Authors & Thought Leaders

Huston Smith on the Human Religious Experience

Published on December 14, 2016

Article by Huston Smith

Author Huston Smith, widely regarded as the most eloquent and accessible contemporary authority on the history of religions, is a self-described mystic who has tried to understand the world of religion from within. Called the “world’s ambassador to religions everywhere” by Thomas Moore, Smith learned firsthand from the teachings of priests, rabbis, monks, Zen masters, philosophers, teachers and believers. In his interview with Bodhi Tree Bookstore magazine co-editor Mark Kenaston, he discusses what is the most widely used text in introductory religion courses, his book, The World’s Religions (first published in 1958 when he was 38 as The Religions of Man), which explores the essential elements and teachings of the world’s predominant faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the native traditions of Australia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Here he conveys the unique appeal and gifts of each of the traditions and reveals their hold on the human heart and imagination.

Huston Smith’s Story

photo of Huston SmithHuston Smith, the son of Methodist missionaries, grew up in China. He has danced with Muslim Sufis, infuses his life with meditation and yoga, prays daily toward Mecca on a prayer rug, goes to church on Sunday, and participates with family members in observing Jewish Sabbath and Seder. In the 1950s, he worked with Timothy Leary on psychedelic drugs, comparing drug-induced states of consciousness with the experiences described by mystics. Smith has taught at both Washington University and MIT, and was the Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Syracuse University. Subsequently, he was visiting professor of religious studies at University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, Dr. Smith was the subject of a five-part PBS Special, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith: A Bill Moyers Special.

He has made award-winning documentaries on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism and The Journal of Ethnomusicology lauded his discovery of Tibetan multiphonic chanting, Music of Tibet, as “an important landmark in the study of music.” He is the author of 15 books, including the 2010 autobiography Tales of Wonder: Adventures in Chasing the Divine, and 2012’s And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life: Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers and the World’s Great Religious Leaders, which he wrote with Phil Cousineau. —Justine Amodeo

“We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine.” —Huston Smith

In September 2003, the University of California Press published the collected interviews of Huston Smith. It’s called The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print] and is edited and with a preface by Phil Cousineau. Part of the following interview with Bodhi Tree Bookstore magazine co-editor Mark Kenaston is included in the book (Chapter 3). The following is an edited version of their discussion.

Moving From Protestantism to “Universalism”

Mark Kenaston: Did theological differences with Christianity play any role fostering your interest in other spiritual traditions?

Huston Smith: Not really. I was a late bloomer or a slow learner.

Kenaston: I find that very difficult to believe.

Smith: Theological questions were not major for me. What I became aware of was a belongingness to the universe or reality. In our community, the focus was Jesus, but I wasn’t considering the particulars of religion. Theological issues that are so alive for many people, just passed me by. Christianity always seemed an affirmative message as to how one should live and what one’s basic connection with the ultimate should be. Maybe I have a “too easy” conscience, but in moving from my parents’ narrow Protestantism into a “universalism” of my later years, there were never any severe conflicts. Why that should be [laughs] maybe you can tell me!

Kenaston: I have a suspicion. I’ve explored other traditions motivated by my discontentedness with Christianity. On the other hand, you appear to have embraced these traditions out of an appreciation of the universal qualities these traditions share, an inclusion based on attraction to truth in many forms—an embrace rather than a rejection. What was the religious climate at that time in China? Did most people practice a form of Confucianism or Taoism?

Smith: Remember that I was a boy at the time. I was interested in flying kites and fishing. But what one noticed was the folk religion, which tends to be the same the world over. I had a lot of concern with spirits—mostly evil—and how to ward them off. One would see all kinds of evidence of that, such as the ghost money and paper houses offered at funerals so the deceased would have a home in the afterlife. There was a fine Buddhist monastery in the country about three miles from town where we would take lovely walks for picnics. That’s about all it was for us—a place for picnics. So that’s what the local religion looked like. Of course, later on, I found that the Shanghai area was very rich in its history for Chan or Zen Buddhism. I’m sure that Confucianism and Taoism were being buffeted by modernity, and yet were still alive to an appreciable extent.

