Rodney Smith, the founder of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, joins us today to discuss several fascinating topics. We start with an exploration of how the Big Bang and the origin of life on Earth (some 3.8 billion years ago) and spiritually significant events. We also discuss the overall compatibility between Buddhist teachings and these new found scientific findings.
Finally, Rodney shares with us a powerful mathematical analogy for understanding the spiritual path, that of fractions. The numerator of the fraction represents the appearances of things, and the denominator represents the undifferentiated wholeness underlying appearances. Rodney shares how spiritual practice, and the process of dying, can both help us cross the fraction line.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Turning Your Back to the Buddha.
Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn and I’m here today on the phone with a very special guest Rodney Smith. Rodney, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Rodney: It is my pleasure, thank you for asking me.
Vince: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah and so just to share a little bit about your teaching background and some of the stuff your working on now. Um you’re the guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. Which is a big group in the Seattle area surrounding the teachings of Insight meditation as they come out of the Theravada traditions. And you’re also the author of a book called Lessons From the Dying. And then you have a new book coming out shortly from Shambhala publications, which is called Stepping Out of Self-Deception. So before we jump into the interview I was wondering if you could maybe say a little bit about what Stepping Out of Self-Deception is and what it means?
Rodney: Yes, thank you. I’m very excited about this book because I think it brings into alignment a lot of mistaken ideas about the Dharma. And this particular books says that from day one when we first get into Dharma we should align our perceptions according to reality, rather than according to the ideas that the sense of self holds. And once we understand how the sense of self distorts reality, by looking at things in terms of this and that, me and you, and that our whole focus has always been, and everything that comes in from that focus, has always been around me and that this actually a distortion, it’s an idea we hold about ourselves, but when we actually look at the mind we don’t find any substantial reason to believe that idea. Then we can turn this perception to be much more unified, much more together in a sense of oneness. And it’s just a matter of understanding how the self works and the strategies associated with how the sense of self works to turn this whole thing and make it much more in alignment with what the Buddha was talking about, or what all the prophets were talking about and pointing towards.
Vince: Nice, and this is coming out sometime next year?
Rodney: In May or June.
Vince: Let’s keep an eye out for Stepping Out of Self-Deception. So, part of what I wanted to talk to you about was that you’re just involved in a lot of really interesting things so there are a couple topics, but the first one was that you’ve been focusing some of your teachings lately on the Big Bang and the formation of life and I wanted to talk to you a little about that because it’s not a topic that you often hear associated with Dharma. So…
Vince: …Yeah. So, you mentioned in this recent talk that I was listening to that the Big Bang and then the formation of simple life here on Earth were two significant moments in our spiritual lives and I was wondering if you could say more about that?
Rodney: Sure, right well. The Big Bang, which according to science happened 13 and a half billion years ago. From nothing, came something. I mean the scientists won’t say how that happened exactly. They can take it back to the nano-second before, but essentially there was nothing and then there was something. So that’s the first point, but then an interesting point that represents life here on Earth is what happened 3.8 billion years ago and at that point all of life began and the interesting point is that it began once. It didn’t begin in various pools around an ocean beaches it began at one location and then all the lives that we know have known and still know, have been adaptations from that single first beginning.
Now the reason that has significance in terms of our spiritual life is that it was at that moment that consciousness became animated and took form. And then adapted as the stressors of the environment occurred upon that particular organism and that organism adapted to those stressors and changed locations and reproduced. All of the life that we know vegetable and animal life, came from that simple single beginning so many years ago. And what we have focused on and this is kind of the crucial point as to why it has a spiritual relevance, is that we since then have adapted as a species and have the ability to have a subjective experience, which is different than other species, then we focused on the appearance and the adaptation quality. How life was changing, how forms were rising the color and appearance of things. So we missed the consciousness that took that form in the first beginning. So we have missed the formless and just focused on the form. The formless came into form in that first beginning. But we, up until that point, form and the formless were separate.
