led by Martin Evans on

The Buddha’s smile

by Martin Evans

When I was at school was told off for smiling. I was given a detention. And when I was in detention I was given another. I was still smiling. I was told to ‘wipe that smirk off my face’. I didn’t know it was wrong to smile until then. Most people love to see a smile. There is nothing more warming to the heart than to be met with a smile.

I want you to look at the Buddha’s face. Can you see his smile? It is very subtle. Why is he smiling? Is he experiencing a blissful meditative state? Or is it the smile of someone who is experiencing nothing?

We can think that the Buddha’s enlightenment is an escape from the world, an escape through meditation into a sublime state of existence. If we think that then we try to create this blissful state, through practicing some meditation technique, to develop concentration. But the Buddha rejected the path of concentration as leading to the ultimate goal in itself. He tried it and found it didn’t lead to the end of suffering. He didn’t deny the benefits of the concentrated mind, but he didn’t find it led him to the experience of the truth of the way things are.

Again, we can think that it is a complete escape into nothingness or some sort of non-existence. Well, the Buddha was very clear that his enlightenment wasn’t of this world nor another. It wasn’t an escape of any sort. It was a release, a freedom, but not a rejection.

So what is this smile? I think it is the experience of now. The end of seeking for anything other than the way it is right now. In our worldly thinking we could say ‘contentment with nothing’, because the currency of our experience is the past and the future. There is no experience of now in the grasping mind.

I think this word now is a better word than mindful or aware. How is it right now? This question brings us into the immediacy of awareness or mindfulness, whereas to think of being aware indicates something we are going to be in the future. In the future we will never be aware, if we are not aware in the now.

It is the experience of laying down a burden. Doesn’t that bring on a smile? Ah, yes, I know how that feels. When I walked from Lands End to John O’Groats I learnt all about how it felt to lay down my burden at the end of the day. The funny thing is, all we seek is contentment and that laying down of the burden is all it takes, that letting go into the way things are.

And it is the smile of compassion. Isn’t that a mystery, where this compassion comes from when there is no one trying to be compassionate. We think that we need to become compassionate. We don’t have the trust that compassion is the expression of our true nature. When this sense of me and mine dissolves, this delusion of self, then there is nothing hindering the expression of compassion. And, although compassion is feeling the suffering of others, nevertheless, here it is in the form of a smile. But it is a slightly sad smile isn’t it. A smile that embraces both happiness and suffering. Not an escape from the world, but a complete openness to the world.

Isn’t it wonderful, that the Buddha’s smile is already within us, just waiting to get out.

When we meditate we should cultivate this smile, we need to gladden the heart. I don’t mean to become happy clappy people - Theravada Buddhism tends to appeal to people who like to take things seriously – but the right attitude to practice is a light heartedness. We shouldn’t make it into a struggle. This is how people so often approach it, through their conditioning. They are looking for something to make a struggle out of. When you tell them it is their nature to see, they don’t listen. They don’t trust in their own ability to see the truth because it can’t be like that, life has to be an endless struggle. So it is. It goes on and on.

If you follow a meditation technique, it can be something to create a problem out of, rather than a stick to support you in your practice. It really doesn’t much matter what technique you use provided you have the right attitude to your practice. Certainly some techniques are more suited to certain temperaments. But the trouble is, what would be most helpful is generally the one we least want to do. This is certainly true of loving kindness (metta). It is most beneficial to people of an angry temperament, but the people who really like doing it are those of a lustful temperament. (We all have these temperaments but one tends to predominate. Our challenge is to bring them into balance). That’s why it’s a good idea to think of giving yourself up to the practice, rather than cling to what you like. After you have tried it, then you can see for yourself whether it was beneficial or not. This willingness to be open to whatever is in the moment creates a pliant mind, which of wonderful benefit, far greater than whatever benefit you could get out of any meditation technique.

This attitude to practice, this gentle openness, this pliant mind, supports our development of awareness, of being in the now. It takes time, but you begin to realise what the value of a technique is in your meditation practice, and where the danger of it lies. The danger of a support, especially if it has been useful, is that we hold onto it when it’s time to let go. We have to abandon our attachment completely. So it is really good to take this on as a path of practice. I used to say, ‘if it’s let-go-able, let go of it’, and I used to test things out with this mantra. I used to investigate everything that came into the mind this way.

