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Understanding Amida Buddha Through the Mother’s Love, Part I

Editor’s note: Teresa Shimogawa, a Minister’s Assistant at Orange County Buddhist Church, delivered the following Dharma message on May 12, Mother’s Day. Because of the length of the message, the Wheel of Dharma is presenting it in two parts. The second part will appear in the August 2024 issue. The Wheel of Dharma is honored to publish this Dharma message and is reprinting it with the permission of Teresa Shimogawa.


 

Since the beginning of human history in cultures throughout the world, motherhood has been placed on a pedestal as the ultimate form of purest love. The mother is stereotyped as a nurturing caregiver, a refuge for loved ones, selfless and self-sacrificing. 


We assume women should want to be mothers — and have the capacity to be good mothers — but this expectation is imposed on women who are fundamentally nothing more than human beings. 


Despite motherhood having almost a sacred role in society, the relationship evokes complex feelings. There are mothers who have lost children, and children who have lost mothers. There are people with strained mother relationships, and mothers with strained child relationships. While some women have chosen not to be mothers, others are yearning to be mothers. Some mothers do motherhood in ways they did not expect, and there are people who are not biological moms doing the job of a mother. Motherhood is not one size fits all.

 

There is the ideal of the mother's love, and then there is the reality of a person’s encounter with it, either as the child or as the mother or both. When we celebrate something like Mother's Day, we can feel pressure to honor that one traditional version of a mother's love, and it can cause complicated emotions and pain because that is not everyone’s reality.


I’m one of the mothers who is doing motherhood in a way I did not sign up for. I always wanted to be a mom. I used to play with Cabbage Patch Dolls, and when I turned 12, I baby-sat every week for regular clients until I got married. I came out of the womb with maternal instincts and always loved children. 


I followed society’s recommended timeline for having children: I went to college, started a career, got married, bought a house, and then planned each one of my kids down to the day. I’m a Type A planner and I had many expectations that I had been dreaming about and planning since I was a little girl. I wanted several kids. Four at least, maybe five. 


Then one day, I became an only parent when my husband unexpectedly passed away. Words cannot capture the pain I felt suddenly becoming a single mother of three small children — an only parent — and the lonely and arduous road I would be forced to travel on.


Becoming a single mother was horrifying to me. Single moms are stigmatized in society. Only parents are even more rare and undesirable. I had done everything I was supposed to do, and suddenly the rug was pulled out from beneath me. I felt wronged by the universe and frustrated that there was not a grievance department to fix it for me. 


I had a supportive partner who shared all aspects of parenting with me, so it was a shock to my system to then have to do everything on my own. Only parenthood is the toughest job that I will ever do; a grueling pace of often invisible work amongst social circles who can never fully understand. I knew being a parent would be hard, but this is not how I envisioned being a mother. 


Yet, it is also the most rewarding hat I wear. My kids have kept me centered in this crazy world. My number one priority has been to give them a life as close to as possible to what they might have had when their father was here. I know I can never duplicate that previous life, but it is an ideal, a standard, a high bar that I strive to get as close to as possible. It is my mother’s love for them.


I come from a long line of emotionally distant mothers, so on the flip side, I have stories for days about how it feels to be on the receiving end of complicated love from a mother, and how much I strive to break that cycle with my own kids.


It’s complicated. Grief, being a mother, being a human. It’s not all warm cooked meals and cozy bedtime stories. 


I’m also a teacher. When I had children, it changed me as a professional. I got softer. I started taking late work and adopting flexible policies that took into account everyone’s complex circumstances. It was easier to see other people’s kids as my kids, and my kids as other people’s kids. When I’m at my very best, I don’t see any difference between my kid and your kid. After I became a mother, I thought more about how I wanted my own kids to be treated. It became personal. Yet, I have colleagues who never had their own biological children and who have always been more loving than me, so I know this kind of love is not limited to women who give birth. It’s not even something limited to women. My husband, who was also a teacher, had more mother’s love as an educator than I ever did. 


To me, this ideal of a mother’s love is like Amida in Shin Buddhism. I struggled with the concept of Amida Buddha, much like I sometimes struggle with motherhood. In Shin Buddhism, Amida represents a dynamic spirit. Amida is ultimate reality and Buddha-nature. Shin Buddhists refer to Amida Buddha as one of the innumerable Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism, known for boundless compassion that is non-judgmental and all-embracing. It represents Sakyamuni Buddha and the Dharma. It isn’t a god. It isn’t a real person. 


Coming from a Catholic background, it took a long time for me not to see Amida as god-like. In my mind, if it wasn’t a god, what could it be? I wanted a concrete answer, but everyone seemed to have a different understanding. 


Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, referred to Sakyamuni Buddha as the kind father and Amida Buddha as the mother of loving care. Their compassionate guidance awakens supreme Shinjin in us: a mind free of doubt, sincere and entrusting. Of course, they are not our biological parents, but they are sources of love that can nurture our existence in this world of suffering. Amida is a teacher. An ideal. A source of inspiration and guidance. It is an attempt to conceptualize something  bigger than us.


It is that mother’s love of the highest ideal, the warmest embrace you can ever imagine taking solace in, a refuge, a place of safety and security, something you don’t have to think about being there for you, you just know that she is. A safety net. That compassion can come from buddhas. We are all capable of becoming buddhas.


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