But after that point, consciousness ceded itself into form. And then what has happened is we have focused on the different expressions and appearances that form has adapted to and have forgotten the common denominator of all of life, which his that formless consciousness that hasn’t adapted at all. It has just been holding all the adaptations. But it itself has not changed.
Vince: Interesting. Is that what you would kind of describe as that which was before the Big Bang?
Rodney: Yes, that is right. And the Big Bang has relevance because it, again, was sort of the cosmic explosion from nothing to something. From nothing, which I believe there was consciousness before there was form, and so out of form, out of consciousness, rose all of the different appearances and expressions of the universe that we have now. So whether we look at the universal and the cosmos, or whether we look at the individual planetary, I think the lessons are very similar.
Vince: Very cool. This is all an understanding that only recently arose in our culture, just about 100 years ago. I am wondering how this understanding of the origin of the universe, and of life, and of the thinking mind that comes out of our current scientific thinking, does that have any implication for the Buddha’s original teachings? Does it change the way we see them?
Rodney: Yes and no. The yes is that, for me, science has just reinforced the Buddhist perception. I mean, when you start reading about some of the sub-atomic particles, quantum mechanics, to me that is Buddhism. That is the extraordinary wonders and mysteries of life at the subatomic level where two things occur simultaneously, two things can be in the same place at the same time, things vanish immediately.
The whole world takes on a kind of mystery and a wonder we don’t necessarily see at the level we perceive. Now why is that? Why is it that at the subatomic level things are falling apart and being very mysterious and really fit the equation of Buddhism very nicely. Whereas at the gross atomic level, or human level, we see things that are all smooth, and rational, and logic, and everything seems to have a place and a logical law that follows. And I think it is because just that; I think. The thoughts smooth out the reality. The mind, in its ability to narrate, won’t allow the world to function at the level of its chaos.
In fact, they have done scientific experiments where part of one’s vision is inverted and the rest of the vision is kept in tact so that when I looked at somebody looking through this special pair of glasses, half of their body would be walking… their legs would be inverted but the top half of their body would be as it is. And very quickly the mind reorganizes that reality and puts the person in a whole body form again, because the mind has an amazing ability to make sense out of chaos, to smooth it all out.
So you can’t trust that what you see through the mind, through the mind’s perception, is in fact the truth of reality, because it is reorganizing reality so that it can be functional, so that it can be secure, so that it can be known to us, so that we can live functionally and within it.
But it does point out to somebody who is spiritual that what the mind is saying about reality has to be considered and questioned, investigated. If we then move into this question of how thought smoothes out the chaos of reality, we are really into the focus of what the Buddha was talking about in terms of how the mind’s attraction and aversion to objects distorts those objects by projecting something onto those objects which it inherently doesn’t contain, which is substance, which is an entity, which is separation.
Anything that we think about the world is really coming from the mind. It is not coming from reality itself. All of the likes and dislikes that we have of the world are really mental projections onto the world. They are not coming from the world. And so when you begin to see that, then you begin to decipher how the mind is distorting reality on a constant momentary level. And I think that is the Buddhist teaching.
Vince: Very cool. You mentioned being common denominators of this kind of fundamental wholeness. That is one metaphor that I thought was really interesting. And you talk about not just the denominator but the…
Vince: The numerator! Yes.
Rodney: That’s right.
Vince: And you use the numerator as a kind of metaphor for our normal seeking sense of being a differentiated individual that is disconnected from the whole. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that metaphor and why you chose that to express these teachings.
Rodney: Right. It sort of takes us back to our elementary school days when we talked about fractions. But I think the fraction line is very relevant to what we are talking about, because that fraction line is in a spiritual analogy, and the spiritual analogy is the resistant factor. And the upper part of the fraction, or the numerator, which is all things different than all things that we appear and latch onto, hold onto and grasp in life, all appearances, is always in the numerator in the top part of that fraction. Meanwhile, there is a common denominator to all of life that is waiting for us that has not adapted, that we have to cross that fraction line in order to experience and in order to embody. Now crossing that fraction line is the entire spiritual journey. It is the movement from the numerator toward the denominator that all spiritual paths points.