Folk Beliefs Influences on Contemporary Religion

Kenaston: Your description of the paper houses for the dead in China reminds me of the spirit houses I saw in Thailand [miniature houses placed on stilts on a family’s property to give shelter to spirits]. Have the Eastern traditions woven old folk beliefs into contemporary religion to a greater extent than their Western counterparts?

Smith: There is some difference between religions on this score. As a generalization, I think the Semitically originated ones—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—tend to draw lines more sharply than the others. On the other hand, this accommodation and “folding in” of folk belief happens everywhere. Take the Christianity in Latin America. Two weeks ago, I was down in Mexico to attend two all-night vigils with the Huitchol—the peyote people—and another with a Native American church. The contrast was very striking because the Huitchol’s ceremony was entirely their own. On the other hand, at the Native American church, I was amazed at the interweaving of Native American belief, language and terminology with Christianity, throughout the ceremony.

Kenaston: Was it Catholicism?

Smith: Not necessarily. I think the leader was a Winnebago and Protestant. If you take Christianity in Southern Italy, I hear that it’s really the patron saints that are worshipped—in effect, they are local deities. Jehovah/Yahweh is probably in there somewhere, but is off the chart as far as the dynamics of the religion are concerned. What I’m saying is, I think there is probably a difference in spiritual personality here that is probably analogous to the Jungian types. But the similarities are universal and cut across all the traditions. Some people are what you might call polytheistic in the sense that a more finite God rivets their attention as opposed to an abstract, universal deity.

The Spiritual Personality Types

Kenaston: Do you mean that they need a “personal” God?

Smith: That’s right. This notion of spiritual “personality type” feels original to me because I haven’t picked it up anywhere else. You can study all the major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism—and slice them as traditions. Additionally, cutting the other way and across all of them are these recurring four spiritual personality types. The first is the atheist for whom the obvious, the mundane, is all there is. And you find those people everywhere. You even find the atheist in tribal/oral cultures; and as you know, there are some who are just “meat-and-potatoes” people [laughs]. And then you get the type we were just talking about, the polytheists. These are people who really come to life religiously in the broadest sense in terms of concrete spirits. For example, each shaman in a tribe has their own personal “guide,” a spirit that helps, guides and empowers them. But there’s no thought that this guide is the only spirit or that this personal spirit created the world. So we’ve got the atheists and the polytheists. Then come the monotheists where it all comes together in a single universal being, but it’s a personal God. You mentioned this person earlier. Beyond these three spiritual types you get the mystics where, again, there is a “world spirit,” However, for the mystic, the personal imagery of the monotheist becomes too anthropomorphic to really seem real. So I’ll give you a little test. On one hand, you have the atheist, who believes in no God. Next, there’s the polytheist that has many Gods, and after this person is the monotheist, who has one personal God. Now the test: What does the mystic say?

Kenaston: Can I answer with an analogy?

Smith: By all means.

Kenaston: For me, a rough analogy would be that the universe is composed of spirit that is analogous to an amorphous block of “clay.” The “clay” can be used to make a beautiful figure or pot, or to create something hideous or disgusting. Everything is created from this material—nice people, bad people, beautiful sunsets and natural disasters. The mystic sees the clay as the creative stuff of the universe, inert in the sense of not having intrinsically dualistic qualities of good or bad—what Huang Po might call the “One Mind” or the pregnant void from which all things are possible. In short, it is the spirit or stuff that permeates the entire matrix of our universe, both manifest and unmanifest.

Smith: I’ll mount the ladder again. Atheists have no God. The polytheists have many Gods and the monotheists have one personal God. The mystic, only God.

Kenaston: I wasted 121 words trying to say something that you said much more coherently in two.

Smith: You got to it when you said “entire matrix.”

Infinite Reservoirs of Wisdom

Kenaston: Can we move on and talk a little bit about what you call the “wisdom traditions?”

