While in Japan, my wife, kids and I attended the 49-day memorial service (details here) for my mother in law. This service was held at a neighborhood Jodo Shinshu-sect temple which my mother in law frequently volunteered, and our kids have grown up together for generations. 😌
This was the first Jodo Shinshu Buddhist service that I had attended in almost five years. The Pandemic was a large reason, but also there are personal reasons too.
Anyhow, the memorial service included an important hymn in the Jodo Shinshu tradition called the Shōshinge (正信偈). This is a hymn composed in the 13th century by the founder Shinran, and lays down the basics of Jodo Shinshu teachings, and the “lineage” of one Dharma master to another, starting in India, through China, to Shinran’s teacher, Honen.1
The hymn is quite long (20 minutes), but it frequently used in formal services. When I was training to be a minister years ago, I practiced this hymn over and over with my minister, so hearing it brought back a lot of memories. I could still remember some of the verses, the rhythm, etc. It’s interesting how music stays in your memory like that. Also, I am very tone-dead so during my training days, I sang it terrible, but my minister was quite good at it, yet also very patient with me. Reverend Castro, thank you.
The above YouTube video is a good example of the Shōshinge when sang properly. I definitely did not sound like this, no matter how much I practiced. Also, there are other styles to singing the Shōshinge, a flatter style and a more melodic style, but that’s a long subject. Anyhow, the style above is the “default” and the one you hear most often. It starts off somewhat flat, but then gradually builds as the song goes along.
One other note is that the Shōshinge often ends with a set of 6 shorter hymns called Wasan (和讃). Shinran wrote quite a few of these little hymns, but these 6 in particular are most commonly included at the end. I remember singing these too (poorly).
By the way, you can find a full translation of the Shoshinge including the 6 Wasan hymns here.
One thing that always struck me as unusual about Jodo Shinshu as a sect was its heavy reliance on hymns more than chanting the Buddhist sutras, as other sects do. My guess is that using music and hymnals, especially in vernacular Japanese, made the teachings more accessible to Japanese lay people. This is similar to the medieval Christian debate between using Latin vs vernacular language, perhaps.
However, Jodo Shinshu does recite some Buddhist sutras too, such as the Juseige and Sanbutsuge, both excerpts from the Immeasurable Life Sutra. Also, the Shoshinge is written in Sino-Japanse, not vernacular (like the Wasan hymns), so the answer is maybe not clear-cut. Maybe Shinran was just a musically-inclined person. I am not sure.
In any case, for the 100th day memorial for my mother in law, I will probably sing the Shoshinge hymn as a tribute to her, so I have been brushing up a bit lately. We’ll see how it goes. But, I hope she enjoys nonetheless.
1 The concept of lineage in Pure Land Buddhism is a bit fuzzy, compared to Zen, Shingon or Tendai Buddhism in that there is no physical “handover” from master to student. The patriachs all lived in different times and places, but each contributed new ideas or innovations to Pure Land Buddhism, hence there is a steady evolution.