It is unlikely that Crosby, Stills and Nash were thinking about the Buddha’s smile when they composed their classic lyric, “If you smile at me, I will understand, ’cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.” Yet if we were to think anything like they did, we might believe that its meaning is perfectly transparent. The image of a smiling Buddha is so common, we can probably all picture it in our mind’s eye, and probably all of us have an immediate response to the question of why the Buddha smiles.

I am confident that Crosby, Stills and Nash were also not thinking about the difference between what scientists of facial expressions call “the voluntary (or social) smile” and “the genuine (or enjoyment) smile,” or “Duchenne smile,” named after the French scientist who first posited its existence in the 19th century. The basic insight here is that some smiles, “genuine smiles,” are involuntary and spontaneous, while other smiles, “social smiles,” are voluntary, the result of an intention or thought. Furthermore, while genuine smiles have been closely linked with the feeling of happiness, social smiles do not have any such connection to a specific emotional state. Indeed, social smiles can even be used to mask emotions or thoughts that one does not wish others to perceive. 

The way to tell the difference between these two types of smile, according to scientists, is to look at the eyes. While both types of smile involve raising the corners of the mouth, only genuine smiles always involve the contraction of the muscle in the face that pulls up the cheeks and makes the corners of the eyes bunch together, the zygomaticus muscle, which many people have difficulty contracting intentionally. Indeed, a recent New York Times article details the work of a Japanese “smile coach” who helps clients train these facial muscles to improve their smiles.

This distinction is relevant to our question of why the Buddha smiles, because the notion of the involuntary smile offers at least the possibility of universality, the possibility that everyone everywhere, including the Buddha, actually does smile in the same language, a language we can all understand. Yet the distinction between genuine smiles and social smiles raises the issue of cultural specificity and difference. Different cultures and historical periods have different customs and norms around the act of smiling, which means that it is often not immediately obvious why someone smiles.

So if we want to evaluate our immediate response to the question of why the Buddha smiles, whatever it might be, then we would need to know more about the Buddha’s smile. Is it voluntary? Is it spontaneous? What are its features and circumstances? The rich heritage of Buddhist literature can help us answer some of these questions, and it can also help us to place the smile in some of its cultural and historical contexts. 

In preparing this article, I searched for the word “smile” in 84000’s online reading room, a catalog of translated texts in the Kangyur and Tengyur, the canonical scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism, and found over fifty different works. Some of them feature multiple episodes of smiling, and more than twenty of these works include episodes of the Buddha smiling. For instance, the Buddha smiles on more than half a dozen occasions in the 18,000 Line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra alone, while in the collection of stories called The Hundred Tales of Karma (Karmaśataka), there are another seven instances of the Buddha smiling. Another rich resource is the Lalitavistara, one of the best-known versions of the story of the Buddha’s final life, from his conception up to the teaching of the first sermon. In the Lalitavistara, the future buddha smiles on several occasions, as do other characters, such as his mother, his future wife, his schoolmaster, and his father. 

As one reads through these various episodes, one can find certain patterns and themes, which one can then situate within a broader Indian cultural context. (It is worth bearing in mind that the Tibetan canonical collections contain translations mostly of Indian Buddhist works from Sanskrit.) As a broad generalization, even though it is true that buddhas and kings may smile on occasion, smiling is an act that is often associated in Indian literature with females and children, and Buddhist literature is not an exception. 

The Lalitavistara provides a good example. Early in this work, the Buddha’s mother is described as “having a smile on her face and not furrowing her brow” while she is carrying the future buddha in her womb, a trope that also appears among other published translations on 84000. Also, when the future buddha’s future wife, named Gopa in this sutra, first hears about him, she smiles, and she is also described as having a laughing or smiling expression on her face when she first meets him. Additionally, in the chapter on the defeat of Mara, the daughters of Mara are described as having smiles on their faces, and indeed, the act of showing the teeth by making a sort of half-smile is listed therein as one of the thirty-two “wiles of women” (strīmāyā).

Also in the Lalitavistara, when the newborn future Buddha takes his seven steps, he smiles and says, “This is my last birth.” When his aunt takes him to the temple to see the gods, he smiles and, with a laughing expression on his face, informs her that he is “the supreme god among the gods” and all the gods came and paid homage to him at his birth.

