Embodying the Buddha’s Smile

Embodying the Buddha’s Smile

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 07, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Sometimes, life throws us a curveball.

As I sat down to prepare my reflection for this week, I received an urgent text from a family member. A drunk driver had driven their car into the side of the rural home originally owned by our grandparents. Fortunately, no lives were lost. No one was in the property, as it has been vacant for some time, and the driver survived the crash.

In addition to the hassles of attending to the physical damage, which most likely is beyond repair, I am experiencing a tangle of emotions. A tangible symbol of past family ties may soon be lost. Contemplating that loss brings up complicated feelings of renewed grief for departed family members and despair that we have not “saved” what the previous generation worked hard to provide for our well-being.

Not all of life’s curveballs are as dramatic or emotionally fraught as this. Yet we all have experience with plans gone awry or circumstances waylaying our expectations about how our life should unfold. When things “go wrong,” we find ourselves complaining about unfairness and bemoaning our luck.

The Four Noble Truths invite us to acknowledge difficulties, disappointments, and even tragedies as a part of life. Suffering exists. If we learn to acknowledge and embrace the curveballs life throws us, without judgment or struggle, we can learn to navigate suffering with freedom.

This is a practice of accepting what is. It can seem counterintuitive. Yet as Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy) teaches, such acceptance nurtures our capacity for peace and compassion. Then we are not overwhelmed by suffering. In Teachings on Love, Thầy writes:

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calm, and strength; that is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna [compassion] is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

This type of acceptance is rooted in acknowledgement, rather than denial. In challenging moments, certain feelings and thoughts naturally arise. We are encouraged to embrace and take care of them, rather than pushing them away. As we sing in a Plum Village song, “I’m going to laugh all my laughter, I’m going to cry all my tears.” Our practice also encourages us to let go of resistance and fighting. In doing so, we also relinquish our habits of clinging to and prolonging the suffering of the moment. Rather than getting stuck in a painful loop of fighting and recrimination, we yield to what we cannot change and use our clarity and stability to take action for that which we can change.

Kaira Jewel Lingo is a Dharma teacher and former monastic in the Plum Village tradition. In her book We Were Made for These Times, she shares further insight about the freedom that arises from accepting what is:

This attitude of acceptance is freeing when we apply it not only to our personal suffering but also to the suffering in the world. Once, as a young nun, when I was practicing a classic Plum Village guided meditation, I came to the final exercise, “Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment; breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment.” Suddenly I found myself stuck when I did this practice, questioning how we could truly affirm it was “a wonderful moment” with all the violence, hatred, inequality, and preventable tragedies that are happening in the present moment all over the world. It was a moment of truth, of genuinely feeling lost after I had been practicing this meditation for some years but now realizing I had not understood its deeper meaning.

I sat in the question of it and began to see that along with all the suffering and pain, there are also many beings that are supporting others in the present moment. There are many hearts of compassion, opening to relieve suffering, to care for others, to teach, to show a different way. There are people who are courageous and standing up for what they believe is right, protecting our oceans, cleaning rivers and beaches, advocating for those who are oppressed. There are those in every corner of the planet who are quietly doing the things no one else wants to do: caring for the forgotten people, places, species, and doing what needs to be done.

When I focused on that other part of the larger picture, I was able to touch that, yes, this present moment is also a wonderful moment. I saw that suffering doesn’t have to disappear in order for beauty to be there. That life is about all of these things. It was a moment of cultivating acceptance and inclusiveness, opening myself to hold everything, all paradoxes.

We embody the Buddha’s smile when we practice full acceptance of the present moment, acknowledging that both suffering and well-being are there, with clarity and compassion.“Suffering doesn’t have to disappear in order for beauty to be there,” Kaira Jewel reminds us.

Although I cannot “save” our generational family home, I can aspire to embody and offer the Buddha’s smile to myself and my family. I can model accepting our loss and being open to our grief and disorientation, while also cultivating calm and clarity to help us skillfully take next steps.

When we gather on Thursday evening, we will begin with practices of sitting meditation and mindful movement. After a break and some introductions, we’ll share our reflections and experiences with embodying the Buddha’s smile. Here are some questions to guide our sharing:

  • What have you experienced when you opened to a challenging situation?
  • What resistances arise in you when you encounter unplanned or undesirable life circumstances?
  • What difficulties in your life are inviting you to practice accepting what is?

We hope you can join us.

With gratitude and appreciation,
Lori Perine

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 07, 2024


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