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!

Why did the Shin Buddhist  cross the road? To get to the Other Shore.

—Shinran-shōnin (never said that)

(Photo Credit: Alex Wang. Source: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/wildlife/birds/kolea/)

 Higan literally means the “Other Shore” and in Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji tradition refers to the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, Sukhavati—the Realm of Ultimate Bliss, Nirvana, Supreme Enlightenment, and Oneness with Amida. In Japanese tradition, Higan marks the seasonal equinoxes. Higan is also referred to as o-higan, using the honorific prefix “o-” to express reverence and gratitude for the significance of the event. The Equinox occurs twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, when day and night are exactly equal. The Autumn Equinox traditionally marks the end of the heat of summer and start of the cold of winter. 

Twice a year, we mark the Equinox as the perfect moment in our unrepeatable life to pause and sincerely reflect upon the balance between our spiritual and secular lives.

In our secular lives, we are always busy with all kine stuff at each stage of life: students are starting a new year full of hope, young people are discovering a brave new world, parents (and grandparents and uncles and aunties) are frantically running around and amazed how fast the kids are growing up, retirees are wondering how they’ll fill the day, caregivers are pondering how they’ll find enough time in the day…and life goes on. Which is why today, right now, higan, the Equinox, is the perfect time to reflect upon the reality-as-it-is of your unrepeatable life—just as it is—and who you are in this moment—just as you are. 

One of the joys of living on the temple grounds of Makawao Hongwanji is the rare and wondrous presence of the kōlea Pacific Golden Plover birds who begin arriving in August to winter in Hawaii, flying thousands of miles from Siberia and Alaska in a single flight! The temple’s kōlea birds can be seen protecting their turf fearlessly from the chickens of Makawao, random magpies, and that Buddhist priest-ly guy who hangs around the temple.

For this city boy, whose childhood memories of birds are limited to sparrows and pigeons fighting for fast food french fries and hamburger bun crumbs on asphalt parking lots of Los Angeles, the idea that a bird would fly thousands of miles to winter in Maui is absolutely…understandable! Doesn’t everyone appreciate how amazing life in Makawao is in every moment of every day? Beaches and mountains and water falls! Birds! Chickens! Goats! Rabbits! Horses! Trees! Avocados! Papayas! Hibiscus!  It’s eerily quiet as soon as the sun goes down but oddly noisy early in the morning—no need alarm clocks because the neighborhood roosters have a daily Zoom meeting at 3:35 a.m., always forget to “mute” their MICs, and refuse to admit they are hard of hearing so they cock-a-doodle-doo at maximum volume.

For Shin Buddhists, higan also marks a time for reflection, meditation, and re-dedication to living this life to the fullest, embracing the joys and sorrows of human life—and everything in between—just as it is. Shan-dao, the fifth of the Pure Land Masters revered by Shinran for revealing the doctrine of the Nembutsu path, teaches the Parable of the White Path as a metaphor for our journey in this unrepeatable life. A river of fire (anger) and a river of water (greed) separates this shore (shigan) (our lives in the “real” world) and the other shore (higan) (the Pure Land of Amida Buddha). The only way to cross the two rivers is a narrow white path, which is only four inches across. This is the Path of Nembutsu, NamoAmidaButsu, Mindfulness of Amida.

On this shore, you hear voices of Bandits saying, “You’ll never make it! Give up and stay where you are! You’ll never be good enough! You’ll fall off the path!” On this shore, you hear wild animals and beasts growling and fighting over who gets to eat you!

On this shore, you hear the calming voice of Shakyamuni Buddha saying, “Take refuge in Amida Buddha’s Great Love and Great Compassion, you are already embraced never to be abandoned, just as you are! Have no fear!”

From the Other Shore, you hear “Namo Amida Butsu”—the Calling Voice of Amida—“Proceed on the Path with singleness of heart. You will not drown in the River of Fire, or the River of Water.  You will not be hurt by bandits, you will not be eaten by wild animals! You will cross to the Other Shore without fail.”

