BG 144: Turning Your Back to the Buddha

Episode Description:

Insight Meditation teacher, Rodney Smith, joins us to explore the topic of “urban dharma”–seeing that the transformative potential of one’s life and relationships are on equal footing with silent, more passive forms of meditation. Rodney critiques the common tendency to elevate silent retreat practice above all other aspects of practice. As part of that exploration he also shares a moving story from his time studying with the famous Advaita teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj.

Rodney concludes by exploring what it might it mean to be a “Buddhist revolutionary,” updating and contemporizing the Buddhist teachings, while “turning one’s back to the Buddha and moving forward…”

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Stepping out of Self-Deception.

Episode Links:


Vince: So switching gears just a little bit, though this is all kind of contained in the conversation in your interests.

Rodney: Yeah.

Vince: One thing that I’ve heard you talk about and that you’re experimenting with in the Seattle Insight group is something we can call Urban Dharma.

Rodney: Yes.

Vince: Yeah, that’s Dharma that exists side by side with and in our normal every day daily lives?

Rodney: Absolutely.

Vince: And I was wondering if you could say more about this idea of Urban Dharma.

Rodney: I sure can. It’s my passion. I personally am not a retreat teacher per se. I teach retreats. But, my focus and interest is really on each moment and not specializing one moment over and above another. I think we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we prioritize environments or situations as being spiritual, or waiting for the spiritual to happen really. And I just noticed that because I have taught many retreats, how many people upon leaving a retreat would sort of put their life on hold, their spiritual life on hold, waiting for the next retreat to occur.

And I know many Dharma teachers talk about using your everyday life for your spiritual growth, but I always felt that in the back of most of those teachers’ minds was the real message was, “Come back on retreat.” And that’s where the real spiritual focus and growth lives. I simply do not believe that at all. And I think what happens is that when we put ourselves on hold like that, because the mundane world doesn’t feel as if it holds the sacred, the routines and conditions to references of our life, ways that we react in relationship, the ways that we work day after day in the routines of our life doesn’t feel exciting to us. It feels typical and normal and usual but not spiritual. And that we wait for some ingredient of spiritual like sublime mind states or visions or experiences so that we could relate that special feeling as something spiritual and then go back and try to regain access to those qualities of mind or whatever they are.

Meanwhile, our life is passing us by. And it really requires us as a group to say, “Look, this is it. This moment is it. This is our whole reference. There is no other time but now.” And I mean that not figuratively but literally. It’s now or never. In that now or never, you see we really have to show up for this thing. And that if we place our life, our regular routine life on a secondary tier to the primary experience of having a retreat, then we’re essentially betraying our spiritual orientation to life itself. Life, this momentary life, this immediate moment of now holds it all. It is here that presence is felt. It is here that everything evolves and transpires. And I, as an Urban Dharma teacher, really emphasize that point that this is in a spiritual adventure and let’s not make it into anything other than that. So, that’s why I focus my teaching on the urban dwellers or rural dwellers, whichever. But the ones that don’t hold a priority of one location being more spiritual than another.

Vince: And do you find that actually changes the mechanics of how you would lead a community in terms of what you actually do?

Rodney: Yes. It changes everything. It changes everything. I got involved in all of this almost 40 years ago. So, I’ve seen the evolution of Western Buddhism primarily, but spirituality in general go over these four decades and when I first got involved in this, the retreat was everything, samadhi or the ability of the mind to concentrate and hold itself steady, was almost a reverential part of whatever we were doing. Unless we have a high degree samadhi in everything we were to do spiritually was to reinforce that steadying and quality of mind. And it all has a sense of journey of walking towards something, of moving away from where we are towards something better, something more perfect, something in which we could claim our proper spiritual orientation.

