The Nembutsu Life - Ondokusan
For years we have been singing the Ondokusan as a gatha in both English and Japanese for our monthly memorial services. We also introduced other Wasan into our services. Some members were surprised that the Ondokusan was actually one of the Wasan Shinran had composed. It can thus be chanted either as in the original or sung as a gatha with Western musical notations.

Many people, like my wife, feel this is very strong statement of faith. She looks forward to singing it every memorial Sunday. Our elders also sing it every week at the Hoyukai service on Tuesdays. The lines about remaining true to the teaching even if our bones turn to dust give the sense of a great faith, firm and established. There is one line in the Ondokusan that causes some discussion, however. It is the one about repaying the benefits of the spiritual teachers and the compassion of Amida. What does that mean? How does one exactly ‘repay’ the debt of gratitude so immense?

Both Shakyamuni and Shinran were not ‘sit on your hands’ types. They were men who took great risks to bring their teaching to others. Both went beyond the traditional models of religion that often just wanted people to “pray, pay and obey.” The prime directives of religious communities often get lost in the dust of politics and rituals. These men wanted to bring us back on course. Shinran’s teachings do this. They bring us back on course, by causing us to reflect of three aspects of the nembutsu life. These are simplicity, serenity and service. Simplicity is “Just recite the nembutsu and be saved.” Nothing could be easier. The Pure Land Path is the Easy Path for all. No one is excluded.

Serenity is knowing that your religious search has come to rest in the Nembutsu. There is no deity to fear, or to please. There are no devils or demons to fear, or even worry about at all. There is no last judgment to be concerned about. No hell in your future. No magic numbers. No bad days of the month to watch out for. No special prayers we need fear missing. No un-yielding burden of guilt and shame.

Imagine being free of all this and experiencing a true settlement of mind. That is serenity--not being all tied up in knots with fear and guilt. This serenity is part of the nembutsu life. Service is the response we have to all the benefits from the compassion of Amida. This is of course not a kind of service to puff ourselves up. It is a natural heartfelt response to all that we receive from our Nembutsu faith and from those who protect it and maintain it through the ages in the face of racial, religious and social prejudice. Service is gratitude in action. It is our way or repaying what we have received. No one can tell us exactly how to do this, however, for no one knows our innermost life but we ourselves. Hence no one is really in a position to judge us. We express our gratitude through service as best we can. Perhaps in the family, in the temple or in society. It may be in ways no one notices. It doesn’t matter. This is between you and Amida, no one else. So, that is an answer about the ondokusan that calls us both to a strong faith and to repay benefits with a life of simplicity, serenity and service. Whatever our lives are, those of us who are the happiest are those who are free of fear and guilt to find a way to be of service on their own terms. This is what the ondokusan calls us to do.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Sensei Ulrich

October 2005