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Shinji Eshima: Buddhist Life in Key of D

When the BCA Music Committee announced the first gatha lyric writing contest and commission a year ago, some committee members wondered if there would be any submissions.  


Much to our delight, the contest received entries for both youth and adult categories. The entries were reviewed by an impartial judging committee with names and temple/district identifiers removed. Winners and honorable mention prizes were selected for each category. The winning lyrics were offered to professional composers to write the musical scores.


Shinji Eshima was one such composer who agreed to help the committee to write music for one of the winning lyric entries, “Amida’s Light” by Gayle M. Kono of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento.  


Eshima is an accomplished musician and composer based in the Bay Area where he grew up.  He plays double bass in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. He has composed chamber music as well as orchestral ballet and opera music. My introduction to Shinji was through the purple service book when I first sang the gatha, “In a Quiet Valley” in the 1990s. Shinji Eshima composed it at the request of his aunt, Jane Imamura, and his cousin Rae Imamura to write a gatha to be included in the new BCA Shin Buddhist Service Book project, commonly referred to as the “purple service book,” published in 1994. 


Lyrics evoked peaceful imagery and the music was simple yet with depth.  It wasn’t until 2018 when Kemi Nakabayashi introduced me to Shinji in Seattle at Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere of his ballet “RAkU.”


Shinji grew up in Berkeley, attending the Berkeley Buddhist Temple along with his relatives, the Imamuras, who were the scions of Jodo Shinshu teachings and Buddhist music.  Looking back, Shinji distinctly remembers the chanting and the sound of the bells as he attended Dharma School. It struck him in an inexplicable way but literally resonated within him.  Like many youths, his path took him away from the temple to pursue his professional music career. He quotes Stravinsky, “I never understood a note of music, but I have felt it.”  Later in life, the bell and chants reappear in his compositions.


Shinji says candidly that he was not a good Dharma School student, but the effects of his studentship has remained with him throughout his life, perhaps not overtly but underlying his life. 


As his music composition career progressed, he started noticing certain trends that bridged experiences which, on the surface, do not connect. The trends were: Music composition can be related to the Eightfold Path; and The meaning of life has something to do with the key of D. He observed that many ethnic chants are in the key of D.  Buddhist music/chants, Jewish chants and many significant pieces of western music including Bach are often in the key of D.  The most significant personal discovery happened when he studied “Shoshinge,” which is one of Shinran Shonin’s opuses.  

Back in Berkeley decades ago, Shinji recorded the pre-eminent Shin Buddhist teacher Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada and Rev. Hozan Hardiman chanting the “Shoshinge.” He wanted to have an unembellished recording of the two of them just chanting with only the use of the small bell used as a source for adding layers of music. Shinji eventually transferred the tape recording to a CD and studied it extensively. It was then when he discovered a parallel between Shinran and Bach.  


He discovered that the last 4 minutes of “Shoshinge” completely matches with the first prelude of Bach’s “A Well-Tempered Clavier”!  Shoshinge was composed 500 years before Bach, but it matches perfectly with Bach’s composition. 


When asked about his ballet composition “RAkU,” it was not his intent to write it with any focus on Buddhist practices.  However, as his writing progressed, he realized that the composition included an Asian theme and tempo.  


When he introduced the piece to one of his adult bass students, Paul Grantham, Paul offered to provide a group of Zen practitioners to chant in the pit with the orchestra. Unbeknownst to Shinji, Paul was a member of the board at San Francisco Zen Center. This idea developed to invite a group of Zen practitioners to rehearse and to chant with the orchestra.  Shinji felt that the chanting fit the ballet perfectly.  The chant they happened to already know from memory is the “Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo,” which roughly translates to “We are here to listen to your suffering, and we chant for your well-being.” This chant became an integral part of the performances of “RAkU,” not only in the United States, including the Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C., but also when performed in Germany, England, and throughout the world.  Zen centers in those performance localities participated in the “RAkU” performances to much acclaim.


As a composer, Shinji has many recollections of the impact of his music. He said that one of the greatest honors in his life was an incident at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple in May 2018, when he attended a Sunday service during his trip for a performance of one of his chamber music pieces “August 6th” at a Music of Remembrance concert.  The selected gatha was “In a Quiet Valley” led by musicians from the Seattle Betsuin Ukulele Band. He would have never imagined that his musical compositions would be transcribed for the ukulele.  


Although Shinji may not be in the temple regularly, he firmly believes that once on the Dharma Path, one never strays from the Path. The Dharma teachings are still there where many experiences as a kid have stayed with him throughout these decades. He believes that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Paths are timeless and is part of his professional and personal life. Bringing awareness to that fact gives him deep comfort and singleness of mind.


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