An Introduction to the Shoshinge
The Shoshinge was written by Shinran Shonin, as a portion of his much larger work, the Kyogyoshinsho. The Shoshinge appears at the end of the second chapter of the quite voluminous six chapter work, the Kyogyo-shinsho.
The Shoshinge is written in the form of a song or poem, and consists of exactly 120 lines. The Shoshinge is also one of our most fundamental of sutra chants that we recite in Jodo Shinshu. At our mother temple in Kyoto, the Nishi Hongwanji, the Shoshinge is chanted every morning at the 6:00 a.m morning service. When I lived in Japan I used to love going to that service, and I hate to get up early. It is a most beautiful service that I hope some of you can experience someday. Of course it was painful to sit seiza style, but despite the pain, the beautiful sound of ministers and lay people chanting this centuries old chant, is something almost indescribable.
In our meditation service on Sundays at 8:30 a.m., we have been chanting the entire Shoshinge and wasans, or Shinran’s poems. It is amazing how fast people have been picking up the intonations and melody of the Shoshinge. I thoroughly enjoy chanting it on Sundays in our meditation service with the participants in the meditation service.
The Shoshinge has been translated as “The Gatha of True Faith.” While this is not inaccurate, it is also not the best translation because in this country, the word faith has all kinds of connotations. To begin with, the faith described in the Shoshinge is not a blind faith in a divine being like in the Judeo Christian tradition. Entering the path of Buddhism must begin with some kind of “faith” in the sense that we have to have faith in our teachers, masters, and teachings. We begin with a feeling that, “There is something to this Buddhism stuff. I don’t know what it is, but somehow I want to find out more about it.” And so we begin to take our first steps on the path of Buddhism. We begin with “faith”, or “belief”, that there is something of value, meaning, in the teachings, but we don’t know exactly what that is yet.
However, as we learn, study, reflect, and begin to digest the teachings with our own life experiences, what started out as faith begins to turn into something much more. In time, what began as simple faith, is better described as conviction, understanding, or realization.
Eventually we might have very profound insights, profound experiences in the Nembutsu, such that the distinction between ourself as “seeker” and the Dharma as “truth” merge as one. Instead of saying Namuamidabutsu, we become Namuamidabutsu. In-stead of practicing compassion, we find ourselves immersed in it. That is the depth of religious faith that Shinran refers to by using the character for shin, which has been translated as “faith”, but really has much more meaning than what we normally think of by the term.
In the Shoshinge, Shinran expresses his own religious “faith”, but he also expresses his deep conviction, his insight, his realization, his humility, and his profound gratitude, which are all his shinjin, or his true heart and mind.
In the first two lines of the Shoshinge¸ Shinran expresses perhaps the essence of Jodo Shinshu.
KI MYO MU RYO JU NYO RAI
NA MO FU KA SHI GI KO
I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life.
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light.
When we say, “Namuamidabutsu”, we are saying, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.” What is Amida Buddha? Amida Buddha is immeasurable life and inconceivable light. What do we mean by this?
Immeasurable life does not mean to find the fountain of youth, so that one never dies. Throughout history, there are those who have sought after the secret to eternal life. I once read where people in China drank tiny flakes of gold, to try to live longer, thinking that gold is a precious metal that never fades away. Immeasurable life is not talking about living some kind of eternal life. Immeasurable life is pointing to an essence, a truth of life that enables us to transcend, even life and death.
I have quoted before a wonderful poem by Saichi, the Myokonin, that goes as follows:
While others die,
I do not die.
Not dying, I go to Amida’s Pure Land.
We must read this poem by Saichi carefully. Saichi is not boasting that he is strong and healthy and has outlived many of his friends. Saichi is pointing to the truth of Namuamidabutsu he has received in his heart, that enables him to never die in the spiritual sense. Yes, physically his life will come to an end someday, but the truth of Namuamidabutsu is a timeless, eternal truth that he has become one with, body, heart, and mind. In that sense, Saichi will never die. He will always live on in Namuamidabutsu. That is why he says, “Not dying, I go to Amida’s Pure Land.” Usually we think we die and go to the Pure Land. But Saichi says, “Not dying, I go to Amida’s Pure Land.” How wonderful and profound is this simple poem by Saichi.
In the first line of the Shoshinge, Shinran expresses the essence, the truth of life that has touched his heart and mind. This truth of life enables Shinran to transcend the duality of life and death. It enables him to touch the heart of eternity within this one, single life that he has been given.
In the second line of the Shoshinge, Shinran Shonin points to the other aspect of Amida Buddha, the other aspect of Namuamidabutsu, which is light.
NA MO FU KA SHI GI KO.
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light.
What kind of light is inconceivable? The light of the sun, the light of the stars, the light of a laser beam, these are all lights that we can see and easily comprehend or conceive of in our minds. But yet Shinran calls the light of Amida as inconceivable. Why is that?
The light of the sun might be bright and warm, and the light of a laser might be sharp and piercing, but there is one place that the light of the sun or the light of a laser cannot penetrate, or illuminate. That place is the darkness of my own heart and mind.
When Shinran was at the age of 29, he was totally lost and confused. He had practiced and given the life of a monk his all, but to no avail. His heart and mind, the whole world was nothing but darkness to him. But amidst that darkness, he met a wonderful teacher, a wonderful person named Honen, who brought light into his world of darkness. It was this light that Shinran called, “inconceivable.” It was beyond his compre-hension, how his life could be pitch black, in total darkness, and yet this radiant light penetrated into his heart and mind, illuminating his life. It was a joy beyond description.
The essence of Namuamidabutsu can be expressed in these two simple lines of the Shoshinge. May we discover in our own lives, immeasurable life and inconceivable light.
Rev. Marvin Harada
Orange County Buddhist Church
Listen to the Shoshinge and other chants