Love or Compassion in a Dentist’s Office?

The Taste of the Nembutsu cover image

A message from Rev. Ai Hironaka which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.

To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.

Love or Compassion in a Dentist’s Office?

Rev. Ai Hironaka

During a General Buddhism class at Ryukoku University, the professor discussed love. He said, “The word ‘Love’ that we use nowadays in Japan comes from Christianity,” referring to the Western world. “In Buddhism, ‘Love’ refers to attachment; therefore, we don’t consider ‘love’ as a good thing. Try not use ‘Love’ in a positive way, but use it in a negative way. Okay?” He kept saying that over and over again.

I was confused and a little unhappy. Why? Because my name is Ai – meaning is ‘Love’. I understood his point and what he wanted to teach us. But I could not stop thinking, “You make me upset.”

When we took a break, I went to his office and said, “My name is Ai. My mom gave me the name Ai. When I was a youngster, I hated my name but now, I am very honored to have that name. Is there any way to accept my name in a good way?” I sounded a little annoyed. He said, “Ohhh, I am sorry. It does not mean you are bad. Shinran Shonin used the word ‘Kyo-Ai’, meaning ‘respect and intimacy.’” Later, he apologized to the students at the beginning of class.

Love is one of the key words for any religion. Buddhism, which teaches compassion, does not expound much about love in the Western sense. In other religions, love is considered a positive passion and regarded as the most important thing in religious morality. In Buddhism, however, love is considered a form of attachment and looked upon as a cause of transmigration. In Buddhism, compassion is presented as the closest equivalent of love in other religions.

Sakyamuni Buddha said, as translated from The Dhammapada:

From love is born love and from love is born hatred.
From hatred is born love, from hatred is born hatred.

Love and hatred are very closely connected. Let me show you through a parent’s behavior. Sometime ago on Maui, I went to a children’s dentist with my son, for the first time. He had a toothache, which kept him awake. On a Wednesday or Tuesday, I called the dentist, who was recommended to my wife by a temple member, to make an appointment. The receptionist said, “The dentist cannot see you until next Monday.” I explained that I at least wanted to ease his pain, so finally she said, “No guarantee, but you can come Friday morning 8:00 a.m. and wait to be squeezed in.” I said, “Thank you very much for your kindness.”

My son had already experienced going to a dentist in Japan, but there, parents can go in with the child. I was worried about that. I filled out the forms and explained to the nurse what was happening while I waited with my son. At about 8:20 a.m. his name was called. We walked until the door, then he turned to me and said, “Papa mo issho ni ikou?” (Papa, will you go in with me?) But the nurse said, “No, no, daddy has to stay outside.” I thought he was going to cry but he didn’t. He just nodded a couple of times, and he went in, not expecting that it was going to be painful.

At 9:00 a.m. the nurse came out and said to me, “His bottom tooth is infected and loose, so the dentist has to pull it out.” I was shocked. I almost said, “Is he going to die? At least can I talk to him before the surgery?” I was Bakatare or Oyabaka, fool or doting parent. But some of you might understand what I am saying, right? I felt so sorry for him. If I had more diligently taught him how to brush his teeth, it would not be like this. I blamed myself. But what can I do for my son in the waiting room?

The waiting room was so cold; it was hard to flip my book’s pages. But, my son must be cold too so I just waited in patience. It was already 3 hours since he went in – then a piercing scream and crying began. I pretended like it did not matter, but I was so worried about my son. I was wondering – is that my son or not? The scream was a boy’s one, which sounded like my son, but hopefully not. Other parents were there too. When I looked at their faces, they were lined with pain. Two mothers must have felt like me as the screams continued.

Then one of the mothers stood up and went to the counter. She asked the receptionist, “Is that my son?” The other mother and I paid full attention to the conversation. The receptionist came back and said, “Don’t worry, he is not your son.” The mother said, “Ohh that’s good to hear”, with a big smile, and went back to her seat, smiled again, and started reading a magazine. The screams did not bother that mother; she was happy.

