The Shoshinge

by Shinran Shonin
Translated by Rev. T. Nagatani and Ruth Tabrah

Introduction to the Shoshinge
By Rev. Shoji Matsumoto
What strikes us immediately as we read Shinran's writings now is how far away and yet how close he is to us today. He wrote Shoshinge more than 750 years ago. Its words are not our current modern ones. They speak of a very different historical and human ambiance. Yet he belongs as fully to our time as he did to his own. He speaks to us now, I believe, even more forcefully than at any time since his death in 1262.

Shinran begins Shoshinge with the exclamation: "How inconceivable! Throughout the universe the ceaseless, boundless, immeasurable activity of Namu Amida Butsu awakens me to what is real and true!" Here speaks an authentic human, and his voice is pervasive. He encountered Amida Buddha at the very center of himself, was rescued from a dead, senseless, purposeless universe and lives, even now, in the Land of Bliss.

Though Shinran died just over 700 years ago, through his writings he is still talking, thinking, practicing Shinshu, and leading us to practice it also. He wrote Shoshinge in the hope that we would be able to share his feelings, thoughts, and experiences, his encounters with Shakyamuni, Amida, and the seven masters of India, China, and Japan who helped him shape his nembutsu path. In Shoshinge he compresses all his experiences and insights into one long poem, or hymn, through which we learn to realize how we got principles by which unconsciously, we are already living our lives.

Shinran wanted us to know that our lives are more than just a simple journey from the cradle to the grave. Shoshinge emphasizes that we are part of that long, unbroken thread of Life which extends deep into the past. He reminds us we are responsible for helping to extend that chain into the future.

The Shoshinge is just a small part of Shinran's Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, therefore it may not show us the full range of Shinran's thinking, but we can see the essential Buddhist poet in him. That poet successfully dealt with a religious experience which, almost by definition, cannot be conveyed by mere language. Shinran's images, therefore, activate us to attempt our own halting, ineffectual effort to restate the unstateable. Not only does the Shoshinge live with us in this appealing way, but also it compels us, no matter how often we read it, to relive the enlightenment and the oneness with Amida which Shinran felt so deeply.

We all think we know Shinran when what we probably know is merely what we have been told to think about him. To call him "Saint" Shinran, as was the custom in the West in much of this century misleads and detracts. Shinran was a radical in the same sense that Shakyamuni was. No thinker in the thirteenth century has had as direct, deliberate, and powerful an influence upon mankind as Shinran. Refusing to learn about his reality and the reality of his Shinshu means that we will know less about ourselves and will remain forever partially blind. Who are we? Shoshinge will help us to find answers.

As our most lucid, trustworthy, and enlightened Buddhist poet, Shinran leads us down into those frightful, but fruitful depths where our task of relocating and rewording the reality of Amida Buddha is to be done. He tells us that the meaning of Shinjin is our relationship to Amida Buddha. We live this relationship, live within it. We are constantly renewing and recreating it and, in turn, being recreated by this relationship every day.

Trying to step out of that life to look at the relationship from a greater distance would destroy it. Unlike 'belief: Shinjin is never a static condition to be 'had' or 'owned' Rather, shinjin is the result of our own decision to move toward the Amida within.

Shinran holds that nembutsu gives us Amida Buddha in the present - not a feeling of some endlessly progressive future, onward and upward, but a sense of inner eternity in this very moment. As long as we find ourselves in nembutsu practice, our lives are meaningful.

As from the union of two opposite germ cells begin, a new life, so from the contact of we human beings and Amida Buddha springs Namuamidabutsu - a living, true reality. When we therefore hear Namuamidabutsu in the Shoshinge and take it into ourselves, we and we alone can make the Shoshinge a sutra and we and we alone can keep the teaching of Shinran alive.

Shoshinge: Shinran's Song of the Nembutsu

How inconceivable!
Throughout the universe
The ceaseless, boundless activity of Namu Amida Butsu
Awakens me to what is real and true.
This is my reliance,
My refuge,
My wholehearted trust.

Namu Amida Butsu is the call of the Vow
Made by Amida,
The Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life,
When he was Dharmakara, a Bodhisattva,
Who, coming into the presence of the great teacher
Lokesvararaja Buddha,
Was enabled to see that which is invisible
And yet visible to the mind's eye—
The Pure Lands of all the Buddhas
And how they became so.