The White Path crossing the River of Fire and the River of Water is, of course, our lives in the “real world”—chased by bandits and wild animals, we desperately seek refuge but the path is narrow, we have doubts, we have fears, we get distracted, we are lost.  On this Shore, our lives are filled with shouting voices telling us, “Buy this, want more, get ahead!”  “Bandits”—corporations who want ALL of our money—yell at us, “Use this shampoo, you’ll always look young! Eat this, you’ll live forever! Invest in this, you’ll retire comfortably! Buy this, you’ll have peace of mind!” On this Shore, our lives are filled with wild animals and beasts growling at us, “Hate the other!” “Give into your anger!” “Destroy them!” The River of Water, our greed, tells us, “If I only had more money, I’d be happy!” The River of Fire, our anger, fear, and doubt, insists, “I’m right, they’re wrong!”

Shakyamuni Buddha teaches in a calm voice, “Life is a winding road filled with potholes of pain and suffering. Selfishness causes all the suffering in your life. Eliminate selfishness, and suffering ends. The way to eliminate selfishness is the Noble Eightfold Path.” Amida Buddha calls to us, “If the Eightfold Path is difficult, or if you are unable to achieve the perfection of the Six Paramita, take refuge in Namo Amida Butsu, and you will reach the Other Shore of Enlightenment, without fail, through Birth into the Pure Land.”

When we are brought to truly hear Namo Amida Butsu, the Calling Voice of Amida Buddha, the inconceivable power of the Vow to Save All is already working in our lives ceaselessly to guide us to the Faith of shinjin, the Heart of Great Compassion and the Mind of Non-Discrimination of Amida Buddha.

Higan, when day and night are exactly equal, is a perfect time to reflect upon the balance between our spiritual and secular lives. Everything we need has been given to us: Are we truly living the Life of Nembutsu, the Life of Gratitude, making the effort and taking the time to be humble, grateful, kind and gentle? Truly reflect upon the balance between your “real world” life and spiritual life, and you will realize everything is as it should be, the kōlea birds have come back, life goes on naturally unfolding to its own cadence, creating the rare and wondrous opportunity for you to truly appreciate and savor this moment of this day of this unrepeatable life!



Click on the image to go to the Kindle e-book version on Amazon.com

In the Children’s Dharma Story Time on October 24, 2021, Barkley the Dog and Lucy the Lady Bug shared the classic book, Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon, a book I fondly remember reading to our son.

Stellaluna teaches a profound lesson about harmony: living together despite our differences.   Stellaluna is a fruit bat, who is separated from her mother as a baby by causes and conditions (symbolized by the owl). With her baby wings not ready to fly, Stellaluna falls into a nest of baby birds, who accept her, just as she is, and they become friends and share adventures together, and become ‘ohana, a true family.

To live in harmony with her bird family, Stellaluna must learn to (1) eat bugs; (2) sleep at night; (3) don’t hang upside down by your toes (which all bats do). Life is not easy but Stellaluna adapts, improvises, and overcomes a challenging situation!

Stellaluna is joyfully reunited with her mother, who teaches Stellaluna what it means to be a fruit bat: eat mangoes, fly in total darkness, and hang upside by their toes! 

Stellaluna shares her joy at discovering her true self with her bird family…and they discover birds cannot fly in the dark, and Stellaluna saves them because she can see and fly in the dark because she’s a bat!

And they all ponder the question:

“How can we feel so different and be so much alike?”

“How can we be so different and feel so much alike?”

Stellaluna and her bird ‘ohana agree, “It’s quite the mystery,” “but we’re friends and that’s a fact!”

It’s easy to understand why this children’s story is so beloved and has been translated into almost every language!

The lesson for adults: you may not like the situation in which you find yourself but you do what needs to be done, without complaint.

This is the meaning of the Japanese word, “gaman” which some of you may have heard your grandparents say. “Gaman” is often translated as “to endure, to persevere” — but the easiest way to understand the meaning in Japanese culture is as illustrated by the story.

