IN MEMORIUM Huston Smith

weeseHS02HUSTON SMITH, 2007 by Carl Weese                                     May 31, 1919 – December 30, 2016

“The goal of spiritual life is not altered states,
but altered traits.”


A personal message on January 5, 2017 from Michael at 33 Gateway Lane:

Friday, December 30 began with revising and preparing to re-boot the WHILE CUSTOMS SLEPT post on December 31 in celebration of New Year 2017.  While not my intent, perhaps it was only natural that I basically ended up spending the rest of December 30 revisiting a couple of my own Catalytic Conversions, the subject of the WHILE CUSTOMS SLEPT post.

One Catalytic Conversion I joyously revisited in memory took place over 20 years ago when I first met world-renowned religious scholar, teacher, prolific author, sage Huston Smith. Now that was one humdinger of a Catalytic Conversion for me! Life was indeed never the same, and I have been privileged to directly experience the darshan of Huston Smith many times since.

When I finally “shut down” on Friday night, I made a note to check on how Dr. Smith was doing because he has been in hospice for over a year in increasingly frail condition — blessedly NOT in pain! I was not devastated or surprised, then, to be notified he had passed on. Rather, I was deeply moved, humbled, and grateful for the privilege of having Huston Smith play such a pivotal and influential role in my life.

There is an ancient belief that when a Holy man or woman has chosen to pass on from this Mortal Coil, the Holy person may also choose to transmit like a psychic notification to those with the ears to hear that the passing is imminent — an invitation as it were for kindred spirits to gather in spirit, along with the attendant angels and spirit guides, for one last joyous spirited communion and perhaps bear spiritual witness to the sacred departure.

Honestly, that’s always struck me as a marvelous bon voyage bash!

So perhaps in some sense I received his invitation and had the privilege of participating when he passed on Friday, December 30.

There has been a 33 Gateway Lane “In the Spotlight” page on Huston Smith ever since the commencement of 33 Gateway Lane; I have changed it to an “In Memorium” page and added a couple more items. When time allows and my heart is a bit lighter, I will post my testimony of that particular Catalytic Conversion — I am indeed a lucky fellow — as well as other material not otherwise available concerning Huston Smith that may be of some interest.

Huston Smith was an inspiring, generous enterprising spirit who was much beloved and revered by so many around the world.  Including me.

Blessings be!

uses-of-rosemary-in-cookingThere’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…

— William Shakespeare | HAMLET Act 4, Scene 5


“If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”

“Human intelligence is a reflection of the intelligence that produces everything.  In knowing, we are simply extending the intelligence that comes to and constitutes us.  We mimic the mind of God, so to speak.  Or better, we continue and extend it.”

“The scientific method is nearly perfect for understanding the physical aspects of our life.  But it is a radically limited viewfinder in its inability to offer values, morals and meanings that are at the center of our lives.”

“First of all, my persuasion is what really breeds violence is political differences.  But because religion serves as the soul of community, it gets drawn into the fracas and turns up the heat.”

“In nature, the emphasis is in what is rather than what it ought to be.”

“There are wonderfully intrinsic moments when life makes sense, and doubts are banished as irrelevant in those moments.  Of course, we can’t stay in that state.  We’re not here to be blissed out all the time.”

“Whether things turn out for the better depends on what we do.  We ought not spend our time masterminding the future, but recognize out marching orders:  to do the best we can for history and the planet.”


Huston Smith, Author of ‘The World’s Religions,’ Dies at 97


January 1, 2017 (reflects corrections of 1-12-17)

Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of religion who pursued his own enlightenment in Methodist churches, Zen monasteries and even Timothy Leary’s living room, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 97.

His wife, Kendra, confirmed his death.

Professor Smith was best known for “The Religions of Man” (1958), which has been a standard textbook in college-level comparative religion classes for half a century.  In 1991, it was revised and expanded, and given the gender-neutral title “The World’s Religions.”  The two versions together have sold more than three million copies.