To establish such a realm for all beings,
Whether good or evil,
A realm without discrimination or condition,
Was Dharmakara's deep yearning, his Great Vow.
He spent five kalpas—
A time and effort beyond comprehension,
Fulfilling this most excellent and rare Vow,
This dynamic Vow
The primal Vow
The original Vow
By which his name conveys enlightenment to all.

Throughout the universe this Name resounds
This Vow continues like light
Unbounded by space or time
Without hindrance
Needless of cause or condition
Illuminating our greed
Our anger
Our blind and calculating foolishness.

Just as I am
This all-embracing Vow enables me to become a buddha!
Its light in all its many facets
Stronger than the light of the moon
Stronger by far than the light of the sun
Illuminates even the least particle of dust
In the countless worlds of the Universe
Shining equally on all.

The Nembutsu of Amida's Great Vow
Is the dynamic cause for my birth
Into the realm of enlightened beings,
The Pure Land.
Because of the Vow
My mind of true entrusting, my shinjin,
Is assured
As is my ultimate enlightenment,
Identical with that of Amida's,
Resulting in the great, complete Nirvana.

Sakyamuni Buddha was born into this world
With the sole mission of teaching
The treasure-ocean of Amida's Vow
To rescue we who constantly pollute
Our streams of birth and death.
Please listen to the truth of Sakyamuni's message!

The mind of true entrusting, shinjin,
Arises from my awakening to the reality
Of Amida's Great Vow.
No need to sever evil passions to reach Nirvana!
Ordinary people,
Holy monks,
We who break the five precepts—
All of us, equally, just as we are,
Though like various polluted rivers
Become of one taste on entering the ocean of the Vow.

To receive and be taken in
By Amidas Great Compassion
Is to be perpetually transformed,
Protected by its light.
Yet, while my inner darkness is thus broken,
My cloudy mists of anger, hatred, and desire
Continue to obscure shinjin's bright sky
Though shinjin, in the same way as sunlight filtered
Through mists and clouds,
Continues to cast light into the darkness below.

To receive this shinjin is to know great joy.
Simultaneously, I am emancipated
From the limbo of a world without dharma.
Of all of us,
Good and evil together,
Who hear and awaken to Amida's Great Vow,
The Buddha says: we are persons of shinjin.
Those who comprehend this completely
Are like a white lotus blooming.

Yet, having received this mind of true entrusting,
This shinjin,
To neither doubt nor question it,
To retain it,
To not forget that the Nembutsu of Amida's Great Vow
Is directed to all sentient beings—
Including arrogant persons and those of wrong views—
Is the most difficult of all difficulties.

The great dharma teachers
Of ancient India, China and Japan
Make clear Sakyamuni's emphasis that
When compared with Amida Buddha's pure activity
All we sentient beings are calculating
And defiled.
Sakyamuni's teachings disclose to us
Our inconceivable endowment—
Universal enlightenment,
Made possible through Amida's Great Vow

In a sermon on Mt. Lanka,
Sakyamuni talked about Nagarjuna,
A bodhisattva of southern India
Who later appeared in this world
To destroy misleading views
Of "being" and "non-being."
Nagarjuna proclaimed the great dharma
Of Mahayana,
And identified for us the joyous stage
Of birth in the Pure Land.
He described this Pure Land Way
As like the ease of an ocean voyage,
Whereas the way of difficult practices
Is like traveling a rough and dangerous path
On foot.
Once we entrust to the vessel of Amida's Vow,
At that instant, says Nagarjuna,
Our birth in the Pure Land is assured!
To fully express our gratitude for this,
Let us utter Amida Buddha's Name always.

Jodo Ron,
Compiled by the bodhisattva Vasubandhu in India,
Urges us to rely on
The Tathagata of Unhindered Light—Amida—
Through the Larger Pure Land Sutra
Which makes clear
The truth of Amida's eighteenth vow,
The vow which gives to each and every one of us
The mind of true entrusting, shinjin,
And the certain eventuality of our joining
The great company of bodhisattvas
In the treasure-ocean of Namu Amida Butsu.
At the very moment of our entrusting,
Says Vasubandhu,
We are able to see the truth
Of things-as-they-are,
Of suchness,
And instantaneously we become an avenue
For the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.
This being so,
Though we can now burst free
From the thicket of our passions,
Having become this avenue of wisdom and compassion,
In this transformed state,
We freely plunge back
Into the garden of birth-and-death.

