In his life-long exploration of religion, religious historian Huston Smith has tried to let the best in each faith shine through. His concern is for the values they teach, the metaphysical truths they reveal, the vistas they spread before our eyes. In this episode of Wisdom of Faith, he takes us from India to Tibet to Japan to explore two great religions — Hinduism and Buddhism.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. In his classic study of the world’s religions, Huston Smith says that a balanced view of religion would include not only its virtues, but its atrocities -human sacrifice and scapegoating, fanaticism and persecution, crusades and holy wars. During his own life-long exploration of religion, Huston Smith has not lingered in those dark shadows. He has tried to let the best in each faith shine through. His concern is for the values they teach, the metaphysical truths they reveal, the vistas they spread before our eyes. All the great religions invite us to read the world around us for meaning, to look for signs of the sacred in our everyday lives. That’s what gives them their staying power. “Wherever religion comes to life,” says Huston Smith, “it displays a startling quality -it takes over.”
A renowned scholar and popular teacher for 50 years, Huston Smith strives to see the world’s great faiths as their believers do, from within the experience. To grasp why and how these religions motivate those who live by them.
He has shared his search with students at some of America’s finest universities. California at Berkeley, MIT, Syracuse, and Washington University in St. Louis. His classic text, first published in 1958, and since translated into 14 languages, has been read by millions. He even introduced the world’s religions to an American audience on national educational television in 1955, long before most of us had heard of the Bhagavad-Gita or the Five Pillars of Islam.
For firsthand experience, he has traveled the world, visiting ashrams and temples, synagogues and mosques, and studying with Zen masters, monks and swamis.
Born of Methodist missionaries in China, he remains a Methodist today, but many of the spiritual practices and disciplines he encountered have become part of his own personal journey. For Huston Smith, “All these different expressions,” he says, “all these faces of God are necessary to flesh out the human soul.”
Huston Smith now lives near the campus in Berkeley with his wife, Kendra. Still teaching and traveling and writing, he has been called an ambassador to the world’s religions. I asked him to retrace some of the steps from this remarkable journey. In our first hour, we will travel with him from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery to a Zendo in Japan.
But we begin in India. Huston Smith first came here in 1957. The film he narrated from that experience carries us into the infinite vision of the East, the cradle of two great religions -Hinduism and Buddhism.
HUSTON SMITH, Historian of Religion: Everyone who has been to India agrees India is different. I remember my first visit as if it were yesterday -the long ride from the Delhi airport. It was the smells that were the strangest, a blend rising from a half million cooking fires in the dusty evening air. 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.”
BILL MOYERS: You said in the film we saw that for India, “art is religion; religion, art.” Help me to understand that.
HUSTON SMITH: Plotinus said that the soul that beholds beauty becomes beautiful, and the Indians, I think, would agree with this. We must realize that through the ages, most Indians were illiterate, and that meant that their sacred texts were not in written words, for the most part. They were in sculpture, painting, dance, temples with their beauty. The truths came through, not so much the mind with its cerebrations, but through the eye, through the ear and kinesthetically through the dance form.
India never had the notion, until our century, of art for art’s sake. Art was a spiritual technology, and it is really very miraculous how art makes easy what otherwise would be difficult. Now, what is otherwise difficult? And the answer is to behave decently to one another. Sometimes, that’s easy, but not always, or the world wouldn’t be in the shape that it’s in.
But art, as I say, when it’s great art and really working, what it does is to transport us, lift us to a different state of consciousness from which the world looks very different. And; from that different way in which the world looks, we find spontaneously we want to behave decently. If you go to a museum and just wash your eyes in just great beauty, you go out on a different place. The world looks differently and it is literally true that a mean, a despicable act, is just unthinkable.
BILL MOYERS: It happens to me more often with music. It actually brings forth a will to do good, or a will to be good, that I can’t explain.
HUSTON SMITH: Well, that’s exa-I’m more audio than visual. I’ve spoken of the visual museum, but I, too, can be transported by a melody. The last two weeks, it’s been the Magnificat from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoiceth, and God, my maker-” now, never mind the words, but the lilting tenderness of that aria-it just puts one in a different state of life.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this image of God out of the-that’s one of the Hindu pictures in your book.
HUSTON SMITH: Right.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a god so foreign to our idea of divinity.
