The Dance of the Sennin

In China and Japan there is a tradition that certain spiritually enlightened sages live in the mountains, enjoying unbroken freedom and delight. They do not encourage disciples or give formal instruction, but their mere existence purifies the soul of the world.

There is a traditional dance sometimes performed on the Kabuki stage in Japan, which expresses something of the inner life of two famous Sennin or mountain sages. The accompanying song was written by a Buddhist priest.

Kanzan and his friend Jittoku were spiritual ‘lunatics’ who lived in China in the Tang dynasty well over a thousand years ago; the former was a well-known poet, and some of his poems still survive. In many paintings he is shown with a scroll. Jittoku (the name means ‘foundling’) was found abandoned at the gate of a monastery. He lived on scraps of food, and used to carry a broom with which he swept the gardens of the monastery.

The curtain goes up on the two Sennin, posed as in one of the famous pictures of them. The backcloth is copied from a landscape by Sesshu; does it mean that in the eye of the Sennin the whole of nature is an artistic masterpiece?

Kanzan, an elderly austere figure, is holding an unrolled scroll before him; it is his latest poem. Jittoku, much younger, leans on his broom, smiling secretly to himself. Slowly they begin to move; the steps are not the classical steps of any dance. As Jittoku slowly whirls his long sleeves in circles in the air, looking at them fascinated, it has the artless charm and grace of a very young child fully concentrated on waving a rag. His black hair falls down over his shoulders without any restriction, his absorbed face has no lines of anxiety or effort, his posture shows unconscious serenity and ease.

Kanzan has rolled up the scroll and stands abstracted, looking into infinity. The other seems struck by the dignity of the pose, and joining his hands in prayer walks round him in the traditional Eastern ceremonial manner. Completing the circle, he kneels before him with great reverence, his upturned face showing the perfect trust of the devotee, the perfect confidence of an infant in his parent. Kanzan slowly brings his gaze downward, and realizing what the other wants, kneels beside him and unrolls the scroll. Together they are reading the poem; the scroll is held before them and we cannot see the writing, but we do see their eyes travelling down the first line and on to the next.

There is some phrase here of genius; they stop reading to exchange a significant glance, slowly nodding their heads as if to say: ‘A perfect expression!’ They go back to their reading, and in mounting excitement rise together, still holding the scroll in front of them. As they turn away we see that it is perfectly blank. Kanzan rolls the scroll again; Jittoku smiles to himself as he picks up his broom

The dance continues—the words of the song become wilder. Jittoku fetches the wine-gourd, but he has let the stopper fall and is holding it upside down. No wine—but, never mind, he fills it from the mountain stream and they savour it together. Cause and effect have ceased to operate in these high regions: gradually they become tipsy—Kanzan can hardly stand and the other has to support him. They would lapse into unconsciousness but a bird calls sweetly and distracts their attention from the drinking bout.

They resume the original pose, Kanzan with the scroll and Jittoku the broom. On Kanzan’s austere features we see the beginnings of a smile, and now Jittoku looks full at us and begins to laugh silently. Is he laughing at us, or with us?

The curtain comes across with a rush and we are left lost in our thoughts.