The cause resulting in all this
Is shinjin alone.
Such is the teaching of T'an Luan,
A bodhisattva in China,
Before whom the benevolent Buddhist Emperor Wu'Ti
Always bent his head.
Ta'n Luan had received Chinese translations
Of the Pure Land sutras and Vasubandhu's writings
From the sage Bodhiruci.
Turning to these teachings,
Ta'n Luan burned his Taoist texts
His own writings say that
When we ordinary foolish beings realize
The mind of true entrusting,
The mind of shinjin,
Though we still wander in samsara—
The world of birth-and-death,
At the same time we are shown Nirvana—
The world of the Buddha,
The world of things-as-they-are,
Of that which is real and true.

In this true and real wisdom of Amida's realm,
All we sentient beings,
Everything that exists,
Totally and equally,
Become as one.
The great teacher Tao Ch'o showed us the difficulty
Of the path of self-power practices.
He clarified that for we ordinary men and women
The way to Buddhahood
Is the Pure Land path of entrusting to
The wise and compassionate power of the Vow.
Even millions of self-power practices are useless!
Tao Ch'o urges the single practice of
Saying the Name,
Namu Amida Butsu,
From which arises the uncalculated directness,
The single focus,
And the constancy
Of the mind of true entrusting,
The mind of shinjin.
Tao Ch'o explains that this is the pure mind
Which is in total contrast to our mind of doubt.

At any time, in any age,
We who happen to encounter the drawing power
Of the Great Compassion of the Vow,
Though throughout our lives
We create nothing but evil,
Will reach the Pure Land
And the final state, enlightenment.
It is Shan Tao alone who teaches us
The Buddha's true meaning in disclosing that
For we who break the five precepts,
We who constantly pollute
Our streams of birth-and-death
As we come to hear the Vow,
Amida's light and Name manifest cause and condition
For our entry into its great wisdom-ocean.

This we nembutsu followers receive
Shinjin's diamond-like mind.
In the joy of this single moment,
When we encounter the wisdom of the Buddha
Exactly as did Queen Vaidehi,
We simultaneously receive shinjin's three benefits:
A joyful mind that totally entrusts in the Vow,
An awareness of the nature of the dharma,
And the issuance of Nirvana.

Genshin, on Mt. Hiei in Japan,
Widely explored the whole of Sakyamuni's teachings
And coming to those of the Pure Land,
Genshin recommended this path to all.
However, he makes clear to us a distinction
Between the shallowness of self-power nembutsu,
Which leads only to the borders of the Pure Land,
Leaving one at a way station,
With the depth of the true nembutsu
That assures is entry into the heart of Amida's realm.
True nembutsu can be uttered
By the lowest of the low.
Amida is always pursuing them, drawing them in.
Such a one am I! Genshin confesses.
Even though I am blinded
By the anguish of my passions,
Great Compassion is always,
Without interruption,
Illuminating me.

The great Buddhist teacher Honen
Out of compassion for all beings
Established the true way of nembutsu teaching in Japan.
He opened to ordinary persons everywhere
The gate of Amida's eighteenth Vow.
Our turbulent endless cycle of birth-and-death,
Going and returning,
Is due to our mind of doubt, says Honen.
But in the nembutsu,
When we receive the decisiveness
Of the mind of shinjin,
The mind of true entrusting,
Without fail—
We are assured of entering Nirvana's peaceful world.

Thus these bodhisattvas and great masters
Of India, China, and Japan
Have shown us the meaning of
The Larger Pure Land Sutra,
The meaning of the Name and the Vow
Which liberates innumerable beings:
Those of us who are the most defiled
And calculating,
Those of us who are hopeless.

Their teachings speak to us directly
So that now,
At his present moment,
And always, throughout our lives,
We who are priests,
We who are lay,
Being of one same mind together
In abandoning all superstitions,
Abandoning self power and petitionary practices,
Need believe only in this true nembutsu way.

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