HUSTON SMITH: That is true. This image of God has 10 arms. Well, that’s simply a symbol of omnipotence. We’re limited. We’ve only got two. But the Divine power and capacity to do things just spreads beyond. So, it has to do with the immense and incomparable creativity of the Divine. Everything in India, and they’re exuberant in terms of numbers, just-it’s more than we can conceive. So, God is everywhere, looking, omniscient-all these thousand faces are looking constantly, and so altogether aware: But I would want to emphasize, there is something in other peoples’ religions that is incomprehensible. Wilfred Smith, a great theologian, he said “It seems that the Egyptians thought that the sky was a cow,” and Wilfred says “You know, I can’t understand that. I cannot get my head into how anybody could think that the sky was a cow. And we have to realize that these are not open books, and there are esoteric regions in each one of us that we just have to admit: “Well, they meant, obviously, something to those people, but beats us.”This is Shiva Nataraj, the dancing Shiva, a depiction of nature. But what a difference between the way in which we in the West tend to think of nature as sidereal space spreading out on all sides. This personalizes it in an art form. The gracefulness the four arms indicate the prolificness of nature. The circle of fire that rings it is the constant changingness of nature. But the most important thing is the spirit of beauty, and the word is “lila” or play. Nature, as the Divine play. Now, the secret might be overlooked. Namely, the reason that nature can be seen in this graceful mood is that the lower foot is planted on a dwarf, which symbolizes the human ego, our noisy, clamoring demand that we have our way. And only when that egoism is solidly subdued, the foot planted solidly on it, then our whole attitude towards the world that circles us and sustains us can be changed from a blind mechanism into a dance of joy.
BILL MOYERS: Is it impossible to state the essence of Hinduism and what Hinduism has contributed to the world? It’s so multi-splendored. So many-
HUSTON SMITH: So many, yes. And one has to have some rubric, some device, to bring it into focus. Otherwise, it just splays out into a kind of chaos of everything.
BILL MOYERS: Anarchy.
HUSTON SMITH: And the device that I have found and lived with for decades now is that there is an underlying motif to everything you see-and that is the claim of Hinduism that you can have what you want. Now, that sounds good, but immediately, it opens onto -what do you want? And they move right in, they say people want four things. They want pleasure, then they want worldly success, which includes power, wealth and fame. And then a little more subtle, they want to have–behave responsibly. Then finally, we want liberation. They put it in the negative term. They don’t put a positive what you want, because that’s beyond all description. They put it negatively -liberation from any impediment that will hold you back from what will bring you your complete fulfillment.
And then they go on to different stages of life, which they divide into-childhood they don’t count because no responsibilities are there, but youth, where your chief obligation is to learn. Time is free so you can learn against the time when much will be expected of you. Then the householder stage where your primary concern is family and profession and community responsibility. And then they go on to the third stage, which is retirement. Retirement for us, we think of as rest and recreation, but they think of retirement as the opportunity to really dig in to your true adult education, because up to this time, you’ve been just too busy. The clamor, the demands. But now, before it’s all over, to turn your attention to an understanding of what life is all about before you exit it.
BILL MOYERS: What do you make of that Hindu proverb -“There are realms of gold hidden in the depths of our hearts.”
HUSTON SMITH: In the Upanishads, the philosophical versions and texts of Hinduism, there is a phrase that comes repeatedly like the clang of a gong. It’s [he states the Proverb first in Hindu]. Literally “That thou art.” And what it means is the “that” which we seek in Brahman, the Divine, whatever you call it, is right here within you.
You see, they not only-they begin by saying you can have what you want, and that sounds very good. But wait till you get to the climax, and that is -you’ve already got it. Well, why don’t we-doesn’t feel like we’ve got it. And they say, “Well, that’s no problem there because the light of a lamp, the shade can be covered with dust or soot or mud even, to the point where the light does not shine through at all. And that’s our nature, that our-the Divine which is completely present here, has been shadowed by bad karma. And so the object of life is to free those little grains and flecks of karma until the light can be–not only shine before other people, but can be experienced within you.
BILL MOYERS: Somebody told me that you have written a poem about India that’s about to be published.
