Religious historian Huston Smith believes each of the enduring world religions contains universal principles that transcend time and culture. Born in China of missionary parents, he learned about Chinese language, culture, and religion while growing up near Shanghai. In this episode of The Wisdom of Faith, Smith explains how the intertwining of opposites is key to understanding one of the great religions of China—Confucianism. He also introduces yoga, which he has been practicing for 50 years.
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BILL MOYERS, Host: I’m Bill Moyers. The philosopher, Huston Smith, tells us no civilization has been found that did not have a sacred center. Trying to understand the human story without religion would be like trying to explain smoke without fire. But Huston Smith goes on to say “The chief reason I find myself returning to the world’s religions is for help on questions I’ve not been able to get away from. Each of the enduring religions contains universal principles that transcend time and culture. It’s not easy to extract those values from religions that are not our own. But it can be done,” Huston Smith says, “if we see their followers as men and women who face problems much like our own, and if we rid our minds of prejudice that dulls our sensitivity to such insights.
One of our foremost scholars and interpreters of the world’s religions, Huston Smith has been leading students into the heart of the religious experience since the early 40s. Born in China in 1919, the son of American missionaries, he was surrounded during childhood by a culture that accommodated a rich variety of religious beliefs. This variety finds expression in his now-classic work, first published when he was only 39 years old, and since read by millions. The chapters on Confucianism and Taoism, two of the traditions we explore in this program, are among his most eloquent.
What he has learned, he has applied to life. Spiritual practices like yoga, which includes this program, inform his daily journey. But we begin with the yin-yang, symbol of the Taoist approach to life.
HUSTON SMITH: The yin-yang, symbolizing the opposites of life. Not divided by a razor-sharp line -good on one side, evil on the other. Each takes up its abode in the deepest citadel of the other by virtue of the black dot in the white domain and the white dot in the black domain, symbolizing the mystery of the relationship between the opposites that characterize and make up our lives and how they can be united, brought together.
Wonderful. It just elevates me to look at that.
Chinese will say you can learn more about life by contemplating this yin-yang symbol. Of course, this comes out of many stories. Let me tell you a short one because it’s one of my favorites, about the man whose horse ran away and his neighbor comes over to commiserate with him, and all the man says is “Who knows what’s good and bad.” And sure enough, the next day, the horse returned with a drove wild horses that it had encountered. So now, the man was rich with horses. So the neighbor comes hopping over to congratulate him on his good fortune. And again, all the man would say is “Who knows what’s good or bad.” And sure enough, the next day his son tries to ride one of the wild horses, falls off, breaks his leg. Again, the commiseration and again the same response, “Who knows,” and once more “Who does know” because the next day the military came conscripting for the army and the son didn’t have to go because of the broken leg. It’s a simple parable, but it just illustrates the intertwining of these things that we tend to put in different boxes and think of them as the sharp antagonists.
BILL MOYERS: What does this say about the essence of Confucianism, then?
HUSTON SMITH: Let me say that Confucianism and Taoism are not divided -this is part of the yin-yang-in sharp compartments. It’s really not accurate to think of them as different religions, because it’s more like a single religion that in Chinese they would call it the tai chow. “Which church do you belong to?” “I belong to the great church, of course,” which includes Confucianism and Taoism and Buddhism and a good smattering of shamanism and folk religion thrown in. Every Chinese, traditionally, was a Confucianist on state occasions, like our Memorial Day parade and things like that. When illness fell, they would call in the Taoist sages up in the mountains. They know about these healing herbs, and also they know about spirits. And then, when death comes, why then you call in the Buddhist priests because they knew about these after lives, reincarnation and other realms. We Chinese, you know, we’re flat-footed. We don’t know-we know about this world, but you can’t be too safe and careful, so we’d better tap their wisdom about what’s going to happen after that. So, as I say, all three of these coalesce into one. And if I can take the time for a little enjoyable anecdote, a long time ago, when I was explaining this principle about how in China the religions are related differently than in the West, not as competitors, why, the next day a student brought me a “Dear Abby” column which made this point with a graphicness I could not have conceived. It was a short letter. I’ll read it-I remember it. “Dear Abby, I am 31 years old and attractive and I’m interested in religion. I am a member of the First Methodist Church, Blessed Angels Catholic Church and B’nai Amoona Synagogue. I also attend Christian Science services, though I do take aspirin occasionally. Please-I am interested in getting married. Can you tell me how I can meet a man who is interested in any or all of these religions? Signed, Ida.” Now comes back Abby -“Dear Ida, you seem to have the bases covered.” And then-but now, “I do not see how you can belong to all these religions.”
