Zeami’s Reply to Plato
Mastering the Art of Sarugaku
Mae Smethurst’s work has largely aimed to articulate nō theater in Western terms from their early roots, primarily through Aristotle’s On Tragedy. Her detailed examination of the shared structure of the content of these independent and superficially dissimilar arts reveals their mutual intelligibility and effectiveness through shared underlying universals. In this spirit, I outline how Zeami answers Plato’s first challenge to artistic performance, as expressed in Ion where Plato argues that rhapsody is not an art [techné] because it requires no mastery. (Rhapsodes are instead vehicles of the divine.) This challenge to poetic performing arts, that is, to their claim to be arts at all, determines criteria by which we may judge any putative art, including sarugaku and its elevation to nōgaku. Though Zeami was unaware of Plato’s challenge, he nevertheless answers it in a way that brings Plato’s own assumptions and conceptual framework into relief. In this article I outline the first step of Zeami’s reply to Plato, how nō satisfies the criteria for mastery of a subject, with some help from zen master Dōgen. The focus of this article is twofold: 1) an examination of the ways Plato’s conception of a masterable subject entails metaphysical and epistemic tenets that may be revised or rejected in Buddhist tradition, and 2) a study of the means thsrough which the sense of mindlessness that allegedly precludes rhapsody (and kamigakari) from qualifying as art (techné/michi) contrasts with the mushin and isshin of nō (and zazen).