HUSTON SMITH: [laughs] It is. I’m not a poet, but it is true. This one I just woke up with. It was almost formed. Well, I’ll see if I can remember. The background was that I was looking at one of these many commissioned portraits of British viceroys to India, and these were the lines that came to me – “Who could have dreamed, looking at this willful face, that India touched him more than he touched her. Trains multiplied, of course, both baby boom of belching smoke and whistle’s wail. English, too, improved, as Etons, short pants, broad white collars sprang up in unlikely places. Even the manly arts took hold, as yogas bowed to bat and ball, horses reeled to mallet stroke, while women watched in printed frocks. But I have heard that his wife declared he mellowed through the years. Listened more, talked less, grew more patient when a servant slipped. And when the time to leave rolled ’round, he knelt and kissed the parched red ground. A tear met the dust in that waterless land that had known so well his heavy hand. ”
BILL MOYERS: In these mountains in northern India, Huston Smith would encounter another culture and another religion that intrigued him. After the Chinese communists invaded Tibet in 1949 and began to exterminate Buddhist monasteries and customs, Tibetan Buddhist monks brought their ancient ways across the Himalayas to exile here in India.
HUSTON SMITH: Here are two young tulkus, reincarnated llamas. Tibet is at their back. It has been closed to them. They are exiles. And they are looking into the future, which is totally unformed. There is nothing that we see on that horizon. And that depicted for me the future of humanity in its continuing odyssey.
BILL MOYERS: So it was to India, again, that Huston Smith returned in 1964 to explore this endangered culture. He arrived at this Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the eve of an annual four-day ceremony where the llamas would chant 15 hours a day for four days. What he found inside these walls was a liturgy which used a sound he’d never heard, a sound he described as “lifting the human spirit to the level of the gods.”
HUSTON SMITH: The first hour, their chanting was nothing exceptional. It was a very deep, guttural, rhythmic monotone, an echoing out of centuries of unshaken belief. It was sort of impressive, but it was monotonous and it went on for an hour. And I found myself actually dozing off in the course of the hour, only to be brought to my consciousness with–it seemed like I was surrounded by angelic choirs. Because that monotone had splayed out into full-blown chords. Now, I was trying to make sense out of that, figuring out what is going on here, when suddenly the choir cut out, leaving it all to a cantor, a single voice, and here he was doing it all by himself. A first, a third and a barely audible fifth coming out of a single larynx. And then, I must say, my hair did begin to tingle. When that tone first broke over my ears, it was the holiest sound I had ever heard. I remember my first thought was Klaus Liepman will never believe me, Klaus being the music director back at MIT. I thought “I’ve got to get evidence of this.”
BILL MOYERS: Because the presumption had been that the human voice is not capable of doing that-doing more than one tone at a time.
HUSTON SMITH: Exactly. I felt certain from the start that this is a phenomenon the West knows nothing about. And so I excused myself, beat the bushes, went to the high school and finally found a little German recorder, came back and said “Excuse me. Would you mind doing this all over again for me.” But they were very obliging and did. And then, when I went back to MIT, I asked who is doing the major voice on the acous-work on the acoustics of the human voice, and the name was Kenneth Stevens. I called him, asked if I can come over. And this was really fun because you could just see the faintest smile on his face as he wondered what this philosopher had garbled in his account of what he had in the palm of his hand. But when he put it on his machine, his player, his expression changed dramatically. And it has actually introduced a new word into the vocabulary of musicology, namely multiphonic chanting.
Every sung tone has overtone, but it’s too faint for us to hear as discrete notes. But what they have learned to do is amplify those overtones, so now we hear those overtones as discrete tones in their own right. So that’s the acoustics of it.
BILL MOYERS: Now, what’s the significance of that? What’s the point of all this? What does it have to do with worship?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, this is obviously not art for art’s sake. It is more like spiritual technology. The purpose of worship is to shift from peripheral awareness to focal awareness the mystery and wonder of the world. We sense that going on a lot, but we do not have it in focus of our attention. And the llamas-they, too, take what is in peripheral awareness, the overtones too faint for us to hear discretely, and elevate into our direct consciousness. So, they’re doing with music exactly what worship is intended to do with the sacred -move it from peripheral to focal awareness. They tell me that at first it sounds like they are making the music. The second step, it’s like the deity is making this music and they’re just sort of riding the waves of that music. And if their meditation reaches a climax, then all distinction between deity, llama and sound collapses, and all there is, is that one holy tone.
BILL MOYERS: That holy tone has now been heard by ears around the world. The monks Huston Smith first encountered in 1964 have since toured the world three times, first in the 1970s when they performed in London, and again in 1988, when they stopped off in New York City to perform at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. They came on a mission–to alert the West to China’s oppression of Tibet. They also sought to share their ancient culture with Americans, like this mandala made of grains of colored sand, which takes weeks to create and is destroyed in a flash. The sand is carefully collected and then scattered in a sacred ceremony symbolizing the impermanence of life.
