When Forgiveness Changes the World


“No, Rensei is not my enemy. Pray for me again, oh pray for me again.”–“Atsumori”

sadanobu_3_hasegawa-no_series-kumagai_and_atsumori-00042484-100830-f06Japanese Nō drama is a hard taste to acquire. A play with a ten-page script can go on for hours, as actors invest their barely perceptible gestures with monumental significance. It is an art form whose pleasures lie more in the journey than the destination.

Except for one. This is the story of Atsumori.

The roots of the Nō play Atsumori go back to a particularly poignant passage in the Japanese Epic, Tale of the Heike. In this episode, the warrior Kumagai, whose side has been victorious in a great battle, stumbles across a youthful, retreating soldier from the other side and debates whether or not to kill him. I will quote here at some length because it is important:

“Though he is one of their leaders,” mused Kumagai, “if I slay him it will not turn victory into defeat, and if I spare him, it will not turn defeat into victory. When my son Kojiro was but slightly wounded at Ichi no tani this morning, did it not pain me? How this young man’s father would grieve to hear that he had been killed!  I will spare him.”

Just then, looking behind him, he saw Doi and Kajiwara coming up with fifty horsemen. “Alas! Look there,” he exclaimed, the tears running down his face, “though I would spare your life, the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your rebirth in Paradise.” “Indeed it must be so,” said the young warrior. “Cut off my head at once.”

Kumagai was so overcome by compassion that he could scarcely wield his blade. His eyes swam and he hardly knew what he did. But there was no help for it; weeping bitterly he cut off the boys head. “Alas!” he cried, “what life is so hard as that of a soldier? Only because I was born of a warrior family must I suffer this affliction! How lamentable it is to do such cruel deeds!” He pressed his face to the sleeve of his armor and wept bitterly. [1]

In a crowning agony, Kumagai discovers that the young man, Atsumori, was carrying the flute whose music had calmed his mind only the night before. He resolves to spend the rest of his life praying for the soul of the man that he killed.

In Atsumori, the great thirteenth-century dramatist Zeami Motokiyo gives us the rest of the story. As the play opens, Kumagai has become Rensei, a Buddhist priest who spends every day praying for Atsumori. Because it is a Nō drama, we can be fairly certain that the young man’s ghost will make an appearance. Spectral vengeance was a major plot device of the genre, and of most Japanese literature of the day. Ghosts were always showing up to confront their murderers. It’s just what ghosts did.

Until the final scene, Atsumori’s ghost follows the typical pattern. In the first act he appears as a human gardener, and, in the second, he reveals himself to be a ghost and proceeds to torment his murderer. In the last scene of the play, he advances on Kumagai with a sword drawn, intending to kill him. But then he has a change of heart:

“There is my enemy,” he cries, and would strike,
But the other is grown gentle
And calling on Buddha’s name
Has obtained salvation for his foe;
So that they shall be re-born together
On one lotus-seat.
“No, Rensei is not my enemy.
Pray for me again, oh pray for me again.”

It would be difficult to overstate the revolutionary nature of this scene. It changes the world of the play by displacing one convention (the ghost exacting revenge on his murderer) with another (the ghost asking the monk for prayers)—because the murderer and the monk are one in the same. The acts of the two main characters—one who seeks forgiveness with all of his heart and one who grants it without conditions—overturn all of the expectations created by the literary world that they inhabit. Forgiveness changes the world.

We have at least one story in our standard works that acts in much the same way—especially when it is placed in contrast to the world that produced it: the story of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his faithless brothers (Genesis 37; 39-45). This is a story that anyone in an ancient culture would recognize as a traditional revenge drama: Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, but he goes on to become a very powerful man who is placed in a position to avenge the wrongs that have been done to him. But instead of splattering the royal treasury with blood—the way that any self-respecting Greek hero would have done—he forgives them. Once again, the world changes.

The main point of both of these stories, as I read them, is that forgiving someone who has done one a great wrong is unnatural. It defies expectations because it defies human nature. Over millions of years, both nature and culture have endowed us with a strict sense of justice where our own interests are concerned. We want the people who have hurt us to suffer, and, the vast majority of the time, our poets gratify our passions. The suitors all die by the hands of Odysseus and Telemachus, Gaston plummets to his death while trying to kill the Beast, Voldemort sort of blows up. The bad guys always get their comeuppance.

Except when they don’t. In the the occasional work of literature like Atsumori, or the story of Joseph, we get a sense of what a rare and wonderful thing true forgiveness can be, both in the seeking and in the granting. When it happens in literature, it frustrates our expectations and forces us to re-examine our tastes–and if we are lucky it makes us better people. When it happens in real life, I suspect, it has the potential to change the world.


[1] Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese Literature, from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), p, 180.

[2] Ibid., p. 293.


  1. I didn’t know this story, but I love it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a great story; thanks for sharing. And it goes well with McCullough’s translation of the Heike Monogatari –
    The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

  3. Great post. I didn’t know the story either. I’m glad I know it now.

  4. Fantastic post. And it highlights the value of studying other cultures and religions, for they too have their share of the light.

  5. My comment is about the overall message of forgiveness. We need this so much. We need the tools to know how to do it effectively. I am reading The Book of Forgiving by Bishop Desmond Tutu. It is a beautiful guide to the type of forgiveness this post addresses. We need to keep this conversation going long beyond this post if we wish to become adults with God.

  6. This is what BCC does so well. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for sharing this play, it’s great. Thus dovetails with Jonah’s lesson after the Assyrians convert – he wants to see some punishment, but the people of Nineveh do a complete 180°, repenting with an astounding change of heart. Then Jonah’s heart has to change and he has to forgive. Atsumori has a legitimate claim on his murderer’s life, but acknowledges Kumagai’s change of heart withnone of his own. Beautiful.