In his 2009 profile, Barry Boyce visits Huston Smith, the renowned spiritual explorer who brought an insider’s knowledge of the world’s religions to a narrow-minded West and defined comparative religion as we know it today.
There was nothing comparative about religion in 1950s America. Your religion was right. Others were wrong. The familiar religions were a little bit wrong; religions from far-flung parts of the world were very wrong. Indigenous religions were savagery. And mystical experiences were the province of the crazy.
Into this world came Huston Smith’s 1958 book, The Religions of Man. With a spirit of open inquiry and enthusiasm about all the world’s religions, Smith introduced Americans to ways of seeing and being in the world that were previously unknown to them. Fifty years and nearly three million copies later, his book—revised and retitled The World’s Religions—remains the preeminent survey text in comparative religion.
Author of more than a dozen other books, Huston Smith has been an intrepid investigator of all things religious and an agent provocateur for almost seventy years. Now, at age ninety, Smith has finally written an autobiography, Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine. I used the occasion to visit him in Berkeley, California, and discuss his life and work. Just a few days earlier, I was talking with a colleague in San Francisco who mentioned that he had picked up a book from his parents’ library when he was a teenager. He said that what he had read there about satori, enlightenment, yin, and yang had stuck with him ever since. The book, of course, was The Religions of Man. How many people must have had similar experiences? How many people’s minds had been altered by Huston Smith?
“At the time The Religions of Man came out, Americans just didn’t encounter other religions,” Jeffery Paine, author of Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West, told me. “To the extent that one knew someone of another religion, they were to be ignored, converted, or persecuted.” Paine, who helped with the writing of Smith’s autobiography (since Smith is no longer able to sit down and compose), went on to say, “Huston showed a new way to be religious. While remaining a devout Christian his whole life, he practiced three other religions: Hinduism for ten years, Buddhism for ten years, and Islam for ten years. Nobody else has ever done that.”
Pico Iyer, who wrote the foreword to Tales of Wonder, admires Smith because “he is a lifelong explorer and adventurer. Unlike so many scholars, he doesn’t come up with an idea, stick with it, and make refinements. Huston is always on the move, in his thinking and his life. He brings together ardor and rigor, which is why he speaks to the common reader in a way that very few scholars do.”
I visited with Huston Smith in the modest home in Berkeley he has shared with his wife, Kendra, for the past several decades. Smith now requires more care than Kendra—who has been married to him for sixty-six years—can take on, so he spends most of his time in a nearby assisted-living facility. He’s frail and stooped, and in the last few years his powers have declined more rapidly. Yet, when we started to talk, I found him warm, ludd, and very present—the sort of professor of whom one would say, “He changed my life.”
“I know,” Smith began, “it might appear as though I started with the Christianity I was brought up in and then went down a checklist: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Islam, and so forth. It wasn’t like that at all. Christianity fulfilled me, and I thought it would for the rest of my life. But then Vedanta came in from left field. And it j ust kept going like that. I thought I had a great package, but something would come in and explode that package.” He calls himself an explorer, and he feels none of his journeys has been wasted. Even at ninety, he says, “An explorer’s legs keep moving forward.”
Huston Smith grew up in China in a small town near Shanghai, the son of Methodist missionaries. He describes an idyllic time of simple pleasures and rustic village life, and it formed in him an aspiration to train as a missionary and to return to China. In 1935 he enrolled in Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. He talks about it now as “Norman Rockwell quaint,” but from his perspective then it bristled with modernity. Within weeks, the intoxication of America convinced him that he would not return to China.
Smith was no rebel, though; there was little indication of the man who would dr op acid with Timothy Leary. He was president of the student body, head of the pep rally, and editor of the college paper. He was a circuit-riding preacher during his summer vacations. But toward the end of his college career, he experienced the first of his many “internal revolutions.” The professor whose classes and informal evening discussions moved him the most, Edwin Walker, espoused a “naturalistic theism” that didn’t rely on the biblical authority and revelation of the faith Smith had grown up with. The naturalistic doctrine teaches that all we can know is the world presented to us, but we can find God within it. God is not a creator but a creative process, not supernatural but superhuman.