The book examines the world’s major faiths as well as those of indigenous peoples, observing that all express the Absolute, which is indescribable, and concluding with a kind of golden rule for mutual understanding and coexistence: “If, then, we are to be true to our own faith, we must attend to others when they speak, as deeply and as alertly as we hope they will attend to us.”

“It is the most important book in comparative religious studies ever,” Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, said in an interview.

Professor Smith may have reached his widest audience in 1996, when Bill Moyers put him at the center of a five-part PBS series, “The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith.”  (Each installment began with a Smith quotation: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”)

Richard D. Hecht, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Professor Smith “one of the three greatest interpreters of religion for general readers in the second half of the 20th century,” the others being Joseph Campbell and, in Britain, Roderick Ninian Smart.

Professor Smith, whose last teaching post was at the University of California, Berkeley, had an interest in religion that transcended the academic.  In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment — to “turn our flashes of insight into abiding light,” as he 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.

It was through psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s that Professor Smith believed he came closest to experiencing God.  Leary, a Harvard professor who championed mind-altering substances, recruited Professor Smith to help in an investigation of psychedelic drugs.  At the time, Professor Smith was teaching philosophy nearby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leary thought that he had had a profound religious experience in Mexico in August 1960 when he first ate psilocybin mushrooms, which can produce hallucinations.  Accordingly, he wanted religious experts to be part of his Harvard Psilocybin Project for the study of mind-altering drugs.  Richard Alpert, a colleague in Harvard’s psychology department, was a critical figure in the initiative.  (He later took the name Ram Dass.)

On New Year’s Day in 1961, Leary’s team ingested mushrooms in his living room.  “Such a sense of awe,” Professor Smith said afterward.  “It was exactly what I was looking for.”

A year later, the group gathered in a church basement as a Good Friday service was being held upstairs and tried an experiment involving 20 volunteers in which half were given the psilocybin mushrooms and the other half a placebo.  Professor Smith received the drug, which was legal at the time, and reported that he was certain he had had a personal experience with God.  He thought that the voice of a soprano singing upstairs was surely that of an angel.

“From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it,” Don Lattin wrote in “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” a 2010 account of the psychedelic research project, “and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of the gift of God’s love was to share it with the rest of the world.”

Professor Smith later became disenchanted with Leary’s “tune in, turn on, drop out” gospel, but he retained his belief that the briefest of insights from a psychedelic trip could be mind-expanding.

Those early drug experiments, however, were enough for him, he wrote in “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals” (2000).  (The word entheogenic refers to substances that produce an altered state of consciousness for spiritual purposes — “God-enabling,” in Professor Smith’s words.)

“If someone were to offer me today a substance that (with no risk of producing a bummer) was guaranteed to carry me into the Clear Light of the Void and within 15 minutes would return me to normal,” Professor Smith wrote, “I would decline.”

Huston Cummings Smith was born to Methodist missionaries on May 31, 1919, in Suzhou, China.  The family soon moved to the ancient walled city Zang Zok, a “caldron of different faiths,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine.”

“I could skip a few blocks from my house past half the world’s major religions,” he added.  “Side by side they existed.”

He decided to be a missionary, and his parents sent him to Central Methodist University, a liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church, in Fayette, Mo.  He was ordained a Methodist minister but soon realized that he had no desire to “Christianize the world,” as he put it; he would rather teach than preach.

Admitted to the University of Chicago Divinity School, he became intrigued by the scientific rationalism propounded by Henry Nelson Wieman, an influential liberal theologian there.  He also became attracted to Professor Wieman’s daughter, Kendra, then an undergraduate.  They married in 1943.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Gael Rosewood and Kimberly Smith; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Professor Smith was working on his doctorate at Berkeley and leading Sunday services at a Methodist church in 1944 when he encountered a book that changed his life: “Pain, Sex and Time: A New Outlook on Evolution and the Future of Man” (1939), by Gerald Heard.  Mr. Heard advanced an expansive view of spirituality and came to be called “the grandfather of the New Age movement.”