If you are hungry enough, you’ll eat a bug. You may not like the taste but you will eat it to survive. You may not like the reality-as-it-is that you are a BAT in a BIRD nest. You are the OUTSIDER. You have to learn the rules of the house, and respect them, or you don’t get to live in the house.

And doesn’t that describe the human condition?

Aren’t we all “outsiders” —a bat in a bird nest—in this human realm of confusion and delusion?

At each stage of life, didn’t you feel like a bat in a bird nest? Unsure of who you are…Ignorant of the rules, how to behave, what to think, do, say…But you listen, you learn, you adapt, improvise, and overcome! You are blessed to encounter kind people who take the time to teach you the rules.

Then, you discover who you really are! A bat! A fruit bat who loves mangoes, can fly in the dark, and sleeps during the day hanging upside down by their toes!

Think about that.

When you go off to college, do you know the rules? Nope, you have to learn things the “hard way” — make mistakes, get embarrassed, look silly—and eventually you figure it out.

Then, you get your first job. New set of rules, expectations, behaviors, and attitudes. You adapt, improvise, and overcome.

Then, you get married. Oops, now you are sharing the mundane ups and downs of daily life with another human being—New set of rules, expectations, behaviors, and attitudes.

Then, baby shows up! Then, baby is a toddler, pre-teen, teenager, college student! Then, suddenly, it’s time to “retire” — New set of rules, expectations, behaviors, attitudes.

Then, it’s “grandpa” time — and you blow out your back picking up baby…then, years later, grand-baby is driving you to temple…over and over again, you adapt, improvise, overcome.

Truth of Impermanence?

Each stage of life brings a new set of rules, expectations, behaviors, and attitudes!

When we reflect upon the story, we realize that Stellaluna was so lucky!

Stellaluna fell into a nest of birds who accepted her as a bat in their bird nest, shared everything they had with her, taught her how to live in harmony as a bat in a bird’s nest!

Stellaluna is then reunited with her mother, who teaches her how to be a bat in a bat’s world! And Stellaluna shares her joy with her bird family, who rejoice in her happiness. Now, Stellaluna has the best of both worlds!

Isn’t that the story of you?

“How can we feel so different and be so much alike?”

“How can we be so different and feel so much alike?”

In romantic love relationships, bonding between parents and children, navigating workplace interactions, friendships, fellowship with temple Sangha members and friends, being a good neighbor, a member of the community, this insight is the key to living in harmony with people who are different from you.

Different lifestyles, attitudes, values mean each individual FEELS things in a different way; and yet we can BE so much alike.

Different perspectives, life experiences, and causes and conditions mean we think, act, do things in a different ways and yet FEEL so much alike.

Buddhism teaches us if we live life as, “It’s about ME (my ego)!” we will be banging heads with billions of other human beings insisting “it’s about ME!”

And we can see this in our nation today. As Americans, we respect the right of all citizens to voice their opinion, to protest peacefully, to hold unpopular views.

As human beings, however, we instinctively insist, “Yes, but I’m right, you’re wrong! It’s about ME!” And thus, disharmony, anger, and conflict arise.

Buddhism teaches when we live life as, “It’s NOT about ME!”, we live together in harmony with other people, all living beings, the environment, and the planet. 

Human beings communicate best through telling stories, which is why the Children’s Dharma Story Time often has more viewers than the Dharma Talk for Adults.

It’s more fun to learn from a story than it is to be lectured to, or preached at!

What’s your Stellaluna story? When were you a “bat in a bird nest?” Who helped you learn the rules? What did you do to adapt, improvise, and overcome? Who helped you discover your true self?

And so, today, consider every person you encounter as a fellow “bat in a bird’s nest” — will you be the one to accept them as they are, teach them the rules of the house, and just BE friends BECAUSE of our differences!

If you’re a bat and you only hang out with bats, you’ll only know the world of bats. And that’s perfectly fine, you’re a bat!

