Douglas Penick


Prince Shotoku 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 stone 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, tea Ceremony, sculpture and architecture, among others.

This piece is one of a series evoking the continuity of Shotoku Taishi’s inspiration in both an
inner and outer way, and deals specifically with his introducing court uniforms (known as ‘Cap

Ranks’) as an integral element of court decorum. 


When he is twenty-three, the Prince-Regent Shotoku Taishi receives Prince Asa,

emissary of the King of Paekche. Prince Asa is in his forty-fifth year and all his life has

been a Buddhist practitioner. The older man asks and is allowed to examine the Regent’s

palms and the soles of his feet. What he sees amazes him. The patterns of folds on hands

and feet show clearly that Shotoku Taishiis an incarnation of compassion itself, Kwan

Yin. He is a divine being.

Prince Asa prophesies that the Prince Regent will manifest in this life as the founder of

spiritual culture in Japan. Prince Asa says that Shtoku Taishi will exist continuously for

centuries in this world. He will manifest in the unceasing flow of poems, dances,

sculptures, buildings, laws, spiritual texts, paintings, histories, garments and forms of

decorum which he inspires. As Prince Asa says this, he sees white rays of light emerge

from Prince's eyebrows and glow in the night air. These white rays to not blaze through

the dark; they do not dazzle or blind. As Prince looks, wherever these clear rays pass

become illuminated and known.

When he returns to Korea, Prince Asa paints a portrait of Shotoku Taishi. It remains a

treasured possession of the King of Paekche. It disappears when the dynasty falls.


Head nods, drops

And there is no predicting.

Every day, several times it may be,

Exhaustion reaches out from nowhere.

And then, you have not chosen which or when or where,

Another realm engulfs you.

One or more of the thousand dormant realms takes you in and places you

In the arms of someone you have never met.

The weather is muggy.

You cannot speak the language you are hearing.

You understand a language you cannot speak.

You are marrying someone you don’t know:

So happy.

Killing someone you do not know.

Running through autumn leaves from someone with a knife.

You are singing a piece you have never heard and do not know.

“Don’t worry,” a stranger says as he hands you a score you cannot read. “ Sing it. No one

will know if it’s wrong.”

You are again in a clothing store where nothing quite fits.

You nod off and worlds seize you.

Tens of thousands and thousands of times in one life,

You live in places you do not know and have never known and may never known.

Passing through in seconds, longer, perhaps you could imagine a whole life there.

But no, you cannot stay.

Moving and moving.

And most you cannot remember, some you cannot describe.

And in some you are a child, some a man, a girl, a baby, very old.

Moving and motionless, joyful, apprehensive,

Uncertain, alert to sudden shifts of terrain

And reading how many worlds and minds have you entered?

Accused of rape

Menaced with rape,

Stealing or the accomplice of a thief.

Or you are taken by a deity who glides and dances,

Knows the secrets of time, sings.

Or you fall asleep and into the dark void.

You cannot remember anything.

But maybe there is something,

And you missed it.

And now that you are back

In the world where you are reading this and may speak of it

And may give me a call or write me,

While my wife is waiting to show me something funny with a cat

And the bed still smells of the two of us

And the dawn turns the mountains scarlet,

This world too.

By what assurance can we be certain?

It disappears in a second

When a dreamer wakes on a landscape elsewhere

And in a time outside our own.


When he is twenty- four years old, the Prince Regent, Shotoku Taishi requests each

noble from every the province in Japan to give his finest horse to the Imperial stables.

Throughout the country, the great lords compete to have a steed they raised find favor

with the court.

Shotoku Taishi surveys the horses as they race past the front gate of the Horyuji temple

where he sits. One in particular catches his eye. It is a large, sleeek stallion with a shiny

black coat and bright white feet which seem to shimmer as it runs. This horse was raised

in the province of Kai on North of Mt. Fuji and the Prince Regent takes it as his own.

Two months later, early in the morning one late spring day, Shotoku Taishi calls for his

driver to harness the new horse to a gilded, light battle chariot. No sooner has the Prince

taken his place in the chariot than the splendid stallion leaps into the air and soars across

the sky. As if they are in a dream, the Prince and his driver flie directly above Mt. Fuji.