Professor Smith read all two dozen of Mr. Heard’s books and tracked him down at Trabuco College, which Mr. Heard had founded in the Santa Ana Mountains.  After dinner, they retired to a large rock.

“They just sat there in silence, gazing at the barren canyon walls,” Mr. Lattin wrote in “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.”  “Huston realized there was nothing he needed to ask the man.  It was enough just to sit with him on the edge of the canyon.”

Mr. Heard told Professor Smith how to get in touch with Aldous Huxley, the novelist, mystic and psychedelic pioneer, and in summer 1947, Professor Smith took a bus into the Mojave Desert to Huxley’s cabin.  The two had a deep conversation about boundless desert sand and Old Testament prophets.

Professor Smith received his Ph.D. in 1945 from the University of Chicago, taught for two years at the University of Denver and accepted a professorship at Washington University in St. Louis.

Huxley recommended he meet Swami Satprakashananda, a Hindu monk who had founded the Vedanta Society of St. Louis in 1938.  Professor Smith soon became the president of a Hindu society and an associate minister of a Methodist congregation in St. Louis.

In 1955, he turned his popular college lectures into a series of programs on world religions for the National Educational Television network, the precursor to PBS.  On one program, he demonstrated the lotus position.

He was hired by M.I.T. in 1958 and two years later joined other professors in inviting Huxley to deliver seven lectures, which drew standing-room-only crowds.  In the decade since their last meeting, Huxley had experimented with mescaline and written “The Doors of Perception,” which became a counterculture classic.  Professor Smith confessed to him that he had never had a full-blown mystical experience despite his studies of religious mysticism.

Huxley said Leary could probably supply what he wanted, and gave Professor Smith his phone number.

Professor Smith joined campaigns for civil rights in the 1960s and for a more tolerant understanding of Islam in the 2000s.  He wrote more than a dozen books and held professorships at Syracuse University and Berkeley.  He helped introduce the Dalai Lama to Americans.

Despite his liberal views, Professor Smith argued that science might not totally explain natural phenomena like evolution.  He clung to his Methodism while criticizing some of its dogma.  He prayed in Arabic to Mecca five times a day.

His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed.

“Dear God,” it said, “I’m doing the best I can.”

The World of Religion According to Huston Smith

Smith has devoted his life to the study of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. He believes in them all.


Renowned world religions scholar Huston Smith says, “Every society and religion has rules, for both have moral laws. And the essence of morality consists, as in art, of drawing the line somewhere.” For Smith, a practicing Methodist who for 26 years has prayed five times a day in Arabic and who, at 78, still does hatha yoga, that line can be drawn creatively or idiosyncratically — but it must always be done with discipline.

Best known for his book The World’s Religions (published in 1958 as The Religions of Man, translated into 12 languages, and still one of the most widely used college textbooks on comparative religion), Smith believes the role of what he calls the world’s “wisdom traditions” is a simple one: to help us behave decently toward one another. His documentary films on Hinduism, Sufism, and Tibetan Buddhism have all won awards, and in 1996 he was featured on Bill Moyers’ five-part PBS special “The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith.” He has taught religion and philosophy at MIT, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Q: You were born a Methodist and have stuck with it, although you’ve often voiced your frustration with its doctrine. Why have you stayed in the church?

A: The faith I was born into formed me. I come from a missionary family — I grew up in China — and in my case, my religious upbringing was positive. Of course, not everyone has this experience. I know many of my students are what I have come to think of as wounded Christians or wounded Jews. What came through to them was dogmatism and moralism, and it rubbed them the wrong way. What came through to me was very different: We’re in good hands, and in gratitude for that fact it would be well if we bore one another’s burdens. I haven’t found any brief formula that tops that. However, I certainly would not choose that messenger if I were starting from scratch.

Q: Why not?

A: Methodists are very good on good works: Two hundred homeless people get a hot meal every evening at my church, for example. Socially, they are ahead of me: My pastor is a woman, a lesbian, and her baby and her partner are part of the congregation. Also, mine is a very interracial congregation. However, theologically they are totally washed-out.

