Is there Love in Buddhism?

On the occasion of Shinran Shonin’s birthday (May 21st, 1173, according to the solar calendar), I would like to ask this question about “love” in Buddhism. In general, from having studied Buddhism for the past 30+ years, I would say that Buddhism acknowledges love, but that it is viewed as something negative to be overcome. This viewpoint might recognize love as “desire,” one of the Three Poisons, and also the cause of samsara found in the Four Noble Truths. 

Of course, the question is more complicated than this. We should first ask, “What do you mean by love?” And this isn’t an easy question to answer! Which language and culture are you referring to? And what time period? European notions of love changed over time, for instance, so we want to be careful not to generalize too much. In the case of Buddhism, we might want to look at such terms as taṇhā, raga, and chanda. Each of these has different nuances – in fact, one term might have multiple meanings! Plus, I am not a Pali scholar, so instead, let’s look at the works of Shinran and see what he says.

One place we can find Shinran referencing desire is in the “Shoshin nembutsu ge,” or “Hymn of True Entrusting & Nembutsu,” where he provides a metaphor describing this Entrusting, or Shinjin, as the light of the sun and the Three Poisons as clouds and mist:

The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;

The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through;

Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,

Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin.

But though the light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,

Beneath the clouds and mists there is light, not darkness.

(Collected Works of Shinran, translated by Dennis Hirota, et al.)

The expression “greed and desire” is made up of two Chinese characters: “ton” and “ai.” “Ai” is the term in modern Japanese that is used for “love” (again, in a general, modern sense), but in the English translation it is “desire.” Another term, “yoku,” is also often used for desire – in modern Japanese, it is the word “hoshii” that can just mean “I want that.” So we can see how confusing this is (it doesn’t help that I’m not explaining it well). Even in the Pali, this term can be understood as “desire” (which in English may imply something more sexual but not necessarily), as “greed” (which in English looks more like greed for material possessions), or as “attachment” (which could be more neutral, and that might be more accurate, and yet the Indian words also have the sexual and material senses. Attachment may also refer to attachment to a notion of a self, but that’s going beyond the scope of this post!). But where is love in all this?

            In his Koso Wasan, as set of hymns or poems written about the Seven Masters, Shinran uses the term “on-ai” – “on” is often translated as benevolence and “ai” is the term we have been looking at. Although “on” is often used to refer to the benevolence of the Buddha (as in the song “Ondokusan”), here, in connection with “ai” it is used to refer to “the attachment to parents, husband, wife or children, etc. It is regarded as one of the causes of samsara” (this is given in a footnote to “The Koso Wasan: The Hymns on the Patriarchs by Shinran” from the Ryukoku Translation Series and whose translators included Hisao Inagaki, William Masuda and others, page 29). A-ha! Are we getting closer? Doesn’t this look like the kind of love we might be thinking of? And doesn’t it appear to be a bad thing? Family bonds in Buddhism often seem to be viewed as something to be overcome, hence the notion of “leaving the home” and becoming a monk. Even Shakyamuni did it!

            But this is also part of the crux of the Buddhism of Shinran. He was a monk – in fact, he became a monk at age 9 – but he was also a monk who got married and had children. So leaving one’s family behind isn’t part of the path of Jodo Shinshu. As Shin Buddhists, I would say that we follow a path similar to that lived by Shinran, living our lives in the midst of the Three Poisons, acknowledging their negative aspects but also not trying to escape or negate them. 

            There is one more aspect of love that Shinran writes about. He calls Shakyamuni and Amida our “Compassionate Mother and Father” (this is found, once again, in the “Koso Wasan,” “Collected Works of Shinran,” page 380), taking inspiration from Shan-tao, one of the most important masters for both Shinran and his teacher Honen. Maybe now we are getting somewhere! This ideal, familial relationship of parent and child is here presented in a positive light. The Compassion of the Buddha is likened to the love of a mother for her child. Yay, I found some good love!

            And actually, the answer was there all along in the classic gatha “Buddha Loves You” by Kimi Hisamatsu and Jane Imamura. So to celebrate both a positive valuation of love in Buddhism and the birth of Shinran Shonin, here is a video of that gatha with help from the Buddha Loves You Bunch. Happy Birthday Shinran, thank you for your teachings! Namo Amida Butsu!