I thought it was Hoken then. The one crying is my son! I could not think for that mother, “Ohh that is good, lucky not your son” with a nice smile. In my mind, I thought, “Hey! stop smiling! Can’t you see what other parents are feeling?” I was so upset, thinking, “That is my boy!” Up until then, she and I were the same – parents worried about their children. At least she could say, “Sorry” to us and stop after they left, I began to think. What if I had stood up and asked the receptionist if it was my son; then, I would be happy and could smile at ease. Such is the passion of parents!

This experience reminded me of another parent: the story of O-Bon. Among Sakyamuni Buddha’s disciples, Mogallana or Mokuren Sonjya has extra special sensory powers beyond what an ordinary person could see. After his mother died, he wondered, “Is my kind and gentle mother living a pleasant life in the Pure Land?” Using his special powers, he went to visit his mother but could not find her. Thinking it was not possible, he peeked into the world of suffering. To his dismay, she was in the hell of Gaki, the hell of hungry ghosts. To save his mother, Mogallana offered her food, but it would burst into flames. He thought, “How can I save her?” and went to seek advice from Sakyamuni Buddha.

The Buddha responded saying, “The monks and priests are returning from a Ango-retreat. Why not offer your hospitality and entertain them with a feast on that day as an act of of Dana?” As suggested, Mogallana offered a bountiful meal to the large number of monks. Consequently, Mogallana’s mother was saved from hell. The day that the feast was offered to the monks is said to be the origin of O-bon. Another book says that when Mogallana saw that his mother was saved, he danced with joy. Some say this was the reason why we have Bon Dances.

The important question for this story is why did Mogallana’s mother fall into hell? For Mogallana, his mother was very caring; the perfect mother. Like any parent, she would do anything for him, no matter what. It is only natural for any parent to think that his own child is the greatest. You might say that this feeling is selfish and apart from the heart of Dana. Or, such parents love their children regardless of the sins they may commit. Without understanding such passions in parents, children feel they grew up on their own strengths and merits. In Mogallana’s case, a mother’s love for her child can be so deep yet so blind that it might be considered an error or flaw; a blind passion.

Anyone who understands a parent’s feeling for his/her children would surely empathize and understand the actions and feelings of this mother, who seemed blind to another’s parent’s unhappiness. However, we cannot look at it only from this point of view. Buddhism teaches us more. With every mother’s deep love is another parent’s unhappiness. Because of that deep love, any mother could not see the other’s unhappiness. But, I am not saying the mother was bad because I may do the same thing. We are all doing the same thing; we are just parents.

In order to raise a child, many sacrifices must be made. At the same time, a mother’s deep love is such that cannot be overcome by the seriousness of the any crime committed. However, depending on the situation, this love can be viewed as a serious offense. It is understandable why Shinran Shonin teaches us that whatever a human being does, it cannot be 100% honorable or pure in deed. Shinran Shonin said in his Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling,

Foolish beings: as expressed in the parable of the two rivers of water and fire, we are full of ignorance and blind passion. Our desires are countless, and anger, wrath, jealousy, and envy are overwhelming, arising without pause; to the very moment of life they do not cease, or disappear, or exhaust themselves. (CWS. P.488)

Once, I listened to Rev. Tetsuo Unno’s dharma message in which he said, “I love you means I am killing you.” Because there are hidden meanings: I love you if you follow me. I love you if it is convenient for me. Human love has limitations. It sounds like love is beautiful but we should understand that love is also self-attachment.

Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion has no limitation, no discrimination. Amida Buddha embraces me, just as I am. Amida Buddha embraces you, just as you really are. Amida Buddha embraces me just like a baby in the mother’s soft and warm arm.

When sentient beings think on Amida
Just as a child thinks of its mother,
They indeed see the Tathagata –who is never distant-
Both in the present and in the future.

(CWS. P.357 “Hymns of the Pure Land”)