One night after a particularly exciting discussion, Smith writes in his autobiography, he lay awake while “waves of ideas.. .washed over me and revealed their meaning. That night changed me forever.” Smith had already abandoned his plan to become a missionary; now he gave up on the ministry. He would become a college professor. Having converted to naturalistic Christianity, which many regarded as apostasy, Smith decided to attend the University of Chicago and study with Henry Wieman, Professor Walker’s mentor and the father of naturalistic theism. Like others of his day, Wieman sought to bring Christianity into line with science and modernity. His worldly theology also led to an ethic of social action, and he was a major inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr., whose doctoral thesis was devoted to Wieman’s work. Smith became Wieman’s protege, married his daughter, Kendra, and prepared for a career as an acolyte of naturalistic theology. He would become a standard bearer for knowledge based on, as he says in his autobiography, “what our senses report and science describes.”
But then he started reading about pain.
For his doctoral dissertation, Smith needed to discuss the philosophical understanding of pain, and one of the books he checked out was Pain, Sex and Time, by Gerald Heard. A well-known figure
in his day, Heard was a contemporary of Aldous Huxley, and a fellow traveler on the path of “the perennial philosophy” that Huxley wrote about in his book by that name. It posits that a shared, deep understanding of reality exists that transcends all eras and cultures. This understanding is what mystics seek. Reading Heard’s thoughts on the mystical nature of pain and sexual energy affected Smith so much that he vowed that he wouldn’t read another word of Heard until his thesis was finished for fear he would become utterly sidetracked. But he determined that when his Ph.D. was in hand, he would devour Heard.
Gerald Heard lived at a monastery in a remote canyon southeast of Los Angeles. Once Smith was ensconced in his first teaching job, at Denver University, he wrote to Heard and asked to meet with him. Heard happily obliged. Smith hitchhiked from Denver to Los Angeles, and then down to the monastery. He and Heard sat together on a rock looking out on the canyon and talked of many things, until finally they just sat in silence.
Smith felt drawn to a mystical understanding of the world. “Reading and meeting Heard really changed Huston,” said Dana Sawyer, who wrote a spiritual biography of Huxley and now is
working on a biography of Smith that will come out next year. “As a naturalistic theologian, a rationalist, he hadn’t been exposed to mysticism at all. When he was presented with the idea of transcendent experience, noetic insight, it rang true to him in a way that went beyond the rational.”
As he was seeing Smith off, Heard told him there was someone he might like to meet, and jotted down Huxley’s name and phone number. Smith was startled when he saw the famous man’s name. He called the number when he got to Los Angeles, and it turned out to be the Mojave Desert hideaway of Huxley and his wife, Maria. Smith made his way there and visited with them in their cabin.
When I mentioned Huxley to Smith, he instantly brightened, saying, “He was one of the most amazing, lovable, generous, and knowledgeable people you could ever know. Stravinsky said talking to him on the phone was like having the entire British Museum on the line. The New York Times asked him to review the Encyclopedia Britannica. Who could tackle that? He graced me with thirty-five years of wonderful friendship. I loved every minute with him. He was majestic and modest. One of the last things he said to me was, ‘It’s a little embarrassing to have spent one’s entire life pondering the human situation and find oneself in the end with nothing more profound to say than try to be a little nicer’. ”
That first day in the desert, though, Huxley was more expan
sive and romantic, speaking of how drawn he was to the emptiness of the desert, how it provided him with direct experience of God. Smith had mentioned that he was soon to move to St. Louis to teach at Washington University. Before they parted, Huxley suggested Smith look up a “first-rate swami” he knew there.
Smith had never heard the word “swami” before, but as soon as he arrived in St. Louis he dove into a regular study of Vedanta, the renowned Hindu philosophical school, with Swami Sat- prakashananda. He was developing the template he would follow in exploring other religions: learn the texts, absorb the example of a living teacher, and internalize the religion through ritual, devotion, and practice. At that point, in 1947, Smith says, “I would leave the Christian frame of reference (but not Christianity) and move into the synoptic perspective of all religions complementary and combined.” In combining the overarching viewpoint of the perennial philosophy with exploration of differing religious expressions, Smith was following the example of his swami’s forebear, the nineteenth-century adept Sri Ramakrishna, a Vedantist who practiced Islam and Christianity and said that all paths led to God.
