March 2, 2023

A Q&A with IMS Teacher Rodney Smith

Transcending Identity: A Retreat for Advanced Practitioners
May 2 – 8, 2023
Register for this online retreat.

Rodney Smith spent eight years in Buddhist monastic settings, both at IMS and several years as a Buddhist monk in Asia. He ordained with Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma then practiced for three years with Ajahn Buddhadassa in Thailand. He disrobed as a monk in 1983 and, after returning to the West, started working in hospice care and teaching vipassana meditation throughout the U.S.

At the end of 2016, Rodney retired from a full-time teaching role after more than 30 years of teaching. He served as a senior teacher for IMS and the founding and guiding teacher of Seattle Insight Meditation. He is author of the books Touching the Infinite: A New Perspective on the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness; Lessons From the Dying; Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self; and Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart.

Here, Rodney explains more about the upcoming online retreat, Transcending Identity, which he will co-lead with IMS Teacher Narayan Helen Liebenson.

Why did you choose to explore the topic of Transcending Identity?

Many experienced practitioners probably have spent several years getting their minds in order by learning how to work with it cooperatively, and they may feel the benefits, such as a less dense and more uplifting spirit, less reactivity, a quieter disposition, and a kinder heart. But now, having felt those benefits, many are asking what is the ultimate trajectory of all this meditation practice? Is it just about self-care and modification of character?

So, what is the decisive aim and purpose of insight meditation? The spiritual journey is to move out of our projections onto reality into its true nonreducible essence. What are the expressions of this essence that lies beyond words? It is still, complete, mysterious, simple, formless, unchanging, boundless, and timeless.

One of the ways to correct the aim of our practice is using one of these expressions of formless awareness as our central inquiry. For example, the timeless is a facet of the fundamental essence, yet our minds measure time incessantly even though it is mentally derived. This begins a deep investigation into time past, present, future, and now. Examining now, we see that all of time can be found within now, the rest is just thought-induced concepts about periods of time. Anything that holds all of time is itself timeless. When now is understood as an entry into formless awareness through the timeless, we allow now to enter our consciousness as its sole perspective by eliminating everything that is time bound.

Reality becomes distorted through our conceptual overlay upon it, and the sense-of-self drives us toward greater conceptual usage and away from formless awareness. As long as our sense-of-self, which is the embodiment of ignorance, remains in charge of our practice, we will be misguided by its confusion and adherence to conceptual thinking. The sense-of-self is a mere process of mind that establishes our individuality and separation but has no understanding of the spiritual journey going forward. It is perpetually stuck within its conditioned tendencies as it attempts to uncover the unconditioned.

This aim of practice is to discover and abide within the fundamental essence of reality and that means releasing the self as we have known it to be and abiding within awareness without form. Awareness then descends back into the body and rests without conflict within the interactions of an active life, side by side with the formless essence of life that is without motion. Form and the formless residing together as an unsolvable paradox, but as one and the same when lived.

In your book, Touching the Infinite, you wrote about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Is that sutta relevant to what you are saying?

Many years ago, I was offering a two-year class on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and thought to myself that there seems to be a missing piece, which was a clear aim and destination. When I asked other experienced practitioners how they understood the purpose of the Four Foundations, the most consistent answer I received was that it increased the subtlety of the mindfulness. I knew that subtle seeing was still seeing form, just a more nuanced expression of form, and that subtle formations would never change into the formless. There is no access to the formless through formations, subtle or gross, until the mind stops conceptualizing it as form.

It dawned on me that the Heart Sutra was a near perfect fit when paired with the Four Foundations: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. That was the missing piece: that was the view and aim that completed the Four Foundations. The Four Foundations was the method, the Heart Sutra the direction. Two seminal suttas working as a single compatible whole.

The course description states that the focus of the program will be on “uprooting our false identity within our encased narrative and aligned ego structures.” Can you give us a bit of detail around what this exploration will include?

Form and the formless are together in every perceived moment, but we move past the awareness of the object to the meaning we give the object. I would ask the reader: in this moment what is looking out of your eyes, not what you are looking at, but what is seeing? Not who is seeing, but what is the seeing itself? Reside within the seeing and we will have moved from form to the formless. Focus on the object and we will remain formed. The sense-of-self cannot move into that seeing, but we will not leave the self behind as long as we believe it as a true representation of us. Releasing it will only occur when we thoroughly realize what the individuate self actually is, and how it dependently arises within time, concepts, memory, and knowledge.

Using the Four Foundations, we move forward through the First Foundation by withholding the “knowledge and remembrance” we invest in the body, allowing it to fall back from the something the mind made of it into the nothing it is. The Second Foundation explains how “basic contact and feelings” create our worldview. Out of the nothing it is comes the conceptual something we believe it to be.

Despite the fact that formless awareness is not a form that can be perceived, it can be uncovered. The path toward the limitless is through the wordless. We learn how to surrender our words back into the stillness from which they came. We need the yearning and urgency of the heart to move into what is impossible to know, cannot be controlled, and has no accompanying sense-of-identity. Why would we wish to go there…only because it is true, full, and complete in and of itself.

Participants should have 10+ years of practice, including extensive retreat experience. Why is this important?

Slowly shifting out of words into the wordless can be totally confusing to the conditioned sense-of-self that still depends upon words. The sense-of-self resists the unknown by arousing the state of fear. The journey eventually brings up all our old conditioning and traumas, which, if unexpected, can shake our psyche. What is wondrous to experience is that our old conditioning cannot sustain itself as the light of the unconditioned formless awareness begins to shine upon it.

When we shift from form to the formless, our perceptual field changes accordingly. The worldview we once knew and counted upon for our stability is altered, and the new perception can be disorienting until we find our footing. This new perspective is a connected, heart-centered existence that is mysterious and still.

The questions we have for each participant who would like to join us are: Is there curiosity and interest about this journey? Do you feel an inward pull to come, as opposed to joining because you think it would be good for you? A healthy curiosity can be an indication of readiness, while forcing oneself forward indicates a need for more inward stability. This journey requires a steadiness and maturity of practice. Since we cannot interview the participants to screen for that maturity, we set a 10-year minimum of sincere practice history with multiple residential retreats. Granted this is not a very sound way to measure maturity, but during this weeklong retreat we will gently introduce the topics and ease our way into them.

What can participants expect with this program?

Best to arrive with your curiosity intact while expecting nothing. We do encourage the retreatants to follow the full schedule and stay the entire time. Of course, anyone can leave voluntarily at any time.

Is there anything else you would like participants to know or understand before registering?

Narayan and I both have about 50 years of practice and have been teaching together for more than 25 years. This is not conceptual to us. It is a living truth. Narayan approaches the timeless through the heart, not the mentally derived heart but the unlimited magnanimous heart of freedom. I approach the limitless by seeing what is left after everything false has been discarded. Usually one, if not both, of these two intertwined pathways will resonate with students.

We take the student’s welfare very seriously and will back you away immediately if we perceive a striving mentality or an unwillingness to stay within yourself or within your own timing and realization. We point toward the non-practice practice of relaxing, observing, allowing whatever arises to arise and inquiring into that which lies hidden. This is about releasing and surrendering our separation, that is all.