izu.

The Empress tells Shōtoku Taishi she fears that one day the names of the ancestors, names of the rulers, names of the teachers will be forgotten. Then, she says, the gods of earth, sea, sky and time will vanish. People will treat the earth without respect. The world will lose its luster. She dreams that men, women and children will live a life of unremitting labor. She has seen them living out their lives like ants.

Prince Regent Shōtoku Taishi and Lord Soga order a written record be made of the world from its beginnings.

This book, the Nihon Shoki is a gateway made of words. It delivers the forebears of the human race from the shadow lands of death. The ancestors, forebears, and protectors return to the heart of the living. Through this book, this portal, the lineages of gods and ancestors leave the past and re-enter the world. Their names restore the sky and sea, mountains, plains, forests and streams. Their names give life. Their stories restore confidence.

Shōtoku Taishi and Lord Soga act in Empress Suiko’s name. They commission Shima no Oho-omi to supervise scribes in assembling stories from every province and to compile them in a single volume.

This text, the Nihon Shoki is completed shortly after the Prince Shōtoku Taishi’s death. Anyone who opens it and begins to read, will experience, as if for the first time, the creation of the world.

I lay down on the bed. Someone has left a torn paperback between the mattress and the wall. It has no cover. I am grateful to have something to read. It will help me sleep. I lay beside the wall. As I read, I enter somewhere another realm. I fall into the in-between.

Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale,Santa Fe Opera), video scripts (with Leonard Cohen as narrator), novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), on spiritual searchers (Dreamers and Their Shadows), and three books from the Gesar of Ling epic (Witter Bynner Foundation grant). Shorter works have appeared in Agni, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Tricycle, etc. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.
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