It was in this spirit that Smith offered a course at Washington University covering all the world’s religions. Such a thing was unheard of at the time, but several trends were converging that were about to catapult Smith’s little course into something very big. For one thing, the GI Bill was changing the face of the American university: soldiers who had fought overseas were eager to learn about ways of life in other parts of the world. Also, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them, the public was taken with the thought that peace might be fostered through cultural understanding. To add to that, anything that mattered was being broadcast on television, and public television, in its infancy, needed to fill many hours with educational programming.
Smith paid little attention to television, but, he says, television “paid attention to me. In vaudeville, if you had twenty minutes of good material you could work for twenty years. TV, by contrast, devoured twenty years of material in an evening and always needed more, more, more.” When a representative from KETC, the local station of National Educational Television (the forerunner of PBS), came to Washington University and asked what the most popular course was, he was told “The Religions of Man.” For seventeen evenings in the spring of 1955, Smith taught his course to NET viewers. His director, Mayo Simon, pushed Smith during rehearsal to sharpen and brighten his presentation. He would say, “That doesn’t sound red-hot to me. Lose a TV audience’s attention for thirty seconds and you’re dead. Let’s have a funeral.” In forcing him to cut out acadamese and use more storytelling and imagery, Simon helped create the tone that made the book based on the series such a success.
Pico Iyer notes that his mother, a longtime professor of comparative religions, says she still finds that “it is the one book she can share with all of her students as an introduction to the great wisdom traditions, because it makes each of them come to life.” In Dana Sawyer’s mind, The Religions of Man marks a bright dividing line in the history of how religion was treated in America. “Nobody had ever done what Huston did in that book,” he told me. “Instead of starting with a theory of religion and then describing every religion through that lens, he described each religion in a way that would make sense to a believer. He didn’t judge. He didn’t evaluate. He described a religion by getting inside of it.” The book made it seem possible to practice religions from far-off places—and many soon would.
Through an odd twist of fate, the TV show gave birth not only to a best-selling book but also to one of Smith’s great lifelong pursuits: exploring religions through travel. He received a startling letter from William Danforth, the self-made man who headed Ralston Purina. It began by stating, “I understand that some of the religions you are teaching in your television course are in countries you have not been to,” and went on to offer to pay for a round-the-world trip for Smith and Kendra. He accepted, of course, and became so voracious a traveler that he preferred to sleep on overnight buses so he would start the day in a new destination. He brought many students on tours to religious sites, eventually having to inform some parents that their son or daughter had decided to stay in Mother India and not return to college.
For many years, Smith also used the road as an escape. Just as his book came out, he accepted a prestigious position as head of the new philosophy department at MIT, but he soon found it was a place where his exploratory methods and embrace of mystical experience were not warmly received by his colleagues. Although he taught there for fifteen years, he never felt at home. The fact that his rationalist, quantifying colleagues felt he “didn’t count” (their pun) helped drive his explorations of new parts of the world, new religions, new experiences.
“The audience that emerged in the sixties was really ready to hear the kind of messages Huston offered,” Dana Sawyer says. “In a period of burgeoning interest in spiritual growth, while everyone was grinding their own ax and saying ‘Our path is the best,’ Huston was an unbiased yet enthusiastic resource. Reading the first chapter of The World’s Religions, you felt certain he was a Hindu and the whole rest of the book would be from a Hindu perspective. By the next chapter, you were convinced he was a Buddhist.” Whatever people wanted to explore, it seemed Smith had already been there and had insight to offer. He traveled the path of the sixties before the sixties had begun.
Smith took part in psychedelic culture just as it was coming into being. In 1960, Aldous Huxley visited MIT at Smith’s invitation. He suggested that Smith pay a call on a researcher at Harvard named Timothy Leary, who hoped that psychedelics could become miracle drugs which would help people break long-established patterns such as violence and alcoholism. But, Smith says, subjects repeatedly described mystical experiences, “and Tim didn’t know beans about mysticism. So he enlisted me. I figured, though, if I’m going to be a counselor, I’d better know what I’m talking about.”