But if you find causes and conditions have led to being a bat in a bird’s nest, what a rare and wonderful opportunity to learn new things, gain new perspectives, and discover your true self. It’s scary to be a bat in a bird’s nest and it’s not pleasant to be the “outsider”—as adults, we all know this.

As Shin Buddhists, Amida’s Great Compassion compels us to aspire to be the one accepting the other, just as they are, teaching the other, and simply being friends because we feel and do things differently.

You don’t have to learn to enjoy eating bugs. But if that’s what needs to be done to live, you take a deep breath, suck it up, and just do what needs to be done. When we awaken to the reality-as-it-is we are all Bats in a Bird’s Nest, we become empowered, just as we are, to accept the other, just as they are.

The Infinite Wisdom of Amida guides us to this awakening—we are all Bats in a Bird’s Nest—through a children’s story that makes the adults think.

The Great Compassion of Amida knows our “adult” Ego-Self prevents us from seeing reality-as-it-is and so this Wisdom comes to us in the form of a children’s story we can read to children while absorbing Wisdom ourselves.

We are all Bats in a Bird’s Nest.

What are you going to do today to live in harmony with people who are different from you?

“How can we be so different and feel so much alike?”

“How can we feel so different and be so much alike?”


The Masks We Wear: Halloween 2021

“Does this COVID-19 mask make me look fat?”

(Minister Message, Makawao Hongwanji Buddhist Temple Newsletter, October 2021)

Twelve months have passed since the Makawao Buddhist Temple hosted its first (and supposed to be only) “in-person distanced trick-or-treat” Halloween Fun Day in October 2020. This was first time in months we were able to welcome back on temple grounds our precious keiki, Dharma School students, and young people as trick-or-treaters; AND parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunties as treat-givers. Everyone had a wonderful time seeing the kids run around excitedly, treat-givers delighting in playing the role of “small kine scary” to give the kids a thrill, decorating their “haunted” cars and trucks, and then letting the kids choose their own very special, individually wrapped Halloween goody bags!

Even masked and distanced, you could feel the joy of children simply playing, the relieved smiles of the parents who enjoyed a brief moment of “normal” for their keiki, and the delighted laughter of the treat givers (grandparents, uncles, aunties, temple friends) as the kids realized they could choose any goodie bag they wanted from each “haunted” tailgate of each car!

We weren’t sure if we could pull it off, whether parents would feel comfortable bringing their kids to temple, if grandparents, uncles, and aunties would be willing to take the risks of infection and transmission (remember this was before vaccines became available!).

With tremendous support from temple members and friends, the evening was spooky and fun, and created the time, place, and occasion for people to re-connect, for children and adults to “be” who they wanted to be, whether ghost or goblin, monster or super-hero, if just for a moment of “sorta normal” in the midst of chaos.

I think we all hoped this year we’d be hosting an even bigger Halloween Trick-or-Treat in-person event with everyone in attendance, in costume, and just “be-ing” who they really wish they were. 

Obviously, causes and conditions won’t allow us to do that this year so we will dust off the plans from last year and host Halloween 2021 as a distanced in-person event. (See separate article for details!)

Such being reality-as-it-is, all we can do is make the best of it. And that is the message for this month’s newsletter. Buddhism teaches us how to look beyond our ego-centered, self-centered human mind, to accept gratefully the Truth of Impermanence of our frail human minds and bodies, so as to NOT take for granted each moment of this unrepeatable life, filled with the love and support of family, friends, and community as life unfolds naturally. The Truth of Non-Self, the insight that all life is inter-connected and inter-dependent, was evident when isolation forced upon us by the public health emergency created a “dis-connect” from our family, friends, and community—all the things we treasure but all-too-often taken for granted under “normal” circumstances. We just assume we have time.

The role of a Hongwanji Temple is to create the time, place, and occasion to “re-connect” with family, friends, and communities that form the sangha, the community of the Makawao Buddhist Temple, and to guide us on the path to awakening to reality-as-it-is, All-Embracing Compassion and All-Inclusive Wisdom of Amida Buddha, NamoAmidaButsu!

