Learning the Shoshinge

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:

  • Gyōfu (行譜)
  • Sōfu (草譜)

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:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn 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.

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Autumn in Korea

Hi Everyone,

We have friends who recently Korea right now to celebrate the 1st birthday of their son, who was born 8 days after our son. :) The first birthday in Korea, or doljanchi (돌잔치) is a huge event with family all gathering, elaborate feasts, etc. There are good write-ups here and here about birthday traditions in Korea.

Anyhow, the father, who is Indonesian not Korean, is a great photographer and has been taking good photos of Korea in the fall. I wanted to share some of his best photos from his Twitter feed.

This is a photo of persimmons in Seoul:

These photos were taken at a famous mountain called Seorak-san (설악산, 雪嶽山):

And these photos were taken at a famous Buddhist temple in Korean named Sinheungsa (신흥사, 新興寺) which is one of the head temples (大本山) in Korean Buddhism.

Great photos, Budi!

P.S. Congrats on your son’s first birthday! :)

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Sick

Hi Everyone,

I haven’t written in a few days. I got sick with a cold this weekend (my birthday weekend) and have been resting and recovering since. I feel a lot like this old Strong Bad Email cartoon:

Anyhow, I’ll be back soon. I’m starting to feel better, but need to get some more sleep.

Talk to you soon!

P.S. Apparently I’ve been sick before. ;-p

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Tales of Failed Zen Student

Well, my brief experimentation with Soto Zen is officially over. I started attending an online Soto Zen community about 4-5 weeks ago and took part in the yearly Ango (安居) vows.1 As I said before, it is a good community. I followed the Ango vows under a senior student, and learned a lot about Zazen meditation.

However, I came to realize after a while that it was difficult to sustain as a working-parent. I kept missing the weekly online services because the time conflicted with work. On the weekends, I was busy with children all day and by evening, I was too tired to do anything. After a couple weeks, my Ango vows started to slip more and more until I stopped altogether.

Now, someone might say that if I was really devoted to it, I would find the time. I would make time somehow. I realized that this was true. I was genuinely busy, but also I was making excuses. I really could’ve found a way to keep up Zen practice. But I didn’t.

Later, I thought about why I wasn’t motivated. I was curious about Zen before I started, but after doing it for 4 weeks I realized I wasn’t interested in Zen “culture”: the so-called “teaching outside the tradition”, the mystical, cryptic teachings, and the narrow focus on meditation. A lot of people are attracted to Zen culture but I just didn’t like it.

I got annoyed toward the end and decided that rather than forcing myself to continue, and hope it gets better, it would be better to stop right there. So after a short goodbye message (in which I expressed my frustrations), I left the community and gave up on Soto Zen. I probably shouldn’t have said anything and quietly left but I felt it was important to say some things.

To be honest, I think if I stayed with a Rinzai community long enough, I probably would get annoyed too. The temple in Seattle annoyed me in some ways too. I guess Zen really is not for me.

But as I said, it is a good community and if you like Zen and want to learn more, I definitely recommend it. I learned a lot. I also realized that I would be happier following a different path, but at least I gave it a sincere try and I met some cool people.

As for me, I guess I like being a Pure Land Buddhist who dabbles in meditation more than a Zen Buddhist who dabbles in Pure Land stuff.

But as I look back, I’m starting to think I don’t want to be ordained in any tradition. Sure, I like teaching things a lot, but ordination requires me to follow a certain doctrinal line and I am not comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable doing it in the Zen tradition, and I’m not comfortable doing it in the Jodo Shinshu tradition either. I’m happy to help at the local temple because my family goes there but I am not sure I want to be ordained after all. I like being who I am, making the best effort I can as a layperson. Time will tell. I still have lots of time to decide.

Anyhow, just some thoughts for today.

1 Ango is the Japanese-Buddhist equivalent to the yearly “rains retreat” still observed in Theravada Buddhist countries.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Zen | 9 Comments

The Quiet Life

Hi all,

Lately, I’ve been re-reading the 13th century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness or tsuredzuregusa (徒然草). There is a lot of silly or idle talk in the book, but there are also things I like in there. I found this passage today:

124) The priest Zehō [poet and contemporary of the author] ranks second to none as a scholar of the Pure Land Sect, but instead of making a show of his learning, he recites the nembutsu day and night, a quiet way of life I find most admirable.

