Explorer of the World's Spirituality


A garden hose beside his front door says as much about Huston Smith's religious practices as the ashram-like study on the second floor of the house. It is a professor's house, as casual as a summer cottage, with lawn chairs beside the living room couch and a wicker hamper for the mail.

At 80, the country's dean of comparative religion, whose big book, "The World's Religions," has sold more than 2 million copies in 25 years, compares religion to a good meal. Christianity has always been his entree, but he adds "vitamin supplements" from around the world.

The artworks in the room begin to say something about their owner. Chinese scrolls, Hindu goddesses, pottery, rugs and decorative plates suggest global travels and an ease in Asian cultures.

Asked how he maintains his unusual approach to a religious practice, Smith describes a routine that is not typical of a member of the United Methodist Church, which he is. His daily rituals include hatha yoga and reading from the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching if not the Bible. He meditates as often as he prays.

And then there is composting.

"I've been surprised and gratified by the spiritual resources of that practice," Smith says of soil building. He added garden work "recently"--18 years ago--out of concern for the environment.

Because of his breadth of experience, Smith is famous in the circles that emanate from elite academic enclaves to the spiritual malls of America. One minute he's reminding you of his graduate student years at the rigorous University of Chicago. The next, he's confessing to a visit with Ramtha, a warrior from the lost continent of Atlantis being channeled through a former cable TV saleswoman in Yelm, Wash. Smith's wife, Kendra, warned him off that field trip, saying it would not do his reputation much good. He went anyway.

"I have a bit of the anthropologist in me," he explains.

Conformity has never been his goal, but no one would guess it by looking at him. He is a reed stretched across an elongated frame, with tame white hair and Nordic blue eyes. He could pass for a man from one of several professions: gentleman pastor, gentleman scholar, gentleman sage.

Witness to a Basic

Change in Attitudes

Sitting at the edge of a blue-striped couch, his back to the irises and roses overflowing the flower beds outside, he unfolds a newspaper article from 1955. It was about the first time that public television called on him to provide a primer on the world's religions for viewers. He was invited back in 1996, for a Bill Moyers special. Now that he has retired from university life, he sees the two events as the bookends of his career.

Reactions were extreme both times. Christian leaders publicly condemned Smith in the '50s for comparing their faith to other religions of the world, then congratulated him for doing the same thing in the '90s. Neither review changed his approach; they only warned him of a shift in thinking.

"In one lifetime the response went from 'don't watch it,' to 'everybody should watch it,' " Smith says of the PBS programs. "That signals a real change in our culture's attitude."

He has explained to thousands of people in hundreds of lectures exactly what the change in attitude has been, a growing awareness and acceptance of other religions. Ethnic diversity has made us more familiar with the religions that our parents once thought of as strange and exotic. That awareness, combined with a growing recognition that science and technology are not a substitute for God, have created a generation of religious seekers.


Smith got early glimpses of the approaching wave during his unusual childhood. Born in Soochow, China, and raised by missionary parents, he and two brothers, Walter and Robert, were part of the only American family in their village. He got used to living with neighbors whose ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs were different from his own.

There were other things about life in Asia that formed him as well. He only began to recognize it later in life.

"Many assume that because I was born in China it opened me to a cross-cultural interest," he says. "On some level that's true. Living together with people of different traditions, we being the only American family, had an impact. But I came out of that environment with my sights set on becoming a full, red-blooded American boy."

Two weeks after he arrived in the U.S to enter Central Methodist College in Fayette, Mo., in 1936, he decided to change the direction of his life. "The dynamism of the West swept me up," he says. "I became scientific in my world view."

In the first three years of college, his plans ran from missionary to minister to teacher of religion. His younger brother, Walter, spent one year in the same college with Huston before he transferred to Northwestern University to study journalism.

"He was a very big man on campus," says Walter, 78, who lives in Detroit. "Huston was president of the student body and editor of the newspaper."

Their early emersion into a life of faith had opposite effects.

"I am totally unreligious," Walter says. "I'm sure that Huston believes sincerely in what he does. I'm no expert on my brother, but I know he's into all kinds of things. Some of them are pretty nutty."

