Huston Smith

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Indophile and inter-faith icon

Chidanand Rajghatta, 1919 - 2016 - Huston Smith, Indophile & inter-faith icon Jan 03 2017 : The Times of India

Huston Smith was a Methodist who practised Hatha Yoga every day and prayed in Arabic five times a day . Called the `'Ambassador to the world's religions, he said he believed in the best of all faiths. His 97year journey involved traveling the world visiting ashrams and temples, monasteries and mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras, studying with swamis and gurus, lamas and monks, maulvis and fakirs, priests and pontiffs.

His favorite prayer, he said, was written by a 9-yearold 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. On Friday , the great humanist and perennialist passed on in the final hours of 2016 at a hospice in California, after doing the best he could to promote inter-faith respect and harmony .

One of the greatest historians of religion and philosophy , he was a spiritual adventurer whose inter-faith life introduced American students ­ and workaday Americans ­ to the Bhagavad Gita, th eDhammapada, and the Five Pillars of Islam through documentaries and writings, including “The Religions of Man (1958), a standard collegiate textbook for comparative religion classes for nearly half a century now.

His spiritual fount was India and its religions, particularly Vedanta of Hinduism, after which he embraced Zen Buddhism and Sufi Islam. He went to distant dargas, mountainside monastaries, and remote ashrams in his quest.

Yet, he remained in the Methodist faith (he was born in China to Methodist missionaries and lived there till he was 17), praising it for its capaciousness, and pointing out that the pastor at his church is a lesbian and she and her baby were part of the congregation.

He said his approach to religions and his journey of discovery did not mean he was saying to goodbye to anything; he was just moving to a new idiom for expressing the same basic truths.

India ­ and its spiritual richness ­ infused and animated his life. Long after he studied and practised Vedanta under Swami Satprakashananda in St Louis, Missouri, (under the influence of, and with a referral from Aldoux Huxley), after gradua ting from the University of Chicago, he visited India in the late 1950s. “When I read the Upanishads, which are part of Vedanta, I found a profundity of worldview that made my Christianity seem like third grade, he had said, after his encounters with the Vedanta gurus. Now, the real India blew him away .

“I remember my first visit as if it were yesterday...It was the smells that were the strangest, a blend rising from a half million cooking fires in the dusty evening air, he would recall later to Bill Moyers, who put him front and centre in the documentary “The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith, that captured the Smith religious adventures.

“What was it that made this place, these people, so different, while, at the same time making me think `I know them. I've always known them. A part of me seems to have been here from the beginning, Smith said of India.

Thus began an even more intense study of religions that became a journey to reconcile the best of all -Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava -underwritten by the belief in the goodness inherent in all human beings.

To Moyers, he recited a poem he wrote in India: “Who could have dreamed, gazing on this willful face That India touched him more than he touched her...

Indebted to Hinduism, though it wasn’t his ‘primary tradition’

Aravindan Neelakandan, Farewell Dr. Huston Smith… Jan 04, 2017, Swarajya

Farewell Dr. Huston Smith…


He did the best he could. In his demise, Indic traditions lost a loyal friend in the West

When Huston Smith died aged 97 on 30 December 2016, Hindus world over lost a good friend in the academia of the Western world. An ordained Methodist minister, Huston Smith was the author of The Religions of Man (1958). Since then, it has been one of the standard textbooks in the West for comparative religion. Huston Smith, who set out to do for religion, what Chomsky did for language – finding the universal grammar, was born to missionary parents in China. As he walked as a boy to the Shanghai American High School in the French Concession, he would pass parks marked “No dogs and Chinamen allowed”. As he grew up, the missionary zest to ‘Christianize the world’ left him. When he chose an academic career studying comparative philosophy and religion, the memories of colonial prejudice made him vow ‘to do everything he could to try to deal fairly with the cultures he crossed over into.’

Though Hinduism was not his ‘primary tradition’ he found his ‘indebtedness to the Hindu tradition inestimable’. In fact it was his contact with the Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition which helped him enter into this odyssey with his vow to ‘to overcome the gravitational pull of ethnocentrism’ as much as possible. His knowledge of Hinduism which became part of his spiritual-academic pilgrimage came from his interaction with such impeccable sources like Dr.T.M.P.Mahadevan, one of the best Tamil scholars of traditional Vedanta and Swami Satprakashananda of Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta center. His quest for wisdom through Vedanta also became a loadstone to seek the unity of the spiritual heritage of humanity without much of the usual fallacy of imposing uniformity. Thus he studied Sufism and Buddhist spiritual traditions too.

In writing the book The Religions of Man (later titled ‘The World Religions’) he immersed himself, as much as possible, in first hand subjective experience of the religion about which he was writing. When he was writing his chapter on Hinduism he ‘read and meditated on ten pages of ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ every day.’ The book became the definitive guide for the western academia to study world religions in a spirit of true respect and dialogue before ‘South Asian’ social sciences were converted into the personal fiefdom of some.

When the chapter on Hinduism in his book received widespread critical acclaim, Huston Smith credited it to those meditations he made on the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

He was also a part of a study of psychedelic dimensions of religious experiences conducted in Harvard University. At the 1962 Good Friday service, at Boston University, volunteers, including Huston Smith, participated, half of whom had received, double blind, a dose of psilocybin while the other half a placebo. The experiment he later recalled, ‘left a permanent mark on his experiential world view’ (emphasis not in the original). He tried to describe it in terms of his own religious tradition and also in the framework of Indic spiritual psychology:

… until the Good Friday Experiment, I had had no direct personal encounter with Him/Her/It of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe. … Jnanic by nature, I had had (as I have noted) a number of powerful transpersonal experiences of God, but I had not strongly experienced his personal side. The Good Friday Experiment changed that. Since that momentous afternoon, I know firsthand what bhaktis are talking about when they speak: of their personal, loving relationship with God. (Thomas B.Roberts & Robert N. Jesse, Recollections of the Good Friday Experiment: An interview with Huston Smith, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1997, Vol. 29, No.2)

The passage is important because here we have an interesting variant in Rajiv Malhotra’s U-turn theory. Unlike the intentional jettisoning of Hindu identity and contribution to one’s inner development /or academic career, or one’s own cult creation, as convincingly demonstrated by him in the case of Ken Wilbur, here we have a genuine U-turn: from the impersonal Upanishadic tradition to the personal experience of Godhead defined in the tradition in which the person was born. What he had done is to academically open the possibility of studying the Christian phenomena like the born-again experience, talking in tongues etc. from Indic spiritual / yogic psychological framework.

On February 7, 1984, NASA astronauts made their first untethered spacewalk. The same day Huston Smith was writing a preface to the book Vedanta Voice of Freedom, a compilation of the words of Swami Vivekananda made by Swami Chetanananda. Huston Smith made an interesting observation:

I happen to write these lines on the day in the history when human astronauts have achieved their first untethered walk in space. To float as they are floating, like birds with the whole sky to fly in , may seem at first like the ultimate freedom, but we know of course that their floating only tokens the spiritual freedom we truly seek. … Thus it is that Hinduism speaks of the final freedom that marks the end of the mystic path as liberation (moksha), for it is the state of union (yoga) with the Absolute, the Infinite, and the Eternal, and therefore of freedom from all bonds of relativity.

Another interesting dimension of Huston Smith is his approach to the problem of religious terrorism – particularly Islamist terrorism. While he was totally free of Islamophobia of the Christian Right, he never got into the overdoing the negation mode like the virulent left liberals of Chomskian kind. In the aftermath of 9/11, in a 2002 interview he said:

“I am not going to conclude by saying terrorism and the fury that backs it is entirely our fault. It takes two to tango, and Islam has a great deal to answer for in this conflict.”

He said that the fundamentalist Muslims, ‘fueled by the memory of Islam’s past glory, live in the hope of an eventual Islamicized world.’ And it was this that ‘sets off a chain of mistakes.’ One should remember that this was by a man who prayed five times a day in Islamic manner too. He belonged to the school of Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.

In fact this is exactly the Hindutva stand which only opposes the expansionist tendencies of Islamist forces without falling prey to the Islamophobia which is only a competitive clash of the expansionist monocultures.

That Huston Smith always remained faithful to the vow he made to himself, can be seen in the foreword he gave to ‘Interpreting Ramakrishna’ (2010) – a scholarly in-depth rebuttal to Jeffery Kripal’s ‘Kali’s Child’. He saw Kripal’s work as the ‘case at hand’ of ‘political orthodoxy’ in the Western academia moving ‘across religious boundaries’. He pointed out to Kripal that ‘religions can learn from one another, but only when critics withhold their criticisms until they have made sure that the targets at which they are aimed are rightly positioned.’ And this right positioning he pointed out starts with ‘accurate translations of the documents the critic cites as well as the cultural sensitivity’. Kripal failed to meet these requirements he said.

It is said that his favorite prayer was a scribbling of a 9-year-old found by the child’s parent which simply said, “Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.” He did. And we are all richer.

Happy eternity Huston Smith, you are always loved.

Aravindan Neelakandan

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

John Blake: Huston Smith’s spiritual odyssey

John Blake, CNN, Huston Smith's painful spiritual odyssey, January 2, 2017

Story highlights

Huston Smith, known as the sage of world religion, died December 30 at 97

His book, "The World's Religions," is still widely used on college campuses

Huston Smith, a giant in the world of religion, died December 30 at age 97. His book, "The World's Religions," is still widely used on college campuses. The following is a 2009 profile of Smith that examined his rise to fame -- and how he called on his own faith to deal with the death of his daughter.

"I have no complaints," Karen Smith told her father. "I am at peace."

During their last moments together, Karen told her father that she was thinking of angels. She told him not to cry. She told him how much she loved the ocean.

"Religion," Smith once wrote, is "the call to confront reality; to master the self." Smith had strived to answer that call for much of his life.

He had trained with Zen masters in Japan, camped with aborigines in Australia and dropped peyote with Native American shamans. He didn't just study religions; he lived them.

In time, Smith became known as the sage of world religion. He introduced the Dalai Lama to the West, befriended mythologist Joseph Campbell and was the subject of a PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers called "The Wisdom of Faith."

But as Smith sat at his daughter's bedside, the wisdom of faith offered little consolation. "I would sob uncontrollably, crying in anguish," he said.

Smith had to confront a new reality: Who does the sage turn to when he needs help?

Smith's daily prayer

A hip has been replaced. He can no longer hear well. The man who has helped people find answers to their deepest spiritual yearnings now needs help just to get around. Smith, 90, recently moved into an assisted-living home after living with his wife, Kendra, for 66 years.

Yet he whispers the same prayer to himself several times a day: "God, you are so good to me."

That spirit of gratitude pervades Smith's recently released autobiography, "Tales of Wonder." In it, Smith talks about growing up as the child of missionaries in China, becoming enthralled by the faith of other cultures, and his global travels and friendships with everyone from folk singer Pete Seeger to author Aldous Huxley.

He reveals the story behind his signature achievement: the publication of "The World's Religions" in 1958.

The book, which has sold 3 million copies, helped change the American religious landscape. In vivid and poetic writing, Smith took readers on a tour of the world's major religions. The book helped make it OK for Americans to not only learn about but be dazzled by other religions.

Smith said he never stopped being a Christian ("God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus"). But his faith has been deepened by his immersion in other religious traditions.

"Anyone who is only Japanese or American, only Oriental or Occidental, is but half human," Smith wrote at the beginning of "The World's Religions." "The other half that beats with the pulse of all humanity has yet to be awakened."

An unusual glimpse of Smith's private world

It is the pulse of Smith's humanity that breathes life into "Tales of Wonder."

Smith's public persona has long been established: He is the tall, thin, affable scholar who can distill the essence of the most esoteric religious subject in concrete language.

But it is those moments in "Tales of Wonder" when Smith doesn't have the answers that are the most riveting. Smith won't elaborate publicly on some of the more personal passages in the book. Nor will his wife. Only his youngest daughter, Kimberly, talked at length about those moments.

Smith nonetheless had plenty to say when he sat down to write.

He talked about the time when Kendra threatened to leave him.

"There are infidelities worst than sexual," he said.

He talked about the murder of his granddaughter, Serena, during a tragedy at sea that involved a famous NBA player and led to international headlines.

The most searing revelations, though, come just four pages into the book. That's where Smith talks about the loss of the oldest of his three daughters, Karen, in 1994.

Karen was born nine months after Smith married. He said her birth marked "my second love affair."

Karen grew up in a home full of music, learning and fun. The Smiths staged mini-operas in their home. They filled notebooks with their children's funniest sayings. One night, the family played a game in which every sentence uttered at the dinner table had to contain a cliche ("That was easier said than done," said Kendra, Karen's mother).

"We all grew up with a tremendous faith," said Kimberly, Smith's youngest daughter. "We all believed in an afterlife."

Karen, though, also grew up with a "fiery" sense of self, Smith said. When she was 7 years old, Smith overheard Karen telling her sister in their room: "They talk so much about God. I don't get it."

When Karen became a teenager, she informed her father that she would no longer attend church. He was aghast.

"If Karen gave up religion, I thought, morality will go next," Smith said.

Karen found a taste of her cherished freedom on the water. She loved being on the water; "it symbolized life to her," Smith said. Karen took sailing classes in high school and learned to windsurf.

Karen eventually found religion again, but it was not the Christian faith of her father. She converted to Judaism after she was married and gave birth to Smith's first grandchild, a son, Isaiah.

Smith wrestles with spiritual crisis

Then, after Karen reached her 50th birthday, she received a call from her doctor.

She had recently had a hysterectomy. After the surgery, the doctor told her that tests had revealed something: She had a rare form of sarcoma and had two months to live, possibly four.

Karen didn't accept the doctor's prognosis, said Kimberly, her youngest sister. She agreed to undergo chemotherapy. Her body shriveled, and her hair fell out, but Karen was defiant.

Kimberly said she still has a photo of her sister -- bald and weakened from chemotherapy -- happily windsurfing.

"She fought her hardest and pursued all the avenues of life she could," Kimberly said.

Still, the cancer spread. The sarcoma tumors grew so large and concentrated that a needle couldn't penetrate them, Smith said. Karen was eventually confined to her home in Santa Rosa, California.

Her sister Kimberly remembers visiting her.

"When I drove up to see her, I kept saying to myself, 'I'm not going to cry,' " Kimberly said. "The second I walked in, I started bawling."

Kimberly apologized to Karen, but Karen ended up consoling her and the rest of her family.

"We were crying, and she was saying, 'It's OK to cry,' Kimberly said.

Smith said his daughter battled "heroically." She once cheerfully told her father: "It's a red-letter day. I had a bowel movement."

As Karen's body weakened, other senses seemed to sharpen, Smith said. She told her parents that as her body suffered, she became more aware of the natural beauty that surrounded her. She talked about angels.

On one unforgettable day, the family took Karen on a drive through Napa Valley. The valley is wine country, full of creeks, wineries and fields of wildflowers. Smith called it a drive on "the last beautiful day in the world."

The drive gave Karen new energy. That night, she was talking with her mother and husband for so long that they told her she had to get her rest.

"But we're having such a good time," Karen said.

Smith, though, was struggling. He said his daughter's illness forced him to call upon the spiritual traditions he had studied for much of his life.

He thought about the "Five Remembrances" that some Buddhist monks chant each day: I will lose my youth, my health, my loved ones, everything I hold dear and, finally, life itself by the very nature of being human.

Smith said those remembrances told him that the transient nature of life does not mean people should love others less but more.

Smith then recalled a quote from the Buddha: "Suffering, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the furthest shore."

Karen died one night as Smith sat beside her bed. Smith sobbed uncontrollably. He said that at the moment of his daughter's death, he had trouble believing in what he had long written about: God's "justice and perfection."

Yet even when he was doubled over in anguish beside his daughter's bed, she seemed to be reaching out to him. As he sat alone with Karen's body, in the moments after her death, he suddenly stopped crying.

He could somehow sense her presence in the room.

"The sensation was so palpable I almost turned around, expecting to see her," he said.

Smith said his daughter is still reaching out to him. He often thinks about her last days as he approaches his 91st birthday.

"Nobody wants to learn from a child how to die well, but I learned it from Karen," he said.

Smith traveled around the world to study under some of the most famous spiritual masters. But it was his daughter who became one of his greatest teachers.

"She taught me nobility of spirit," he said.

He said Karen's courage continues to "console" and "guide" him as he draws closer to his furthest shore.

He can still hear Karen's final words as she slipped away in her bed.

"I hear the ocean," she said. "I can smell the ocean now."

Books by Huston Smith

From Huston

Tales of Wonder

Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography by Huston Smith with Jeffery Paine.

Winner: 2010 Nautilus Book Award in the category of Memoir/Personal Journey.

Huston Smith, the man who brought the world's religions to the West, was born almost a century ago to missionary parents in China during the perilous rise of the Communist Party. Smith's lifelong spiritual journey brought him face-to-face with many of the people who shaped the twentieth century. His extraordinary travels around the globe have taken him to the world's holiest places, where he has practiced religion with many of the great spiritual leaders of our time.

Smith's life is a story of uncanny synchronicity. He was there for pivotal moments in human history such as the founding of the United Nations and the student uprising at Tiananmen Square. As he traveled the world he encountered thinkers who shaped the twentieth century. He interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt on the radio; invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at an all-white university before the March on Washington; shared ideas with Thomas Merton on his last plane ride before Merton's death in Bangkok; and was rescued while lost in the Serengeti by Masai warriors who took him to the compound of world-renowned anthropologists Louis and Mary Leaky.

In search of intellectual and spiritual treasures, Smith traveled to India to meet with Mother Teresa and befriended the Dalai Lama; he studied Zen at the most challenging monastery in Japan; and he hitchhiked through the desert to meet Aldous Huxley, dropped acid with Timothy Leary, and took peyote with a Native American shaman. He climbed Mount Athos, traipsed through the Holy Land, and was the first to study multiphonic chanting by monks in Tibet, which he recorded with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Most important, he shared the world's religions with the West—writing two bestselling books and serving as the focus of a five-part PBS television series by Bill Moyers.

Huston Smith is a national treasure. His life is an extraordinary adventure, and in his amazing Tales of Wonder, he invites you to come along to explore your own vistas of heart, mind, and soul.

A Seat at the Table

Edited and with a Preface by Phil Cousineau, with Assistance from Gary Rhine

"An engaging discussion of the differences between Western and Native American approaches to worship and morality, and a call for American society to wake up to its destructive ways."--Dallas Morning News

"Offers plenty to think about to readers unfamiliar with the many and varied issues facing American Indians."--Santa Fe New Mexican

"A Seat At The Table is a valuable and insightful book about a too long overlooked topic - the right of Native American people to have their sacred sites and practices honored and protected. Let's hope it gets read far and wide, enough to bring about a real shift in policy and consciousness."--Bonnie Raitt

"Phil Cousineau has created a fine companion book to accompany the important film he and Gary Rhine have made in defense of the religious traditions of Native Americans. [Native Americans] are recognized the world over as keepers of a vital piece of the Creator's original orders, and yet they are regarded as little more than squatters at home. This book features impressive interviews, beautiful illustrations, and gives a voice to the voiceless."--Peter Coyote

In this collection of illuminating conversations, renowned historian of world religions Huston Smith invites ten influential American Indian spiritual and political leaders to talk about their five-hundred-year struggle for religious freedom. Their intimate, impassioned dialogues yield profound insights into one of the most striking cases of tragic irony in history: the country that prides itself on religious freedom has resolutely denied those same rights to its own indigenous people. With remarkable erudition and curiosity--and respectfully framing his questions in light of the revelation that his discovery of Native American religion helped him round out his views of the world's religions--Smith skillfully helps reveal the depth of the speakers' knowledge and experience. American Indian leaders Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota), Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), Frank Dayish, Jr. (Navajo), Charlotte Black Elk (Lakota), Douglas George-Kanentiio (Mohawk), Lenny Foster (Dine), Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga), Anthony Guy Lopez (Lakota), and Oren Lyons (Onondaga) provide an impressive overview of the critical issues facing the Native American community today. Their ideas about spirituality, politics, relations with the U.S. government, their place in American society, and the continuing vitality of their communities give voice to a population that is all too often ignored in contemporary discourse. The culture they describe is not a relic of the past, nor a historical curiosity, but a living tradition that continues to shape Native American lives.

The Soul of Christianity : Restoring the Great Tradition

Book Description (from

"I have tried to describe a Christianity which is fully compatible with everything we now know, and to indicate why Christians feel privileged to give their lives to it."

-Huston Smith

In his most personal and passionate book on the spiritual life, renowned author, scholar, and teacher of world religions Huston Smith turns to his own life-long religion, Christianity. With stories and personal anecdotes, Smith not only presents the basic beliefs and essential teachings of Christianity, but argues why religious belief matters in today's secular world.

Though there is a wide variety of contemporary interpretations of Christianity -- some of them conflicting -- Smith cuts through these to describe Christianity's "Great Tradition," the common faith of the first millennium of believers, which is the trunk of the tree from which Christianity's many branches, twigs, and leaves have grown. This is not the exclusivist Christianity of strict fundamentalists, nor the liberal, watered-down Christianity practiced by many contemporary churchgoers. In exposing biblical literalism as unworkable as well as enumerating the mistakes of modern secularists, Smith presents the very soul of a real and substantive faith, one still relevant and worth believing in.

Smith rails against the hijacked Christianity of politicians who exploit it for their own needs. He decries the exercise of business that widens the gap between rich and poor, and fears education has lost its sense of direction. For Smith, the media has become a business that sensationalizes news rather than broadening our understanding, and art and music have become commercial and shocking rather than enlightening. Smith reserves his harshest condemnation, however, for secular modernity, which has stemmed from the misreading of science -- the mistake of assuming that "absence of evidence" of a scientific nature is "evidence of absence." These mistakes have all but banished faith in transcendence and the Divine from mainstream culture and pushed it to the margins.

Though the situation is grave, these modern misapprehensions can be corrected, says Smith, by reexamining the great tradition of Christianity's first millennium and reaping the lessons it holds for us today. This fresh examination of the Christian worldview, its history, and its major branches provides the deepest, most authentic vision of Christianity -- one that is both tolerant and substantial, traditional and relevant.

The World's Religions

The World's Religions, by Huston Smith, has been a standard introduction to its eponymous subject since its first publication in 1958. Smith writes humbly, forswearing judgment on the validity of world religions. His introduction asks, "How does it all sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? ... We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine. Such listening defines the purpose of this book." His criteria for inclusion and analysis of religions in this book are "relevance to the modern mind" and "universality," and his interest in each religion is more concerned with its principles than its context. Therefore, he avoids cataloging the horrors and crimes of which religions have been accused, and he attempts to show each "at their best." Yet The World's Religions is no pollyannaish romp: "It is about religion alive," Huston writes. "It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a proposed journey across the jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality." And by translating the voices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, and Judaism, among others, Smith has amplified the divine call for generations of readers.

--Michael Joseph Gross

The Illustrated World's Religions : A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions

Retaining all the beloved qualities of Huston Smith's classic The Religions of Man and the current fully revised and updated The World's Religions, this stunning pictorial presentation refines the text to its wonderful essentials. In detailed, absorbing, richly illustrated, and highly readable chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and primal religions, we find refreshing and fascinating presentations of both the differences and the similarities among the worldwide religious traditions.

The approach is at once classic and contemporary, retaining all the empathy, eloquence and erudition that millions of readers love about the earlier editions, while being edited and designed for a contemporary general readership. This delightful marriage of winsome text and remarkable pictures vividly brings to life the scope and vision of Huston Smith's expertise and insight

The Way Things Are

Working with Phil Cousineau, Smith has recently completed a collection of over thirty interviews he has given over the last four decades. This book will reveal the roots of Smith's search for the fundamental mystical truths at the heart of religion.

From Publishers Weekly

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that he would gladly walk 100 miles through a snowstorm for one good conversation. Fortunately, readers don't have to trudge through a blizzard or even leave their armchairs to listen in on these 22 fascinating conversations with renowned religious scholar Huston Smith. Kudos to editor and accomplished author Cousineau (The Art of Pilgrimage) for gathering these interviews that span more than 30 years. Readers will find themselves ravenously eavesdropping on captivating discussions, such as Smith's humorous story of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the first time or his soothing anecdote of how he became spiritually reconciled to the death of his eldest daughter to cancer. When Smith speaks about religious violence, his insight could be relevant to any era of humanity: "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." Indeed, a lifelong career of studying the world's religions has made him especially gifted in illuminating the dialogues that are timeless. As a result, his conversations touch upon many Big Questions: what is the meaning of God? Where do science and religion meet? How can we teach children about the sacred in everyday life? Why do we move toward the light? Incidentally, Cousineau's stunning preface is worth the price of admission alone.

Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.From Publishers Weekly

Why Religion Matters

His most recent book, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, offers a timely manifesto on the ur gent need to restore the role of religion as the primary humanizing force for individuals and society. Weaving together insights from comparative religions, theology, philosophy, science, and history, along with examples drawn from current events and his own extraordinary personal experience, Smith gives both a convincing historical and social critique and a profound expression of hope for the spiritual condition of humanity. Despite the widespread belief that these are halcyon days for religion and spiritual awareness, Smith shows how our everyday worldview is instead dominated by a narrow scientism, materialism, and consumerism that push issues of morality, meaning, and truth to the outer margins of society and our lives. In fact, he finds that too much of what passes as religion these days is actually a privatized and ungrounded debasement of true religion.

Why Religion Matters is a passionate, accessible, ambitious manifesto written by one of the very few people qualified to address its titular topic. Huston Smith is the grand old man of religious scholarship. Raised by missionary parents in China, Smith went on to teach at M.I.T. and U.C. Berkeley, among others, and his World's Religions has long been the standard introductory textbook for college religion courses. The subject of Why Religion Matters, Smith writes, "is the importance of the religious dimension of human life--in individuals, in societies, and in civilizations." Smith believes that the religious dimension of human life has been devalued by the rise of modern science: we have now reached a point at which "modern Westerners . . . forsaking clear thinking, have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life's material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check ... concerning what constitutes knowledge and justified belief." In candid, direct style, Smith describes the evolution of intellectual history from pre-modern to postmodern times, and the spiritual sensibilities that have been shunted "by our misreading of modern science." In the book's final sections, Smith avoids the folly of predicting the future, instead focusing on "features of the religious landscape that are invariant" and therefore may serve as "a map that can orient us, wherever the future may bring." This book is fresh, insightful, and important. It may prove to be as influential in shifting readers' terms of religious understanding as any of Smith's previous writings. --Paul Power

Cleansing the Doors of Perception

Cleansing the Doors of Perception is a fresh consideration of the age-old relationship between certain psychoactive plants and chemicals and mystical experience by one of the most trustworthy religious writers of our time. Author Huston Smith (most famous for his classic The World's Religions) is the Walter Cronkite of religion scholars. He has long believed that "drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences" and that "it is less evident that they can produce religious lives." At the same time, he posits that "if ... religion cannot be equated with religious experiences, neither can it long survive their absence." Therefore, Smith's basic question about entheogens (a word he defines as "nonaddictive mind-altering substances that are approached seriously and reverently") is "whether chemical substances can be helpful adjuncts to faith." Cleansing the Doors does not offer one sustained argument in response to that question. Instead, the book collects Smith's many articles about this subject, and connects them with brief introductory essays. The writings gathered here range from personal testimony about Smith's own experience with entheogens to ethnographic work on the use of entheogens in India. Throughout, Smith's style conveys the wisdom and wonder that has guided his explorations of this strange, fascinating aspect of religious experience.

--Michael Joseph Gross

Published in association with the Council on Spiritual Practices, Cleansing the Doors of Perception is a fascinating inquiry in the significance of consciousness-magnifying substances. Smith combines historical insight, personal experience, and an understanding of the cognitive sciences to produce the only comprehensive book written for the general public on the mysterious relation among entheogens, consciousness, and faith.

Huston Smith: Essays on World Religion

by M. Darrol Bryant (Editor), Huston Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Marked by clarity, rare philosophical depth and a truly global perspective, these 19 essays in comparative religion are filled with challenging ideas and bold speculations. Smith ( The Religions of Man ) argues that each of the world's three great civilizations has overspecialized--the West in natural wisdom, China in social ethics, India in religious psychology--with disastrous consequences for each culture. He looks to Taoism for guidance in solving the ecological crisis, faults postmodernism for its blindness to transcendent experience, and interprets Western philosophy as a great religious enterprise fueled by a thrust toward transcendence. On a more mundane level, Smith discusses spiritual discipline in Zen, analyzes Tibetan lamas' chants and offers insights on Japanese Shintoism, the Christian ecumenical movement, ancient Vedic priests' imbibing of soma (possibly a psychedelic mushroom, he concludes) and how to teach religion. These highly accessible essays previously appeared in scholarly journals or books.

Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Many scholars of religion began their studies by reading Smith's The Religions of Man (1964). His essays, previously scattered in numerous hard-to-find journals, are finally available in one convenient volume. The 19 pieces collected here delineate the three-decade intellectual journey of a scholar directly involved in the quest for religious knowledge. Eclectic and rich in scope, the subject matter ranges from Taoism and ecology, the Vedic-Soma experience, Tibetan magical chanting, and the treatment of Western philosophies as religions to the impact of postmodernism on the study of religions. All the essays are tightly argued and beautifully written; a few are sure to be controversial. A perfect companion to The Religions of Man and necessary reading for anyone interested in religious studies. Recommended for public and academic libraries.

- Glenn Masuchika, Chaminade Univ. Lib., Honolulu

Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.


In this challenging and provocative collection of 19 essays on comparative philosophy, religion and culture, one of the foremost thinkers of our time provides his most insightful and important reflections on the state of humans' spiritual life. "Eclectic and rich in scope . . . tightly argued and beautifully written."--Library Journal.

Buddhism : A Concise Introduction

by Huston Smith &Philip Novak (Author)

From Publishers Weekly

Bookshelves abound with introductions to Buddhism, many written by luminaries and spiritual giants of the faith. But this primer co-written by Smith, whose magnum opus The World's Religions has sold more than two million copies, is distinguished by its gentlemanly erudition and thoughtful attention to Buddhist diversity. The book's first half is an expanded and updated version of the Buddhism sections of The World's Religions and was penned by Smith. Special attention is given to Theravada Buddhism, which "was overshadowed by Mahayana" in the original version; one chapter provides a helpful side-by-side chart illuminating the basic differences between the traditions, while the next features an in-depth discussion of Theravada's influence in South Asia and its emphasis on insight meditation. The primer's all-new second half-written by Smith's former doctoral student Novak-presents the story of Buddhism in the West, discussing its multifaceted presence in the United States. While Novak devotes time to the rise of Buddhism in Germany, England and France, it is clear that he finds the "New Buddhism" of America, with its emphasis on lay involvement, social engagement and the cross-pollination between Buddhist traditions, to be the source of the most exciting contemporary innovations. Smith's helpful afterword gauges the rising importance of Pure Land Buddhism in America, though this vital information should have merited a full chapter. Novak and Smith's collaboration is a fine contribution to the admittedly crowded corpus of introductions to Buddhism: the strokes are broad, the writing style engaging and the chapters short and accessible.

Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Forgotten Truth : The Common Vision of the World's Religions


The classic companion to The World's Religions that articulates the remarkable unity underlying the world's religious traditions. "Smith's style reflects his subject; he is by turns a mystic sage, a poet, and above all a philosopher."--Publishers Weekly. Includes a new preface by the author.

Beyond the Post-Modern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

"Rationalism and Newtonian science has lured us into dark woods," says Huston Smith, "but a new metaphysics can rescue us." In this new revised edition, Smith explores the "dark woods"—modernity—which can be characterized by a loss of faith in transcendence. Through his fourteen critically acclaimed essays, he invites us to step outside our current Western outlook to see our worldview in perspective. He distinguishes between the "traditional" worldview that placed God at the center of the universe; the "modern" view in which science ruled; and the "postmodern" view that doubts whether the universe makes sense at all.

Smith begins by tracing the course of Western civilization that has brought it to the postmodern period. This enables him to establish a vantage point for viewing the Modern/Postmodern scene, and then to examine several aspects of contemporary culture, such as science, theology, education, and the humanities. In the final chapters, Smith offers suggestions for moving out of the woods and into a twenty-first century that affirms the ultimate truths of love, the human soul, and the Divine. With a new preface and a new final chapter, this edition proves to be a guiding light in a time of doubt.

Islam: A Concise Introduction

Drawn from his masterful presentation of Islam in the bestselling The World's Religions, Huston Smith offers a highly readable and incisive guide to the heart of a tradition with more than 1 billion adherents worldwide. Dispelling narrow and distorted notions about the nature of Islam, Smith shows the rich history, culture, and values that sustain this vibrant tradition. As Huston points out, Islam itself means primarily "peace," and its full connotation is "the peace that comes when one's life is surrendered to God." Featuring a new introduction for these troubled times, the book covers not only the history and teachings, but also such timely issues as the true meaning ofjihad, the role of women in Islamic societies, and the remarkable growth of Islam in America. This book will stand apart as the least expensive and most concise, timely, and reliable introduction available today.

One Nation Under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church

The evolution and changes of the Native American Church are traced in a fine documentary which charts its struggle to preserve its religious freedom in the face of government challenges to its existence. Personal accounts by church members pepper this history and documentation of the Church's traditions and controversial rituals.

The Huston Smith Reader:

Edited, with an Introduction, by Jeffery Paine

Released March 26, 2012

"The most excitingly eye-opening . . . serious reading on religion many will feel they have ever encountered."--Booklist

From the Inside Flap

"I read Huston Smith's The World's Religions as a teenager. It was the most influential event in my life. He has shaped my thinking, my lifelong quest, and guided me to where I am today. The Huston Smith Reader will enlighten you, delight you, and expand your awareness. I intend to carry this book with me wherever I go."--Deepak Chopra, author of War of the Worldviews

"Huston Smith approaches religion with the wisdom of a philosopher and the wonder of a child. He looks for similarities that unite, not differences that divide. He comes armed with knowledge and blessed with understanding."--Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club

"This remarkable book by the beloved scholar-practitioner Huston Smith has the depth and breadth of no other. It is wise and full of insight, at times funny, at times poignant. Manifesting both lived and living wisdom, the book's power, beauty, and courage will take the reader into the heart of the world's religions."--Joan Halifax, Founding Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

"No one in our time, neither Martin Buber nor Elie Wiesel, neither Karen Armstrong nor Simone Weil, has made a greater contribution to our understanding of religion and spirituality than Huston Smith. We are privileged to live in his era, not only for his books and films, but for his emphasis on gleaning the wisdom from ancient traditions, and the example he has afforded the rest of us in practicing what he preaches, thus illuminating for us what it means to have a lived-in philosophy of the religious life. In turn, this book affords us the widest and most penetrating range of insights yet published into the mind and heart of this great teacher."--Phil Cousineau, editor of The Way Things Are: Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life and author of The Art of Pilgrimage

"Huston Smith's words serve me well in traversing my spiritual path."--Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now

And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life: Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World's Great Religious Leaders

by Huston Smith and Phil Cousineau

Released September 2012

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