Their most recent tour, in 1995, included a stopover at the ranch of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in order to make a state-of-the-art recording in his studio. Hart also provided the monks with some needed rest and relaxation, American-style. Huston Smith was invited to attend the recording session. It was here that he was reunited for the first time in 30 years with the monk he had met on that moonlit night high in the Himalayas. That monk, Venerable Lobsang Tsering, has been a chant master for three decades. At the age of 60, he can still sing three tones simultaneously. He can still evoke what Huston Smith calls the “holiest sound I had ever heard. ”
[Interviewing] Isn’t the essence of Buddhism to make us aware of the sacred within, the eternal within, the infinite within? I mean, those are just words.
HUSTON SMITH: The Buddha nature, what they call it, but yes.
BILL MOYERS: What is the Buddha nature?
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the seemingly growing American interest in Buddhism?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, one, I think, clearly understandable point is that Buddhism is probably the most psychological religion and we live in the psychological age. There’s a lot of interest in psychology. And I can be very personal. Kendra, my wife, or whose husband I am, is a psychologist and she has been four times to the Buddhist Vipassana retreat in Barre, Massachusetts. Now, that’s three months, three months, of no talking, no reading, no writing and downcast eyes. Not looking in anyone else’s face. Everything designed to turn one’s attention inward. We have a psychiatrist friend who has been to five of these and said his first three-month meditation retreat taught him more about the mind than his entire psychiatric training. The reason, he said, is obvious. In psychiatry, we talk about other people’s minds. And in Buddha’s meditation, we are looking intently at our own.
BILL MOYERS: Curious to better understand his own mind, Huston Smith traveled to Japan to study with a Roshi, or Zen master. The rigors of Zen training, involving eight hours a day of silent meditation, led him to write that entering Zen is “like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, obscure conundrums, stunning paradoxes, all designed to bring on a flash of wordless insight.”
HUSTON SMITH: My supreme wish, then, was to make it into a Zen monastery, to undergo the training that the Zen monks receive. And little did I know at that time how-what I was asking in terms of the difficulty, because it’s very easy to get into a Zen temple, but a Zen monastery is another story because the roshi, the Zen master, is working with -in my case, there were 30 students -day in and day out to cultivate a very rarefied State of awareness.
Basically in the tense times, about 15 hours a day of silent meditation, and to plunk a gross Westerner down into that is an enormous distraction. “Wonder how he’s going to make it?” “Wonder how long he will survive,” because, you know, all these become questions and the roshis don’t want it, because it’s a distraction. The day after I arrived, I was taken into the presence of the roshi. Only two, at that time, spoke English, and he was one of the two. I’m seated on my haunches. There he is looking very stern
in his robe. And he gave me my koan.
Koan is a meditation problem which in Rinzai Zen, the meditation focuses on. Now, the beginning koans are like shaggy dog stories. They’re-they make no sense. The three standard ones -[he claps his hands repeatedly] This is the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The second standard one is -what was the appearance of your face before your parents were born? Now, the one I was given was the third standard one, which is a little bit longer. A monk asked Jo Shu, he said – Jo Shu was a master back in China -does a dog have a Buddha nature. To which the master said’ ‘Mu,” which means no in Japanese. Now, every Buddhist would know that the Buddha had said “Even grass has a Buddha nature.” Presumably dog is on a higher scale of being than grass. How can it be that grass has a Buddha nature and a dog doesn’t? What I’ve just said, he didn’t tell me. All he told me was -does a dog have a-and the answer is no.
So I had a problem. Then he went “ding-a-ling-a-ling,” meaning it’s all over for today, and so I had 24 hours with that problem on my mind. Somehow, by redefining the word -maybe by “Buddha nature” he didn’t quite mean that, or dog didn’t-you know, when you get a contradiction, you fiddle with the terms so that they will fit. So, I-next morning, the same routine. I went back and he glared at me, meaning “What’s your answer?” And so I gave him my answer and he said “Oh, no. No-noon-no. Go back. Go back. Ding-a-ling-a-ling.” So I had another 24 hours. And during that day, I came up with an even more ingenious answer. And when I went back the third morning, he didn’t even hear me out. Halfway through my answer, he roared at me. He said “You have the philosopher disease!” [he laughs] OK. Then he softened a little bit, and said “You know, there’s nothing wrong with philosophy. I happen to have a master’s degree in philosophy myself from one of our better universities. But philosophy deals with reason, and reason can only work with the experience that it has to work with. Now, you obviously have the reason. You do not have the experience. For these weeks, put reason aside and go for the experience. ”
The answer to these early koans is not a verbal answer. It is an experience. These are conundrums set up in such a way -don’t ask me how they work -so the contrad- this is my theory. I don’t know if it’s right. My theory is that it presents you with a contradiction before which the reasoned feel helpless. He would stress this word “Mu,” and he would say at times “Nothing but Mu. The whole universe, nothing but Mu.” And I found that it was working like a kind of mantra within me. Having, as it were, knocked out the logical, rational process, this concentration on the issue-at some point, something gives, and you enter into the deep mind with a kind of detonative experience. It’s a mystical experience.