Smith: First of all, not everything in these traditions is wise. So first we begin by “red-penciling.” First we red-pencil their science because that’s been superseded by modern science—we have proof of various things by way of controlled experiments—so these views are antiquated and shouldn’t be taken literally. Second, we red-pencil their social patterns because these traditions picked up the social mores of the time. We’ve learned some things and I’m not totally down on modernity. I think one of the great realizations is that social structures vary from culture to culture. They’re not ingrained in the nature of things as if they were natural laws—as they tended to be viewed in the past. They are human constructs and therefore we’re all implicated and have responsibility for them. So we red-pencil these in the sense that we scrutinize and winnow very carefully gender relations, for example. We don’t look to them for wisdom in these two areas. What’s left? What’s left is how an individual spirit works out his or her destiny in the face of the way things finally are—ultimate reality. Now on that score, I keep being set back in respect for these traditions, and they have seemed to me, with continued study, to be infinite reservoirs of wisdom on that particular point. The Hindus speak of the Eternal Dharma and other traditions speak of revelations. But I think they are all revelations, whether we image them as coming down from “on high” or welling up from the unconscious of the spiritual genius of the human race. In any case, they do come from beyond, wherever we envision that is, and I see nothing elsewhere that rivals them in their wisdom. What would you suggest as alternatives? [laughs] A generation ago, we might have said Karl Marx or maybe Freud or so on, but they have all been shown to be paper gods.

Kenaston: Do we have a problem in the West because we’ve divorced the spirit from so-called scientific inquiry? You find very few scientists who admit freely to a spiritual/mystical orientation because it’s not seen as good empirical science. Ironically, the Buddha was an empiricist and a mystic. He said time and time again, “Don’t believe something merely because I tell you it’s true—find out if it’s true for yourself.” Consequently, I’ve wondered if Western science and psychology is severely limited because, by in large, it ignores the spirit.

Smith: I think that they do, and I think this is really what’s behind the movement of humanistic psychology and transpersonal psychology. These are practicing psychologists who sense this Procrustean bed of the reductionistic, mechanistic view of the human self. Both movements are alive and vigorous, but the universities have made virtually no inroads into these areas in 20 years. There are, to my knowledge, only two academic institutions where you can get a higher degree in psychology with a humanistic or transpersonal orientation, one at Sonoma State and the other in Georgia. And they only offer a master’s degree.

Kenaston: Can we talk about how some of the wisdom traditions of the East are being transplanted to the West? An example that comes to mind is the group that formed around the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado, during the ’70s. The press picked up on several rather sensational issues regarding Trungpa’s alcoholism and the recent revelation that Trungpa’s successor, Osel Tensin, may have knowingly passed the AIDS virus to others before his own infection became public knowledge. Many in the American Buddhist community are deeply divided over these troubling events, and some question whether a vital and dynamic Western Buddhism will survive.

Smith: I think that when a tradition begins in one civilization or culture and moves to another, it invariably changes and yet it retains a certain identity, which remains distinct from the culture from which it came. Now, you’ve been using the example of Buddhism. That’s particularly appropriate because it is one of the three great missionary religions in the sense of seeing itself as universalistic in its relevance to humankind. And we have a very clear sequence: about 600 years in India and then it moves to China, and then 600 years later it moves to Japan, and now a little more than 600 years later it comes West. The historical account is clear enough to see certain discernible modifications as it moves into these cultures. Now the question is, what about coming to the West? Some of the modifications are clearly apparent. In Western practice, men and women are together whereas they were segregated in traditional practice. That’s just one example. In spite of modifications, it hasn’t become indistinguishable from its original culture. Now let’s talk about the mistakes in making a move which frequently occur. Trungpa is a very good example, although mistake may not be the right word when talking about Trungpa Rinpoche. I think what happened in Trungpa’s case was that a genuinely grounded and gifted teacher who, in coming to the States, loosened his grounding in the Kagyupa tradition and became independent. He no longer had the controls that he was used to in terms of his religious mentors.

Kenaston: He was young when he came to the West, wasn’t he?

