Touching the Infinite

A New Perspective on the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness

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Rodney Smith
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala
    , January
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $16.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611805024.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Touching the Infinite is the fourth book by former Insight Meditation Society teacher and hospice caregiver Rodney Smith. After Stepping Out of Self-Deception (Shambhala, 2010), Awakening. A Paradigm Shift of the Heart (Shambhala, 2014), and Lessons from the Dying (Wisdom Publications, 2015), he now turns his attention to one of the most important and widely studied discourses in the Pāli canon of early Buddhism: the satipatthāna sutta, or the foundations of mindfulness discourse. In thirteen chapters, Smith unfolds the sutta’s many dimensions, offeringhis insights of over forty years of immersion into the practice, realization, and teaching of Buddhism. Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated to a “proper orientation” and “topography of the journey,” as Smith lays out the issues to be discussed. He then covers the first foundation on the body in chapters 3 to 6, the second foundation on feelings in chapters 7 and 8, the third foundation on mental states in chapters 9 to 11, and the fourth foundation in chapters 12 and 13. 

To dispel any doubts, Smith starts Touching the Infinite with a clear statement that this book is not intended as a scholarly endeavor (ix). Nevertheless, it is intellectually demanding, and written for readers already familiar with the discourse on the satipatthāna sutta. Language-wise, the book is written for insiders that can handle Buddhist terminology and concepts. Concerning the sutta itself, Smith only cites one exclusive passage, thereby leaving it up to the reader to look for adequate textual sources. Most of all, he turns directly to his Buddhist colleagues, both practitioners and teachers inside and outside of academia, when he states: “My sense is that Buddhism in the twenty-first century is becoming a bit too staid and predictable … It is as if over the centuries a decisive scholarly map has been drawn onto the face of Buddhism” (ix). Although Smith considers his book to be a “practice manual” (5), the ideal reader does not seem to be a beginner, but an advanced practitioner or even teacher of mindfulness who can follow Smith’s argument.

According to Smith, in particular the extensive discourse of the Fourth Foundation on the interdependence of all phenomena has been “cloaked by 2,500 years of commentary” (4). Smith turns against these commentarial approaches, which in his opinion read the sutta too literally, and suggests an implied reading (xi). Unfortunately, this implied reading sends the unfamiliar reader into a Buddhist endeavor without a clear starting point. By omitting a direct approach to the textual source as well as a historical contextualization of the satipatthāna sutta, Smith prevents an independent understanding of the sutta and demands that the reader trust in his narratives. At the same time, the book holds in store mindfulness exercises in each subchapter, “suited for the complexities of lay practitioners” (5). Although Smith does not regard his book as “theoretical” (6), these exercise boxes and diagrams definitely help to break down a sophisticated discourse. Smith’s unfolding of the Four Foundations develops as an in-depth study with refined language and comprehensive examples. The most thrilling chapter is his elaboration of “Aging and Death” (61–79), in which he recounts events from his experience in hospice programs. This chapter is commendable because it functions as a nucleus of Smith’s argument about bringing two seemingly opposed concepts into a continuum. According to this idea of continuation, suffering and cessation of suffering, or form and formlessness, are not the starting and ending points of a spiritual journey, but one and the same: they exist within each other (14–21). Coming back to death, Smith explains that Siddhartha Gautama was driven by the idea to end death when he left his home and undertook his spiritual quest. The Buddha’s “spiritual awakening was the discovery of how each of us creates the conditions for the existence of death. Death, he discovered, is self-imposed, and, paradoxically, it is our unwillingness to die that creates the reality of death. Resistance, he discovered, constructs the very obstacle we try to overcome” (63–64). In accordance with the continuum of suffering and cessation of suffering, death is not opposed to life, but exists because of life. To fully acknowledge aging and ending then means to proclaim that death “is not a different life: it is this life lived from a different perspective” (79). 

With every chapter Smith’s writing gets more and more chiseled, and concentration and cognition alone do not suffice anymore for following his argument. What remains is amazement for what can be observed and deciphered in more than forty years of mental labor. At the end of the book this can leave the readerwith a slight reading nausea. This might be caused by organizational confusion, since Smith carries out a hermeneutical reading that actually starts with the Fourth and not with the First Foundation. Smith comes to the conclusion that the Four Foundations “systematically move us from form to the formless … I believe the Fourth Foundation drops us off in the timeless and formless expression of reality. The Buddha frames this foundation by what we see … and thus many interpretations have focused on the contemplation of these mental qualities as the basis for the practice. But the Buddha seems to be pointing directly to the formless” (x). Through this lens of the “formless” Smith leads us through the Four Foundations, requiring an understanding of this paradigmatic Buddhist concept that most readers (including myself) cannot provide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dolores Zoé Bertschinger is Academic Assistant in the Study of Religion and History of Religion at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rodney Smith is a retired Insight Meditation Society guiding teacher and retired founding and guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. A former Buddhist monk and hospice director, he has taught meditation for over 30 years and is the author of Lessons from the Dying; Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self; Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart; and Touching the Infinite: A New Perspective on the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Oct 2017).

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