It reminds me of something Benchō (弁長, 1162–1238) said generations earlier:

People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.

This is the ideal life for me too. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Literature | 2 Comments

Honoring the Buddha

From chapter 5 of the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN16 of the Pali Canon):

Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, & sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky… Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage.

The Maha-Parinibbana Sutta is thought to be the last teaching of the Buddha before he died. Here, he’s telling followers that if they really want to worship and honor the Buddha, they should practice what he taught.

I don’t think it matters how much. It matters if one keeps trying. :)

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Lafcadio Hearn’s “Of A Mirror And A Bell”

This is the last story in our Halloween week here at the ol’ blog from Lafcadio Hearn’s famous book Kwaidan, which contains weird, old tales from 19th century Japanese culture. Some of these stories are well-known today, and I see them in my daughter’s books sometimes (e.g. “Yuki Onna”). Others are more obscure.

This is a great tale that I read for the first time this week and wanted to share. Thanks to Project Gutenberg for providing the book for free. The tale is called “Of A Mirror And A Bell” or kagami to kane (鏡と鐘) in Japanese. I added a couple links to Wikipedia in this, but all the [ ] notes are from Hearn himself. I left them intact.

Eight centuries ago, the priests of Mugenyama, in the province of Totomi, wanted a big bell for their temple; and they asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.

[Even to-day, in the courts of certain Japanese temples, you may see heaps of old bronze mirrors contributed for such a purpose. The largest collection of this kind that I ever saw was in the court of a temple of the Jodo sect, at Hakata, in Kyushu: the mirrors had been given for the making of a bronze statue of Amida, thirty-three feet high.]

There was at that time a young woman, a farmer’s wife, living at Mugenyama, who presented her mirror to the temple, to be used for bell-metal. But afterwards she much regretted her mirror. She remembered things that her mother had told her about it; and she remembered that it had belonged, not only to her mother but to her mother’s mother and grandmother; and she remembered some happy smiles which it had reflected. Of course, if she could have offered the priests a certain sum of money in place of the mirror, she could have asked them to give back her heirloom. But she had not the money necessary. Whenever she went to the temple, she saw her mirror lying in the court-yard, behind a railing, among hundreds of other mirrors heaped there together. She knew it by the Sho-Chiku-Bai in relief on the back of it,—those three fortunate emblems of Pine, Bamboo, and Plumflower, which delighted her baby-eyes when her mother first showed her the mirror. She longed for some chance to steal the mirror, and hide it,—that she might thereafter treasure it always. But the chance did not come; and she became very unhappy,—felt as if she had foolishly given away a part of her life. She thought about the old saying that a mirror is the Soul of a Woman—(a saying mystically expressed, by the Chinese character for Soul, upon the backs of many bronze mirrors),—and she feared that it was true in weirder ways than she had before imagined. But she could not dare to speak of her pain to anybody.

Now, when all the mirrors contributed for the Mugenyama bell had been sent to the foundry, the bell-founders discovered that there was one mirror among them which would not melt. Again and again they tried to melt it; but it resisted all their efforts. Evidently the woman who had given that mirror to the temple must have regretted the giving. She had not presented her offering with all her heart; and therefore her selfish soul, remaining attached to the mirror, kept it hard and cold in the midst of the furnace.

Of course everybody heard of the matter, and everybody soon knew whose mirror it was that would not melt. And because of this public exposure of her secret fault, the poor woman became very much ashamed and very angry. And as she could not bear the shame, she drowned herself, after having written a farewell letter containing these words:—

“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by the ghost of me.”