I used to test out my feelings, asking myself ‘who is feeling this way?’, and resting with the silence in the mind which followed. This is the practice of insight (vipassana). It doesn’t depend on any meditation technique; it is just a way of letting go of our attachment to me and mine, our grasping mind.

Bearing with, rather than doing battle with the mind

But we are not trying to defeat the mind. We want to do battle with the mind because it is not how we want it to be. But we should change our attitude. We should cultivate kindness towards the thoughts that arise in our minds. Trying to get rid of thoughts or block them out, this is how we empower them. When we take no special interest in them they will leave of their own accord, in their own time. This willingness to bear with what arises in the mind requires the cultivation of boundless patience – what a wonderful quality to develop.

But some thoughts are very sticky. The thoughts that hang around, these are the ones we most want to get rid of. They are the ones that have something to teach us. So we should listen to them, let them be our teachers. When we have learnt what we need to know they will not trouble us again.

Ajahn Chah described it as inviting your guests into a room in which there is only one chair, and you are sitting on it. So your guests are welcome, but they can’t stay long because they have nowhere to sit. And, he said, when people are uncomfortable, they reveal themselves and you can see them for who they are.

So we should not do battle with our thoughts. Selecting those we like and dislike just traps us in our preferences, our conditioned world. It is not the way to see them as they are. The mind is a receptacle for thoughts. Thoughts arise and cease in it, that is the nature of the mind. Like people who come and go in your life. You have to welcome them all as friends, whether you like them or not.

Mindfulness is the practice of now

But when you are practicing mindfulness, this practice of now, you are aware of whatever arises in the moment. When thoughts arise, you keep them standing until they go away. This is how you should be with thoughts. You don’t sit down with a lustful thought, or an angry thought. Keep them standing until they reveal themselves and leave. But don’t despise thoughts, for if you do you will despise your mind. It is in the mind that insights arise. The mind is where we can reflect, where we can see things as they are. We have no better friend than our own mind. I have heard people say that what they want to do is stop the mind. But they are concentrating the mind over here to escape from what they don’t like over there. They are running away. They think there is somewhere they can hide. But they are trying to hide in their own house. Who are they hiding from? It is terribly sad because this body and mind is all they have in the world. What they need to stop is the grasping mind. This is where true happiness is found.

Look at the Buddha’s body. We abide in a body, it is what keeps us on the earth. It can give us a lot of pain. Physical pain helps remind us we are body bound. It brings us down to earth. It is a good place to focus the mind, and let go. The same with restlessness, these are our teachers. We should stay with them and learn. Don’t rush out of class before the teacher has finished the lesson. Look at this restlessness. It isn’t a problem, it is a wonderful teacher, but we have to develop the patience to stay with it.

Why do we do this? Because it leads to freedom. When we know restlessness, we don’t need to run away from it anymore. When we stop running away the mind becomes completely at ease, with both the body and the mind, whatever the moment brings, in the moment, in the now.

And here is where the transformation occurs, that turning outside of what has been for so long hidden inside. All our humanity, vulnerability and compassion that is folded within, turning outward to the world, like an opening flower. No wonder the Buddha smiles. But it is subtle isn’t it. It takes a little time to see that smile, and to discover it in our own practice.

Where do we begin?

We may need to develop many qualities we don’t yet possess. But more than anything, we need to develop that quality of trust. It is the trust in the path of practice and the confidence in our own natural reflective ability to understand this body and mind, to see things as they are.

The Buddha could see that there was this potential in us all, to be enlightened. But his smile is tempered with the sadness that so few of us realise it.

My garden is full of fruit trees I planted 20 years ago. Every year I have enough fruit for everyone, I feel almost embarrassed I have to give so much away. All I have to do is wait for it to ripen, then gather it up. This is nature isn’t it. But look at all the gardens with no fruit in them. All the people who probably think, if they’d planted some trees, they would have fruit now. But they still don’t plant fruit trees. They probably think it isn’t worth it, that it takes too long before you get any fruit.

The Buddha said that one of the greatest blessings is to have done good actions in the past. We all live in a garden, it is our mind. We need to develop and train it, in morality, concentration and wisdom. What I am talking about is the confidence that if we plant and nurture our fruit trees, one day our fruit will ripen. The only way to have the fruit of past good action is do good actions now. We are very fortunate, we have this opportunity.

MRE – updated 06/02/15

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