Intimacy and the Buddha’s Smile, by John Aske

Head of Buddha, Southern Cambodia, 7th century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art.How do we communicate with people we don’t know? Sometimes a smile removes the barrier, and sometimes a person returns as if from a distant place, like a fish surfacing from deep waters. It’s not only simpler than words, it’s more profound, and it is an example of what the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was speaking of when he wrote: ‘There are certain things in the world that give on the inner life.’ Sometimes a smile reveals a quite unexpected side of a person. Or, as Tristram Shandy put it: ‘Every time a man smiles … it adds something to this fragment of life.’

In the famous Buddhist story, while the Buddha was addressing his monks, he twirled a flower in his hand and smiled at Mahakashyapa, and Mahakashyapa smiled in return.*

The Buddha then said, ‘I have the treasury of the true dharma eye, the inconceivable mind of nirvana. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa.’ But don’t grasp at the smile — or the flower — or even the words, and most of us do, because we love to attach ourselves to things and meanings, and it’s not about things or meanings. The smile is the invitation and it doesn’t matter whether you understand it or not. The Buddha and Mahakashyapa were not speaking a secret language, intimacy is not a secret language. Michel de Montaigne, writing of affectionate relationships, says, ’In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together, so that it cannot be found.’

An old Chinese poem begins: ‘The mind of the great sage of India is intimately conveyed West and East,’ but the word ‘conveyed’ in Japanese, means ‘intimate’, and this is what the story of the Buddha and Mahakashyapa is meant to convey. As Maezumi Roshi says, ‘The implication of identity is not just that two things are one thing, but that there is the activity of being one. The two interact, and yet they are one. Being one is the activity of intimacy.’

When the Zen patriarch was asked about this by a member of the court, he called out ‘Minister!’ and when the minister failed to understand, he said that this was not a secret communication, but pointed to an intimate awareness on the part of the Buddha and Mahakashyapa of their being of one mind and one heart. ‘You too are like this. And I too am like this. To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things,’ Dogen said.

Kashyapa, Korea, Joseon dynasty 1700. © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Buddha raised the flower and smiled at Mahakashyapa, and Mahakashyapa understanding, smiled back. There is no answer to a smile, any more than there is an answer to a koan. The answer is who you are.

We construct barriers round ourselves and what the monk Thomas Merton called ‘smoke selves’. But, ‘Intimacy is nothing but realising that already you are as you are — really be intimate with no division between yourself and the other. Then everything becomes nothing but good,’ Maezumi says, ‘Nothing can be more intimate than this. This is the Buddhist teaching, your original self. You cannot separate your life from Buddha.’

We hide this from ourselves and others by assuming the mask of Me, something, someone, somewhere else. It’s like a game of hide and seek, which we take for real, and the intellectual self stands between us and the answer. Martin Heidegger said, ‘Everyone is the other, and no one is himself.’ The poet Pablo Neruda in a wonderful poem called ‘We are Many’, said, ‘Of all the people who I am, who we are, I’ve never been able to settle on a single one … when a fine house is burning, instead of the firemen I called, an incendiary rushed on to the scene — and it’s me!’

When the Patriarch Doan asked his pupil (Ryozan), ‘What is that beneath your robe?’ Ryozan didn’t know what to say. He was as puzzled as Pablo Neruda.

‘How sad that a follower of the way can’t answer that question,’ Doan said. ‘Now ask me.’

And when Ryozan asked him the same question, Doan said, ‘Intimacy,’ and Ryozan was profoundly enlightened. The barriers had fallen away and Ryozan realised he had been trying to cut water with a knife.

‘Uncertainty is fine,’ Ajahn Sumedho used to say, ’Not-knowing is okay.’ And Chuang Tzu said, ‘Every day I know less.’

The poet Wordsworth meditated on his name and wrote of his experience in a poem called ‘The Ancient Sage’: ‘As I revolved the symbol of myself, the mortal limit of the self was loosed and passed into the unknown.’

We are so fond of categorising ourselves — or letting someone else do it. We are forever constructing aspects of who we are. Sometimes we only recognise ourselves by the shadows we cast. We feel there is something missing, but there is nothing wanting. The Buddha’s smile belongs to all of us. It is the invitation to recognise what we are. And this is the answer to the smile.


* There are many translations of this famous encounter, and the great teacher Dogen says, ‘The Buddha twinkled’, but I have taken the liberty of translating it as a smile, because this is what we are so familiar with.

Click here to read more articles from John.



Categories: Buddhism, Chan / Seon / Zen, John Aske

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