Yama Uba     The Zen play          山姥

Daisetz Suzuki said: «Yama-uba is one of the Buddhist plays thoroughly saturated with deep thought, especially of Zen. It was probably written by a Buddhist priest [Ikkyu Sojun*] to propagate the teaching of Zen. It is often misinterpreted, and most Nō-lovers miss the real point of the play. Yama-uba, literally "the old woman of the mountains," represents the principle of love secretly moving in every one of us. Usually we are not conscious of it and are abusing it all the time. Most of us imagine that love is something beautiful to look at, young, delicate, and charming. But in fact she is not, for she works hard, unnoticed by us and yet ungrudgingly; what we notice is the superficial result of her labor, and we think it beautiful which is natural, for the work of love ought to be beautiful. But love herself, like a hard-working peasant woman, looks rather worn out; from worrying about others her face is full of wrinkles, her hair is white. She has so many knotty problems presented for her solution. Her life is a series of pains, which, however, she gladly suffers. She travels from one end of the world to another, knowing no rest, no respite, no interruption. Love in this phase, that is, from the point of view of her untiring labor, is fitly represented as Yama-uba, the old lady of the mountains.

     The story of Yama-uba must have been current among the Japanese from olden days. She was not necessarily a hideous old woman. Although she was represented generally as old, she was a benevolent-hearted character and left blessings in her wake when she came out in the villages. She was considered to be wandering from mountain to mountain and caring for the villagers and mountain folk. The author of the play "Yama-uba" incorporated this idea into his work and made her an unknown and invisible agent behind nature and humanity. We ordinarily like to talk about such an agency in our philosophy, theology, and literature, but we do not go beyond mere talk, we hesitate to come before its actual presence. We are like the painter who used to paint the dragon, but who lost his consciousness, as he was frightened in the extreme, when the dragon itself appeared to him in order to let him paint the mythical creature more faithfully to the reality. We sing Yama-uba, but when she makes her personal appearance and lets us see the inner side of her life, we are at a loss and know not what to do with ourselves. If we want, therefore, to dig deeply into the remotest recesses of our consciousness as Zen would advise, we ought not to shrink from taking hold of actualities with our own hands. »(p.419 - p.420, "Yama-uba," a Nō Play / «Zen and Japanese Culture» by Daisetz T. Suzuki, 1959 Bollingen Foundation, New York, N.Y.)

- Added by Naoto Matsumoto

«Yama Uba» is supposed to be written by Ikkyu Sojun (1394 - 1481). Naoto Matsumoto translated and adapted it into a modern English play.

In the long history of human spiritual development, there are some works so important that we should never ignore them.

In Zen Buddhism in Japan, Dogen's «Shobogenzo» is one of them. So is Ikkyu's «Yama Uba».

Although there is no evidence that Ikkyu definitely wrote the Noh play, the Buddhist researcher of our time, Daisetz Suzuki, thinks he did. (Please read Suzuki’s «Zen and Japanese culture». He dedicates one whole chapter to «Yama Uba». See the bottoms of the page 1 and the page 10 for more info.)

One may wonder what Zen is. To answer the question, Ikkyu wrote this Noh play.

After hundreds of years later, Zen is much widely known, so more people wonder what Zen is.

Now, probably more than ever, the play «Yama Uba» has to be performed in English in order to answer the same old question: "How does Zen work?".

Naoto Matsumoto

Tao by Matsumoto Tao Te Ching Videos

       Go to Before you read Yama Uba the Zen play

To complement Yama Uba, please visit the Tao Te Ching English translation / explanation site.

Ikkyu’s  Yama uba
                     by      Naoto  Matsumoto
Translated & adapted
    Naoto Matsumoto

Photos & text © Naoto Matsumoto / All rights reserved