One of the few people I would without reservation call “wise” is religious scholar Huston Smith. I got to know him while researching my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, which attempts to reconcile science and spirituality. Smith died at his home in Berkeley, California, on December 30, 2016, at the age of 97. To honor his memory, I’m posting an edited version of my profile of him in Rational Mysticism. -- John Horgan
When I started researching my mysticism book, Huston Smith kept popping up in readings and interviews. He was described as an authority on mysticism in both the scholarly and spiritual sense. He was an advocate of the perennial philosophy, which holds that the world's great spiritual traditions, in spite of their obvious differences, express the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality.
Raised by Methodist missionaries in China, Smith became one of the twentieth century’s foremost philosophers of religion. His 1958 book The World’s Religions has sold more than 2.5 million copies and remains a definitive text of comparative religion. Reading it, I understood why it has fared so well. Smith’s writing style is unusually vivid for a serious religious scholar. He is passionate, witty, and scrupulously honest about his intentions.
Smith said in his introduction that he would not dwell on the many sins committed in the name of religion, including “human sacrifice and scapegoating, fanaticism and persecution, the Christian Crusades and the holy wars of Islam.” His book was animated by affection for Christianity and other “wisdom traditions.” Far from downplaying religions’ differences, Smith celebrated them. He likened religions to “a stained glass window whose sections divide the light of the world into different colors.”
Smith was not content to know other wisdom traditions only from the outside. In the mid-1950’s, he learned yoga and meditation from a Hindu swami. From 1958 to 1973 he practiced Zen meditation, and for the next fifteen years he plunged into Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. In the late 1980’s he befriended members of the Native American Church and participated in their peyote ceremonies. After one of his daughters married a Jew and converted to Judaism, Smith steeped himself in that faith. Smith’s writings so impressed journalist Bill Moyers that he produced a five-part series of interviews with Smith in 1996.
The more I heard about Smith, the more he seemed the ideal person to help me get my bearings as I ventured into the deeps of mysticism. So in April 1999 I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to hear Smith speak at “Science and Consciousness.” Held in a hotel modeled after a Mayan pyramid, the conference was a kind of spiritual bazaar, at which speakers extolled the benefits of meditation and other spiritual practices.
Smith’s lecture was so packed that I couldn't get in, so I lurked around the ballroom entrance waiting for him to emerge. When he finally appeared, admirers mobbed him. A tall man, he loomed above those around him. Smith had snowy hair, a close-cropped beard, and a gentle, regal bearing. He had a slight stoop, perhaps the result of his habit of leaning intently toward anyone speaking to him.
When Smith finally turned his beaming, inquisitive face toward me, I had to squelch a compulsion to bow. Reverence is not an emotion that subjects ordinarily evoke in me. I thrust my hand at him and introduced myself, and he suggested we meet for dinner in his room. As we sat down that evening before our room-service meals, Smith paused for grace. “As they say in the Zen monastery, ‘E-ta-da-ke-ma-su,’ which is the world's shortest blessing and therefore my favorite. All it means is, ‘I eat.’”
Smith spoke in slow, measured tones. His voice, in spite of an occasional quaver, was strong and resonant, and he laughed frequently. He exuded intelligence, humor, and generosity of spirit--all the traits that one looks for in a sage--but he could be sharp-tongued. He even had harsh words for “wisdom traditions." “I'm the first to insist that not everything about them is wise,” he said. Religions have legitimized caste divisions, slavery, and the subjugation of women. The religious leadership in the United States, “particularly in the dominant religion, Christianity, is third rate.”
Smith, who once taught philosophy at MIT, was critical of science, too. Yes, science has made enormous contributions to human life, but he was disturbed that so many people viewed scientific truth as the only truth that matters. This “scientistic” ideology, he said, has “created a huge store of unnecessary human pain” by denigrating beliefs that give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Religions, Smith asserted, all agree that beyond this mundane, material world is a transcendent realm, which we can glimpse in mystical experiences. “The fact that they came to that view independently,” Smith continued, “in India, China, and East Asia, and the Abrahamic traditions, lends a certain, in my mind, a priori or prima facie sense that it might be right--at least in fitting the human makeup, if you want to be gingerly in talking about the nature of what's actually out there.”