And it dawned on me that I never had enough of this, I never had enough of Samadhi, I never had enough concentration, I never had enough love, I never had enough calm, never enough peace, and that the mind was never going to allow me to be content if I continue to walk it as if it were a journey going someplace and what does it look like when it’s arrival. When it’s here and the journeys over. Because I realize that the mind was never going to itself come to a complete ending of the journey that I had better do it is the mind wasn’t going to follow suit.

So at that point I said, “Okay what’s it look like when it’s just this is it.” When I’m not making a journey, a spiritual journey away from now, and that changed everything. It changed my teaching really, and in fact it was a teacher and their relationship with me that first brought that point home. Nisargadatta Maharaj, the famous teacher in Bombay India, in 1980.

Vince: And how did he bring that home for you? That’s interesting.

Rodney: Well it is. I went to him as a monk. I had ordained in Burma, and I had heard about him through the book I Am That. And, I was very interested in meeting then because there was something in his writing that peaked my curiosity. So I traveled as a monk across India to Bombay and went to this little room. He was an interesting man, he didn’t have any teeth. He was a chain-smoking… he was just an interesting man.

So as a monk he brought me right up front and wanted to know what I had been doing in my monk days, and asked me about all my practices, and I thought he was generally respecting, not only by tradition, but my advanced spiritual progress in my tradition, and I was arrogant I’m sure in, how I was speaking about it. So he kept doing that day after day. One day I sat down in front of him, which is the proper place I was sitting every time I went. And he said, “what are you doing sitting there?” And I said, “Well I’ve come to talk to you.” And he says, “All you’ve been giving me for all these days is just worthless manure.” He said, “I want you to go back into the back of the room and I don’t want you to say anything until you can say something wise.” And of course I could never come up with anything wise to say. So I was shunned.

And in the course of his speaking to me he says, “You know, all you’ve been telling me is about the work you’ve done.” He says, “Why don’t you come across that line and show up with me. Actually be present with me. And show me not the work that is yet to do, but the perfection that is here.” And, there’s something in the way he said it that completely threw my mind into a different reference point. And, it’s really from that day forward that I have seen spiritual work in a very very different relationship than I had when I was working diligently as a Buddhist monk.

What I realized was I kept framing my teachings prior meeting Nisargadatta Maharaj, I kept framing them in terms of lifetimes. And, I never thought I was ready. I always thought, “well I’ll get so much done this lifetime and then next lifetime I’ll have so much left to do and I’ll just work diligently.” But, there’s a kind of way that I really didn’t believe in myself enough to believe that I could contain it now. And, so in some ways the message of lifetimes reinforced the sense of self-doubt I had. That I just wasn’t up to the task of really showing up for my life or being here and now. The way it was framed actually reinforced sort of a deep neurosis of my own self-doubt, my own sense of unworthiness. And I saw that how one frames the Dharma can reinforce the very problems which one is seeking to have a remedy for, through the Dharma. And, for me it wasn’t helpful. For some people it may well be helpful to think in terms of lifetimes and all of that. For me it just wasn’t.

When it becomes immediate and we see that each of us by our very nature have the potentiality, containing the potentiality of showing up for this moment. And that all of the conditioning reference we have given ourselves, in terms of our limitation, in terms of what we think about ourselves has been the conditioning pass that has it’s momentum has kept us moving away from this moment thinking of a journey and a reference towards becoming something, so I can not be a person in pain, but so that my pain can be remedied sometime in the future. All of that ends.

The image that comes to my mind is like being on the outside of a cave. And all of the past messages we’ve given ourselves, and all of the beliefs we hold of ourselves, come out of the cave like flying bats. And we’re at the mouth of the cave and the bats continue to fly out, but we’re not flying with them any longer. We’re just holding the space at that cave opening and no longer moving forward with that momentum of that old conditioning.

And I really saw that each of us has that ability in the present moment to hold our past and not resurface again as the same limited, neurotic person moment-after-moment that we were and have held ourselves to be. And that this neurotic person is never going to evolve into completion. That’s an essential point that this neurotic person thinks of him or herself as someone who is evolving towards some sense of refinement, some self-improved way that I will then become so that I’ll no longer be in pain. But, in fact, the mind keeps evolving itself into more pain through that very logic. And it’s not until we stop that logic that we allow the bats to fly through us, around us, rather than flying with them in the air.

