Shinran Shonin’s Shoshinge and the Seven Masters

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

One of the most fundamental of Shin Buddhist texts is the Shoshinge, which is a song or poem written by Shinran Shonin. The Shoshinge is also chanted, and is chanted every morning at the 6:00 a.m. service at our Hongwanji in Japan. At OCBC, we chant the Shoshinge at our meditation service every Sunday, and after the publication of our new service book, we are trying to do it more often in our family services as well. This month, I would like to explain in general, the contents of the Shoshinge.

First of all, the Shoshinge (Gatha, or song of True Shinjin), appears in Shinran Shonin’s main work, the Kyogyoshinsho (Teaching, Practice, Shinjin, Realization), which is a lengthy work consisting of six chapters. The Shoshinge appears at the end of the second chapter, the chapter on Practice (Gyo). It is a song or poem that is exactly 120 lines long, with 7 Chinese characters in each line.

To put it simply, Shinran Shonin expresses his deep spirituality, his deep heart of the Dharma in this beautiful poem. In expressing his deep heart of the Dharma, he praises the wonderful teachers who have brought the truth of the Dharma, the Nembutsu, to him. Those wonderful teachers are called the Seven Masters.

Although their names are long, I think it is important that we know their names and become more familiar with their teachings.

I would like to list the names of the 7 Masters in both the language of their country, but also by their names pronounced in Japanese as Shinran referred to them. When you become more familiar in chanting the Shoshinge, you will recognize the names of these masters appearing in the text, as Shinran praises them and their teachings.

The Seven Masters are:

India:

Nagarjuna (Ryuju Bosatsu)

Vasubandhu (Tenjin Bosatsu)

China:

Tan Luan (Donran Daishi)

Tao Cho (Doshaku Zenji)

Shan Tao (Zendo Daishi)

Japan:

Genshin Kasho

Genku (Better known as Honen Shonin)

In the Shoshinge, Shinran Shonin praises Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha, and the Seven Masters, for bringing the truth of Namuamidabutsu to his heart and mind. For Shinran Shonin, his heart and mind was in total darkness, total delusion, until a light began to penetrate into the depths of his being. This light that he encountered was the light of wisdom, the light of Amida. The Seven Masters, to Shinran Shonin, were like the conduit, the pipeline, through which the profound Dharma flowed from Shakyamuni Buddha all the way to him.

When Shinran Shonin praises the Seven Masters, he is not trying to validate his own position in the Buddhist tradition.  He is not saying, “See the great teachers that are in my lineage!” Instead, he is expressing his gratitude for their teachings, that liberated his heart and mind. These Seven Masters were the great teachers that he revered and looked up to. They were the great teachers that inspired him in his own path of the Nembutsu.

If you were a musician, there would be great composers or musicians that inspire you to become a great musician. If you were an athlete, there would be great athletes whom you try to emulate, whom you look up to and try to model your game after. No matter what field you are in, there are teachers and mentors that guide you in that path, whether it is medicine, politics, or philosophy. In that sense, the Seven Masters for Shinran Shonin, were the great spiritual mentors in his life, whose writings brought the essence of Namuamida-butsu to him.

In a sense, we each have to find our own Seven Masters in our journey on the path. Perhaps for us, Shinran Shonin is one of our Seven Masters. Maybe Rennyo Shonin is another master. Maybe our Seven Masters might include the writings of the Dalai Lama, or D.T. Suzuki, or Thich Nhat Hanh.

The final line of the Shoshinge, Yui ka shin shi ko so setsu, means, “Just rely on the teachings of these masters.” Shinran was a seeker and a student. He read and studied. He listened and learned. He opened his heart to the teachings. In doing so, wonderful teachers and teachings emerged in his life. His life became like a sponge and he absorbed into his life the teachings and writings of the Seven Masters, the Three Pure Land Sutras, and many other sutras that he read and quoted in his Kyogyoshinsho, like the Nirvana Sutra.

What we learn from Shinran Shonin’s Shoshinge is not just the teachings from the Seven Masters. What we learn is his attitude, his posture in seeking, listening, and receiving the teachings. When we chant the Shoshinge, we can reflect on the countless teachers and followers who have all had a hand in the transmission of Buddhism from the ancient past to me, here and now. Shinran Shonin too, becomes one of those teachers in the timeless flow of the Dharma.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada