Religion 'rock star' turns his eye inward

Times Staff Writer

Superstar religion scholar Huston Smith has made pilgrimages to Himalayan holy sites, was rescued from lions by Masai warriors and floated into the psychedelic 1960s reclined on Timothy Leary's couch on New Year's Eve 1959, under the influence of mescaline.

Not surprisingly, friends and publishers for years have been nagging Smith to write his memoirs. Instead, he plunged deeper still into the world's great faiths and shared what he learned in books and passionate public lectures.

The impasse ended this year. The grand old man of comparative religion -- he's 87 -- is hard at work on a new book, perhaps his last, on his toughest subject yet: himself.

Gazing out the living room window of his hillside home at trees shedding leaves past their prime, Smith said, "I've been dead set against writing an autobiography. But a friend said, 'Huston, no one living has had the range of experiences you've had. You owe it to posterity to put it all down.' "

So Smith is pressing ahead with the book, although he continues to recuperate from ailments that have landed him in the hospital four times since May.

Smith doesn't set out to write inspirational books, but many readers cherish his books as inspiring beacons to steer by. Filled with anecdotes and character sketches of religious figures, his works offer accessible but scholarly analyses of the world's faiths. "Religion is not primarily a matter of facts," he once wrote, "it is a matter of meanings."

The working title of his autobiography is "Tales of Wonder, Tales of Deep Delight." The title was drawn from a phrase in a poem by Robert Penn Warren. .

Leaning back in an easy chair, the venerable professor with gossamer white hair said it's never been his style -- or that of the spiritual leaders he's apprenticed with over the years -- to call attention to his personal life.

"Autobiography just pumps and inflates my ego, which is already inflated anyway," he explained with a wry smile. "And frankly, I had other books I wanted to write."

"I'm a religious communicator," he added. "And I want to work myself out of my ego. I want to be turned outward onto this fantastic world and other people and their needs and not on myself."

That would explain why he initially toyed with a different title for his memoirs, "Here Lies No One."

Although Smith's is not a household name, his 14 books include "The World's Religions," a standard introductory college textbook that has sold more than 2 1/2 million copies. The holder of 12 honorary degrees, he rose to national attention in 1996 when he was featured in a five-part PBS series, "The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith." A recent book, "Why Religion Matters," won the Wilbur Award for the best book on religion in 2001.

In honor of Smith's literary legacy, Harper San Francisco, has created a new award category for authors who best "embody the spirit of Huston Smith's work of promoting the history and cause of religion in the world and its interface with culture," said his publisher at Harper, Mark Tauber.

The Huston Smith Publishing Prize will be awarded beginning in 2008 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his magnum opus, "The World's Religions," which was originally titled "The Religions of Man," in 1958.

"Huston Smith is beloved. He's a rock star," Tauber said. "We have great respect and patience with him. We think his memoirs are going to be a big deal when they come out."

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, agreed. "What Huston has accomplished," he said, "verges on the timeless. His analysis of the world's enduring religions is not so much dependent upon what other scholars have said as on what he discovered for himself is foundational about those religions."

Smith's has been an extraordinary life.

He was raised by missionary parents in Suzhou, China, and went on to teach religion courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley.

An ordained Methodist minister, Smith apprenticed for two to 15 years with the wisest spiritual leaders he could find in various traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism and Hinduism.

In the meantime, he crossed paths with many of the thinkers who shaped 20th century civilization. Memories of those encounters with the likes of author Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ram Dass are grist for his work in progress.

Take the time his car ran out of gas while he was exploring Africa's Serengeti Plains. Locals had warned, "Anyone lost out there at dusk must be eaten by lions."

Just as the sun was sinking over the horizon, a dozen Masai warriors appeared seemingly out of nowhere and pushed his car to what turned out to be the Olduvai Gorge camp where anthropologist Louis Leakey years earlier had discovered the human bones that added a million years to the history of the human race.

"Leakey wasn't there," Smith recalled. "But I spent that night on his cot, drinking his whiskey."

Smith was teaching at MIT in 1959 when Timothy Leary tapped him to become involved in a project exploring mystical experiences induced by such "God-enabling" plants as mescaline, which was legal at the time.

Looking back, Smith, who denounces taking drugs for reasons other than religious purposes, said, "Awe is not fun."

And he recalled the time he asked Christian mystic Thomas Merton to explain what the life of a monk was like.

"It's very nice," Merton responded.

"I'm surprised by your response," Smith said, "given what I know about the three vows."

"Oh, those," Merton said. "Poverty is a snap. Chastity more difficult, but manageable. But obedience -- obedience is a bugger."

Not all of Smith's tales of wonder involve famous people. Among the most influential people in his life was television producer Mayo Simon, who in the 1950s taught him a formula for blending content with delivery that Smith developed into a stirring stage persona.

They met while working on one of public television's first education programs on religion. "He was hard on me, very hard," Smith recalled. "The evening before each program, he'd call me to his apartment and stand me up for a dry run."

"I can still hear his withering remarks: 'Doesn't sound too red-hot to me!' meaning back to the drawing boards," Smith said. "He said, 'Huston, a television audience is different than a classroom. In this medium, you lose them for 30 seconds and they'll change the channel. So make your points and follow each one with an anecdote or a fragment of poetry that connects them to daily life."

The formula worked when describing others, but the man who has helped untold thousands to better understand themselves and the universe has struggled through two drafts of his memoirs.

As his wife, Kendra, tells it: "He never was the introspective type who asked himself, 'What got me from here to there?' "

With her help, he finally came up with a satisfying approach to the arc of his own existence. Essentially, Smith has decided to move from one dramatic juncture in his life to another, using his characteristic humor, eloquence and scholarly thoughtfulness to fill the gaps.

"When my first draft came back, my editor said, 'Huston, this has the makings of a pretty good book,' " Smith recalled with a laugh.

"Well, I thought I had written that great book. Oh, no."

"Then my wife pointed out that the job of an editor is not just to critique but also to see the possibilities a book can become," he said.

"That reconciled me back to the drawing boards."

Kendra Smith, a psychologist and practicing Buddhist, is her husband's fact-checker in residence.

"It's not easy being married to a woman addicted to truth," Smith said.

"I love a good story. But often I find my stories murdered by her wicked facts."

But as Kendra Smith likes to say, "We've been honing each other for 63 years."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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