This reconnection at all aspects of our life is the original meaning of “religion” (from Latin re+ligere “to re-connect”) why the search for spiritual understanding is fundamental to finding meaning and purpose in life.

When we consider wearing a mask, there are masks were are forced to wear, and masks we choose to wear. The masks we are forced to wear include masks and face coverings to prevent the spread of disease, of course. And everyone will admit to being at least a little tired of wearing masks all the time, everywhere.

But consider the “masks” we wear at work, home, or temple. 

During my “career” I wore a “Big Success!” mask and costume—self-satisfied smirk, stupidly expensive hand-tailored suits, encyclopedic knowledge of exquisite wines and foods, single malt whisky, and Cuban cigars because clients expected their (expensive) creative director, corporate executive, or consultant to look, talk, and walk like a big success. But when I came home, Mimy and our son Kendall made sure I left the “Big Success” mask at the door and remembered to put on my “Dad mask”. It STILL took ME decades to realize “Big Success!” was not who I wanted to be when I grow up. Duh.

At work, I am the resident minister of Makawao Hongwanji Mission, and serve not only the Makawao Buddhist Temple, but also affiliated organizations like the Makawao Hongwanji Preschool in Pukalani, BWA, Scout Troop 18, Cub Pack 18, Makawao Hongwanji Judo Club, and any number of “informal” organizations that have found a home at Makawao Hongwanji. Thus, at work, I wear the mask of an ordained Buddhist Priest: the robes and vestments, the ritualized movements, the stylized vocalizations, my apparent encyclopedic knowledge of spiritual “stuff” so as to guide people to discovering the path that is for them and them alone.

As a resident minister of a Hongwanji temple in Hawaii, I expected to wear a “Bon-san” mask—the kind and gentle, wise, “I’ve found inner peace” look (sort of like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid but ministers don’t get to punch the bullies in the face). 

But the isolation of the pandemic forced me to see underneath the mask is the same self-centered, egotistical, “ME! It’s about me!” butthead that I’ve always been—I’m the “bad” guy in the movie!

The reality-as-it-is, the Dharma is that, born human, I will always be “only human”—limited, flawed, driven by self-centered insatiable urges, cravings, and attachments; simply not-as-good-as-ME-wants-to-believe—for as long as I live in this human body and think with a human mind.

It’s not possible to take off the “mask” of who you really are!

In Shin Buddhism, we often hear the expression “just as you are,” which is a translation of “sono mama” in Japanese. As Americans, we tend to interpret “just as I am” as “I am already awakened to reality-as-it-is, I am kind and gentle, and I live the light of gratitude. It’s those other people who are stupid!”—as a validation of ME (my Ego-Self) because we can only see things from a self-centered perspective! 

The Japanese “sono mama” understood in context is actually from Amida’s perspective! I believe you can begin to see this perspective in the English translation of Monshu OHTANI Kojun’s most recent message.

Gratitude for the Jodo Shinshu Teaching 

Namo Amida Butsu. “Entrust yourself to me. I will liberate you just as you are.”

This is the calling voice of Amida. 

My blind passions are embraced in the Buddha’s awakening, 

So the Buddha calls to me “I will liberate you just as you are.”

Gratefully responding to the Buddha’s call, 

I find that I am already on the path that leads to the Pure Land.
And the Nembutsu flows freely from my thankful heart. 

Living with the Dharma as my guide
Softens my rigid heart and mind.

Gratitude for the gift of life I have received
Frees me from becoming lost in greed and anger,
And allows me to share a warm smile and speak gentle words. 

Sharing in the joy and sadness of others, I shall strive to live each day to its fullest. 

April 15, 2021

Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha 

The Great Compassion of Amida embraces me, gives me my path to becoming Buddha, assures my going forth to Birth in the Pure Land, not because I am kind and gentle, wise, and patient! No, NamoAmidaButsu is for ME precisely because Amida sees my True Self: hopelessly self-centered, intellectually arrogant, and relentlessly whining about the physical and mental aches and pains that come with the Truth of Impermanence.

