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Buddhist Studies | Classical Literature and Philology | Religion


This essay explores how classical Buddhist literature, across a variety of traditional genres, portrays the wondrous smile of the Buddha. Despite its literary register, the Buddha’s smile is first and foremost a nonverbal gesture, and if we are to understand its significance, then we must employ a theoretical approach that treats it as such. Multimodality provides such an approach. While an emergent body of psychological research has argued that the smile is a universal human gesture connected to a rather limited set of emotional states like happiness, the recognition that smiles can be voluntary acts highlights the importance of situational context. Since the Buddha’s smile comes from an historical and cultural context quite foreign to the body of evidence that has informed modern physiological science, we must read carefully for incongruency and allow difference to guide our thinking. The essay argues that, while the figurative trope of the Buddha’s smile remains enigmatic and rich in possible meanings due to its inherently nonverbal character, it nonetheless gestures toward his status as a figure of sovereign power and superhuman knowledge. Although this interpretation has largely eluded modern commentators, it finds support in classical Buddhist understandings and points to the power and flexibility of language itself, particularly gesture, body language, and figurative behavior. For evidence, the article also includes, as an appendix, an English translation of a short story from the Hundred Buddhist Tales (Avadānaśataka) featuring the luminous and powerful smile of the Buddha.

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Original Citation

David V. Fiordalis
Buddhas and body language: The literary trope of the Buddha's smile.
In The Language of the Sūtras: Essays in Honor of Luis Gómez, edited by Natalie Gummer
2021, pages 59-103, Mangalam Press: Berkeley, CA



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