When I asked Smith about his mystical experiences, he replied, “I'm pretty flat-footed as a mystic.” He had been meditating for almost half a century, but his meditative experiences were “pretty ordinary, garden variety.” His most important mystical experiences were “entheogenic.” Smith prefers the term entheogenic, which literally means “God-containing,” to hallucinogenic, which he considers derogatory and inaccurate, and psychedelic, which is too closely associated with the 1960’s and recreational drug use.
Smith’s first entheogenic experience took place on New Year’s Day, 1961, in Newton, Massachusetts, at the home of Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary. Leary gave Smith two capsules of mescaline, and few hours later Smith felt he was witnessing first-hand the reality described in the ancient Hindu Vedas and other mystical texts. He was seeing through the mundane reality around him to the ground of being, the clear light of the void underlying all things. “From the soles of my feet on,” he recalled, “I found myself saying, ‘Yes! Yes!’” The experience was not entirely pleasant; Smith once described it as “strange, weird, uncanny, significant, and terrifying.”
On Good Friday, 1962, Smith participated in what came to be called the Good Friday experiment, in which students and professors took psilocybin in the basement of Boston’s Marsh Chapel. At one point, Smith felt he was directly experiencing God’s overwhelming love. The afterglow persisted for months. He had an unusually vivid sense “that life really is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond to the gift we have been given is to be mindful of that gift at every moment, and to be caring toward everyone we meet.”
Smith granted that mystical experiences can lead us astray, triggering paranoia, narcissistic delusions, and other forms of madness. A Talmudic legend about four learned rabbis who visit paradise makes this point: One rabbi dies outright, one goes mad, and one becomes a heretic. A single rabbi leaves heaven with a blissful, peaceful heart, his faith confirmed.
Even after the most positive mystical experiences, we are still left with the task of reconciling those visions with what our reason tells us about the world. For example, if there is a God, and if He loves us, why did He create a world with so much evil, injustice and suffering? When I put this age-old theological conundrum to Smith, his expression darkened. “I think there is an answer,” he replied. “There is no way to prove it. It's pretty subtle.”
He warned that his theodicy—or attempt to explain why a benevolent God allows evil--might not make any more sense than the abstruse theories of modern physics. “One of my frustrations is that everybody recognizes that it takes about five years to get your head into thinking about relativity theory and quantum mechanics. It's just such a different world. But everybody assumes that the religious world is accessible to everyone. Now, I profoundly disagree with that.”
William James, after inhaling nitrous oxide, envisioned good and evil as two aspects of the same whole—“but with the good being the larger genus of which evil was the smaller species,” Smith said. “I think that points in the direction of the answer.” We are so immersed in evil and suffering, Smith elaborated, that we give them great weight; in higher states of awareness, we can see that evil is just one component of a reality that is fundamentally beautiful and good.
If a child drops her ice cream cone onto the ground, Smith continued, “it's the end of the world. Tears! Now, the mother can feel the pain of the little girl, but she knows that's not the end of the world. It is encompassed as a learning experience.” Smith paused. “Ultimately...” He paused again, frowning. “This sounds so bad that I almost feel I shouldn't say it, and only because you're serious I will.” Ultimately, he continued, “even Auschwitz can be enveloped into a meaningful framework. But I don't say that very often. Because if one has to choose between really going into the experience of evil or just sort of skimming over the surface in favor of some grandiose picture which will resolve it, it's better to go into the evil. Otherwise, we enter into psychological denial.”
So evil is in some sense necessary? “Yeah,” Smith replied flatly. “Because it is part of finitude. If there were only the divine perfection, there would be no evil. But then the divine would not be infinite, and that's contradictory, too. So the divine has to include every level of being. And once you get a hair's breadth away from absolute perfection, then evil enters.”
But I still cannot understand, I persisted, why this infinitely powerful God allows children and other innocents to know nothing but pain in their lives; that is the sticking point for me.
“Rightly so,” Smith murmured, nodding. He told me about a friend who recently learned from her doctor that an eye disease would soon blind her. After leaving the doctor’s office, she visited a minister, whom Smith also knows, to ask for spiritual guidance. When she began weeping, the minister said nothing; he just took her hand and wept with her. “That's the only appropriate response if one is really in the face of that kind of thing,” Smith said somberly. “Anything else is glib.”
As I mulled over Smith’s words later, this story of the woman and her minister kept coming back to me. Smith seemed to be acknowledging that no belief, doctrine, or dogma can really justify God’s ways. Our mutual compassion is our only real consolation.