In the screenplay of the Hollywood version of my life, the scene unfolds like this:

Amida smiles and says, “Dude, which mask do you wear for Halloween? Which mask do you wear every day? Who is behind the mask?”

ME: “I am not the mask. I am the limited self-centered human being behind the mask.”

ME: (inside my head) “Haha-ha! Such profundity! I indeed stand spiritually above all others!”

SFX Karmic Buzzer: “Bzzzz!”

Cosmic Narrator: “Wrong! Back to square one, you self-centered egomaniac, the world doesn’t revolve around you!”

ME: Arggh! NamoAmidaButsu!

(Fade to Black)

Rev. Kerry

The Relativity of Happiness


Dharma Talk at Makawao Hongwanji on September 12, 2021

To realize shinjin oneself and to guide others to shinjin

Is among difficult things yet even more difficult.

To awaken beings everywhere to great compassion

Is truly to respond in gratitude to the Buddha’s benevolence.

—Shinran Shōnin, Chapter on True Shinjin in the Pure Land Way, KGSS

Good morning! 

I would like to talk about the “relativity of happiness.”

What is “happiness”? 

Why do we spend our lives “pursuing happiness”?

Why am I not happy?


Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher, created this framework for understanding happiness.

Happiness is the ratio (fraction) of “what I have” in the numerator, and “what I want” in the denominator, which results in a ratio of relative happiness.

If “what I have” is GREATER THAN “what I want” I am “happy.”

If “what I have” is LESS THAN “what I want” I am “not happy.”

Absolutely brilliant!

Is your “happiness” a negative number or a positive number?

This explains the paradox of the American Dream: the more you have, the more you want = the more you acquire, the more you are not happy!



The Buddhist perspective on this insight expands “what I have” into “desires fulfilled” and “what I want” into “desires unfulfilled.”

From an advertising perspective, the formula always considers NEEDS, WANTS, DESIRES — these are all consumer mindsets that we appeal to.

NEEDS — basic needs for air, water, food, clothes, shelter, etc.

WANTS — bigger house, faster car, more money

DESIRES — more, more, more!

Advertising aims to fan the “flames of insatiable desire” — which is exactly what Shakamuni Buddha identified as the cause of all suffering, discontent, and unhappiness in human life. 

We are driven by self-centered desires that can NEVER be satiated!

Thus, we live in a world where happiness is measured by “what we have” — and somebody always has more!

And thus, we are doomed to be unhappy!

“Desires fulfilled.” vs. “Desires unfulfilled.”

The goal of Buddhism is “to EXTINGUISH the flames of insatiable desire (tanha)” to end suffering.


What happens when the ratio of what you have vs. what you want is ZERO?

What happens when the ratio of what you have vs. what you want is ONE?

These are the two approaches to happiness in Buddhism!


How do we make the ratio of “what I have” vs. “what I want” to ZERO?

Remember your math! 

Make the numerator “zero” and the value is Zero!


Give up everything and become a monk.

If I remember my math correctly, the denominator can never be zero!

Think about that…it is mathematically impossible to eliminate “what I want” — it is impossible to eliminate desire!

Remember “nirvana” literally means “to extinguish” … in this case, to extinguish the flames of insatiable thirst (desire) — thus, Nirvana is the state of needing, wanting, desiring nothing.

This is the Path of Sages, the Theravada approach of renunciation, monastic life, and total commitment to realizing nirvana in this life, in this body.


What happens when the numerator and denominator are exactly equal? In other words, what happens when what I have and what I want are in balance.

If you are content with what you have, and if there is nothing you desire, then you are “happy” … aren’t you?


So, why am I not happy?

Because MY EGO insists I need, want, and desire more!

In other words, MY EGO keeps making the denominator bigger — I want more! — while the numerator (what I have now) stays the same!

Mathematically, it is intuitively obvious that this will never lead to happiness!


And that begs the question, what is happiness?

