"When the Buddha pronounced his first noble truth, 'Everything is suffering,' he was hardly a prophet of gloom. He issued a realistic observation of change and our resistance to it, which typically issues in frustration and discontent. Still, frustration is not the last word on things in Buddhism. After his night of enlightenment, Thurman noted, Siddhartha smiled. He could have seen reality in its completeness and recoiled in horror. And if the horror was the decisive truth, then ignorance might, after all, be merciful, if not bliss! But, instead, the Awakened One smiled. And in that smile was completeness, the truth of the universe revealed in the upward turn of the lip.
"The secret smile also appears as a central formative image in the Zen tradition as well. One day the disciples of the Buddha gathered round him, awaiting his discourse. He looked at a flower, and while most of his disciples waited for a verbal teaching, one of them, Kashyapa smiled. The Buddha passed the flower to him and announced, 'There is a Supreme Dharma, a Wonderful Truth: words cannot reach it, words can not teach it.' The transmission of the teaching occurred silently and was confirmed by a smile. Here, the smile both transmits and confirms truth. Indeed, the smile contains understanding, even as that understanding transcends concepts.
"The mystery of the smile is also seen in the classic novel Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, a text that many teachers use in their courses owing to its astute existentialist insights. At the conclusion of the book, the struggling Siddhartha finds peace not through the mechanism of formal religion but through the truth of his unique path, which included arduous asceticism, the categorical rejection of spiritual striving, an embrace of sensual excess, and dismal failure too. When he falls when he comes to terms with his brokenness he softens. He is humble. Siddhartha's integration and healing occur gradually and are facilitated by listening to a flowing river in the presence of a compassionate friend. The river, always one but always changing, becomes a metaphor for the process of becoming. Applied to one's life, this process therefore must leave nothing out; it is all-inclusive and embraces everything: good and bad, saintliness and sinfulness, light and dark, all of it.
"At the end of the novel, his boyhood friend Govinda, always the seeker, always the follower, is reunited with Siddhartha. He clearly sees that his old friend has found peace, and, deeply frustrated by his own lack of serenity, he asks, 'Give me something to help me on my way, Siddhartha. My path is often hard and dark.' Siddhartha smiled. And that smile was revelation, disclosing to Govinda the sanctity of everything the deeply human, the passion, the goodness, the rounds of birth and death, the unity of it all in a constantly evolving process, free of judgment, full of acceptance. In experiencing the wholeness of his life, Govinda touches his own holiness. Hesse writes,
"This smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths this smile of Siddhartha was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times."
"Something was transmitted in this exchange for Govinda, who was unsure whether it lasted for a second or for a thousand years, but he was struck by the poignant mix of joy and sadness, a sense of being 'wounded deeply by a divine arrow.' Govinda then smiled too, bowing down, finally bursting forth in uncontrollable tears, for the smile of Siddhartha 'reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.' In a sense, this is both the process and goal of this book, namely, to consider what has been of value and holy in my life and to share it with the aim of evoking the same in yours.
"So, what exactly do smiles have to do with holiness? Everything. Something known and knowing occurs in a smile. The smile contains, perhaps, everything we need as humans to negotiate the convoluted paths of our lives. The smile addresses very local realities, but it also intimates and transmits something broader, something bolder, something utterly free. We live in a world shaken by tumult, disorder, and abject confusion. Even religious traditions, supposed anchors in the sea of storm, often become some of the worst causes of storms. To what do we turn for reassurance? Where is some consolation amid the heartache of personal and social chaos? Overwhelmed, we might think that abject destruction has the last word on reality. Our own suffering and that which we witness everywhere bear down upon us, and we feel our world and perhaps our hearts closing. And then we see a smile of someone special. It could be the smile of one's beloved, a smile that somehow holds everything in great tenderness. Or it may be a smile of a child, a smile that reminds us of beauty and innocence in the world. Or it may be the smile of ordinary persons who have lived life in extraordinary ways. These people seem to have won something for their efforts, a peace that, far from being disingenuous in the face of the world's troubles, often appears to penetrate much deeper than those struggles. Their smiles seem somehow to possess extra value, owing to the host of choices made in their lives, all of which become a cogent word, an exquisite soulsong back to God. Their smiles are congruent with a particular vision of reality, one in which love and kindness, and not aggression or despair, speak the last word, no matter the extent of sorrow and suffering.”