Teacher to Us All
Huston Smith – The Passing of a Giant in Our Midst
by Paul Chaffee
If Swami Vivekananda’s clarion voice at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions introduced us to the challenge of living happily in an interfaith world, it was Huston Smith’s voice in The Religions of Man (1958) which taught us what that meant. In 1991 the book was renamed The World’s Religions, and more than 3 three million copies have been sold in a dozen languages. Nearly 60 years later, it remains the go-to introduction to the subject. Yet that book is barely one chapter in the journal of Huston Smith’s extraordinary life.
That life came to an end when Huston Smith, 97, died in Berkeley, California on Friday, December 30. The New York Times published a splendid obituary that details the many facets of this man’s life. At the heart of it all was Smith’s impulse to pursue and practice whatever truth he found, wherever he found it. Howard Thurman, another interfaith mystic, repeatedly would say, “Something is true because it is true; it is not true because of where it comes from.” Just so, being an avowed Methodist all his life didn’t at all hinder Smith’s belief in “the possibility of wisdom in multiple faith perspectives,” as Rev. Heng Sure remembers in his compelling story about knowing and working with him.
It was in his particularities that Huston Smith was so interesting. He began his career as a missionary who did not want to “Christianize” the world. He became a distinguished academic who loved teaching and writing – but who did his most basic research not in simply ‘studying’ a faith but living it. For more than 10 years each, he practiced Vedanta (studying under Swami Satprakashananda, founder of the St. Louis Vedanta Center), Zen Buddhism (studying under Goto Zuigan), and Sufi Islam.
Professor Smith was hardly confined to Harvard and UC Berkeley’s ivory towers, where he taught, or at MIT, Syracuse, and many more. Aldus Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Timothy Leary, Bill Moyers and similar luminaries and ‘thought-leaders’ were close friends and frequent colleagues. And not just the famous, by any means. As the Times article put it, “he meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians, and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.” His habit of praying five times a day came from Islam.
He also helped introduce the Dalai Lama to the West. He championed Indigenous traditions, taking, for instance, more than a dozen American Indians to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999. He was part of a research group organized by Timothy Leary around peyote and LSD, with fascinating results. He wrote a book on religion and science, and was an enduring champion of peace and justice for all.
Rob Sellers, president of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, wrote a remarkable profile of Huston Smith, published last February in TIO. The whole story is engaging, but the following captured me:
… it was the chance to meet Huston Smith personally that made such a profound impact upon me. While attending a conference entitled “The World’s Religions after 9-11” in Montreal, Canada, in 2006, I sat very close to the front of a huge convention hall to hear him address thousands of conferees from all over the globe. Unable to stand at the podium, Smith was seated at a table at center stage. With a gentle demeanor and voice projection dimmed by age, he nonetheless held the audience spellbound. At the conclusion of the session, I rushed to the platform to meet him. Rather than tower above this seated and frail world religions giant, I knelt beside his chair, took his hand, and said, “Dr. Smith, you are one of my heroes.” Without pausing, he smiled and replied, “And if I knew you I’m sure that you would be one of my heroes too!”
My own most powerful memory of Huston Smith was the glowing smile that never left his face for long. Not a self-glorifying glow, but the glow of happiness and joy a person can feel for another person, and the attendant joy of being deeply perceived and sharing life where love is unconditional. He dove into the reality of the Spirit from many, many different religious, spiritual, philosophical perspectives, and emerged with us as a man obviously consumed with love and building bridges that connect us all meaningfully. He was one of a kind, a giant in our midst, and his influence, God willing, will grow and endure for many years to come.
Header Photo: parks.ca.gov