Is happiness relative?

Is happiness the ratio of “what I have” vs. “what I want”?

Is happiness only relative to what I have vs. what other people have?

Is happiness defined by what I want and what other people want?

Why are we obsessed with “pursuing happiness” even if we intuit the pursuit of MY personal happiness is making me more not happy.

Or is there an “absolute” happiness?

Happiness in the realm of human existence, this world of confusion and delusion in which we live, is by definition “relative.”

Is it possible to achieve “absolute” happiness? (CHANGE SLIDE)

Shin Buddhism teaches “when you truly care about the happiness of others more than your own happiness”, the “state of regarding each being as one’s only child” (byodoshin), this is Buddha-Nature, and we will realize it when we are born in the Pure Land.

The original sanskrit term for the Pure Land is “sukkhavati” or “realm of ultimate bliss” = absolute happiness.

Because we are human, limited by our all-too-human mind and body, Amida’s Great Compassion calls out to every sentient being, offering refuge, a path to becoming Buddha through the assurance of going forth to Birth in the Pure Land, Sukkhavati, the Realm of Absolute Happiness. (CHANGE SLIDE)

When you truly hear the Calling Voice of Amida, NamoAmidaButsu!, you truly realize “Life is not about ME!”

It’s not about MY EGO.

It’s not about MY HAPPINESS.

It’s not about ME!


Then, as in today’s Children’s Dharma Story Time, you become empowered to SHARE EVERYTHING YOU HAVE.

When people share everything they have with you, you become humbled, grateful, and say, “Mahalo! thank you, thank you, thank you!”

When everyone is humble and grateful and always saying, “mahalo!”, then the community is happy.

This is the state of Shinjin, the realization of the Faith of Shinjin in your heart and mind, the state of treating every living being as your only child. 


“It’s not about ME.”


The path of Shin Buddhist begins and ends with saying NamoAmidaButsu. When we truly hear the Calling Voice of NamoAmidaButsu, a transformation begins, guiding us to the experience of gratefully receiving the Faith of Shinjin.

Just say it.


Just say mahalo.

Dharma Talk:

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


Living the Life of Ingratitude

Rev. Kerry Kiyohara reflects upon the reality-as-it-is that he is “Living the Life of Ingratitude” in this Dharma Talk for Adults at Makawao Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on August 15, 2021.

Living the Life of Ingratitude

Lacking even small love and small compassion,

I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.

Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,

How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

—Shinran Shōnin, Gutoku’s Hymns of Lament and Reflection, CWS I, page 

In today’s Dharma Story Time, the wonderful book “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac, we learn about how the Cherokee people express gratitude for all things: the changing seasons, changes in life stage, and the clan/tribe/community that is the Cherokee Nation.

I’d like to introduce the Japanese word, “arigatai” which is very similar in usage to “otsaliheliga” and perhaps is a bit easier to pronounce. (CHANGE SLIDE)

“Arigatai” is composed of two roots: the verb “aru” (to be, to exist), and “katai” (suffix that mean “difficult/impossible”.

Thus, something that is “arigatai” is “impossible to be”… (CHANGE SLIDE)

For the most part, I don’t live the “life of gratitude” … because I am Ego-Self-Centered, I live the life of ingratitude.

ME (MY EGO) insists, “I deserve to live in Maui!” because I am such a wonderful person, who is entitled to live in paradise!

In reflection, I have done nothing to deserve living in Maui. 

ME (ME EGO) insists, “I deserve to live in Maui!” because I work hard, I’m brilliant, and because I’m spiritually superior to all by virtue of my priestly robes, chanting voice, and mastery of ritual.

In reflection, I just like the attention I get when dressed like a priest. 

I also love the sound of my own voice, and the brilliance of my words.

But when my Ego-Self insists “I deserve to live in Maui!” I am forced to encounter my true self, and it’s not very pretty.

When I get angry and vent my frustration, I see myself crying like Cadence, our one-year-old grandson, who can’t talk yet so he gets frustrated when adults don’t understand what he wants!