During a lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club in late 1960, Smith and Leary took out their appointment calendars and decided on New Year’s Day, 1961. On that day, around noon, in Leary’s home, he and Kendra took mescaline. His experiences ran the gamut from bliss to mild terror. He concluded, as many after him would, that the drug indeed offered mystical experience. Over the following months, he also tried psilocybin and LSD several times to compare the experiences. Before long, though, he says, he followed Ram Dass’ advice: “After you get the message, hang up.” While he valued the experiences, he became skeptical that psychedelics could offer one a genuine religious life.
A more enduring force in Smith’s life during the sixties and early seventies was Buddhism. Once again, television figures into the story. Based on the success of his earlier program, public television invited him back. He was to interview major figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about contemporary values. Smith said the producers wanted to include a “token Asian, a wise man from the East,” so he invited D.T. Suzuki, the professor of Buddhist philosophy whose book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, was widely read (aided by the fact that it had a lengthy foreword by Carl Jung). Smith marveled at Suzuki’s composure. A very old man in strange circumstances under searing hot lights, and yet he rendered “impromptu wisdom.” When the day was over, the cameraman discovered he hadn’t loaded any film. Suzuki repeated the whole thing, and his grace and manners were impeccable. Smith became determined to explore Japan to find out how Suzuki came to be that way.
For about a decade, Japan would be a second home to Smith. His ten visits were pilgrimages, and his most intensive experience came while training at Myoshinji sodo monastery under Goto Roshi. During a koan interview, or sanzen, he became very angry and snarled at the Zen master that he was becoming “sick because of you!” The teacher responded matter-of-factly, “What is sickness? What is health? Put aside both and go forward.” That moment marked Smith indelibly. Though he says the heart of the experience can’t be conveyed in words, “Sickness and health suddenly seemed beside the point of what it means to be human.”
uston Smith came to be considered an authority on Zen and wrote prefaces to two of the must-reads of early Zen in America: The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Phillip Kapleau and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He also practiced in Burma and absorbed the feel of the Theravadan Buddhism of South Asia. In 1964 he began his friendship with the Dalai Lama during a tour of Himalayan monasteries. Early one morning on this journey, he was jolted awake by the sound of chanting, which changed from a monotone into beautiful tonal chords. He recorded it and offered a copy to musicologists at MIT. The term “multiphonic chanting” entered the lexicon. The Grateful Dead heard of Smith’s discovery and made the Gyuto monks famous by sponsoring several world tours.
While Smith was finding solace and inspiration in Buddhism, his professional life became increasingly unsatisfying. He still felt that he was an outcast within the faculty at MIT, a seeker condemned for his subjective, indulgent, and unscientific folly—his popularity with undergraduate students a testament to his lack of philosophical rigor. But the administration wanted him, so each time he was offered a position elsewhere, they raised his salary. He was financially better off but professionally depressed. Finally, Kendra told him it would be masochism to stay.
A move to Syracuse University in 1974 breathed new life into Smith and spurred him, as ever, into exploring frontiers. On a trip to Japan, he was asked to lecture on Shintoism, about which he knew practically nothing. He picked a book off the shelf, On the Trail of Buddhism by Frithjof Schuon, a Swiss author who gave a very good explication of Shinto and its relation
to Buddhism. Like so many times before, this first book led him to many others by the author, including Understanding Islam and Transcendent Unity of Religions. A lover of the quest, Schuon turned out to be something of an analogue to Smith, and naturally he became determined to meet him.
“The world overflows with glorious expressions of spirituality,” Schuon told Smith when they met, “but if you want to be in my fraternity, my tariqa, I urge you to become a Muslim.” The World’s Religions presented Islam in an inviting way, but Smith had admitted that its holy book seemed impenetrable, writing, “No one has ever curled up on a rainy weekend to read the Koran.” But once he joined Schuon’s tariqa, he came to hear what he now calls the Qur’an with new ears, understanding the sublime poetry that adherents say is its gift. Smith became a sufi, attracted to praying with the body through dance.
