Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: Stepping Out of Self-Deception by Rodney Smith

Recently, I’ve been reading Rodney Smith’s book ‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self.’ It was sent to me by Jennifer Campaniolo, the publicist at Shambhala Publications, the book’s publishers. In no way has this review of the book been influenced by the author, Jennifer, or anyone else connected with Shambhala: it is an honest appraisal of the work, and as such, is the sole responsibility of the reviewer. If you have any views on this review, please leave a comment on this blog.

Prior to reading ‘Stepping Out’, I was somewhat wary of it, as the author was unfamiliar to me, and it looked like it might be yet another Western Buddhist’s attempt to appear wise. My initial doubts have been completely released, however, for in this book Rodney Smith has written a work of unusually penetrative insights into the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. He has done so using modern language and concepts to convey the essence of the Path, making this work an important addition to any serious practitioner’s library. Moreover, he never shirks away from telling it the way it is, no matter how unpleasant the truths that he is revealing. He does this with skill as he brings to attention the games that the mind can play to sustain its self-centred view of the Buddhist life:

“Many of us incorporate a gentler and kinder “me” into our practice, which is in opposition to the worldly “me,” the troublemaking twin that needs a resolution. We then play the familiar theme of divide and conquer, pitting our spiritual ideals against worldly reactions. Eventually we see that calling the ego different names serves to strengthen its overall grip and control, which inevitably leads to greater pain and ill will.”
(‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self’, p.xiii)

Reflecting on our own mental states may well reveal such an inner schism between the worldly self image and the “spiritual” or Buddhist one, but Smith sees this as just another ploy by the ego to sustain itself in the midst of an apparent effort to uproot it. At a deeper level, he considers this inner dichotomy as part of our evolutionary development, which exists to protect the human organism against the dangers of this world. Smith writes in an elegant manner on this fact, presenting the Buddha’s ancient teachings in a psychological garb that brings to life the Enlightened One’s wisdom in language that us moderns may well find easier to digest:

“Although it is a biological necessity for our mind to separate the organism from the environment, this is not the truth. The truth is that all things are conjoined in ways that the mind is incapable of perceiving, and we therefore cannot use the mind as an indication of what is ultimately true. It responds in accordance with how it organizes the data, and therefore thinks in terms of separation. Secondly, since the mind is only part of the truth of all things, it is incapable of perceiving that truth through the sense doors.”
(ibid. P.4)

Smith is especially addressing the intellectual capacity of the human mind to understand the way things are (in Buddhist parlance, the Dharma), which he sees as of limited use on the Buddhist Path because it is just a part of the whole without the ability to perceive the totality of this interdependent existence. Because the human mind has evolved to experience the world in dualistic terms, it cannot know the unity that lies behind the apparent divisions in life. Also, the physical sense doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin) are limited in their scope to experience existence, meaning that the information that the mind perceives is incomplete in the first place. This egocentric way of knowing the world must itself be known and understood if we are to move beyond it into genuine wisdom:

“As long as our practice is centered on “me,” as long as it is a dialogue from and toward “myself,” and is an accomplishment of “mine,” then “I,” “me,” and “mine” will be the residue of what remains through life and perhaps after death. As we move forward, we will continue to solidify what we already believe about “us,” and as we continue to affirm our own reality, we further perpetuate that reality. Reality is not fixed, but instead changes depending upon the perceiver. We actively configure reality by what we think about it; we see what we want to see and become what we want to become. We are constantly constructing our present reality from past experiences and living out the present as if it were the past.”
(ibid. P.18)

In his analysis of how we approach the spiritual life, Smith displays an admiral depth of understanding, which seems to come from actually living what he is teaching, rather than simply repeating or repackaging Buddhist teachings. He doesn’t play up to his reader’s ego, either, instead describing the various ways that an apparently sincere Buddhist practitioner can actually be using the Buddha Dharma as a subtle support for the ego. Indeed, we are often so caught up in playing out our games, spiritual or otherwise, that we are not really even living in the present moment, experiencing it through the distorted viewpoint of our memories and assumptions. Smith confronts the ego directly, describing it as the “sense-of-self”:

“The sense-of-self is an assumed reality. Only the idea of “me” separates us from the unconditioned truth of our being. However, the thought of “I” is entrenched within the conditioning of our species and needs to our patience in order to uproot it. The effort needed is to know when the self-image is arising and let it go. Spiritual practices are often far too complex and overstated. This complexity comes from the mind’s attempt to think itself out of the problem, and that thinking fosters a misconception about the nature lf the spiritual predicament. Misunderstanding the situation sets the self up to orchestrate its own demise – which it can never do. The simpler we are, the more we come into wise alignment with the conceptual nature of self and see it for what it is.”
(ibid. P.33)