Soon they are looking down on Shinano, Kushi, Miyako. They felt like they burst

through the back of the sky. Shotoku Taishi experiences his body expanding, the world

moving inside his chest.

Suddenly, the Prince and his driver and their panting horse are again at the stables. They

are sure that they left only a few minutes earlier, but half a day has passed.

Guards and servants are amazed. They cluster around. The Prince is silent. He nods and

the driver tells about the land, mountains and rivers, the many holy and mound-tombs

they have seen from the air.


From above, patterns of the land emerge, the veins of shiny streams descending through

dark ravines the gray mountains; emerging into the live green of plains, darker where it

stays wet; rice paddies black and bright green, lakes, small gray roadways winding

through the mountains, lost sometimes amid forests; the small dark dust motes of men

and women on the road, boats, like tiny seed pods floating on the streams and lakes.

Dark furry squares of thatched farm house roofs. Brighter green bamboo forests waving

like waves. A pattern : from the mountains are the streams, by the streams there are

pathways, where the water stops, farmland, where roads and waters intersect towns;

where large roads and rivers intersect, provincial capitols, and at the center, palaces


Patterns invisible to those who wander the roads. Palaces, fortresses and temples built be

those who will make a pattern that is new.


Complete discovery

Lost in complete fulfillment:



The unique and momentary totality,

The senses arrayed,

The realm in which you labor to create all kinds of continuation, this realm which you

seem to enter and leave with waking and sleep, whose norms you abandon and accept as

you move in and out of day dreams, this:

The body and its pains: this location to which we return


For a moment, still.

Each moment

Completely itself.

Complete knowing.

Tearing away from any larger fabric. Ripped out by wind. An agony. A tearing. Each

moment in the all sustaining, in the constant act of creation: a moment of separation, the

world absorbing all, momentary life and death.

This plunging into the waves of the sea, absorbed in starlight, consumed on mountain

peaks or on the edge of an eagle's that cuts through the cold air. These sacred valleys

where darkness, pine scent silence tells of loss and sorrow far beyond. These sacred

peaks where winds and light become an assembly and a cause for an assembly and a

belief that there can be wisdom, a wisdom rising like a sun behind a dark horizon visible

from here.

A boulder shaped like a huge pouch in the middle of a forest, left there as if a giantess,

passing as she ran from one world to another, had dropped here a bag of gold.

Here the locations of temples and palaces, marking passages between realms,

interruptions, moments where realms intersected or beings from other realms came here

to find love, to rule. to rest, to die.

The union of the senses creates the world. Here the forms of men and women emerge and

take their place. They are the consciousness of the world constantly emerging from


As in a dream looking down, they sparkle like tiny jewels across the mountains, plains,

sea coasts, lake and river sides of the slowly swirling earth.


Shotoku Taishi looks at the mountains and he knows the names of the gods and

goddesses who display themselves on their summits and flanks, who move through the

forest, who are the trees and rocks and streams. He knows the animals and spirits that

tend them. He knows the stories of the gods and goddesses and spirit, their passions and

hatreds, their sudden violence and languid lusts.

He knows the names and clans of men and women. He knows their longings and

struggles. Their minds and words bend and press to order the world. Their competition is


Here within sight of all of them, he will build this temple, its towers, its walls and gates

and outbuildings. And he is the architect of a myth, a saga older than time. He will shape

the original mind and its journey.


It is the myth of a beginning, end and harmonious resting place.

A place where lotus flowers bloom on still green ponds and the truth of life is revealed.

Entering the temple, a visitor’s heart will open, beyond the limits of skin and flesh.

Entering and leaving through the gates of wisdom, finally mind will uncoil.

On the private grounds of his palace, Ikaruga no Miiya, Shotoku Taishi begins

construction of the Hall of Dreams.


At dusk, Prince Regent, Shotoku Taishi thinks: “ It is for all women and men to express

the perfection of the world.”

