The Amatsunorito is the most frequently used chant within Shumei. It is usually recited daily by Shumei members, either at scheduled Sampais or privately.
When two or more people perform these chants, a leader recites those phrases marked in bold. The asterisk found within this text indicate a sharply cut sound.
Background and Translation
“Amatsunorito” is a compound of the words “amatsu,” meaning “heavenly,” and “norito,” which is a form of Shinto ritual–prayer. It is a prayer of gratitude and purification. With its unique arrangement of sounds, it is used to purify the spiritual realm, the condition of which will affect the physical world. Shumei’s founder, Meishusama, believed that this chant was a particularly powerful means of purification. Going by the principle of kototama, as well as his own spiritual insights, he refined and extended this traditional prayer to make it even more potent.
The origin of the “Heavenly Prayer” is ancient and obscure, the author or authors are unknown. Its language is archaic, and most modern Japanese cannot comprehend the words. This is comparable to a modern English speaker attempting to understand the original text of the Beowulf epic, which roughly dates to the same time as the Amatsunorito. To understand the poem’s literal meaning some background in Japanese myth is helpful.
The demigod or kami, Izanagi, defiled himself by entering the underworld to bring his dead wife, Izanami, back to the world of the living so they could continue to create the land in which they and their descendants were to live. When he found her on the other side of the gates of the palace of the dead, she told him with deep regret that he had come too late. For she had already eaten the fruits of the underworld–literally from the ovens of hell–and could not return to the land of living without permission. She made him promise to wait for her and not follow or even look at her until she safely returned to him. She left Izanagi and went to plead with the rulers of the underworld to release her.
A very long time passed as Izanagi waited. Finally, impatient, he broke his pledge and entered the netherworld to find his wife. When he did, he looked at her and saw that her flesh was putrefied and consumed by maggots, and the sounds of every kind of thunder were born from her head and limbs. She cursed him for his betrayal and sent hoards of demons to pursue him. He picked up three peaches imbued with divine power and threw these at the demons, chasing them away. Once he reached the realm of the living again, his wife appeared one final time on the other side of death’s gates. So, man and wife, Izanagi and Izanami, stood at opposite sides of the border between life and death, she respectfully threatening to kill all his descendants, he with due courtesy pledging to produce more progeny than she could ever manage to kill. Finally, done with her, he rolled a boulder over the maw of Hades and left.
Although escaping death, entering the kingdom of the dead had left him impure and so he washed himself in the waters near the small mouth of a river surrounded by a field of evergreens at Himuka Tacibana (Tachihana) in Tsukushi. And as Izanagi bathed, from the river waters sprang the newly born spirits of purification.
The story is of course fantastic. Yet, it has universal implications that echo in legends and myths throughout the world. Westerners might recognize similarities in Izanagi’s story and that of the primal father Adam and his first wife Lilith or Orpheus following Eurydice into Hades. All these stories are meant more to entertain and fill the listener with wonder than to be literally believed. Yet, as legends and metaphors they express more than a little truth. As all Izanagi’s children eventually would stand on one side or the other of the portals of life and death, so do all humanity’s children. And we all are capable of breaking pledges, going against the natural order of things (as Izanagi did by venturing into the realm of the dead while still alive), or being soiled by circumstances beyond our control. And we all need purification from time to time. As such, chanting this prayer is a great means of being made clean.
The poem opens with an image of Kamurogi and Kamuromi on the heavenly plane. Shinto Scholars often identified “Kamurogi” and “Kamuromi” as collective nouns representing male and female ancestral deities. Both can be thought of as universal principals, rather like yin and yang, or universal forces that constantly purify the world.
A loose translation of this prayer follows:
Prayer of Heaven
In the highest planes of heaven
Primeval Kamurogi and Kamuromi live.
And in accord with them, Izanagi,
In a grove of pine at Tsukushi,
Bathed at a river’s clear mouth.
As he bathed purifying spirits were born.
Of them we ask that all baseness,
Fault, and filth be washed away.
Humbly, we plead they be dispelled
And we made pure.
Please, divine spirits,
Legions of heaven and earth,
Answer our plea.
And just as the dappled horses of heaven
Perk their ears at the slightest rustle,
Hear our meek prayer.