Smith: He was very young and I just have to write it off to human frailty. The blandishments, the inducements were so powerful and the ties to the Kagyupa relaxed to the point that they no longer had any discipline over him to keep him in line, and it was just too much. You bring in alcohol and other things and he just succumbed. Maybe it would have been expecting too much under the circumstances not to.

Kenaston: He found himself in a culture in which the structure for his monastic training was nonexistent.

Smith: And that happens time and time again.

The Guru/Pupil Relationship in the West

Kenaston: Another factor in the equation would be the lack, to a large extent, of a guru/pupil tradition in the West. We are taught that it’s important to be self-reliant and we harbor an abiding suspicion of authority. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama remind people of the Buddha’s admonishment to verify truth empirically for yourself. He has related that it was typical in Tibet for people to scrutinize a potential teacher for as much as a decade before making a commitment to the guru/student relationship.

Smith: Absolutely. We seem to be so hungry spiritually as a people that we tend to latch on uncritically to something that has an aura of authenticity.

Religion is Like a Cow…

Kenaston: In the past few years, we have seen many people explore perfectly legitimate traditions under the auspices of a charismatic teacher—jump in with both feet and be 100% involved for a period of time and then bail out when this teacher turns out to have human foibles. How can an individual remain enthusiastic and positive about religion or practice and at the same time have their feet on the ground and remain discriminating?

Smith: I like Ramakrishna’s formulation regarding religion. In his usual folksy way, he says, “Religion is like a cow. It kicks, but gives milk, too.” I don’t know that we could winnow it out any more precisely than that if we spent all day trying. In other words, there are two sides to the issue. It comes down to a view of human nature. I think that people want and need a sense of orientation—a sense of where they are in the world. Without orientation, you have no direction, and you need a sense of direction to give you your bearings, because life fires at us point blank. It doesn’t wait; we can’t say, “I’m sorry I don’t have it figured it out yet. Just hold back and don’t require a decision from me today.” We have to decide. And with no sense of direction or orientation, how do we make our decisions? Now, this orientation knows no cutoff point short of the whole. And then we come down to, “Do we belong or do we not?”

Kenaston: Are some people asking, “What do I belong to?” In other words, many people are so unsure of how life fits together, or what their role is in the world, that they aren’t even sure where to apply for membership. They are just drifting.

Smith: I hear that as a different wording of the same question—I said, do we belong or do we not? I forget who asked the question, “Is the universe friendly?” If we don’t belong, that’s another way of saying that it’s not friendly. Now, the universe is ambiguous, it comes to us in both moods. So therefore, there is no objective stance from which you can decide this question—is it friendly, or do we belong? From that point, it comes down to what William James called the choice of the most creative hypothesis. Now, if I defend religion, it’s a narrow squeak between the kicks and the milk it gives. [Laughs]

Kenaston: Sometimes the kick is the milk, isn’t it?

Smith: Well, that’s true. When we come down on the side of religion, we have faith that ultimately it makes sense. So when it comes right down to it, I’m not finally a pragmatist—although you can go a long way, almost to the end, pragmatically. OK, if the universe is ambiguous and it’s not going to tell us unambiguously whether it’s friendly or not, then it’s up to us to decide which is the most creative hypothesis. It seems we shouldn’t throw in the towel too soon, but press the more creative hypothesis. This I think the traditions do, and I think that’s why religion has persisted over two and a quarter million years or however long human beings have been around. I know a socio-biologist named Edwin Wilson who hates religion. But as a biologist, he had to concede that there seems to be a religious gene in the human makeup and he doesn’t know how to get rid of it! The functionalists would say that the reason that anthropologists have found no society that doesn’t have a religion is because it has a function. It serves a purpose and would have disappeared long ago if it didn’t. I believe this to be the creative hypothesis on this particular question. Now, let me see if I’m still on course in terms of your question. It’s on those general and maybe minimal lines that I find myself standing up for these traditions. I think there’s a danger that they’ll just go down the drain. If they do, what will take their place when people need to have some sort of orientation?

Worshiping “Saint Ego”

Kenaston: We have seen people, as I mentioned earlier, who appear to be searching for anything that is seen as an alternative, and giving it validity in their own minds simply because it’s an alternative. People take bits of this tradition and bits of that tradition because it seems interesting or exotic. If they see something they don’t like, they throw it out! If things get a bit difficult or the practice takes too much time, it goes into the garbage. They seem to be attempting to create a narcissistic, “feel-good” spirituality without enduring the discipline needed to bring the mind under control. Any thoughts on this?

Smith: That’s true. On this subject, Trungpa Rinpoche was very good. In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, he coined the term “Saint Ego.” These people are really worshippers of Saint Ego, and if they happen to like something, then they decree that it’s true. If they don’t like it, they declare it not true. First of all, one has to be compassionate and generous. Who really knows what works for different people? So I wouldn’t just say, “No, no, no, don’t do that.” But if you ask me, I don’t have a great degree of confidence in a kind of pastiche or cafeteria religion where you pick up this, that and the other—where you weave your own religious cocoon around yourself. We’re not the first people to face the problems of life, and that’s where I find an endless wisdom in those who have endured—the Jews, for example. I also find that when I study the Tibetan teachings, to use another example, I discover this wisdom that puts Freudian psychology to shame. I did want to wedge something in here if I might. I have tremendous gratitude for older people who, when I was young, opened their doors to me. Aldous Huxley, one of our great perennial philosophers, would invite me in to talk for hours, because the topic was of mutual concern.

On the Influence of Christian Mystic Thomas Merton

Kenaston: Now you, in turn, have become known as a person who is very generous with your time. Without taking up much more of it, I did want to ask you about two spiritual personages and your thoughts about them. I discovered modern Christian mysticism when I found the writings of Thomas Merton. Do you have anything to say about Merton?

Smith: Oh, yes. It’s a moving story. We were both invited to what was pretentiously called a “Spiritual Summit Conference” in Calcutta. I went at some considerable inconvenience because I was teaching at MIT, but when I saw that Thomas Merton would be there, I knew that I would move Heaven and Earth to go. It was a glorious week. Well, [laughs] conferences aren’t glorious—anything but glorious. But because of his presence, it was so colorful. I arrived at the hotel, and in the evening went down for hors d’oeuvres before dinner. I entered the dining room and there was Merton all by himself. He was alone at a table with his fruit punch and so I went over and right off I had about half an hour with him before anyone else arrived. I can still remember the first real question I asked him after a couple of preliminaries. I said that I had recognized a very sizable monastic pull in me, but it was also clear that it wasn’t for this incarnation. The man/woman thing, family and the life of a householder clearly outweighed that other. Nevertheless, it was really there and I was drawn to it. So to come to the point right away, I asked him “What’s it like to be a monk?” And his answer really just swept me away. He said, “You know…it’s very nice.” [laughs] And my thought was, “Very nice?” It’s about as difficult a “way” as I can imagine. Later on, I came across what he said about his three vows. Poverty, he said was a snap—a cinch. Chastity is more difficult but manageable. But obedience is a bugger! And we know from his life how that weighed upon him. I really liked the guy; he was just wonderful. We ended the week by flying together from Calcutta to Delhi. I was going up to see the Tibetans in Northern India at Dharamsala and he was going down to Thailand to his death. [Thomas Merton died on December 10th, 1968, of electrocution when he touched a faulty floor fan after emerging from a shower.] Of course, we didn’t know that. I still remember that ride to Delhi. He said he always wanted to do this trek from Kathmandu to Pokhora. He said, “Come on, let’s do it!” We were fantasizing that I would wire my dean to say, “Fire me if you must, but I won’t be home for another 10 days!” And he would cancel his schedule—it was all fantasy, but it was fun.

Kenaston: Did you ever make that trip to Nepal?

Smith: Oh, yes, but I’ve never done the trek to Pokkara. I hear it’s a 17-day trip.

Kenaston: I was in Nepal a year ago April and really enjoyed myself. The people are very nice and the landscape is breathtaking, although I have to admit that I have difficulty seeing the extreme poverty. It reminded me of my own relative affluence as a North American.

Smith: I’ll throw this into the picture—Mother Teresa’s comment: “Desperate material poverty in India—desperate spiritual poverty in the West.” It’s just one take on the situation, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Look at the disparity between our potential and what we’re doing.

Reflections on the Dalai Lama

Kenaston: I know that you’ve met the Dalai Lama. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share about him?

Smith: [Takes out a picture of himself with his arm around the Dalai Lama] I was on a panel last year at UCLA. They put me on for a half an hour with His Holiness solo, which was wonderful, because I’ve known him for 28 years. The amount of time we’ve spent together isn’t that much, but each time has been so meaningful. There have probably been eight meetings over the years. On the UCLA panel was a psychiatrist who really pressed the Dalai Lama about anger; psychiatrists tend to have a particular “take” on that subject. When the conference was ending in the afternoon, because the Dalai Lama had to leave to go to Santa Barbara, we had a half-hour wrap-up. The chair went around the room to ask our reflections on the day. I was very interested in the psychiatrist. He said, in effect, “Incarnations are not my beat, I have a Jewish background, and I tend to be very skeptical. But I have to say that after today, if there is such a thing as a human incarnation, I have come closer to it today than I ever thought I would.” I can’t get over the fact that here is someone who was raised like a king, surrounded by people who are convinced that he is the divine incarnation for Tibet. And yet, he has escaped the slightest trace of an ego. He’s so human, and the combination of the keen intellect and the compassionate heart—you so rarely see these come together. I would be happy to tell you about my first meeting with him. The first time that I went among the Tibetans, I didn’t have a visit to His Holiness on my “shopping list.” I thought that he was too busy and that I had no right to ask him for any of his valuable time. But the Lamas I met when I was there said, “You’re certainly not going home without seeing His Holiness.” Because they said it in such a matter-of-fact way, that idea grew on me very quickly, and I very much wanted to see him. So I made the trip to Dharamsala. Before I went in to see him, since he’s so generous with his time to give me an audience, I resolved to stay no longer than 10 minutes, no more. So I spent the 10 minutes expressing concern for the people of Tibet and proposed the idea of him coming to North America; he told me later that I was the first one to suggest a trip. Because of problems with our State Department, however, he was not able to come for some time. At the end of the self-allotted 10 minutes, I stood to give my leave. Even though he was speaking through an interpreter, his English was already partly functional and I overheard him say softly to himself in English, “I must think what is important.” Then he turned to me and said, “Please sit down.” And when I next stood up, an hour and a quarter had passed. It was the most wonderful morning of my life. And what had caused that change [staying longer than 10 minutes] was a deception. The calling card that I used when I was traveling in Asia had Massachusetts Institute of Technology under my name, so he thought he had a live scientist in his living room! We all know about his scientific interest; he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to ask, “What is important” in terms of questions he had about science. There were two things in which he was particularly interested. He wanted me to fill him in on the “steady state” and the “big bang.” And I had just heard a lecture on the “bang, bang, bang theory” and the Dalai Lama said, “Well, that’s the right one.” [laughs] And as a matter-of-fact, the “steady state” theory has been dropped and the controversy is between the other two. The other subject was DNA. He was sorting out in his own mind the interface between reincarnation and DNA. It was interesting listening to the interpreter trying to get the equivalent of sperm, semen and genes. He finally concluded that it had no bearing on reincarnation; in other words, it didn’t undermine reincarnation.

Kenaston: He is always making the point that when science conflicts with religion, one must adapt the scientific position. I think that is a very courageous attitude.

Smith: It is a very courageous attitude. Again, this brings us back to the point on the wisdom traditions. When it comes to the cosmology—the science of it—we don’t venerate the tradition on that point, because that’s not where its genius lay.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Kenaston: To shift gears a bit, by the time this appears in print, the State of California will have almost certainly executed a human being for the first time in 25 years. Despite a crackdown on crime that has our prisons overflowing with criminals, our society seems to be eroding before our very eyes. [This interview occurred shortly before the Los Angeles riots.] Any thoughts on where we are and where we’re headed?