That night he dreams of flowers in profusion: plum blossom , peach, pink dogwood,

frothy white cherry blossom, blue iris, orange lilies, pink moss, purple cascades of

wisteria, roses, hydrangea, yellow sunflower, lavender fall’s chrysanthemum proceeding

in their beautiful array, always surprising always

A stream in spate roaring past jagged rocks and broken timber, bubbling and foaming in

the air, filling the world with blossoms, filling the sky with an unsought peace.

The Prince Regent meets with Empress. They create twelve ranks for all who attended

court. Each rank reflects a different virtue; each is marked with a different colored cap

and a different colored robe robe.

First and second in rank are those recognized for Virtue in Greater or Lesser degree; they

will wear purple caps, deep purple robes with gold hair clips.

The next rank, recognized for Benevolence in Greater or Lesser ranks will wear green

caps, light purple robes with gold hair clips with leopard tails,.

Those whose Decorum was acknowledged in Greater or Lesser rank will wear red hats

and deep scarlet robes with gold and silver hair clips with peacock feathers

Those known for Loyalty to Greater or Lesser Loyalty degree, are to wear yellow caps,

scarlet and dark blue robes, silver hair clips.

Those recognized for their Justice in Greater or Lesser ranks will wear white caps, deep

blue robes, silver hair clips.

Courtiers whose Knowledge was honored in Greater or Lesser ranks will dress in black

caps, green robes, copper hair ornaments.


In that same year, the Empress, on the advice of her Regent, establishes the lunar

calendar to mark the passage of time and to predict each season’s length. Led by the

succession of waxing moon and full moon, its waning and hiding, the court will gather

and disperse. Farmers will plant and reap. As paths of gentle moonlight flow and ebb in

darkness, as the moon draws near and disperses the waters of the earth, all the actions of

humankind will unfold.


Three years later, an envoy from Sui Emperor arrives with letter greeting Shotoku Taishi

as Emperor of the Rising Sun.

“The Chinese ruler states he is gratified to hear that the Bodhisattve Ruler of the Eastern

Sea is promoting the path of Buddhadharma. The Emperor of the Chinese people is

pleased that the Emperor of Japan, by virtue of his own uprightness and that of those

around him, attracts wise teachers and is thus fostering culture and establishing a Buddha

Realm in the Eastern Isles.”

Shotoku Taishi responds on behalf of the Empress and addresses the Sui Emperor as

Ruler of the Western Sun.




The Chinese ambassador reports:

“Though she has a Regent of great and extensive powers, the country is ruled by a

woman. The Empress, Suiko has constructed a new palace at Oharida in the center of

Yamato Province. Visitors enter through a great wooden south gate that leads to a broad

court where courtiers assemble for a public audience. We were told that a gate to the rear

leads to the Imperial residence which is surrounded by gardens and ponds. It has been

modeled on what the Japanese have been able to learn of our own way of designing


“Though it is said that the Empress and her court have tried to echo our ancient Rites of

Chou, we had been told to expect barbarians. We were misinformed. We entered a large

courtyard of harmonious proportions. The atmosphere was very still but poised. The air

was filled with high languid melody that unfolded at the threshold of our hearing. There

was the sharp metallic scent of a strange incense.

“The Empress and her Regent were barely visible behind a white silk screen on a raised

dais before us. On either side, the courtiers knelt in a shimmering array of color. When

they moved, they did so slowly and gracefully. Then they sat in perfect stillness like a

rainbow in a mist. How long we sat there ourselves, I do not know. Time, it seemed, had



The Chinese emissaries return to their homeland. With them, the Prince Regent has sent

On no Imoko with a reply to the Chinese Emperor. Their voyage is a difficult one. Winter

storms throw their ships off course and bring them close to dangerous cliffs.

The emissary of the Japanese Prince Regent writes:

“The loneliness of the cold north sea,

Cold wind presses us on.

Waves shattering on the black tower.”

The emissary of the Chinese Emperor writes:

“Silver spray explodes from darkness

Pale rainbows shimmer in moonlight:

Dreams of peonies:

Sudden silence:

Again we near the momentary pivot

For constellations that hide by day

In the delirium of time and space.”




Douglas Penick Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star),and about spiritual searches amid social collapse (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation. Shorter works appeared in Agni, Cahier de L'Herne, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Levekunst, Tricycle, Utne Reader etc. Wakefield Press just published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.

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