Stepping Out of Self-Deception [a book review]


Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self by Rodney Smith  Shambhala Pubs.  224 pages  July 2010

About the Author

Rodney Smith, former monk and student of Ajahn Buddhadassa, whose teachings I personally find incredibly powerful, is a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Society and founder of Seattle Insight Meditation. Here is his brief biography from Seattle Insight Meditation:

Rodney Smith spent eight years in Buddhist monastic settings, both at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts 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.

Rodney has devoted much of his energy to serving the dying, both in direct service positions and within hospice management, for the last 16 years. Currently Rodney is a full time dharma teacher conducting meditation classes, retreats, and offers spiritual consultations. He serves as a Senior Teacher for IMS and is the founding and guiding teacher for Seattle Insight Meditation. He is author of the book, Lessons From the Dying.

About the Book

I’m very excited about this book and hope that it is the start of a trend. It is comprehensive, well thought out and expounds the Buddhadharma without being stuffy and esoteric. Additionally it does not seek to water down Buddhist concepts to twitter sized bites nor does it insult the intelligence of readers by assuming we are children and addressing us in that condescending way.  I hope this author is already at work on another book.

Selected statements from the Introduction:

The term anatta, which means no permanently abiding self or soul, is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, but with our Western emphasis on psychological health it is perhaps inevitable that this essential aspect of the teaching is downplayed or even avoided. Emptiness, after all, stands in opposition to many of our most important values such as self-reliance, individual initiative, and the pursuit of pleasure…

This selective approach to Buddhism would seem to allow the best of both the Eastern and Western worlds…

…except that there is a rub when we pare back the Dharma…

We hurt and we do not understand why…

When we look at our experience we appear to be the center of the universe…

Many of us incorporate a gentler and kinder spiritual “me” into our practice, which is in opposition to the worldly “me,” the trouble-making twin that needs a resolution…Eventually we see that calling the ego different names serves to strengthen its overall grip and control..

We begin to further understand that the cause of our suffering is not what we do but the way we perceive…

Much of this book is about understanding our perceptions and misperceptions of ourselves and the world. Seems fitting for a Buddhist book. It is given in a strong Dharmic framework that I recognize from my Abhidharma studies or  from Visudhimagga or Shurangama Sutra, which all kind of cover the same general territory.

…the Tathagata has explained to you that the fundamental cause of all five skandhas is false thinking.

8.291 Shurangama Sutra – Buddhist Text Translation Society pub. 2003

However it is not nearly as esoteric as those texts. Certainly not as lengthy. And it is not overly scholarly.

Using contemporary language and examples the author challenges much activity and thought that claims the label Buddhism or Dharma with reasoned explanations and clear thought.

It is also an exposition of real Buddhist psychology and not Freud, Jung or other psychologists dressed up in saffron robes.

The book tackles subjects such as self-deception, intentions, encountering paradox, freeing awareness from self-control and the last chapter is on mature awakening.

Discussions of mature practice are not often available in the marketplace. There are a lot of books for beginners and then some very specialized texts for academics or ambitiously studious people such as myself. I am relieved to find these more explanatory and in-depth kinds of books for a general audience now being produced and becoming available.

In some ways it reminds me of the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, such as The Sanity We Are Born With or Glimpses of Abhidharma. They too are not easily accessible for the beginner but after some time the insights prove quite valuable in deepening the understanding of both the purposes of practice and practice itself.

What gives this book a broader appeal is that it is focused on lay practice, that is practice out in the world. Some of the examples given relate to workplace and family situations. The author himself is trained as a social worker and has worked in hospice care for many years in addition to teaching Buddhism. So even having been a monk he is familiar with lay life.

Part of the center section of the book deals with Right or Wise Livelihood. It is all about our attitudes about work and how we can deal with such things as boredom, lack of fulfillment and stress at work.  He goes into how to apply and misapply mindfulness to work. Here is a sample:

The only way a spiritual path can unfold is through a direct connection to the primary intention, that deep longing within the heart for the total resolution of conflict. If we are uninterested in what blocks our primary intention at work and in our life, our spiritual practice will not bear fruit. Mindfulness will center on “me” and what “I want”, and will be awash in our reactivity and assumptions, without any way of moving beyond that limited perspective. This is the reason mindfulness cannot succeed when willfully forced onto a situation; the “I” that forces mindfulness is simultaneously a limitation on it…

As the primary intention rises to the surface of our work, nothing is discounted. If our job is boring, we become interested in the boredom itself and explore its hold on us. p. 145

Of course you recognize he is talking about Right Intention as well as Bodhicitta. And perhaps you notice, or it seems so to me, the language and viewpoint is somewhat reminiscent of Trungpa Rinpoche’s regarding interest in what is happening in one’s life and experience whether we like the situation or not. Equanimity.