I’m the baby in the room!

Now, babies are allowed to cry. Grandpa is supposed to be able to control his impulses!

When I get depressed over the reality-as-it-is that parts of my body are decaying fast, and hurt all the time, I feel sorry for myself.

Why ME?!

And then, I see the ocean, the sky, the clouds, and aina of Maui.

It is as if Maui say, “Aloha, kotonk dude! Open da eyes!”

(CHANGE SLIDE)  “I am not worthy of living in Maui!”

How many times do I take the sheer beauty of this place for granted?

Every day.

How often do I just assume everyone in the Makawao Buddhist Temple ‘ohana will be kind and gentle to me, even if I am Mr. Grumpy?

Every day.

How often do I judge critically the ideas and efforts of other people?

Every day.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, spent my professional career in Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, and eventually ended up in Hawaii.

“I’m not worthy of living in Maui! And yet, here I am…”

This is “arigatai” — it is impossible for me to be allowed to live in Maui because I have don’t nothing to deserve (in fact, I actively think, say, do things that disqualify me from living here!)… “and yet, here I am…”

(CHANGE SLIDE) “Gratitude comes from being humbled every day.”

Mahalo, Maui, for whacking across the head with rainbows, blue oceans, and white clouds EVERY DAY!

Mahalo, Makawao, for showing me how fruits and vegetables grow from seeds to plants to things you can eat!

Mahalo, Makawao chickens, for waking me up before sunrise every morning … so I can experience the sun rising over Haleakala every morning…


The realization that I am not capable of discipline, practice, self-denial, or being virtuous, thus I will never become Buddha on my own, is a shock to my Ego-Self, who believes I am Superman.

My failure to maintain discipline, to control my urges and cravings, my fundamental inability to “think, say, do pure and beautiful” is humiliating.

“Why are you here?” my Ego-Self asks.

“What did you do to deserve being here?”

You cannot lie to yourself forever. Eventually, you realize that the Ego-Self is a total sham. 

Fake ME.

The dream of ME that I’ve been pursuing is “empty.”

ME is “empty.”


And here, the words of Shinran jump out at me.

Lacking even small love and small compassion,

I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.

Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,

How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

—Shinran Shōnin, Gutoku’s Hymns of Lament and Reflection, CWS I, page 

Shinran’s intense self-reflection leads to the realization that his human love and compassion are not capable of benefiting all sentient beings; and simultaneously the realization that the ship of Amida’s Vow is his only hope, and that he is already on the ship!


“otsaliheliga!” We are grateful!

NamoAmidaButsu! Mahalo, Amida, for embracing me, of all people, just as I am, and allowing me to live in Maui!



The essence of Shin Buddhism is the Faith of Shinjin, the Great Love and Great Compassion of Amida embracing us, assuring our Birth in the Pure Land, and thus becoming Buddha. The Faith of Shinjin empowers us to live this unrepeatable life with strength and serenity. In profound gratitude, we put our palms together, bow our heads, and say NamoAmidaButsu, entrusting in All-Inclusive Wisdom and All-Embracing Compassion.

Mahalo for listening this morning. May your day be filled with aloha!


Mahalo, Moth!

Moth, Makawao Hongwanji, July 19, 2021

“Why am I here?” is answered by pausing to reflect on the wonder of life right in front of you in this moment of your unrepeatable life.


Gecko Wisdom

“Things are always looking up from where I am.”

—Gecko Wisdom

Green gecko at Makawao Buddhist Temple, Maui, Hawai‘i, USA

Happy Sons & Daughters Day!

In reflection, a father is a father only because of his sons and daughters. Rev. Kerry shares how he truly came to appreciate just how hard his father worked when he was brought to see his own son work so hard to provide for his children. Happy Sons & Daughters Day! Mahalo for allowing me to be called both father and grandpa! NamoAmidaButsu!

Dharma Talk at Makawao Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Historic Makawao Town on the beautiful island of Maui in the great state of Hawaiʻi on June 20, 2021.