Sri Lanka and the Art of Smiling

Published in the "Daily News" on Aug. 26th '99

Sometime ago, I drove from the airport to Colombo. Seeing again people on the road smiling, I realized that I am back where I feel at home. I had just spent a few months with strange people in a strange country that should be called "mine." After years I went back for a visit to a different society and climate: "An exotic bird from the East," in different clothes, with a different hair style. I was actually surprised how much I did not mind spending a summer in Europe. Indeed, slowly and with difficulties I am learning the art of living a homeless life: to feel at home everywhere and to carry around an inner smile in any situation.

In a shopping street on the other side of the same world, I made a joke to my companion which nobody would understand here in Sri Lanka. When seeing all those bored and anxious faces--so typical in rich countries--I said: "If you see anybody smiling here, let me know!" Indeed a truly beautiful face, unbroken by desperate longing for some lasting happiness, is not easily found in the West, especially not in an apparently rich yet poor-hearted shopping-street. The true smiles one does encounter are usually seen either as foolish, as money-made, or--if it's between sexes--misunderstood as flirting.

Coming back from Europe, I realized how much I appreciate living in an environment where people love to smile and use any opportunity to do so. Although I heard Westerners saying that smiles on this Island are just a convention, I find that people here "practice the art of smiling" as an expression of friendliness and a way of life.

"Sri Lankans have the greatest smile in the world," exclaimed a Sinhalese living in the U.S.A.. I was impressed to see that even this person's smile survived years of "American Way of Life". That must be a real powerful expression, because only few things can withstand the rush of a Western consumer-oriented society.

To be honest, I must add: not all that glitters is golden. I was once fooled by somebody's smiling face, behind which desperation of life and thoughts of suicide were hidden; and with the same smiling gesture, this young person proudly expressed how skillful she could cover up her inner feelings. This is not the only time something so unexpected happened to me. Astonishing, indeed, for somebody who grew up in a society where nobody cares to hide ones negative feelings with a smile. (Besides for a very serious reason.)

Not long ago, when I was striving and struggling too much as a monk, when simply looking around was seen by me as something useless and bad, I happened to encounter the lovely smiles of two sisters. I was so overwhelmed by their smiles that I just did not know how to react. With this confusion, I approached my teacher and asked what to do in such a "troublesome" situation. "Just smile back!" he answered simply. Since then I have learned to loosen up and I wouldn't be surprised if today somebody would criticize me saying, "a monk shouldn't smile so much."

I don't want to give the impression that this was the only thing I learned in all those years as a monk. I was taught to grasp this and to let go of that (or the other way round), meditation-techniques, monks-rules and the way to bend them. But lightness and an inner smile did not grow from this. It didn't nurture a harmony within me, as a monk in this world. It wasn't conducive for a declaration of love which could be written in the sand, soon overblown by sea-winds; which could be whispered over small babbling creeks, flowing through deep jungles; which could be seen in the sky where clouds are passing and eagles circling.. But at that time I was too caught up in my efforts, in my seriousness, in my self-made suffering..

It was only when I started to spend time with those who were not so serious, not so "mature," maybe even not meditators that I learned the ability to relax, to laugh and to joke, to let go of my seriousness. I discovered that looking for perfection, one may miss the opportunity to give or to receive a smile, one may miss something worthwhile which can be found in an imperfect situation with imperfect people. Some "grown-up" Westerners look down on people like Sri Lankans, seeing them as children. It is exactly this innocence of their heart that I truly respect and love.

I walk on paths through the countryside and along the streets of cities, exchanging smiles with children and their grandparents; with soldiers, police-men and women; with farmers, businessmen and beggars. Some of them I know only by their smiles and they know me only by mine. Through this, a powerful energy arises, as well as the desire to share it with the whole world. I want to use this power of smiling as a sail on my raft travelling towards a higher goal. It may be still a long way , but with that, the journey will be a pleasant one.

Nowadays when I hear arguments about technical terms and theoretical definitions, I just want to get up and leave--to go and talk to simple people about simple things or to just exchange a great smile with a small child. And while others are involved in serious discussions, I might remember the words from Hermann Hesse's novel, Siddhartha :" Perhaps that is what prevents you from finding peace, perhaps there are too many words, for even salvation and virtue, Samsara and Nirvana are only words.... It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love admiration and respect." Thinking so, an inner smile lightens up my heart.