The literary portrayal of the iconic smile of the Buddha also contains some set narrative patterns in Buddhist literature. First, one may note that his smiles are public displays; the Buddha does not smile to himself. His smile is prompted by some state of affairs, and then directly afterwards someone present—often it is Ananda—asks him to explain why he smiled. Sometimes the narrator of the episode even tells us that the Buddha smiles with the intent of being asked, so that he can explain the reason. The fact that the Buddha has a reason for smiling is significant in itself: the Buddha’s smile is almost always described as an intentional act, an act of volition. Buddhist literature doesn’t necessarily make a clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary smiles, but as Ananda, or someone else, typically says, buddhas do not smile without a reason. While the specific reason or circumstances may vary to some degree, the Buddha’s smile is almost always followed by either an explanation of something in the distant past that only the Buddha knows, or a prediction about the future, often the future awakening of someone as a buddha, which only a buddha can give.

So the Buddha typically smiles because he wants to make something known. Does the Buddha also smile because he feels happy or at peace? This is a difficult question to answer. Consider, for example, an episode in the Chapter on Becoming a Monk (Pravrajyāvastu) in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya, one of the classical Indian canonical collections that explains the rules of the monastic code and the one translated into Tibetan to govern the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition. The story goes as follows: 

As the Buddha is walking through Varanasi, he comes to a certain location and smiles. Then, we see another common pattern that is found in many instances of the Buddha’s smile, one that appears to grow more pronounced as Buddhist literature develops: Multicolored rays of light issue from the Buddha’s mouth and traverse the cosmos, including the hells and the heavens, before disappearing, in this instance beneath the Buddha’s feet. After Ananda has seen this happen, he asks the Buddha why he has smiled, and the Buddha tells him it is because many wicked men have raped a great many nuns in that place. When they die, the Buddha informs Ananda, these wicked men will be reborn in the hell realms.

At this point, a monk comes forward and confesses that he, too, has raped a nun in the past, and the Buddha responds that a person who has raped a nun should be banished from the monastic community, and that, in future, such persons should not be allowed to become monks, because the dharma and the discipline will not take root in them. 

So we might want to ask, does the Buddha smile in this instance because he is happy or at peace about the situation he has just disclosed to the audience? The text does not tell us, one way or another. It does not give any indication of the Buddha’s inner state, at all, but it would seem to be too much to say that the Buddha smiles here because he is happy or content. Rather, he smiles because he perceives a teaching opportunity. As the bodhisattva Puṇyaraśmi says in a different sutra, the Questions of Rāṣṭrapāla, the Buddha “trains the world when he smiles.” 

In the classical trope of the Buddha’s luminous smile, as it is found in Buddhist narrative collections in Sanskrit as well as in Mahayana Buddhist literature, the light rays that emerge from the Buddha’s mouth are also said to indicate the general reason for the Buddha’s smile. So, after the rays of light ease the suffering of beings in bad circumstances, such as the hell realms, and remind those in good circumstances about the basic truth of impermanence, when they return to the Buddha, the place on his body where they disappear is also said to indicate the kind of prediction or information that the smile is intended to convey. In the above example, the fact that rays of light disappear into the Buddha’s feet shows that he means to point out a rebirth in the hell realms. However, if the light dissolves into the bump on the top of the Buddha’s head, then his smile indicates someone’s future awakening as a perfect buddha. These various correlations are explained in the classical trope as it is found repeatedly in classical Buddhist story literature like The Hundred Buddhist Tales (Avadānaśataka).

With the exception of the theme of the smile’s luminosity, many of the basic patterns described above are also found in the Pali Buddhist canon. If one were to look therein, one would find only a handful of instances in which the Buddha smiles, four episodes to be precise. Moggallana (Maudgalyāyana in Sanskrit), the Buddha’s great disciple famous for his superhuman powers, also smiles on one occasion therein, and he also does so, interestingly enough, at seeing an image of great suffering. 

When one compares the instances in the Pali canon with some of those found in other Buddhist collections, as well as those in Mahayana Buddhist literature, and if one takes into account the broader Indian cultural context, one may be surprised to discover that the Buddha’s smile demonstrates his majesty and his extraordinary knowledge and power. The Buddha simply knows and sees more than we do, and his smile becomes an opportunity for us to bear witness to this fact. 

In a sense, the Buddha’s smile is a wondrous occasion, an occasion for witnesses to wonder and to express wonderment. The point here is not that the indelible image of the Buddha’s smile, the one depicted on the faces of so many Buddha images, can or should be reduced to a single meaning or significance, but rather it is to say the opposite. Because of its enigmatic nature, the Buddha’s smile was a source of great meaning for Buddhists in the past, and when we attend to the vast literary and cultural heritage of Buddhism, it can continue to provide meaning for us today and in the future.

Learn more about the Buddha’s smile in Dr. Fiordalis’ article “Buddhas and Body Language: The Literary Trope of the Buddha’s Smile.”

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