Oppenheimer is a modern Noh play in English about the American scientist, J Robert Oppenheimer, and the development of the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. It explores issues of guilt, atonement and redemption, but within a Buddhist rather than a Judeo-Christian framework. Here tensions between insight and responsibility/karma are explored through the Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox and themes of liberation/redemption are framed by the actions of the fearsome Buddhist Wisdom King , Fudo Myô-ô and the wheel of samsara (endless birth and death).
Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh , where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen Noh play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox (Mumonkan, Case 2), the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudo Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudo gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.