I really want to quote every second paragraph here just because it contains so much and is so very well stated. The author discusses pretty well all of Buddhist doctrine while rarely using technical terms but does so in a way that makes the concepts and their meanings clear. If people have been put off or confused by some of that in the past then reading this will make it quite obvious. For example on his explanation of the self in the very first chapter:

The mind has created the sense of you and me from the way it perceives reality. The truth is the mind holds “us” within it. “We” are not the possessor of a mind, and the mind is not something happening to us as if we were outside looking in. “We” are part of the mental processing of the mind. The thoughts of the mind and the sense-of-I are not two separate events. “We” exist only because the mind thinks us into creation… p.4

I haven’t run across a statement that explains “I”, ego or the separation of self from experience that is more clearly stated than that. And he continues to explain:

If we think we are either separate from the experience or separate from the mind having the experience, our efforts will exacerbate the division between “the world” and “myself”. p.5

He explains in the first chapter, the Eightfold Path and its applicability to lay life. As well he addresses some of the misrepresentations that occur with Buddhist practice. The whole purpose of the book is laid out.

This book is an attempt to show that certain aspects of the Eightfold Path take on new relevance in lay life…

…will explore what is centrally important within the Buddha’s teaching when we are addressing a fully engaged life, and when we want that life to lead to the full liberation proclaimed by the Buddha…

The central point is not to determine the precise meaning of the Buddha’s words, but to expose the numerous ways we misrepresent his teaching by unconsciously deceiving ourselves. Because of the psychological emphasis in the West, modern spirituality is often distorted according to that bias, and ends up reinforcing self-deception. p.11-12

One of the essential discussions in this book is about Wise View or the first of the eight-fold path. How we align with that view makes all the difference in how Buddhist practice manifests in our lives. If it is in accordance with the doctrine of anatta then practice can proceed but if it is not then problems continue to show up.

It strikes me that the problems many people have with practice come down to mis-aligned Right or Wise View.  And I think this particular book is the answer for many of those situations. 

Another really important discussion is related to what the author labels vertical and horizontal universe. That is time and timelessness. All time being encompassed in the present moment. I am glad someone has elucidated this concept so clearly. It is referred to numerous time throughout the book in conjunction with other concepts. This is helpful because it helps to tie together the whole Buddhist viewpoint.

Throughout the book the author illustrates the problems with mis-aligned viewpoints. Such as:

Caution is needed if we cherry-pick the Buddha’s teaching because we can be practicing one link out of context from the whole. The Buddha’s teaching builds upon itself, and Wise View precedes and frames all the other components. Without Wise View, the unwise view of self claims a privileged place, and the teaching can quickly become an exercise in moralism and self-improvement. The Buddha says, “Without Wise View one can aspire toward spiritual  growth, but it is like trying to churn water into butter.” p. 34

This book is a definite counterpoint to the current trend of stripping down the Dharma, I’m not talking culture here, to a few talking points and marketing that.


We do not need a new reality;we need a reframing of the reality we are in. How we perceive reality is the problem, not reality itself.  p. 35

This book is like a tonic for what is ailing much of Western convert Buddhism.


Highly recommended for those with some practice experience and especially for people who have read a lot of the pop culture Buddhist or psychology books and are looking for something with real substance.

Anyone who is a counselor, psychologist or working in a similar field and wishes to incorporate Buddhist principles into their practice would be well advised to read this book as well.

And there are perhaps a few teachers who might like to brush up on some of this as well.

Thanks Rodney Smith for writing it.


Note: The publisher sent me this book to review. However  anyone who reads this blog knows there is no stated or implied promise on my part to like it, pretend to like it or to say I like it if I don’t,  even if they sent me a truckload of books, which they didn’t. And I’m glad they didn’t because I don’t have room and would have had to rent a storage facility.

3 comments on “Stepping Out of Self-Deception [a book review]

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  3. How refreshing to read a thorough, thoughtful book review. I’ve just begun to read the book, but as a member of Seattle Insight Meditation I’ve had the joy of hearing Rodney’s teaching for a number of years, and am delighted to see his message so clearly communicated in what I’ve read so far (and summarized in your review). He is a profound, gifted teacher with a great heart.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your enthusiasm.

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