Q: You pray in Arabic five times a day and regularly do yoga. Have you adopted these practices to supplement this washed-out Christian faith?

A: At every stage in my religious life I was perfectly happy with what I had — until along came a tidal wave that crashed over me. For example, I was perfectly content with Christianity until Vedanta — the philosophical version of Hinduism — came along. When I read the Upanishads, which are part of Vedanta, I found a profundity of worldview that made my Christianity seem like third grade. Later, I found out that the same truths were there in Christianity — in Meister Eckehart, St. Augustine, and others. But nobody had told me, not even my professors in graduate school. So, for 10 years, though I still kept up my perfunctory attendance at my Methodist church — a certain kind of grounding, I think, is useful — my spiritual center was in the Vedanta Society, whose discussion groups and lectures fed my soul. Then Buddhism came along, and another tidal wave broke over me. In none of these moves did I have any sense that I was saying goodbye to anything. I was just moving into a new idiom for expressing the same basic truths.

Q: Many in the West are attracted to Eastern religions because they avoid the kind of rule-making and dualistic thinking so fundamental to Christianity. Is that accurate?

A: The notion that Western religions are more rigid than those of Asia is overdrawn. Ours is the most permissive society history has ever known — almost the only thing that is forbidden now is to forbid — and Asian teachers and their progeny play up to this propensity by soft-pedaling Hinduism’s, Buddhism’s, Sufism’s rules. The Hindu Laws of Manu and the Buddhist Vinaya (over 200 rules for the sangha, or monastic order) make the Ten Commandments and the Rule of St. Benedict look flabby in comparison.

Q: You’ve said that your students seem to be much more interested in spirituality than in religion. What’s the difference? Why do you think young people today are so averse to organized religion?

A: The first question is easy: Religion is institutionalized spirituality. As to the second, anti-authoritarianism is part of it. Also, institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion.

Q: But haven’t institutions always been problematic? Why this mass exodus?

A: It’s true that the mainline churches are in terrible trouble. They’ve lost close to 25 percent of their membership in the last 25 or so years, and there’s no sign that that’s going to change. The chief reason for this is that they have accommodated the culture. Seminaries like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley are training ministers to go out into these mainline churches. But the teachers in the seminaries look up to the university, and the university ethos is secular to the core.

People are not losing their religious needs, but they are going to three places to get their needs met. One is to conservative churches, which, for all their social benightedness, nevertheless do present their congregations with a different view of reality. Second, they are going to Asian religions. I was born on a mission field in China and it looks like I’m going to die on an American one, because America is becoming a mission field for Buddhism, Sufism, and other Eastern religions. Third, they are going to the New Age, which when I’m feeling cynical I refer to as “New Age frivolity,” because some of it is rather flaky.

Q: What’s the difference between your spiritual practices and the New Age practice of taking a bit from shamanism, a bit from Buddhism, a bit from the goddess, etc.?

A: What you describe as New Age, and what I call the cafeteria approach to spirituality, is not the way organisms are put together, nor great works of art. And a vital faith is more like an organism or work of art than it is like a cafeteria tray.

The New Age movement looks like a mixed bag. I see much in it that seems good: It’s optimistic; it’s enthusiastic; it has the capacity for belief. On the debit side, I think one needs to distinguish between belief and credulity. How deep does New Age go? Has it come to terms with radical evil? More, I am not sure how much social conscience there is in New Age thinking. If we think, for example, that we are drawing closer to transcendence or God but are not drawing closer in compassion and concern for our fellow human beings, we’re just fooling ourselves. Do New Age groups produce a Mother Teresa or a Dalai Lama? Not that I can see. So, at its worst, it can be a kind of private escapism to titillate oneself.

Q: One of the most important roles of spiritual practices has been to help us behave decently toward one another. How would you respond to those secular humanists who feel that Freud, Marx, or Darwin are teachers enough in terms of showing us how to behave decently and find meaning in this world?

