Update from the trail: The Smile of the Buddha
Blog Sept 23, 2012
The smile of the Buddha
Today I realized again what attracted me to Buddhism as I gazed upon a 7th century carving of the
historic Buddha and stared deeply at his face.
It was his smile. No written treatise could express as well the reality of the Buddha’s experience
as well as that smile. The ancient carver, who lived in the Korean kingdom of Baekje in the sixth or
seventh century, clearly understood the Buddha’s knowledge as intimately as Śāriputra and Ananda,
disciples who lived with the Buddha.
I was looking at the Seosan Rock-Carved Buddha Triad near Sedoeksa Temple in Deoksungsan
Mountains about an hour and a half ‘s drive from Seoul. Gazing at that carving was one of the
highlights of my pilgrimage to honor Wonhyo, a 7th Century Korean Buddhist monk whose famous
journey across the Korean peninsula ended his enlightenment. I and three companions are
attempting to emulate Wonhyo’s journey and interviewing monks as we travel from one mountain
monastery to another. We are making a film of the pilgrimage.
The Buddha’s smile has always fascinated me and this visit was very special to me. Right from the
beginning of my interest in Buddhism, I was attracted to his smile – not Buddhist mythology or its
teachings about the nature of reality or its majestic liturgy.
That smile caught my imagination – full of peace and knowledge and self-understanding. It is
concrete. It’s real. More than any teaching, it shows the Buddha had found within himself a garden,
a garden of unspeakable delight and peace, a garden that was impervious to winds and storms and
floods, an eternal garden.
In the carving, the historic Buddha is not alone. He is flanked on the left by a standing Bodhisattva
who is holding in his hands a precious gem. What does the gem represent? I’m not sure, but his
compassionate smile shows he has found a treasure more valuable than any he could hold in his
hands. On his right the half-seated Bodhisattva, perhaps the Maitreya, the future Buddha, smiles
calmly and benignly, perhaps to give assurance that although the path to inner peace may be
forgotten it will never disappear.
The ancient creators of the carvings made them in such a way that their smiles change as the sun’s
light changes. In fact, it seemed to me as I stood gazing at the three figures that the smile of the
central figure, the historic Buddha, became wider and richer as shadows on his face changed.
Today, we lost one of our party on the mountain at the back of Sudoeksa temple. Kim Jiyun, our
ever-so-patient translator and a key organizer on the trip became separated from us as we made our
way up the mountain to film a sunset. We – my fellow pilgrims Snorre Kjeldsen and Chris McCarthy
– climbed up to the Cheongheisa, a temple complex a few hundred yards up the mountain from
Sudoeksa. Miss Kim didn’t walk as fast as we did, missed the turnoff to Cheongheisa, and continued
on up the mountain.
We finished filming the dusky mountains and were then told to leave by monks at the complex.
Believing Miss Kim had stayed at a statue of the Buddha on the way up the mountain to pay her
respects, we returned to that spot. She wasn’t there. Alarm bells began ringing in our minds.
Darkness was flowing quickly over the mountain. My cell phone wouldn’t work because it was out of
money. Snorre’s Australian phone didn’t function in Korea. Chris had a phone but didn’t have Miss
Kim’s number. We shouted out for her but there was no response. We returned to the spot where
we had done the filming. She wasn’t there. We called out for her again. No reply.
A young Korean couple appeared, also slightly lost. They hadn’t seen her on their way up the
mountain. We decided to take the fastest route back, a narrow asphalt track, suspecting that she
had returned. We ran down the track to the Sudoeksa temple complex. She wasn’t there either,
but my phone was and it had her number. Chris called her on his phone and she answered. What a
There are no dangerous wild animals in these mountains but it could have been dangerous for her
health if she had had to stay on the mountain all night. She told us she was making her way down
the mountain and we went out to meet her and found her not far from the temple. I was so happy
to see her face and to have her back with us safe. I suspect she slept deeply and well that night.