In Buddhism, for instance, much of Buddhism is about seeing the limited quality of anything that has an appearance, anything that has form. In Christianity, too, Christ says, “Lay not up your treasures where rust does corrupt or disease let in,” which means the same thing. It is just don’t focus and invest in the appearances of life.
And when we don’t do that, when we release the need to grasp and hold onto appearances and change, then we start crossing that fraction line and feeling, and embodying really, because it has never left us, the common denominator, which is that wholeness, that presence, that all encompassing awareness that is waiting for us.
Vince: So it sounds like, in a way, Buddhism is kind of pointing at the limitation of being a numerator, and then kind of having you back down into the denominator.
Rodney: That’s exactly it. And we take it as a numerator problem. We think, “Oh, I just haven’t tried hard enough as a fraction, and that if I really tried hard has a fraction I could get to a whole number.” And that is not the point. The point is not to continue to assert the muscles of our numerator, because the numerator will never get us to the denominator. It is seeing the limitations of the numerator, releasing the need to be, or abide, or grasp at the numerator that eventually evolves us into the common denominator.
Vince: Wow. That is really cool. I love that metaphor.
Now another interesting thing that you focus a lot on in your first book, Lessons from the Dying, was all about your work with death and dying and hospice situations; really being there with people as they are dying.
Vince: And you talk about how death is such a powerful opportunity for people to realize that denominator, that wholeness.
Rodney: Yes, exactly. Exactly. See, what is so beautiful about the moment… It is always hard, and I don’t mean to make light of it for people who struggle, because it is a struggle. But it is only a struggle because we have invested so much into the numerator and have forgotten the denominator.
And so what death represents is the loss of all the numerator to us, the loss of all things precious in appearance. And so I don’t mean in any way to disregard that investment and the grief associated with it. But the beauty and the potentiality of death is that it forces us, unequivocally forces us, to look beyond the numerator for the purpose and point and meaning of life.
You see, if it were just the numerator, well everything in the numerator dies. Everything in the numerator ends. All relationships end in separation, everything decomposes into chaos. And so what death does is that it is always a reminder of the limitation of the numerator. It is always saying to us in effect, “You sure you want to grasp on this, because there is going to be pain associated with it at some point as this dies or you die from it?”
And so the moment of death, and also because I worked in hospice care seeing people who had a prognosis, knowing they were going to die, knowing that they had a limited time with the numerator, they would reorganize their perception so that they began to embrace a possibility or a potentiality that a prolonged life and a sudden death may not have awarded. That sense of potentiality of seeing that they can’t grasp onto this world any longer brought many people, I mean a small number in comparison, but the potential was their for everyone to see that there was something much greater.
And to see someone transform themselves as they are going through their death, you could feel it when you walked into the room with somebody who was moving out beyond the numerator of their life to the denominator. And often it felt like an overwhelming sense of love and warmth for that person, whereas they might have had a life that was very humble and very enclosed and isolated. Sometimes, rarely, yes, but sometimes it would occur that this person would step out of that very difficult and isolated existence into the denominator that embraced everything. And you could feel it in their heart. You could feel the heart’s expansion even as they were dying. And those moments stay with me very pointedly up until now.
Vince: And it seems like they are going through that process very quickly then.
Rodney: Yes. That is the remarkable fact about everything that we are talking about, is that we make time an issue in our practice. We talk about practicing lifetimes. And personally, I have seen people who have had no background in formal meditation practice and no spiritual underpinnings at all get this point very quickly.
And it is not as if you have to grow into the denominator as I was mentioning before. All you have to do is release the resistance to only being in the numerator. And then suddenly, life is transformed through the willingness not to grasp onto it. So it is not really a question of time. It is a question of release, or letting go, or surrender. Surrender is really the optimal word for this, because any other word kind of implies a process or a transition, when it is not really a transition. It just a re-perception of what life really is.