A: I would not say that ethical behavior is not possible for the atheist or agnostic. It is. A couple of pretty good examples are Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I will have to say that if we take the human lot as a whole, these two men must be seen as exceptions.

I don’t want to justify religion in terms of its benefits to us. I believe that, on balance, it does a lot of bad things, too — a tremendous amount. But I don’t think that the final justification of religion is the good it does for people. I think the final justification is that it’s true, and truth takes priority over consequences. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.

Historically, religion has given people another world to live in, a world more adaptive to the human spirit. As a student of world religions, I see religion as the winnower of the wisdom of the human race. Of course, not everything about these religions is wise. Their social patterns, for example — master-slave, caste, and gender relations — have been adopted from the mores of their time. But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in either modernity or postmodernity that rivals them.

Q: You’ve been critical of the role secularism and science have played in supplanting religion…

A: I’m nearing 80, and I find myself more optimistic than I’ve ever been on this subject. In science, for example, physics is already out of the tunnel constructed by Enlightenment thinking. Newtonian physics worked very much at cross-purposes with the Spirit, which is beyond matter, space, and time. Of contemporary physics, Henry Stapp, a world-class physicist at Berkeley, said that “everything we know about nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of nature lies outside space-time.”

Religion, for its part, says that God, who is the source of it all, is outside nature. Now, don’t quote me as saying Henry Stapp says that God exists! He didn’t say that at all. Besides, he has no competence to talk about that as a physicist, because physics can’t deal with quality or consciousness. Nevertheless, for him to say that the fundamental process of nature is immaterial opens the door for a meeting of physics and faith. Both are speaking the same language in their own domain.

Q: Where does the Native American Church fit into your spiritual pantheon?

A: In 1990, when the Supreme Court stripped the Native American Church of its right to use peyote as its sacrament, Reuben Snake asked if I could help him write a book about the church [One Nation Under God] to respond to this horrendous injustice. One of my jobs was to hit the road and gather accounts of what the church has meant to people. I heard frequent reports of how lives were going down the drain with alcohol, etc., and it was the church that straightened them up. To my mind, the peyote plant is God’s flesh just like the bread in the Eucharist is regarded as Christ’s body. I believe peyote to be an “entheogen” — a “god-manifesting” or “god-containing” plant.

By the way, the Native American Church’s rights were restored in 1994, but there have been recent moves in the Senate that threaten Native American rights on other fronts.

Q: You were part of the LSD studies at Harvard in the 1960s with Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. How do you feel about the use of mind-altering drugs to attain a kind of mystical experience?

A: First, I have to say that during the three years I was involved with that Harvard study, LSD was not only legal but respectable. Before Tim went on his unfortunate careening course, it was a legitimate research project.

Though I did find evidence that, when recounted, the experiences of the Harvard group and those of mystics were impossible to tell apart — descriptively indistinguishable — that’s not the last word. There is still a question about the truth of the disclosure. Was the drug-induced mystical experience just an emotional jag that messed up some neural connections? Or was it a genuine disclosure, an epiphany?

Enclosed, or cocooned, in a solid religious context of belief and responsibility, entheogens have played an important part in human religious history. The Native American Church is a good example of this. But what about people who experience this outside of such a context, as most of the subjects at Harvard did? For some people, under some conditions, it can open new vistas, as William James says. But the heart of religion is not altered states but altered traits of character. For me, then, the test of a substance’s religious worth or validity is not what kind of far-out experience it can produce, but is the life improved by its use? That’s the test. Now, on that score, if you remove the “religious cocoon,” the experiences don’t seem to have much in the way of discernible, traceable effects. Certainly, they can open new vistas. But, as Ram Dass said, when you get the message, you should hang up. He did. He gave away his fortune and turned himself to good works. Tim Leary didn’t hang up.

Q: One of the roles of religion has been to help communities deal with death. In your own life, how has your faith helped you accommodate the inevitability of death?

A: I don’t have any fear of death. I do, however, have an inordinate fear of becoming dependent on other people. To me, that’s the severest test, not death.

Click below for two-minute YouTube clip:

Huston Smith The Point of Religion