A Smile

by Ko Un

English version by Brother Anthony of Taize
Original Language Korean

Shakyamuni held up a lotus
so Kashyapa smiled.
Not at all.
The lotus smiled
so Kashyapa smiled.

Nowhere was Shakyamuni!

-- from What?: 108 Zen Poems, by Ko Un

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem recalls for us a famous story about the Buddha's "Flower Sermon." The Buddha (sometimes referred to by his clan name "Shakyamuni") gave a sermon in which all he did was to hold up a lotus flower. The Buddha's disciples were confused, except for his disciple Kashyapa, who smiled in understanding and enlightenment.

But, no, Ko Un says that's not how it happened. "Not at all." Here's what really happened: The lotus smiled, so Kashyapa smiled back. The Buddha, being utterly free from the limits of self and identity, was not there at all.

The other disciples saw a man holding up a flower. Only Kashyapa saw an open field of spaciousness upholding the glow of enlightenment. And the enlightenment within himself reached out in self-recognition.

Instead of grasping at nowhere-present Buddhas, like clutching at the continuously flowing river, perhaps we can, like Kashyapa, recognize the smile in all things until we feel it reflected back from within ourselves. Then, who knows, maybe we cease to be there too and, instead, we are wherever the smile goes.

Recommended Books: Ko Un

What?: 108 Zen Poems Ten Thousand Lives The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems Little Pilgrim: A Novel Flowers of a Moment

A Smile