If not nutty, unconventional at least. On New Year's Day 1961, in the interest of his studies, Smith tried LSD. He found that psychedelics had the effect that the mystics described as a direct experience of God.

An Epiphany of the

Nature of God

He had had his first encounter with it while in his 20s.

"Hindu mysticism crashed over me like a tidal wave," he says. It happened while he was reading the Katha Upanishad for the first time. The insights into Eastern philosophy convinced him that divinity cannot be contained by a human form.

He is an eloquent speaker who describes personal memories with such urgency they seem new, as if he is living through them again.

"The idea of a God beyond the personal God, that was exciting," he says. "It gave a huge boost to the intensity and aliveness of my religious life. And I found it in a different tradition than my own.

"I later discovered that it's in Christianity too, but nobody had pointed that out to me."

By the time he was named chairman of the philosophy section at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in the early 1960s, he was inviting experts in all the religions of the world to speak about their traditions.

"I would use the word 'authenticity' about Huston Smith's work," says Seyyedd Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University who was one of Smith's first guest lecturers.

"Huston Smith has the perspective necessary to situate other forms of truth without relativizing them," Nasr says. "He has not made new discoveries about Islam in the West, but when he writes, with eloquence and fairness, many people are affected."

Talk led to action. As a professor of religion at Syracuse University, Smith led students on around-the-world field trips.

Philip Novak was a star pupil. Now chairman of philosophy and religion at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif., he joined Smith's world tour in 1976. Thirty students and three professors traveled under the banner of the International Honors Program to Morocco, then Iran, India, Sri Lanka and Japan.

"I knew something about most of the religions we studied, but Huston introduced me to new depths," Novak says. Sufi and Christian mysticism, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies were handled adeptly in Smith's hands. More than brain food, he supplied students with character lessons, which he taught by example.

"Huston is one of the most virtuous, moral, golden-hearted people I've ever met," Novak says. "That doesn't come out in an academic tribute."

The grand tours left a strong impression on Smith too. Three months of living with Zen Buddhists in Japan was perhaps his greatest challenge. His roshi, or teacher, gave him a koan to solve.

"These are 'Alice in Wonderland' problems that make no sense to the rational mind," he says. He mentions one for beginners: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Smith's teacher was gracious about his slow progress.

"He added that it takes a little longer for philosophers to solve their koan," Smith admits with the gentle laugh that he often turns toward himself. "We philosophers do think a lot. The aim, of course, is to break through, from rational thinking to a direct experience."

More than once in the years since then he kept the Ramadan fast, a monthlong observance for Muslims that forbids food and water from the rising until the setting of the sun. "Superficially, I learned that food is unimportant but water is important," he says. "At a deeper level, Ramadan puts the emphasis on first things first. And it elicits some direct empathy with the needy, who live their entire lives in hunger and thirst."

Now the Seekers

Come to Him

By 1989, after six years that vaguely resembled semi-retirement, Smith settled at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor. Close to 50 years of study and travel led him to an imaginative vision of the world's great religions. Built by hand from a deep foundation, this vision has attracted many visitors.

"I find nothing in modern science that rivals the convergent views of the world's great religions, the wisdom traditions," he says. "They all ask, 'What is the nature of ultimate reality, and how can we best live within it?'

"Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam are fingers pointing to the moon. Each one gains credulity by the fact that they all converge. Even though people from different cultures were thinking about these issues independently."

By now, Smith's fame precedes him. When he lectures, the thunderous applause begins before he speaks. His books and television appearances have led to sound-bite titles describing him: "Religious surfer" and "spiritual seeker" have been attached so often that he is starting to correct the impression they make.

"I have shocked people by saying that I believe not only in religion but in organized religion," he says. "For some people 'spirituality' is a good word but 'religion,' the institution, is a bad word. I disagree. If you're serious about your spirituality you'll dig in, organize, and get some traction on history."

He worries that the more religious traditions we learn to live with, the more we'll dilute them all.

"There is the danger of downsizing the importance of theology so that we can get along," he says. "Any theology has to have some bite and definition. We have to keep these two concerns in polar tension."

He has a formula that works for him.

"I have no problem remaining a Christian," he says. "But then, I open myself completely to insights from other faiths. These insights have been immense."

Mary Rourke can be reached by e-mail at mary.rourke@latimes.com.

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