Smiling Beyond Measure

It’s the first day of spring. Daylight savings time is back. Two good reasons to smile. Don’t you agree?

I often think about smiling. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. Maybe I am too self-conscious about it. I think I look goofy when I smile. Other people look attractive. So, while I may walk around with a serious look on my face, that doesn’t mean I am unhappy or unfriendly. No doubt I need to make an effort to smile more often.

I found something at the Bangkok Post that got me thinking about smiling: it’s a photography exhibition called “Happiness Beyond Measure” at an art gallery there, featuring the photography of Bhanuwat Jittivuthikarn, an emerging visual artist. The exhibit is described as “an impressive embodiment” of Jittivuthikarn’s philosophy of “showing a lighter side of humanity.”

Most of the pictures are portraits and many of the people in them are smiling. Like this woman:

"Old Tibetan in Saranarth, India 2010"

Jittivuthikarn, who is 28, is quoted in the article as saying, “The noble truths aren’t apparent only in 1,000-year-old temples or sacred Buddhist texts. True happiness lives on in the people who practise it.” Of his subjects, he says,

Their smiling faces show how they share their sense of joy with me, a stranger they just met. They teach me that compassion is the secret to survival in today’s world. They are a true sample of the men and women of Buddha, and we should learn from their attitude to life.”

As far as I know, just about the only Buddhist teacher who ever discusses smiling is Thich Nhat Hanh. Some Buddhists might be tempted to pooh-pooh talk about happiness or smiling, considering it too syrupy, new-agey, or whatever. What I think they fail to understand is that sometimes the deepest truths are found in the simplest of things. And what can be simpler than smiling?

If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. If we are happy, if we are peaceful, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don’t need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we are only aware of suffering . . .

If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many benefits to smiling: it changes our mood for the better, boosts our immune system, relieves stress, and lowers blood pressure. Not to mention that studies have shown that smiling releases endorphins, natural pain killers, and serotonin.  I guess you could say, smiling gets you high.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that smiling is the act of a Bodhisattva. And we know that Bodhisattvas are pledged to relieve the suffering of all living beings. So why not smile? A simple thing, and even if it relieves someone’s suffering for only a few seconds, it is still relieving suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about our “inner smile” too. I love his little verse:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

Everything is inner, everything is inside of us. We need to tap into our inner power, our inner smile. When we do that we actually strengthen our inner resources and it has an effect on our immediate environment. When we are truly happy deep inside, we can find value in anything or anyone. Every day becomes a spring day regardless of the season. Each and every person has a right to be happy, but happiness often has to be won by fighting for it. One way to develop the kind of spirit that is never defeated by suffering is to smile.

I posted the lyrics to the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” in this post some time back. Now, here is the final scene from one of Chaplin’s greatest films, in which his most famous musical composition debuted:

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp walking off toward the horizon . . . this time with the girl . . . and smiling.


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