The most climactic moment of those eight weeks was when we came to the last week, this intensive round-the-clock experience. Some would not sleep at all. I was 37; most of them were younger. They let me sleep three and a half hours. After the first night, you’re just sleepy. After the second night, you’re bushed. And then you just keep going after that. The net effect was, I was worked up into a state. My mind was in a state. And this happens, too. I was furious. I thought “This kind of behavior-to do this to a human being is just-.” You know, I’m not defending what I was thinking, but I was just irrational.
And at that time, this climactic week -final exam week, so to speak -we were going in twice a day. And the second day before the end, I went storming into that roshi and I was ready to let him have it, to throw-not just to throw in the towel on the whole business, but to throw it right into his face. And when I went in there in that utter rage-so the usual routine. You sink down to your haunches. You mechanically touch your forehead before him. Our eyes met and he said “How’s it going?” The words sounded like a taunt to me. And I answered “Terrible!” And he said “You think you’re going to get sick, don’t you?” And I yelled again “Yes, I think I’m going to get sick.” My throat was closing in on me so that I could hardly breathe. And then, all of a sudden, in the most objective, quiet voice you can imagine, he said “What is sickness? What is health? Put them both aside and go forward.” And now I despair of communicating to you the effect of those words on me. Immediately, with no thought, I found bubbling up “Well, by God, he’s right.” And the way sailing in with my anger with those words, he just spun me around into a state of total tranquility and peace, and I did my bow to the floor, I got up, leaving the room not only determined to finish the two days, which I wasn’t at all sure I was capable of doing, but knowing that I could do it.
I have never experienced such a transfusion. It seemed like the pipe from his aura to my aura in which the energy came into me. When I said “By God, he’s right,” the opposite -sickness and health. When he said both are irrelevant, they came to the same thing. And the union of the opposite -in a normal state of mind, I would never think of sickness and health as being identical. But in that moment, I could see that there really was no difference between them, and I accomplished the union of opposites which their gassho, putting the palms together, symbolizes.
BILL MOYERS: Somehow, you came to an acceptance of the dilemma, the perplexity, the contradiction, and did not let yourself stay there. You moved beyond the contradiction.
HUSTON SMITH: Then, that’s not the end. That’s only the first step in the real Zen practice, day after day after day, plodding footstep after plodding footstep, to come to bring that glow and that glory of that experience into the daily life. This haquin said “My daily life is no different except that there is no conflict. Drawing water, hewing wood, in everything, no obstruction. This is the mysterious happening. This is the wondrous, incomparable power.”
So, it’s to bring the other world into this world in the nitty gritty of the daily life. When we came to the end of that incredible summer, he gave us a farewell, a little gathering. And he spoke about Zen and he said “All this koan, all this training that you’ve been through. That’s not Zen. That is important as exercises. But the Zen life-what is the Zen life itself?” He said “We can put it in a formula -infinite gratitude towards all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future. That is Zen,” and then the wonderful smile -“I’m glad you came. Have a safe journey home.”
BILL MOYERS: And he gave you a present, didn’t he?
HUSTON SMITH: He did.
BILL MOYERS: Your wife was talking about this. What is that?
HUSTON SMITH: I was just overwhelmed. They call it a kakimono. Zen masters, they feel that art is as important as anything in the Zen training. And this is a calligraphy that he, himself, painted for me, personally. And that central character is the “Mutt that I had been knocking my brains against all those weeks, but now, in this beautiful aspect, I feel so ashamed of the contribution I gave him for his ministrations, patience, towards me, when he gave me a treasure as a farewell gift.
BILL MOYERS: But have you decided if the dog has a Buddha nature?
HUSTON SMITH: [laughs] It needn’t be determined, definitively.