At the time that she developed the practice described below, Satomi worked for the wife of a Buddhist teacher. Although the teacher was kind, his wife was very difficult to work for. This woman was impatient, quick to find fault with Satomi and generally hard to please. Satomi, who was struggling to be a good Buddhist, tried, to no avail, to use each difficulty as a spiritual lesson. Try as she might, she couldn’t overcome her own angry reactions, reactions of which she was very ashamed. Finally Satomi discovered a fruitful practice.
In the guest room of her teacher’s home hung a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa’s smile affected Satomi profoundly. Each time she passed the image, Satomi contemplated the smile. Gradually, Satomi found herself melting into the Mona Lisa’s smile. Smiling like the Madonna brought peace and joy to Satomi’s body. Beginning with the smile on her lips, the warmth of her expression spread quickly through out her body and banished the troublesome attitudes she struggled to transcend. Noticing the soft power of her own smile, Satomi was struck by a revelation. She determined to smile first, no matter what. Smiling first became her every moment practice. In her own words, “Quickly, before anything could happen, I cut off all deluded thoughts with my sharp sword of a smile-and the results were one hundred percent. By smiling first, I was always clear and bright, and I could handle whatever came up.”
Satomi continued this practice no matter what irritation, anger or sorrow arose within her. The depth of her practice is reflected by Satomi’s subsequent gratitude to the very woman who had been her petty tyrant. In her autobiography, she describes how upon her awakening she was overcome by warmth toward the very ones who had once been the occasion of her torment.
The discovery of a practice is a wonderful happening. In this case, Satomi’s discovery was almost indistinguishable from insight. In seeing the Mona Lisa’s beautiful, subtle smile, Satomi intuited a peace that transcended every petty torture of her daily life. As the Mona Lisa smiles gently, Satomi, too, practiced a subtle smile. Perhaps there is no greater tribute to the Mona Lisa’s smile than this story of how it inspired a seeker.
Satomi’s story illustrates what a creative and devoted mind can do with insight. An invention in a moment of despair; personal practice can arise from insight as it did for Satomi. Her story is all the more palpable because her frustrations are the daily and ordinary kind. She was born in 1896, but she could as easily expressed the same frustrations with a boss or peer in any kitchen or work environment today.
Satomi’s story elevates petty suffering to the level of significance that is warranted. People are usually ashamed of their little sufferings. Yet these small sufferings can be the content of their daily lives. To bypass their virtues would be a spiritual loss. The content of most people’s pain are rather ordinary. Certainly there are the big ones; sickness, old age and death. But ordinarily our trials are the little ones; jealousy, bitterness, hurt and loss. What matters, I often tell my students, is not the smallness of our hurts but the greatness of the spirit with which we respond to these hurts. Each occasion grants us an opportunity to transcend. We are the “petty tyrants”2 to one another. A petty tyrant is a small tormenter that we meet in our daily life and cannot easily avoid. Depending on the depth of your intent, your petty tyrant can teach you about yourself.
So what are the virtues of small sufferings? For one, they are pointers. When your temper rises, or your self-hatred appears, notice the trigger. Is your reaction based in truth, or belief? Does the trigger stir up the tangle of a historical pattern? Is it necessary for you to live within the confines of this pattern, or are you ready to let it go? Perhaps your suffering is more vague. You are only able to say that what you are experiencing does not measure up to the happiness you crave. As someone once said to me, “I can’t say exactly what I want or what would make me happy, but I can say what doesn’t make me happy.” Noticing what doesn’t work is also perception.
Our attempts to realize fulfillment include generous portions of trial and error. We twist this way and that, usually with little clarity, as we seek happiness. I often reflect on Satomi’s discovery almost as if it were my own memory. I imagine that I am working under a petty tyrant. I try different approaches. Perhaps I can be unaffected? No, not for long. My emotions boil to the surface and redden my cheeks. Maybe I can merge with my task and feel a oneness with the doing? Yes, but soon the voice of the petty tyrant interrupts me. Then an image of the Mona Lisa rises before me. I picture clearly her enigmatic smile. She knows something. What does she know? I smile myself, letting the warmth of my smile open my body to the universe. When I feel tension and resistance, I smile through it, and surrender my attitudes as if they were so many items in my home to cast off. I clear the space of my body/mind with Mona Lisa’s smile. ‘Smile first’ becomes my secret practice, too. The smile grounds me, and teaches me to surrender.
An aspect of Satomi’s spiritual genius is reflected in her gratitude. Imagine the depth of insight necessary to feel grateful to your petty tyrants! Perhaps you yourself have been able to be grateful to a period of hardship in your life, or even for a difficult childhood because you know that it taught you much. Gratitude softens the soul and melts the hard resistance we feel into golden joy. Satomi found this out when she practiced Mona Lisa’s smile.
This essay first appeared in the winter issue of Still Point Arts Quarterly