Smith believes that if we let go of this sense-of-self, we will see life as it really is, rather than as we misperceive it to be. Furthermore, in writing that spiritual practices are often more complicated and distracting than they need be, he points to an important characteristic of the Buddhist life: at heart, it is simply letting go. To let go of the sense-of-self that we normally act from, however, we not only need to see it clearly but also to understand it, along with the processes through which it arises. This can be facilitated by developing what Buddhism calls ‘the skilful means’ of dana (generosity), sila (morality), samadhi (Meditative concentration), and panna (wisdom). When they become overly complex, they are distracting to the essential point of the Buddhist life: spiritual awakening. Then, they cease to fulfil the purpose for which they were originally conceived by the Buddha:

“As long as the Buddha was alive, his presence assured that the techniques he taught were secondary to the realization he manifested. His life was his teaching, but he needed to offer tools to orientate others to their own awakening, so he taught numerous meditation practices and other skilful means for forty-five years. When he died, some people assumed the practices and teachings as ends in themselves, and Buddhism was born. Centuries later, we may have too much Buddhism and not enough Buddha.”
(ibid. P.37)

The Buddha is the most controversial figure amongst Buddhists. Most Theravada Buddhists consider him to have been a man who realized enlightenment and upon his physical death ceased to exist, at least in any sense of the word that most of us would understand. In contrast, most Mahayana Buddhists seem to treat him as a godlike being that still lives on some heavenly plain and responds to their ardent prayers. Then, there is the Zen Buddhist understanding of the Buddha that is another word for Nirvana, or our true nature. (This last definition is found among other Buddhists, with even some Theravada Buddhists leaning towards it, but it is primarily associated with Zennists.)

Whatever we take the Buddha to be, Smith makes an important point that after his death there has been much misinterpretation of his practices and teachings, with much of Buddhism descending into superstition and ritualism. According to early texts, these are things that he discouraged his followers from indulging in, and yet, go to any temple in the Buddhist world today, and they are hard to avoid. In Smith’s interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings, however, there is no room for such activities, with the emphasis firmly on using the practices and teachings found in Buddhism being used for more liberating purposes. Modern Buddhism is not spared his penetrative gaze either, however, as illustrated in the following excerpt:

“The Dharma can become faddish when it is too available, and it may be too accessible in the West. One friend of mine refused to go to a meditation retreat because he refused to share a room. The days when a prospective meditator would stand outside a Zen temple in the snow waiting for the approval of the roshi to enter are mostly gone. Such behaviour, extreme as it was, did indicate sincerity. A lack of sincerity is driven by a weak intention; we want the truth but on our terms and preferably without austerity. Competing interests not only weaken our resolve but also indicate a consciousness divided by between self-indulgence and an authentic yearning for freedom.”
(Ibid. P.75)

How many of us can honestly say that we have never used Buddhism in this way? Here, Smith is pushing us to look not only at our beliefs and practices, but at our deeper motives that drive us to behave in the manner in which we do. A dearth of real commitment in putting the teachings into genuine practice is surely indicative of the ego’s misuse of the Buddha Dharma to support its own flimsy existence. This encouragement to reflect upon why we believe what we believe and practice what we practice, and how sincere we are in such activities, is a real gift from the author, and is reason enough to give his book careful attention from any serious Buddhist. He extends this line of reasoning in the paragraph below:

“The lay Buddhist does not try to arrange her life to fit her spiritual intention, but rather brings forth that intention to every facet of her life. When the primary intention is used in this way, it serves the spirit of awakening. Intentions and views are the steering mechanism for our energy. Intentions move us into actions that follow our conscious or unconscious intentions. They are derived from what we really want, not from what we profess to want, and therefore cannot be prescribed by another or simulated by us.”
(Ibid. P.91)

The motives that lie behind our practice determine how genuinely liberating it will be. As lay Buddhists, Smith believes that we need to shape our practice to fit in with our lives; we cannot arrange our lives around our practice the way a monk or nun might. To try otherwise is to have unrealistic expectations and cause much frustration with the circumstances of our lives. As he writes, using Buddhist teachings and practices this way does mean that enlightenment is out of reach, far from it: he writes that it is readily within our grasp if we use the skilful means of the Buddha correctly. Having the genuine intention to realize enlightenment is required however; for our intent will either lead away from the sense-of-self or build it up further. Smith reveals how we can transcend the self:

