On the central wall of the Guest House at the monastery where I lived during the 1980s, there was a mural painted by the Japanese Jesuit priest Father Maxima depicting a scene from Buddhist legend. Once when Shakyamuni’s disciples had gathered on Vulture Peak to hear a sermon, he simply stood in their midst and, holding a single flower aloft so all could see, twirled it between his thumb and forefinger. At this, all were puzzled. Mahakashyapa alone, among all the disciples, broke into a smile, indicating that he had understood the final truth of Buddhism. Father Maxima’s mural was a faithful depiction of all this. At the center stood Buddha holding up a lotus blossom. About him were the various monks and animals, bodhisattvas, devas, and other heavenly beings normally to be found when Shakyamuni delivered a sermon. But Mahakasyapa wasn’t smiling—at least not like any smile I’d ever seen. Rather, he wore an expression approaching horror.

©Manu117/iStockPhoto
©Manu117/iStockPhoto
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Needless to say, I found this disturbing. I’d always believed that the gentle smile you saw on the faces of most Buddha statues was where I was headed in studying Zen. I didn’t want the kind of smile Mahakashyapa had. In fact, I was a little afraid of it. When my turn came to clean the Guest House, I’d always avoid the mural, working with my back to it, and when some visitor would ask to have the story explained, I’d recite it from rote without dwelling too much on the part about the smile. Even so, I’d often hear someone murmur behind my back as we turned to continue the tour, “Doesn’t look like much of a smile to me!”

I finally asked the Abbot about it, but all he said was, “Father Maxima got it right.”

When Jesus first opens his mouth to teach in the New Testament, it is clear at once that “he gets it right” and, consequently, that we are in for a rocky ride. Because as loving and inclusive as his teachings are, they are completely uncompromising when it comes to the worldly concerns of the self.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Sermon on the Mount, when he counsels his disciples not to worry about the things that normally occupy people’s minds:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matt. 6:27–30)

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