Vince: Interesting. And how have you reconciled that view with the emphasis in the insight tradition on the developing the paramis and developing… You know, you already mentioned developing Samadhi. It’s a very developmental system.

Rodney: Indeed. Well, okay, so the way I look at the paramis are those are all qualities of presence. When consciousness is present to itself, when consciousness is present, there’s natural warmth of heart, there’s natural metta. That’s one of the paramis. There’s natural generosity because it’s not being held within the limitation of its own greed response. There’s natural generosity. The ability of presence to hold a situation without weighing in with judgment, just holding it has natural patience, which is another parami. You see all of these paramis are actually contained within the awareness, the presence itself. And we take it on as projects that we have to do. I have to be more patient. I’m not patient enough. And who can claim any clarification of any of the paramis when the self weighs in because the self looks at what it has and then holds some ideal of that quality out in front of it like patience being perfect, absolute, refined and then weighs in and sees that its level of patience isn’t up to the standard of the ideal it set. And so it says, “I have more to do.” So, if we take it on as a cultivation, we take it on as really a tension within ourselves creating ourselves more pain within that tension and we don’t see that if we look at dropping, if we really investigate the lack of generosity I have in this moment and we see our selfishness and are willing to surrender our selfishness in that moment, we will find ourselves in a very generous place through surrendering selfishness not through cultivating generosity. Do you see the difference?

Vince: I do, yes.

Rodney: Yeah. It’s a very subtle but very important difference. So, the way I teach is by looking at what it is, where the limitations are, where do you see your limitations and really questioning those limitations to see if they are limitations or whether they’re, in fact, just images of oneself that one is trying to get over.

Vince: Gotcha. And kind of stepping back to the mechanics or like the manifestation of how this looks. Like if I were to come and practice in your community, would it look different than most other spiritual communities that are similar? And beyond the view, would there be a different way of engaging in the community?

Rodney: To be honest there aren’t that many community centers in the vipassana or insight tradition, mostly there are retreat center, in our tradition, but there are three or four and I think they are all good quality teachers, I think Tara Brach and Gill Fronsdal and some of the others, they are really fine teacher so am not sure mine will look any differently but one of the things that we encourage in our sangha is homework. First of all i will give a talk and then i will give them homework and then we come back and re-engage in homework through discussion. This is important because what i am finding is that the insight tradition has been so focused on the passivity of sitting quietly that it misses the interactive part, the action part. You see the cells of the body have to change and the cells aren’t going to change as readily through the passivity of sitting as they are through the active engagement of using and investigating in topic in a normal relationship to the world. So you had a homework assignment on looking at ones patient and you are with your spouse and you see how impatient you are with their inability to understand something you are saying and then working in that moment changes the cells of the body, the neurons of the mind are changed within that interactive process, that’s very different than looking at passively sitting and walking meditation and then just looking at ones impatient from a very kind of inward reflective process. I think what the Buddha meant by wise action was just that, was moving our inside-out into the world into the actual expression of relationship among things and people and that’s really when the cells change into a dynamic understanding of what and who this person is.

Vince: And it… one thing have reflected on a lot having done many insight retreat is just that. Well kind of go into retreat and then come back and feel like there is not really a place that I could…

Rodney: Right

Vince: …there is not really a community that I could kind of harsh this things out too…

Rodney: Right, right

Vince: Even if I felt that something changed…

Rodney: Right.