“Surrender is not associated with a special environment or state of mind, and can be done anywhere at any time. To surrender, pause; drop all resistance, and allow the mind to be held within awareness rather than thought. Do not move by reframing, correcting, or altering whatever the mind is doing in this moment. When every state is fully embraced, we find awareness opening around and through states of mind. We surrender the mind to be just what is, and with the absence of resistance to the mind, awareness is all-pervasive.”
(Ibid. P.127)

Awareness is the heart of the Buddhist Path, and Smith highlights its importance in this extract from his book. Exactly how we might surrender by pausing and dropping all resistance he doesn’t really say. And this is the one main criticism of his book that I have: it is big on theory, but short on practical advice on how to actually put that theory into practice. Guided meditations or reflections would have surely added to the effect of this work to help shift the perceptions of the reader. This, however, is a common fault in many Buddhist books, perhaps most, and putting this criticism to one side, Smith is excellent in at least encouraging his readership to reflect upon their motives for living the Buddhist life. And, when writing about subjects such as awareness and mindfulness, his language is almost lyrical at times, and always to the point:

“Mindfulness is the ability to discern the difference between thought and fact, which is sometimes defined as the direct knowing of what is arising. The belief that I am “in here” and the world is “out there” is a subjective truth, an adaption of consciousness over many millennia; it is not an objective fact. Mindfulness has the potential to see objectively as long as it is not contaminated with personalized thinking. When mindfulness is viewed through self-centered thought, there is confusion between the chatter of the mind and what is being observed. The fact becomes inseparable from the muddled thinking, and it is impossible to know how much of what we see is our projection.”
(Ibid. P.159)

Rather than associating with our thoughts, Smith writes that we should side with simply being mindful of thoughts, along with all else we experience. In doing so, we can begin to let go of the dualism of ‘here’ and ‘there’ that normally dominate our perception of life. This will bring us out of our selves, giving rise to a more objective and unitary understanding of the way things are. To further this process of awakening, we need to cultivate samadhi, or concentration, but this needn’t be developed only on a meditation cushion, for Smith writes of ‘natural samadhi,’ which can be cultivated in the midst of the lay life. The key to this process is the heart, as opposed to the mind. For, where the mind is caught up in thoughts and concepts that will bind us to the ego, the heart has the energy to push us beyond our selves to a state of true knowing.

“Natural samadhi is available in abundance when our energy is focused and aligned with our heart’s primary intention. The energy needed to investigate our pain, end our personal narrative, and free the contracted mind is considerable, but there is no more joyous or interesting work. The heart contains all the energy necessary to complete this task, but only when our attention is not fractured by our defense mechanisms. The energy and interest are consolidated through radical accountability by taking complete responsibility for our thoughts and emotions.”
(Ibid. P.188)

Being aware of the way things truly are, will lead us to the point when we must, as Smith puts it, take “complete responsibility for our thoughts and actions.” This counters a frequent distortion of the Buddhist Path among some modern interpreters which is the libertine attitude that we can do whatever we want because life is ultimately empty, and therefore there’s no one to suffer the consequences of our actions. If we fail to take responsibility for all that we do, think, and say, we aren’t awakened, and Smith produces strong arguments in the book which unfortunately I don’t have the time or space to expand on here. Over all, then, ‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception’ comes highly recommended by this reviewer. There is the wish that Smith had included practical exercises or meditations to complement the wonderful teachings that he has written, but those teachings are worth investigating nevertheless, for they can only deepen our understanding of the Path, as the final extract from his book illustrates:

“Buddhism in its final summation is about abiding in the Now, and Buddhist practice encourages and cultivates skilful states of mind to make that entry easier. It is a straightforward process of surrendering that occurs when the mind is calm, serene, and equanimous, because those states arise from a lack of mental resistance and bring the person of awareness closer to Now. They set in motion the intention to surrender by clearly seeing the disadvantages of a life lived through the noise of the mind.”
(Ibid. P.216)


Barry said...

Gary, I've really enjoyed - and benefited from - your recent posts. Thank you for the effort you've put into them.

G said...

Bless you for such kind comments, Barry. Much appreciated.
Be well in the Dharma,

madsolitaire said...

Hi G, it so happens that i am also reading this book :-) I was also not familiar with Rodney Smith but i am quite impressed with this latest work of his. One needs to read this book quite carefully as he does have some thought-provoking and important things to say. It is quite helpful in developing prajna.

If i may, i would also like to recommend The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer. Very dense reading but not quite so different from Buddhist philosophy.

with metta

G said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Solitaire - I've got some stuff on Schopenhauer but haven't got around to reading it, yet. I'll try and dig it out, soon. As to Rodney Smith's book, I agree - it does need careful attention, otherwise it's easy to lose track of where he is leading us. But, well worth the attention!

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G said...

Thanks for the nice comments, Energy Audit.