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Do You Noh?

David Cowles

Dec 1, 2023

“In the eternal present, not only is every historical event preserved in real time, but every possible event is preserved as well.“

You do not dip twice in the river,

Beneath the same tree’s shadow,

Without bonds in some other life. 

Heraclitus? Nope! It’s Tsure’s speech opening the 2nd Act of Nishikigi, a Japanese play of the Noh genre. Noh originated in Japan in the 15th century CE, evolving out of 6 centuries of religious ritual. Like Greek drama, Noh combines a chorus with a very small number (1, 2, or 3) of individual roles. Costumes (including masks), music and dance play just as important a role as libretto in moving the action forward in these relatively short dramas.

We have the poet Ezra Pound to thank for the popularity of Noh in contemporary Anglophone cultures. His translations of Noh dramas and his frequent references to Noh plays in his Cantos have brought this great art form to the attention of thousands of students of English language literature. And no wonder!

There are approximately 300 Noh plays extant today and virtually all of them involve dialog between the world of the “living” and the world of the “spirits”. As the ‘Poet of the Eschaton’, Pound could hardly fail to recognize the importance of this art form.

The past happens only in our memories, the future only in our dreams. The present alone is what’s real but according to the ‘standard model’, Present is merely the intersection (collision?) of Past and Future. It is an infinitesimal point. 

In that case, Present has no volume; what’s ‘present’ has no duration. ”What’s happening” is precisely nothing! Zeno wins…again. (Ultimately, Zeno’s famously misunderstood paradoxes all boil down to a single conclusion: motion of any kind is prohibited by the rules of arithmetic. Motion can only be accounted for using a non-physical ‘trick’ called the calculus.)

We think we’re so clever. We say that “change is the only constant,” and we charge seminar goers $100 a plate to hear such wisdom. (Hmm, perhaps we are clever after all.) But such ‘wisdom’ is nonsense. Change can only be measured against permanence. Phenomenal flux can only occur in the context of noumenal stability…but of course, permanence and change may be relative, at least to a point. 

Nishikigi seems to contrast the flow of the river with the permanence of the tree…but does it? Actually, it contrasts the flow of the river with the shadow of the tree – and a shadow can be at least as ephemeral as a river. Should we read Nishikigi as contrasting the permanence of the river with impermanence of a shadow? In fact, Nishikigi explicitly contrasts the flow of the river, not with the tree or its shadow, but with the permanence of ‘bonds in some other life’. 

The tree is not permanent (much less its shadow); it just flows more slowly than water…but less slowly than glass (assuming you consider glass a liquid). According to Heraclitus, everything flows (including glass, I suppose). But everything flows relative to something that doesn’t flow or that flows at a slower rate. If everything flowed at exactly the same rate, (e.g., c – the speed of light), we would say that nothing flows, that everything is stationary…and permanent. Zeno! 

But now we find ourselves on the slippery slope of an infinite regression. Like the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, we are missing an Uncaused Cause, an Unmoved Mover, a fixed point, a stationary center, a fulcrum. Nishikigi doesn’t give us that, at least not directly; instead it gives us “bonds in some other life”.

In Nishikigi, an old priest on pilgrimage encounters (was he looking for Pokémon?) the spirits of two ‘lovers’ long since dead. Actually, these ‘lovers’ never even met on the plane of the living, but Nishikigi courted Tsure for three long years with messages (‘wands’) professing his devotion and desire. Now the old priest encounters their spirits, and they persuade him to remain with them and perform a ritual.

In Noh (and everywhere else?), religious rituals are portals that connect two planes of existence. In Nishikigi, performing the ritual enables the priest to view (and alter?) the historical lives of our heroes. 

Tsure’s verse (above) is the key to understanding the ontology at work here. Both space and time are ever changing (ergo, flow) but no coincidence of the two can ever be repeated (uniqueness = permanence). Many things can happen at one place and many things can happen at one time, but only one thing can happen at a particular place and time.

It is the ultimate form of cosmic censorship: it explains why ‘time travel’, at least as popularly understood, is impossible. That is the function of spacetime. If it didn’t exist (and it may not), we would have had to invent it (and so we did). 

Tsure seems to contrast the evident impermanence of the flowing river with the relative permanence of the tree overlooking its bank. But it is not just the ever flowing river that varies continuously with time; it is the tree as well. The tree is not really the same tree any more than the river is really the same river. Ultimately, it is the unique juxtaposition of the river and the tree that flows, i.e., that never repeats.

The relationship between the river and the tree performs the same function on the classical scale as ‘measurement’ (decoherence) at the quantum level. It converts a spectrum of probabilities into a unique actuality. 

The ever-changing spacetime that characterizes the world of the living doubles as eternity in the world of the spirit. This view is close to that of Parmenides Hot Link, a contemporary of Heraclitus, who contrasted an ever-changing world of appearance (doxa) with a never-changing world of truth (aletheia).

But the spirit world is not merely an historical memory bank, a bulwark against ever perishing spacetime. It does not just store events from the world of the living in an eternal present (marvelous as that is!). Nishikigi‘s spirit world also stores events that might have happened…but never did. (Bobby Kennedy, “I dream of things that never were and ask why not!”

Here Noh’s ontology soars above that even of the great Parmenides; it anticipates by half a millennium, the “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (Hugh Everett – 1966). According to Quantum Field Theory (QFT), when “two roads diverge in a wood”, the quantum traveler (unlike Robert Frost?) takes both roads simultaneously. (Richard Feynman) 

IRL, our awareness is limited to one path (usually the one ‘more travelled’ in accordance with the laws of probability), but in the laboratory it is possible to show that both paths are actually traversed simultaneously. The ‘omega point’ of any event is the weighted sum of all the paths that lead to it (Sum over Histories).

So it is in Nishikigi. Taking one road, our lovers never meet. But take another road “…and the meeting comes now/This night has happened over and over/And only now comes the tryst.” The ‘bonds in some other life’ enable our heroes to consummate at last their long frustrated relationship.

The multiple worlds of Noh not only function to preserve a permanent historical memory of events that happened in ‘ordinary time’, but they also provide a venue for ‘alternate outcomes’ to be realized; these alternates are just as real and just as much a part of the historical record. 

The Feynman-Noh paradigm converts a measure of likelihood (probability) into a measure of intensity. Everything happens, but some things ‘happen more’ than others – i.e., more intensely, not more frequently. The world craves intensity. 

If we imagine the historical world as a time-line, then the world of Noh is a ‘time-plane’. One axis plots the apparent historical record of continuous experience; the other axis plots every other possible history. In the eternal present, not only is every historical event preserved in real time, but every possible event is preserved as well.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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