One of the great heroes in our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition is a humble farmer and handyman named Shoma who lived in Sanuki province (present day Kagawa Prefecture) on the Japanese island of Shikoku from 1799 to 1871. Shoma helped to maintain the Shokakuji temple, where the resident priest had much affection for him. Shokakuji is affiliated with Koshoji, a large Jodo Shinshu temple located adjacent to Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto. In Shoma’s time, Koshoji was part of the Hongwanji School. It became the head temple of the independent Koshoji School of Jodo Shinshu in 1876.
Shoma visited Koshoji for the first time with a group of five or six fellow practicers of the Nembutsu. Together they received the Sarana Affirmation Ceremony, a ritual in which the abbot of the temple places a razor on the head of the Nembutsu follower three times, representing the shaving of the head, which since the time of the Buddha, has expressed the resolution to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (the community that lives guided by those teachings). The abbot of the temple proceeded through the group one by one administering the Three Refuges. After he administered the refuges to Shoma, the abbot started to move on to the next person when Shoma grabbed hold of the sleeve of his robe and said, “Brother, are you prepared?”
When the ceremony was finished, the abbot told his assistant “Summon the fellow who pulled on my robe.” The assistant went into the crowd of fellow practicers and said, “Is the fellow who just pulled on the Great Abbot’s robe here? You will go before him now.” Hearing these words, Shoma sat there with a serene face, but the fellow practicers who had accompanied him to the temple were shocked and alarmed. They immediately began pleading with the abbot’s assistant saying, “We are truly sorry for this grave disrespect! Had we known he would do something like this, we wouldn’t have brought him along. We will take back him with us. We can only humbly beseech you to forgive him. He’s just a simple-minded fool. We implore you to take compassion on him and forgive his rudeness.”
“I see.” said the assistant and returned to the abbot to recount what they had said. However, the abbot replied, “No matter, bring him here.” There was no choice but for Shoma to be brought before the abbot. Being ignorant of formality and refined manners, Shoma just plopped himself down and sat cross-legged right in front of the abbot.
At that time, the abbot asked him, “Was it you who pulled on my robe?”
Shoma replied, “Yeah, it was me.”
“What were you thinking when you pulled on my robe?” asked the abbot.
“You are wearing a fancy red robe, but that red robe won’t help you escape rebirth in hell, so I was wondering if you are prepared for your next rebirth,” said Shoma.
“Yes, I summoned you here because I wanted to hear this understanding of yours. Many people treat me with reverence and respect. However, you are the only one who has shown concern for my rebirth. I’m glad you asked, but have you received the heart of entrusting (shinjin)?” inquired the abbot.
“Yeah, I have,” answered Shoma.
“In one sentence, tell me what you’ve received,” said the abbot.
“It’s nothing at all,” replied Shoma.
“With that, are you prepared for your next rebirth?” asked the abbot.
Shoma replied, “You’d better ask Amida about that. It’s not my job, so why would I have the answer?”
The abbot was most satisfied with Shoma’s reply and said, “As you say, there is nothing beyond entrusting in Amida. One must not rely on the working of one’s own mind. You are an honest man. Today, let us share a drink as brothers!” With that he called his servants to bring a bottle of sake. The abbot poured Shoma’s drink and they enjoyed a feast together.
After that initial encounter, Shoma would regularly visit the abbot. Shoma was quick to forget matters of this world, so before he returned to his village the abbot tucked a letter in his waistband, indicating that Shoma was to be given an audience whenever he visited Koshoji. From then on, every time Shoma arrived in Kyoto, he would call out “Where am I going? Where am I going?” As soon as someone noticed the letter, he would be taken to visit the abbot straightaway.
We will be observing our autumn Ohigan Service on September 22, 2019. Ohigan is an ideal time for us to pause and reflect upon the direction of our lives and ask ourselves whether we are living with the teachings of the Buddha as our guide. If we are able to meet a Dharma friend like Shoma who is able to look past all the superficial concerns of this world and remind us what is truly important, let us take this time to treasure their company and show our appreciation for their companionship in the Nembutsu.
Namo Amida Butsu