NEW YORK - The first masterpiece of Buddhist art was Buddha's smile. Dr. Robert A.F. Thurman, a world-renowned author and Buddhist scholar, wrote this in the introduction to the catalogue for our selling exhibition, Footsteps of the Buddha: Masterworks from Across the Buddhist World. I have always been drawn to Buddhist art, and when I read that, I realized that the smile was one of the things that drew me in.

A rare gray limestone head of Buddha, China, Tang Dynasty
. Footsteps of the Buddha, Selling Exhibition, Lot 8.

All images of Buddha portray him with a smile – alluring, gentle, serene, yet at the same time joyful, enigmatic and mysterious. Buddha’s smile and that of the Mona Lisa, are probably the two most famous smiles in history. Why the smile?

Buddha smiles because he had discovered ultimate bliss. Seeing reality for what it is, he has found a way to end suffering. He has made peace with himself and the world. That smile represents coming face to face with suffering and overcoming it.

magnificent Thangka depicting Shakyamuni Buddha at Bodhgaya, Tibet, 15th century. Footsteps of the Buddha, Selling Exhibition, Lot 14.

Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama into a royal family in Lumbini, in modern day Nepal, over 2,500 years ago. Dissatisfied with a life of luxury, he left it all behind to seek an answer to the end of suffering. Through self-discipline and meditation he finally found 'the middle way,’ freed himself from all attachments and became enlightened.

A large gilt-lacquered wood seated figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, china, qing dynasty, kangxi period. Footsteps of the Buddha, Selling exhibition, Lot  27.

In that final push before his enlightenment, he was meditating under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. The demon Mara attacked him with armies of distractions and temptations in order to lure him from his path. However, the Buddha was unshakable. Mara then claimed his own spiritual accomplishments were greater than Buddha's, and Mara's monstrous armies falsely bore witness to this assertion. Mara then challenged Buddha, wanting to know who would bear witness for him. At that moment Buddha touched the ground with his right hand, summoning the earth to be his witness. The gesture of touching the earth now symbolizes steadfastness, recalling Buddha's rejection of all temptations and delusions and his achievement of supreme enlightenment. And that was the moment he smiled.

(left) Lot 62, a gilt-bronze figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, 13th-15th century, Estimate: $30,000-40,000. Buddha’s hands are in the gesture of teaching. (right) Lot 63, a gilt-bronze figure of Buddha, Mongolia, Zanabazar School, 18th century, Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Buddha’s hands are in the gesture of appeasement.

It was not however, the only time Buddha smiled. In the sutras, we often read that Buddha smiles before answering a question put to him. A smile from the Buddha was also the beginning of the Chan school of Buddhism, better known as Zen, which stresses meditation to achieve insight.

A large bronze figure of Amitabha Buddha, Ming Dynasty, 16th/ 17th century, Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This Buddha’s hands are in the gesture of meditation. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Lot 67.

Seeing a serene smiling image of Buddha always manages to calm my mind. I believe that many others also find this to be true, so much so that images of smiling Buddhas have become standard in many spas and resorts that seek to create a soothing, relaxing environment. My colleagues in the Chinese art department have remarked that putting together our upcoming auction, to be held on the 17th and 18th September, was less stressful than past sales. Maybe that is because we are surrounded by the many pieces of Buddhist art in that auction and the Footsteps of the Buddha selling exhibition.

A painting of Amitabha’s pure land, Ming Dynasty, Estimate: $15,000-20,000. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Lot 205.

In Buddhist art, it is not only the historical Buddha that is portrayed smiling, the Buddhas of the past and future, and the bodhisattvas all wear smiles on their faces, reminding us that pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We can face life with a frown, or a smile.

A very rare painting of Amitabha, China, Ming Dynasty, 15th century . Footsteps of the Buddha, Selling exhibition, Lot 21.

Footsteps of the Buddha: Masterworks from Across the Buddhist World, A Selling Exhibition, will be on display in New York from 3 – 23 September 2013.

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art will be held in New York on 17 and 18 September 2013.