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!

Expressing Awareness and Gratitude with One Word

“Itadakimasu” is one of those interesting Japanese words that doesn’t have an exact counterpart in English. It is usually said before eating a meal. Literally, it means “I receive.” But – and here is where Japanese and English diverge – itadakimasu is the humble form of the neutral form moraimasu, so it might be more accurately said to mean, “I humbly receive.” That’s one clue as to its deeper meaning. The other clue is the kanji that is used: 頂. My favorite online Japanese dictionary, Jim Breem’s WWWJDIC, gives the following for this character: “place on the head; receive; top of head; top; summit; peak.” “Receive” makes sense, but what’s this stuff about the top of the head or placing something on the head?

One place this character can be found is in Junirai, a text attributed to Nagarjuna, the first of the Seven Masters selected by Shinran. Every fourth line of this text repeats “ko ga cho rai mi da son” meaning “Thus I bow my head to Amida” – cho is the same character as in itadakimasu, and rai means to bow. Lowering one’s head and bowing are expressions of deep respect towards someone. This can be seen in the deepest bow: the full five-point prostration where one gets down on the knees, puts the elbows and hands on the ground, and touches the forehead to the floor. (I remember my uncle getting me to do this to my grandmother when I went to visit them in rural Japan decades ago.) But what does it have to do with eating?

Another movement you may see at temple is when we open the sutra book. Not everyone does it, but the ministers do. Before we open it, we hold it up to our head first. This is the lowering of one’s head as a gesture of respect to the words of the Buddha. I have heard it said that when we do this we “itadaku the book,” in other words, we hold it up to our head to express our reverence for the Buddha’s teachings, the words that we have received. So this word itadaku can also be done with bodily action.

Inversely, one of the interesting things about language is that we can sometimes “do” things with words. This idea was propounded by the British philosopher J. L. Austin, in a lecture released as the book, “How to Do Things with Words.” Examples that he gives include the naming of a ship by stating “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” or a priest or minister marrying two people by stating, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It is the words that perform the action. And it looks to me that itadakimasu is one such word. By saying “itadakimasu,” I symbolically hold what I am receiving up to my head. Maybe we could actually hold up our plate, but it doesn’t really work in Japan because a lot of times the food is in a bunch of small bowls instead of all mixed together on a plate!

But why are we treating our food with such respect? I’d like to answer this with a story about my chanting teacher, Reverend Haruyoshi Kusada. Among other things, Kusada sensei was the chanting teacher for several generations of BCA ministers. Once, at the end of the semester, he took our chanting class out for lunch. After we said “itadakimasu,” one of the students said to sensei: “I asked my Japanese teacher what itadakimasu means, and she said it doesn’t mean anything, Japanese people just say it before they eat.” Kusada sensei looked appalled, and said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” The student responded with, “No, my teacher said it doesn’t mean anything,” and Kusada sensei again said, “No, it means gratitude to the entire universe.” He then went on to explain: “The food we are eating is plants and animals that gave their lives. And the plants and the animals need the earth, the rain, the sun. All of those things are in the food we are eating, along with innumerable other causes and conditions. So we say thank you to the entire universe by saying itadakimasu.” Those weren’t his exact words, but you get the idea. I still remember many bits of that day, the ride over with Kusada sensei driving us in his van, the restaurant. Of course I forget most of the other parts, but I’m glad that conversation happened and that I still remember it, and of course I am moved thinking about my teacher, Reverend Kusada. Amazing to think that his words continue to resonate in me today.

So during this time of the Coronavirus and social distancing and Stay at Home/Shelter in Place, when the future is uncertain and many things we used to take for granted are now not so easy and convenient, maybe we should try and incorporate itadakimasu into our daily routine. And if we already do it, to do it not out of habit, but to actually try and experience this gratitude. Taking things for granted means that we consume them mindlessly – instead, we can try and be mindful and aware of how special each meal is, each item we eat, down to a single grain of rice. One way to do this is to say itadakimasu each time we eat something. Of course we should also say Namo Amida Butsu, but I think that itadakimasu means and expresses something special that we can incorporate into our routine and that can help us during this difficult time.

This essay is related to the Dharma Message for Sunday, April 26, 2020: