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Knowing Huston Smith

By Rev. Heng Sure

When asked how he came to be known as “the dean of comparative religions,” Professor Huston Smith explained with this image: “I drive a hybrid car, but I, too, am a hybrid. I was born in China and my upbringing was there. My first language outside the family kitchen was Mandarin Chinese, spoken with a Suzhou dialect. I have both sides of our planet inside me.”

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

Born to a Christian missionary family in Dzang Zok, Suzhou, China, Huston Smith says as a child he could identify places of worship for half of the world’s religions by skipping four blocks down the crooked stone streets in his medieval Chinese town of Dzang Zok: Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. As children under three absorb any language they are exposed to, he learned to appreciate different religions before he even knew what they were. In short, he began research on his great classic, The World’s Religions, before he could read or write.

My first encounter with the breadth of Professor Huston Smith’s interfaith mind came in a classroom in Michigan. I was a college freshman taking my first class on Asian religions, and, of course, we used The Religions of Man (renamed The World’s Religions in 1991 to make the title more inclusive). That same first step is still being taken by students more than a generation later. Here at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, a monk in training, hearing I was writing this article, told of reading the classic as an assignment at Stanford in a world religions class. It was his first introduction to Buddhism. “You and millions like you,” I replied. It remains the text of choice because Professor Smith personally encountered those faiths, experienced their practices, and wrote about them with clarity, humor, and respect. 

Fast forward to our next encounter, in 1969, in the guest room of Kyoto’s Antai Zen Temple. Antai Ji is a tiny Buddhist temple in a remote northwestern corner of Kyoto. I was preparing to leave the temple to return to college after an autumn training sesshin when Uchiyama Roshi called me into his study. “An American professor has come with his students. Can you help translate?” Professor Smith walked in, followed by a group of thirty M.I.T students on their visit to a Zen temple. He was leading his class around the world, investigating “The Quest for Utopia.”

Thirty years later at an airport ticket counter in New York City, waiting for a flight to Capetown, South Africa, I met Professor Smith again. This time he introduced me to the twenty Native American elders he was accompanying to the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religions. For the first time ever they presented American Native Spirituality at a global religious forum. Mohawk Faith Keeper, Oren Lyons, and Iroquois composer and musician, Dr. Joanne Shenandoah, among others, brought the ageless traditions of American Native wisdom to religious leaders from all faiths. Until then most had only known of American Indians from cowboy movies.

Ten years ago, while walking through the Denver airport on my way to a connecting flight to Oakland, I noticed an elderly Caucasian gentleman kneeling in a secluded corner of the terminal, bowing on a prayer shawl. It was Professor Smith. When he finished I stepped over to say hello and ask what he was doing on the floor in the airport. He explained that it was time for Muslim prayers. He was praying in Arabic, facing towards Mecca, because he liked the practice of talking with God ritually five times throughout the day. 

Professor Smith at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery in 2001. The banner says "Heaven and Earth Are Sentient."

Professor Smith at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery in 2001. The banner says "Heaven and Earth Are Sentient."

Decades earlier, the novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley handed Professor Smith a piece of paper with a name written on it, the name of a “first rate Swami in St. Louis.” It was Swami Satprakashananda, the gifted and venerated Vedanta Hindu teacher who opened Huston Smith’s eyes to the possibility of wisdom in multiple faith perspectives. Encounters with Sufi traditions, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Native American spirituality, psychedelic drugs, “entheogenic plants,” and mysticism would follow.

Using television and film, Professor Smith has shared these spiritual journeys with us all. Since he arrived in the USA from China at age 17, he has written thirteen books. The Worlds’Religions has sold three million copies. Bill Moyers devoted a five-part PBS series to Professor Smith’s life and work. He has befriended many of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers and writers on religion and spirituality. And as anyone who has met him can attest, his joy is irrepressible.

In more recent years, he became a regular visitor to the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. One day in 1999, the Monastery phone rang. Professor Smith explained that because he and Kendra were moving to a smaller house, he wanted to donate a few books from his library to help start our collection. I drove up the hill to get the books and came back down with 600 volumes! We established the Huston Smith Collection here at the Institute For World Religions library. Many of the books carry his margin notes and personal comments. 

Since Professor Smith’s first language was Suzhou dialect of Mandarin Chinese, he has always punctuated our conversation with Chinese asides and puns. His humor and sparkle are razor-sharp; he is a living testimony to the beneficial effects of spiritual practice in dignifying and ennobling the human condition.

Professor Smith turned 90 two years ago and was celebrated by his friends Joanna Shenandoah, Bill Lesher, and Rev. Heng Sure.

Professor Smith turned 90 two years ago and was celebrated by his friends Joanna Shenandoah, Bill Lesher, and Rev. Heng Sure.

As a pioneer of the interfaith/interreligious movement, Huston Smith has earned the titles of National Treasure and American Sage. In conversation he says he will be a Christian in practice until the end, but his clear-eyed, earnest explorations of the world’s religions have made him a welcome and honored guest in the sanctuaries of the wisdom traditions wherever he goes.

Professor Smith ends his documentary tribute to Tibetan Buddhism, “Requiem For A Faith,” with a story of Tibetan monks. If one question could serve to answer why the world loves Professor Smith’s books on religions, it would be this. He quotes the Tibetan monks who invariably greet strangers they meet with the courteous question, “To which sublime tradition, Revered Sir, do you belong?”