Smith: The surface signs seem very dismal, often overwhelmingly so. The question is: Is that the whole picture? And my faith is that it is not. One can bring out some countervailing thoughts, but I must acknowledge the fact that in voicing them, I speak from a position of privilege and immense good fortune. To shout from the safe-shore to a drowning person, “Chin up!” is an insult. And so one has to be mindful of that and take courage from the fact that anything that I say is not just mine, but has been said by people who were in the valley of the shadow of death when they spoke these things. Finally, when was it ever different? Sometimes it was seemingly a little better, sometimes worse. The 14th century had the “black plague” and there were witch hunts where towns put the entire female population to death for being “witches.” Now, we have many terrible problems, such as in our ghettoes where we have poverty beyond belief. But at least we’re not sweeping it under the rug to the extent that we have in the past. We’re beginning to look at it, and our affirmations indict us in terms of what we say we believe. OK, there’s that. Then you can bring in the Indian perspective of samsara always being infinitely removed from nirvana. And it’s only those who can find nirvana in samsara who find salvation; the society as a whole will never be remade to rival paradise. If one becomes more abstract, life is like a tapestry which we view from the wrong side. We see all the strands and knots and it makes no sense from the back. But there is a different view of the whole thing to which we are assured someday we will be privy. In the meanwhile, for all these knots we have to deal with existentially; the path has been charted—compassion and justice—imbued by vision. And it’s up to each individual.

Kenaston: I’ve wondered if detachment may be less important now while action may be more necessary. The leadership in this country has been assumed by people who, in my mind, appear to be anything but spiritually minded—despite what they say about promoting the family, values and morals. And believe me, I’m not just talking about Republicans!

Smith: Is the present time really any different? I’m reminded of The Tale of Two Cities when Dickens begins with that great line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I confess that tends to ring true. Each time has its challenges and its demands. But when you say for this moment that democracy needs to be spiritually infused—absolutely. There’s no qualification in my mind on that. How is that to be done? If we take it in terms of contemplation and action, it’s absolutely clear to me that the two must be fused. But, not simple-mindedly, because there are different modes of action. Who knows the effect it might have on society—just the realization that there are people for whom the spiritual is so important, that they will forego everything else. A little bit like the sannyasin—the image of the sannyasin—they don’t do anything in an overt way, but inwardly there’s a magnetic pull on the human spirit of dedication and unswerving single-mindedness. I think we have to be very generous in terms of the various forms that action can take. And political action is a very important one, and by and large we should all be involved and doing more than we are. On the other hand, I would be very uneasy about some people I can think of being involved in making policy decisions—I’d be very nervous! [laughs] You cannot solve the crucial economic problems in simply economic ways. It’s clear that we need to do more, and don’t forget simple acts of kindness.

Kenaston: Thank you for being so kind and generous with your time.

Smith: Thank you.

The World’s Religions: Revised Edition of The Religions of Man

by Huston Smith 

With deep scholarship and a sensitive spirit, Huston Smith explores the major religions and their contemporary expressions. This exploration reveals universal principles that speak to our human condition and help the reader order his or her life. It is not a scholarly, fact-filled textbook in the history of religions, but a sensitive and deeply personal rendering of the best that the world’s religions offer. Smith writes, “We have come to the point in history when anyone who is only Japanese or American, only Oriental or Occidental, is only half human.” And he adds, “The other half that beats with the pulse of all humanity has yet to be born.” Smith sees religion as the highest adventure we can undertake and the most momentous option life can present. He writes, “…authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life. What then can rival its power to inspire life’s deepest creative centers?” Originally titled The Religions of Man, this completely revised and updated edition of Smith’s masterpiece emphasizes the inner—rather than institutional—dimension of religion.

Published on: December 14, 2016

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