—You must know that the last wish or promise of anybody who dies in anger, or performs suicide in anger, is generally supposed to possess a supernatural force. After the dead woman’s mirror had been melted, and the bell had been successfully cast, people remembered the words of that letter. They felt sure that the spirit of the writer would give wealth to the breaker of the bell; and, as soon as the bell had been suspended in the court of the temple, they went in multitude to ring it. With all their might and main they swung the ringing-beam; but the bell proved to be a good bell, and it bravely withstood their assaults. Nevertheless, the people were not easily discouraged. Day after day, at all hours, they continued to ring the bell furiously,—caring nothing whatever for the protests of the priests. So the ringing became an affliction; and the priests could not endure it; and they got rid of the bell by rolling it down the hill into a swamp. The swamp was deep, and swallowed it up,—and that was the end of the bell. Only its legend remains; and in that legend it is called the Mugen-Kane, or Bell of Mugen.

Now there are queer old Japanese beliefs in the magical efficacy of a certain mental operation implied, though not described, by the verb nazoraeru. The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith. Common meanings of nazoraeru, according to dictionaries, are “to imitate,” “to compare,” “to liken;” but the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result.

For example:—you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha, with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple… You cannot read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes of the Buddhist texts; but you can make a revolving library, containing them, turn round, by pushing it like a windlass. And if you push with an earnest wish that you could read the six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one volumes, you will acquire the same merit as the reading of them would enable you to gain… So much will perhaps suffice to explain the religious meanings of nazoraeru.

The magical meanings could not all be explained without a great variety of examples; but, for present purposes, the following will serve. If you should make a little man of straw, for the same reason that Sister Helen made a little man of wax,—and nail it, with nails not less than five inches long, to some tree in a temple-grove at the Hour of the Ox,—and if the person, imaginatively represented by that little straw man, should die thereafter in atrocious agony,—that would illustrate one signification of nazoraeru… Or, let us suppose that a robber has entered your house during the night, and carried away your valuables. If you can discover the footprints of that robber in your garden, and then promptly burn a very large moxa on each of them, the soles of the feet of the robber will become inflamed, and will allow him no rest until he returns, of his own accord, to put himself at your mercy. That is another kind of mimetic magic expressed by the term nazoraeru. And a third kind is illustrated by various legends of the Mugen-Kane.

After the bell had been rolled into the swamp, there was, of course, no more chance of ringing it in such wise as to break it. But persons who regretted this loss of opportunity would strike and break objects imaginatively substituted for the bell,—thus hoping to please the spirit of the owner of the mirror that had made so much trouble. One of these persons was a woman called Umegae,—famed in Japanese legend because of her relation to Kajiwara Kagesue, a warrior of the Heike clan. While the pair were traveling together, Kajiwara one day found himself in great straits for want of money; and Umegae, remembering the tradition of the Bell of Mugen, took a basin of bronze, and, mentally representing it to be the bell, beat upon it until she broke it,—crying out, at the same time, for three hundred pieces of gold. A guest of the inn where the pair were stopping made inquiry as to the cause of the banging and the crying, and, on learning the story of the trouble, actually presented Umegae with three hundred ryo in gold. Afterwards a song was made about Umegae’s basin of bronze; and that song is sung by dancing girls even to this day:—

Umegae no chozubachi tataite
O-kane ga deru naraba
Mina San mi-uke wo
Sore tanomimasu

[“If, by striking upon the wash-basin of Umegae, I could make honorable money come to me, then would I negotiate for the freedom of all my girl-comrades.”]

After this happening, the fame of the Mugen-Kane became great; and many people followed the example of Umegae,—thereby hoping to emulate her luck. Among these folk was a dissolute farmer who lived near Mugenyama, on the bank of the Oigawa. Having wasted his substance in riotous living, this farmer made for himself, out of the mud in his garden, a clay-model of the Mugen-Kane; and he beat the clay-bell, and broke it,—crying out the while for great wealth.

Then, out of the ground before him, rose up the figure of a white-robed woman, with long loose-flowing hair, holding a covered jar. And the woman said: “I have come to answer your fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered. Take, therefore, this jar.” So saying, she put the jar into his hands, and disappeared.

Into his house the happy man rushed, to tell his wife the good news. He set down in front of her the covered jar,—which was heavy,—and they opened it together. And they found that it was filled, up to the very brim, with…

But no!—I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.

Happy Halloween!

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