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!

Thoughts on Reworking a Classic Gatha

“Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is a classic gatha* included in the Dharma School Service Book published by the Buddhist Churches of America back in the 1960s and reprinted several times after that. I’m not sure when I first heard it. I didn’t grow up in a BCA temple, I converted to Buddhism in the mid-‘90s when I was in my mid-20s, but I don’t think I participated in any Obon stuff while I was a student. It may have been during my first ministerial assignment at the Buddhist Church of Lodi; if not, then probably in 2009 during my first year assigned to the Buddhist Church of Oakland.

It’s an evocative gatha, unlike any other that I am aware of. The rhythm is different in several ways. To me it suggests a procession, or even a dirge. The idea of being on some kind of journey is suggested by the lyrics, “We will gather friends all along the way, and bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Sounds like we are going to the temple for a religious festival, with the streets lined with lanterns and wind-bells swaying in the breeze. That festival is Obon, a Buddhist “holiday” with many different aspects. I can’t go into it much here, but will say that it traditionally involves the idea that the spirits of one’s ancestors return to their home at this time of year (July and/or August in Japan and Japanese-American communities). Jodo Shinshu doesn’t really concern itself with this aspect of spirits. Actually, Japanese understandings of the afterlife are a combination of several different streams, the system is kind of messy. One view is that people go to the underworld once they die, coming home to visit once a year at Obon time. Another more Buddhist view is that people get reincarnated again and again, so why would they be living as spirits in the underworld? It’s not that they are the hungry ghosts of orthodox 6-realms reincarnation theory, though that does play a role in certain versions of the Obon story. I remember getting to study this kind of thing while I was a student at Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley with Hank Glassman – confusing but fascinating stuff!

My understanding as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist is that when people die they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, and instantly become Buddhas themselves. So they are not doomed to live in some shadowy underworld and we don’t have to worry about what form they will take in their next reincarnation. Instead, we can think of them as with us all the time as part of the Wisdom & Compassion energy of the Buddha. But even though that is the case all the time, we can also take advantage of special occasions like Obon or the various annual memorial services to think of our deceased loved ones with love and appreciation. To me, this song evokes that paradox of the sadness of loss comingled with the joy of gratitude in the way it switches from minor to major about 3/4 of the way in.

The other aspect of the rhythm is that it is written in 2/4. Most gathas are probably written in 4/4 or sometimes 3/4. “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” sounds like it’s in 4/4, but when I count it, I find that it feels like a couple of measures of 6/4, which is part of the mysterious feeling of this song. The first time I feel this is actually at the very beginning! Another way to think of it is that “Day,” at the end of the phrase “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day,” gets two extra beats. It happens again right before it switches to the major tonality, like in “And bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Actually, it happens at the end too, after which “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is usually repeated. However, this is where I rearranged the song – I took out the “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” at the end and just jump right in to the beginning of the next verse. I also took out the last two beats so that we come back to the next verse after a measure of 4/4 – now it seems maybe a little rushed, but at the time I thought it felt more natural. It might sound weird if you are used to singing it the way it was originally written – I would love to hear from you if it does!

The drums were recorded almost ten years ago at my friend Damon Burke’s studio, Oxbow Studios in Marlborough, Massachusetts. You may know that I spent a fair portion of my life in Massachusetts (or should I say “Mass.”?), and one of my best friends and one of the best drummers I know, Greg DeGuglielmo has lived there for a long time, so whenever I go back I am fortunate to 1) get to play with him and 2) get to record it! I knew I wanted to rework this gatha, so at one point I took advantage of the opportunity, planning to just keep the drums and redo everything else. And this year’s video Obon Service seemed like the perfect opportunity. I pulled my trusty Rickenbacker 4003S/8 bass out of its case and set out to realize my vision. It didn’t necessarily go the way I intended – I used to play it more chordally, but this time around I went with just playing a single-note line. The bass I used is an 8-string – unlike the usual 4 strings of a bass, on this one each string is accompanied by an extra string tuned an octave higher, kind of like on a 12-string guitar. I used my Budda Phatman tube distortion pedal – I didn’t think about it at the time, but it’s oddly appropriate, even if the company Budda did mess up the spelling. I tried to add some Moog synth to it also, but couldn’t get it to work; I may revisit this idea in the future.

I also doubletracked my voice. That seemed to work on the last gatha I reworked, “In Lumbini’s Garden” for Hanamatsuri this past April. I don’t have a great voice and it sounds kind of thin by itself, but singing the melody two times (well, multiple times but ultimately using two takes) thickens it up a little bit, plus you get the little idiosyncrasies when I sang it slightly differently. Those times could be looked at as mistakes, but I kind of like it! I remember as a kid in 7th grade listening voraciously to the Beatles, you can hear that they often doubletracked their voices (they later build an “automatic doubletracking machine” so they didn’t have to do it manually!), and sometimes they would leave in things that sounded like “mistakes” to me. But I grew to love those instances. I would wonder if they just didn’t have time to fix them (recording was much more “primitive” at the time), or left them in on purpose? I left mine in because I didn’t have time to perfect it!

I also made a video for the song with pictures from past Buddhist Church of Oakland Obon Festivals, and it also includes the lyrics in the hilarious “Star Wars” style.

* “Gathas” are a kind of neologism for Buddhist “hymns.” The word comes from Sanskrit, pronounced more like “gata” but English-speaking people always pronounce the “th” sound like in “this.”