Vince: …fundamentally in the retreat it didn’t feel that I could ever quite work that out in relationship with a lot of other people doing something similar

Rodney: That’s right, I mean Sangha is a vital part of the dharma. And the reason is it, this that first of all many of the problems that we have each embodied over our lifetimes including much of the sense of separation we have and the believes in pain associated with that sense of separation have come from other people, our parents, out significant other’s in our lives that have told us when we were too small to critically question what we were being told, they told us we were such and such a person or bad child or whatever and we have held those beliefs within us and through the exposure of people who are working in similar ways or really looking at exploring those root issues that we invested in and believe so long ago. They aren’t interested in reinforcing that view in us, they are interested in the joy of exploring whether those beliefs are really true, and that is the beauty of Sangha. When you get people together who are moving in the same way, who are synergistically working with each other so that that act of exploration isn’t being judged or being reinvested back into a belief of sense of self your you get this wonderful sort of hundreth monkey result, where ones person effort helps anothers and it is very very important. Very important indeed.

Vince: And I find it interesting that you still lead retreats, and so it sounds like you haven’t disposed of that…

Rodney: No

Vince: …but part of it got bigger now…

Rodney: Yes. I never try to persuade someone away from their natural inclination. I never say “oh you don’t need to do that or should do this.” I really allow the person own intentions to govern their spiritual prescription for themselves ,and I think that is important because each of us have prescribed path within us and your path is going to look very differently from my path or any one else’s path, and to allow the full embodiment of that path.

And so for many people, partially because most people who come into this particular tradition are introverted, their path is one of self perception. And they’re naturally drawn towards environments that lead to a kind of focused self perception. And retreats are fine. There’s nothing wrong with retreats as a normal part of one’s spiritual growth. It’s when we emphasize that environment over and above other parts of the environment. That’s where it gets skewed.

And I also think, I mean I talked about Ssamadhi, but I also believe that for most of us, developing the ability to discern when the mind is thinking and when the mind is seeing clearly is very important. And that’s the point of samadhi is that you begin to know when you’re thinking about something as opposed to being still and present with something and not having the thoughts intrude upon that presence. That for most people, but not for all, but for most people requires a training. And so the training of following your breath and knowing when you’re breathing, and when you’re thinking begins that stability of mind that allows one to discern the difference. For the Buddhists path, that’s an important distinction to have.

Vince: Great, great. So would you say, Rodney, that what you’re doing now is kind of an evolution both of your own teaching and of the way Dharma’s being presented in our particular time and place?

Rodney: It’s certainly is an evolution of my own teaching and, in some ways… Joseph Goldstein did a foreword for my book and he said, “I’ve known Rodney,” almost a quote. He said, “I’ve known Rodney for a long period of time and he can best be described as a Buddhist revolutionary.” And at first I thought, “I wonder what he means by that?”

But, in fact, I do think that Buddhism in general has been editorialized and commented on for 2500 years and has become encrusted in its own definition and its own years of history. And words like “defilements” and “fetters” and words like that, and the translations that occurred, just don’t revitalize it for me. They’re not current. They’re not contemporary. They don’t speak to me.

So, I feel that I’m very strongly in the Buddhist lineage, but I feel that my evolution over time has been one in which I have brought a renewed spirit really, not by looking at what the Buddha said, and marching always towards that drum. I think we can do that. Many teachers face the Buddhist statue and decipher and translate the ideas the Buddhists spoke. I think that’s one orientation to the Buddha. But another orientation is to turn your back to the Buddha, having understood his message, and walk forward so that his message gives your message momentum. But you’re now redefining and looking at it in ways that are more contemporary, more exciting, and more easily accessible to the population in large. And so, I think my journey has been first I moved toward the Buddha, and then I turned and walked away, but not away from the Buddha, but away from the stylized words that his message were given and trying to find my own message within that.

Vince: Beautiful, beautiful. And just so people know, they can check out more about the Seattle Insight Group at

Rodney: Yes, and we do have our own podcasts.

Vince: Ah, nice. Perfect.

Rodney: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Vince: So, everyone listening, we already know you love podcasts, so go check out the Seattle Insight podcasts.


Rodney Smith