So, my training (or re-training) as a minister’s assistant (the first step to ordination in Jodo Shinshu) is progressing nicely. I’ve started to relearn the liturgy and chanting I did before. It feels really great to do it again, like seeing an old college buddy you used to live with. The main liturgy you see in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist services are:
- the Juseige, which is a small excerpt of the Immeasurable Life Sutra (無量寿経). You can learn more about it here. It’s short, easy to learn and often used in Jodo Shinshu and Jodo Shu services.
- the Sanbutsuge, another excerpt of the same sutra, chanted less often. Sometimes called the Tanbutsuge.
- the Shoshinge
The Manitoba Buddhist Church has a great page explaining these chants, with MP3 files you can listen to.
The Shōshinge (正信偈), or “Hymn of the True Faith”, is the hardest one to learn, by far. It is a long hymn composed by Shinran the founder, later propagated by Rennyo the Restorer, which explains the lineage of Jodo Shinshu starting with Indian Buddhist master, then Chinese and finally Honen who was Shinran’s teacher and mentor. The hymn takes on average 20-25 minutes to recite, and if you want ordination, you have to memorize it. I need to memorize it within the next 2-3 years. It’s not difficult to sing, which is good because I’m tone-deaf, but it is long. It’s also uniquely Jodo Shinshu-Buddhist, so you’ll never see it any other Buddhist service. At the Honganji Temples in Japan, they used to recite this every morning at 6am, but it is now only recited on special holidays due to length.
You can watch/listen to the full hymn below, or click here:
It starts out low and droning, but halfway through it starts to pick up and sound more intense. There’s actually two parts to the Shoshinge: the actual hymn, and then the Shoshinge Wasan (正信偈和讃). These “wasan” are smaller hymns that Shinran wrote in regular Japanese (not classical Chinese like the Shoshinge), and actually sound very nice. Very melodic.
Further, there are two styles to the Shoshinge:
The main difference is just intonation. They have similar rhythm, but intonation varies I think. The video above shows the Sofu-style, which is the one I usually see in Buddhist services. Below is the Gyofu-style:
The Gyofu style seems more “flat” at first, but after about 11:00 or so, it becomes more melodic than the Sofu-style. This one seems a bit harder to recite though without sufficient practice.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the Shoshinge. Since it’s not a true Buddhist sutra (not taught by the Buddha, or even part of the regular Mahayana “canon”), I have always felt uneasy about chanting it instead of something like Amitabha Sutra. Chanting sutras in Mahayana Buddhism is a very common and virtuous practice. That’s why so many people throughout Asia and the West do it. But usually this doesn’t include hymns (as far as I know).
Further the length of the hymn is kind of intimidating. Even with a book to help, it can be somewhat tiring. When we do chant it at the local temple, you can feel people get exhausted toward the end, so we don’t recite it very often. The Juseige is more suitable, usually.1
On the other hand, the Shoshinge actually sounds kind of nice. It’s a great hymn to recite as a group,2 especially during the last part when each person recites a single Wasan themselves. It’s intended to provide a summary of Shinran’s thought and teachings. Jodo Shu does something similar with the One-Sheet Document, or Nichiren Buddhists with the Gosho (letters of Nichiren). I vaguely recall that Zen Buddhists will also recite small writings of their teachers on special occasions, but I might be wrong. It’s natural for Buddhists to recite their founder’s writings in a liturgical context.
So, really, the only issue with the Shoshinge is the length. :p
In the past, I tried to memorize it by brute-force: just keep memorizing section after section. This worked in the short-term but I would soon forget. Plus it was very time-consuming.
I had the same problem when I first learned Japanese, especially Kanji. I would try to memorize things, and I would soon forget them. However, when I started reading Japanese comics and books, I learned kanji more naturally, and could remember them more easily.
So, I started thinking that if I am going to learn the Shoshinge, instead of memorizing it, I should just keep practicing it until I just remember it. It’s hard to do it every day though, but I think if I get into a routine of doing some kind of morning chant or something, I can eventually do this.
Further, I’m borrowing my wife’s Jodo Shinshu service book, which is in Japanese:
The chants are the same as the American-version, plus, I can read the Japanese just fine. The challenge is the intonation marks. See the lines on the left-side of each Chinese character? Those give you clues to intonation, but they are different than the American service books. So, it will help if I listen to videos like the one above. Then I can follow along and understand.
Anyhow, it’s a fun challenge. Chanting has always been one of my favorite aspects of Buddhism,3 and I am eager to start practice. :)
1 Years ago, I thought it strange to recite the Juseige week after week, until I realized it was very common in Buddhist sects to only recite “essential” sections of an important sutra. I see it in Nichiren Buddhism, Jodo Shu Buddhism, and Zen will recite only the Heart Sutra which is just an “essential” form of the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Once I started to get more exposure to other Buddhist groups, I started to see the similarities and it didn’t feel so strange anymore.
2 We used to have Shoshinge “classes” as the local temple. They were actually pretty fun. It’s a nice way to bring Buddhists and friends together in a wholesome environment: chant something nice as a group.
3 You can do it as a group or alone. It’s a good way to learn Buddhist teachings by heart. It cultivates good merit. It honors the Buddha, etc.