Smith emphasizes that his embrace of Islam was not limited to Sufism. “Ecstasy is only one mood, and Sufism is only one mode of Islam, and neither exhausted its appeal for me,” he recalls. To the extent possible he followed the five pillars of Islam, answering the call to prayer five times daily for twenty years. It pains him today, he says, to see the Islam he discovered through spirituality obscured by ideology. For him, the daily greeting of the Islamic world, As-salamu alaykum, says it all: “Peace be upon you.”
In 1983, at age sixty-four, Huston Smith retired from Syracuse and moved to California to be close to his three daughters. But he took up teaching again, at the University of California at Berkeley, until 1996. That year, Bill Moyers called him back to TV for what became a celebrated five-part series on the world’s wisdom traditions. He continued to advocate for a contemplative way of knowing against the modernist, rationalist position that denounced anything mystical. He took on all comers. At one meeting of the American Academy of Religion where he was the keynote speaker, he said little and simply played the chanting of the Gyuto monks, challenging people to deny the palpable validity of religious experience. According to Dana Sawyer, “Some were inspired and some thought Huston had finally lost it.” In recent years, he has sought to restore something of Christianity’s original purity and power in the face of fundamentalism and cultural warfare. “His 2005 book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, is magnificent,” says Pico Iyer. “It demonstrates how the life of the spirit and the pursuit of the real transform the student.”
The waning years of Smith’s life have brought deterioration— about which he is philosophical, saying simply, “It’s okay”—but they’ve also brought tragedy: the death from cancer of one of his daughters, and the murder of a granddaughter. He has had dark nights of the soul, he says, including his first night alone in assisted living. True to form, though, it has become another journey for him. His friends there, including the maintenance man, Mr. Lin—with whom he discusses matters great and small in Chinese—are spiritual friends.
Toward the end of my interview, I asked Smith about his time with Oren Lyons, a chief and wisdom-keeper of the Onondaga. The quality of our interchange shifted. At that point, he went beyond answering questions, and began to transmit. While at Syracuse, Smith had sought to rectify what he felt was a glaring omission in his original survey of religions: it contained nothing on indigenous religions. The Onondaga Reservation was near, so Smith soon “took to spending Saturdays on the reservation, schmoozing and drinking coffee with the chiefs.” As he recounted to me a story Oren had told him, it appeared to me that in the bare-bones ordinariness of his advanced age he was developing an even deeper appreciation of the essence of life.
“Oren enrolled at Syracuse University once,” Smith began, “but he dropped out before Thanksgiving, concluding that it wasn’t teaching him anything he needed to know. His uncle invited him on a fishing trip around then. In the middle of the lake in the canoe, his uncle said, ‘Oren, you’ve been to college some, so you must be pretty smart. So tell me Oren, who are you?’
‘I’m Oren Lyons, your nephew,’ Oren replied.
‘No!’ was the uncle’s answer.
‘A human being?’
Oren finally gave up and asked his uncle to tell him who he was. The uncle replied, ‘You see that bluff on the other side of the lake? Oren, you are that bluff. You see that giant pine on the shore? Oren, you are that pine. You see this water under the canoe? You… are.. .this.. .water.’ ”
Huston Smith gesticulated with vigor and peered into the distance, and there was no doubt he believed, with every fiber of his being, what the uncle was teaching Oren. He wasn’t just telling the story. He was passing on the wisdom as it had been passed on to him. He told the story as an on-the-spot revelation, as he had over the years with so many students, or television viewers, or colleagues in professional journals and meetings—making the case for transcendent experience, to the dismay and aggravation of those who feel that a seeker is too subjective to be a scientist.
Smith will have none of that. We are religious animals, he rails. We seek to take what is fragmented and unite it, connect it to something larger—the process at the root of the word “religion.” Yes, religious institutions make difficulties. “There are no pretty institutions,” he says, “but we have to shoulder the burden of the foibles and fallacies of institutions because we need them to get done what needs to be done.” And what is there to be done?
“The ideal is before us,” Smith told me. “All we have to do is live up to it.”