Huston Smith: Rock star of religions turns 90
Heidi Benson, Special to The Chronicle
Thursday, May 21, 2009
A floor lamp with more arms than Shiva brightly illuminates a desk
where the phone rings, a computer hums and messages fly from the fax
machine. This is the command center of religious scholar Huston
Smith, in the Berkeley assisted-living center he now calls home.
Outside, faded Tibetan prayer flags are strung along a balcony where
potted bamboo sways in the sunshine. Inside, the Quran shares the
bookshelf with the works of Plato, and Smith holds forth from a black
leather recliner. He is abuzz, quick with jokes.
"I no longer stand on my head every morning," he says of his longtime
yoga practice. "But if my osteoporosis gets any worse, I just might."
It is a busy time. This month, he celebrates his 90th birthday, as
well as the 50th anniversary of his best-selling book, "The World's
Religions," which inspired a popular PBS series. In addition, his
autobiography, "Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine," has
just been published by HarperOne. At just 200 pages, it is a dizzying
tour of a singular life.
Smith was there when the 1945 U.N. charter was signed in San
Francisco. He met Mother Teresa, interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt and
invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at Washington
University in 1956. Seeking enlightenment, he took mescaline with
Timothy Leary and peyote with an Indian shaman. He counts Saul
Bellow, Aldous Huxley, Pete Seeger and the Dalai Lama among his
legion of friends.
Asked about his uncanny timing, he declares: "Don't overlook
Tiananmen Square!" Late on the night before the 1989 uprising, he
arrived unsuspectingly in Beijing for a conference on Chinese
philosophy. "In the morning, we got word from BBC Radio, all the way
from London, that Beijing was in chaos," he recalled.
He and his colleagues went down to the street, where "everyone was on
the side of the students." And where everyone was headed to Tiananmen
Square. They climbed in a car with a sign taped to the window:
"Foreign Visitors Support Student Strike."
"We couldn't get closer than three blocks. It was like a funnel. But
when the students saw the sign, they waved us through," he recalled.
"One of our party was hoisted onto the top of the car. In Chinese he
said, 'Democracy is not only for America. Democracy is not only for
China. Democracy is for the entire world.' There was a tumult of cheers."
Looking back as a witness to history, he rebuffs the notion of divine
intervention, but allows: "It almost seemed like it was masterminded
for me to be in the right place at the right time."
Smith was born in 1919 in China, where his parents were Christian missionaries.
"In my town, I had only one adult American male role model: my
father," he explained. "I grew up taking it for granted that
missionaries were what American boys grew up to be."
He came to the States for college, expecting to earn his degree and
return to China. "But I hadn't calculated on the dynamism of the
West," he said.
Propelled by intellectual curiosity, he earned a doctorate at the
University of Chicago, where he met Kendra, the woman who would be
his wife for 65 years. Soon after, he took his first teaching post in
St. Louis, and his parents were expelled from China after the 1949
Communist takeover. Now, there was no going back.
He went on to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Syracuse University and UC Berkeley, write 15 books, receive 12
honorary degrees and create television specials. He has been called
the rock star of religious studies. As a kind of participatory
scholar, he has applied to his life that which he's learned from the
world's great faiths. And his inclusive approach has rhymed with the times.
"I happen to be a Christian. I was brought up and drenched in that,"
he said. "I am very orthodox in thinking that Jesus acted in his life
the way God would have acted if God had assumed human form."
But, he explained, "I'm not a chauvinist. I'm a universalist. I think
that God imploded, like a spiritual big bang, to launch the eight
civilizations that make up recorded history and the religions in
Today, on a sunny morning in Berkeley, he reiterates his belief in
the power of human intention. "The Buddha is in me, the Buddha is in
you," he says, with a dazzling smile and a bit of a challenge. "Live up to it."
Is he optimistic about the future?
'On the hook'
"I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. An optimist says, in
effect, 'Don't worry, it's going to turn out all right.' A pessimist
says, 'It's going down the drain, and there's nothing you can do
about it,' " he said.
"Both get us off the hook. Our place is on the hook. Whether things
turn out for the better depends on what we do. We ought not spend our
time masterminding the future, but recognize our marching orders: to
do the best we can for history and the planet.
"One of my favorite prayers was written by a 9-year-old. His mother
found it scribbled on a note beside his bed: 'Dear God, I'm doing the
best I can.' "
E-mail Heidi Benson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 24, 2009
TALES OF WONDER
Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography
By Huston Smith, with Jeffery Paine.
Harper Collins. 209 pp. $25.99
Midway through his lush new memoir, the religious scholar Huston
Smith pauses to rattle off a list of fond remembrances: dancing among
the whirling dervishes in Iran, camping with the Aborigines in
Australia, sharing a chuckle with a gaggle of Masai warriors on the
darkening Serengeti plains. Each anecdote is offered up with minimum
explication and just a few choice adjectives, as if Smith's sense of
marvel at the strange bounty of the world should suffice. And in most
cases, it does.
"Tales of Wonder," co-written with Jeffery Paine, opens in the
medieval town of Soochow, China, where Smith's parents served as
missionaries, and ends, some 200 pages later, with a quote from Saint
John Chrysostom: "Praise for everything. Praise for it all!" In
between, Smith meets with some of the 20th century's major luminaries
-- Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and sets
out to carve his own name into the face of history. When he was just
shy of 40, Smith published his opus "The World's Religions," a now
classic study of comparative theology. Its popularity opened the door
to a series of professorial posts and several trips around the globe,
each one more spectacular than the last. "For me," confides Smith,
now nearly 90, "any real reason to travel, even a bad one, was a good
reason to pack my bags and set off. If a place was on the map, and
especially if it wasn't, I wanted to go and learn what could be
learned only there."