Ondokusan: Now More Than Ever

Ondokusan: Now More than Ever

(Radio Broadcast: October 2, 2022 7:45 a.m. (HST) KZOO Honolulu. Copyright (c) 2022 Moiliili Hongwanji Mission)


I would like to take a few moments this morning to explain the meaning and significance of the gatha Ondokusan because these words of Shinran speak to us now more than ever.

Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion, 
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies; 
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers, 
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.

Shinran Shonin
Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Verse 59, Collected Works of Shinran, Volume 1, Page 412

Musically, there are three different arrangements.

Shinran wrote this hymn at age 86 in 1258 CE —764 years ago— and is traditionally sung as one of the Shozomatsu Wasan, which sounds like this.

(play Wasan 59)

The original gatha arrangement that we know as Ondokusan was composed by Rev. Yasuo Sawa in Hawaii in 1918, more than one hundred years ago. 

(play Ondokusan I)

To our modern ears, Ondokusan 1 is solemn and somber but this was perhaps the first attempt to bring Shinran’s words to life through Western-style music during in the early 20th century — and we can be proud that Ondokusan is da kine MADE IN HAWAII.

The story goes that even the Japanese thought this arrangement was a bit solemn, so Mr. Osamu Shimizu wrote a new arrangement in a major key in 1952 in Japan.

(play Ondokusan II)

Ondokusan 2 is the “new” version many people in Hawaii know and sing in Japanese, even if we don’t understand the words.

Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion, 
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies; 
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers, 
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.

What are Shinran words telling us today as we emerge from the restrictions of the COVID-19 public health emergency?

When we realize that Amida’s Great Compassion has embraced us because we are “only human”—just ordinary people driven by blindly self-centered desires and suffering from ego-centric attachments, we “must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies”.

Amida offers a path to Enlightenment through the Nembutsu, just as we are, precisely because we are flawed, limited, and lost—we are utterly human.

Indeed, this is a Compassion so great and all-encompassing that our human brain cannot comprehend fully.

This Truth, this Dharma, this reality-as-it-is, comes to us from Sakyamuni Buddha more than 2500 years ago; then over centuries through the Seven Masters of the Pure Land tradition to Shinran, and then across the Pacific Ocean to the generations of Hongwanji ministers and sangha who struggled through the plantation era, Great Depression, and the Pacific War. 

Do we, here today, deserve such compassion, such benevolence?

Are we worthy of receiving these teachings?

If we are totally honest with ourselves, if we are truly self-aware, the answer must be “no.”

And thus, we must endeavor to repay our debt of gratitude, “Even to our bones becoming dust.”

As we all struggle to “embrace change” that has been forced upon us by COVID-19 public health emergency, we are being given an incredible opportunity to confront our Ego-Self: 

Raging at the “unfairness” of restrictions on our lives; 

Stubbornly attached to longing for a “return to normal”; 

Seeking to blame others—politicians, tourists, and bats—for the inconvenience in our lives! How dare they interrupt MY LIFE!

Illuminated by the Unhindered Light of Wisdom that is Amida Buddha, we see ourselves as “foolish ordinary beings” or bonbu — this is our Ego-Self.

And yet, in the still of the early morning or in the darkness of the night, we feel the pain of those infected by COVID-19, and the suffering of their families and friends who cannot be at their side; 

The struggles and exhaustion of medical professionals trying desperately to help them; 

We feel the frustration of essential workers who risk the health of themselves AND their families so that we can eat safe food and drink clean water, receive letters and packages in the mail, and have our garbage taken away; 

We can sympathize with the very real fear and anxiety of so many people who have lost their jobs and have no income.

This is a glimpse of our True Self: the Heart of Compassion and the Mind of Non-Discrimination is already within us.

This realization of how lucky we are inspires us to try and help as best we can, just as we are. 

Whether it is donating to food banks, sewing masks, or simply smiling and saying thank you, we are able to “strive to repay our debt of gratitude.”

Amida Buddha is not just a golden statue in the altar of the temple. 

Amida Buddha is Great Compassion reaching out to us every moment, of ever day of this unrepeatable life, urging us to wake up now.

Amida Buddha is the Unhindered Light of Wisdom, illuminating our self-centered foolishness and our inherent potential to help others even to “our bodies being crushed and our bones turning into dust.”

Amida’s Compassion is so great that even during these most extraordinary of times, we are being guided to awakening of reality-as-it-is; we are “only human” and that is why we are embraced by Great Compassion, just as we are.

Embraced by Great Compassion and illuminated by the Unhindered Light of Wisdom, let us strive to do our best to help others. 

Let us become the source of aloha for our family, friends, neighbors, and communities.

Let us say Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu in joy and gratitude every moment of each day of this unrepeatable life!


Mahalo for listening this morning and may your day be filled with aloha!

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