Sweetness and Bitterness

The other day, my son went with a friend to the San Mateo County Fair.  When he returned home, I asked him if he had eaten anything at the fair, to which he replied, “Yes, cotton candy.”  The flavor of cotton candy is pure sweetness and I liked it myself when I was a kid.  When I recently tasted cotton candy for the first time in years, I found the sweetness to be a bit too much.  As a child, my favorite foods were simply sweet or salty, but as I get older, I find that I appreciate a much wider variety of flavors.

Scientific studies have identified five basic flavors that humans can taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.  The flavor umami was discovered in kombu seaweed stock in 1908 by Prof. Kikunae Ikeda at Tokyo Imperial University.  Umami is found in a variety of foods, including shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and cured meats.  It is said that the umami flavor enhances the sweet and savory flavors of various ingredients.

When I was a child, I did not like pickles or sauerkraut, but now I quite enjoy those sour foods.  Likewise, the enjoyment of bitter beverages like beer and coffee generally comes with age.  I was quite a picky eater as a child.  Apart from pickles and sauerkraut, I also refused to eat peanut butter, orange marmalade, raisins, fish, and vegetables in general.  As a result, the flavors of food that I enjoyed were very limited.  At this point in my life, I eat all of the above foods and happily enjoy a rich variety of delicious meals.

Just as I sought after only sweet and savory flavors as a child, I also sought after fun and exciting experiences.  As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate that life does not consist only of fun and exciting experiences.  There are times in life when we have experiences so sour or bitter that they bring tears to our eyes.  Just as we learn to appreciate the flavors of tart dishes and bitter drinks with age, we come to understand that while life has moments of pleasure, it also has moments of loneliness, disappointment, and sadness.  If we are able to find the flavor of gratitude in the midst of life’s many experiences, we can savor the preciousness of this human life.

By hearing the Buddha’s teachings, the flavor of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow is introduced into our lives.  The compassionate vow is the Buddha’s assurance that by receiving the entrusting heart of shinjin, we will realize awakening through birth in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land.  By trusting in the Buddha’s vow, we receive the vast Buddha-mind that embraces all of life’s experience.  Living in the Buddha’s vow we are able to deeply savor the experience of this human life.  Shinran expresses this way of living with the following words of the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge):

When the one thought-moment of joy arises,

Nirvana is attained without severing blind passions;

When ignorant and wise, even grave offenders and slanders of the dharma, all alike turn and enter shinjin,

They are like waters that, on entering the ocean, become one in taste with it.

In life, my likes and dislikes are not just limited to food, but can also apply to people, places, and experiences.  When I am with people who bother me or in places I dislike, my blind passions flare up and make me unhappy.  As the range of experience that I am able to accept narrows, my dissatisfaction with life increases.  On the other hand, when we are able to receive the Buddha’s mind, which is vast like the ocean that freely accepts the waters of all rivers that flow into it, we realize great joy.  

There are still many foods that I do not like to eat.  It seems impossible to become completely free of my likes and dislikes.  The great peace and joy that we receive through the Buddha’s vow is not attained by getting rid of all our likes and dislikes and severing our blind passions.  The vow expresses the great compassion of the Buddha who vows to bring peace to picky and fickle people like me.  Sustained by the Buddha’s compassionate vow, the sweet and bitter experiences of this life become one in the taste of gratitude.

Namo Amida Butsu