Well, of course Abby couldn’t see that because she was Western, but for Chinese, there would be no problem at all because these religions service different components of the human self. And you ask “How does this relate to Confucianism?” Well, this basic attitude toward the intertwining of the opposite just pervades all Chinese culture, and if we want to be literal, we can say Confucianism and Taoism, too, are in this whole, but each laps over into the domain of the other.
BILL MOYERS: You were strongly influenced, were you not, by growing up in China? I mean, you began in this small village, right?
HUSTON SMITH: Changshu. That’s my hometown. It’s located 70 miles northwest of Shanghai, and the only way we could get to Shanghai was five hours by barge and another hour on a train from Suzhou. Every childhood, if you know nothing different, seems perfectly ordinary, the way the world is ordained. Of course we knew that we were different. Ours was the only house in town that had a porch, and I remember the most fragrant roses there. After breakfast, the whole servant’s family would come in and there’d be a reading of a chapter in the Bible and the singing of a hymn. My mother taught piano as her mission. A mountain rose just a few feet back from our house. On top, there was a pagoda built to incarcerate evil spirits. Most of the religion that lapped around us in this tiny village was folk religion, which centers in evil spirits, of which they’re innumerable and mostly bad.
So the Christian message that my parents brought gave a certain population in this town a spiritual anchoring that the folk religion that lapped around them did not. When we looked out a back window in cold weather, as well as warm, we would see people on the mountain doing their Tai Chi Chuan you know, early in the morning. And even though they, as you know, the gestures are so graceful, choreographed, looks as much like a dance as a physical exercise, in the cold weather you could see the steam coming from their bodies because of the intensity of the metabolic processes that were released by these gestures.
BILL MOYERS: You brought this with you.
HUSTON SMITH: [laughs] This is my first primer, because though our education was English, three afternoons a week -Monday, Wednesday and Friday -they would import a tutor and he would give us the rudiments of a Chinese education.
BILL MOYERS: You remember it still?
HUSTON SMITH: I don’t even have to look at the words, but they follow. It goes[he sings in Chinese]. Shall I translate?
BILL MOYERS: Sure.
HUSTON SMITH: The meaning is Chinese, too. “Big brother is big, little brother is little. Big brother carries little brother. Good big brother. Good little brother. I love you; you love me. ” You see the family emphasis coming in right in the first words that they read.
BILL MOYERS: While you were doing that, I was singing-I was repeating “See John run. See Mary run. Look. See.”
HUSTON SMITH: “Look and see.” And that’s illustrative, too, because we are empiricists in the West. It’s the fruition in modem science which arose in the West and nowhere else.
BILL MOYERS: So what would you say has been the essence of Confucianism’s contribution to the world?
HUSTON SMITH: I would say it is in the area of social relationships. Nothing is more important in Confucianism than the five constant relationships. And these are the five places where human lives intersect. The first is parent and child; the second is spouse and spouse; the third is elder brother and younger brother; the fourth is elder friend and younger friend; and the fifth is ruler and subject. Now, as every individual makes his or her way through society, we’re always in the midst of these cross currents of human relationship. And it’s exactly within that weather system of these currents going on all the time, and how we comport ourselves in the face of those currents, that our destiny depends. Note, this is not yogis up in the caves for 40 years by themselves. Confucius had no use for that as a way to become human.
We work out our humanity in these cross currents of human relationships. But now, how do we face them? It’s like our wings-everything depends on how our wings are set. If theyíre tilted at the right angle, then, as these currents of human relationships come towards us every day, we will mount and our full humanity will blossom. But if our wings are slightly tipped downward, then we’ll go devolving into the atrocities that human life can lead to. Now, what is the secret of whether the wings are tipped up or tipped down? And their word is jen -jen, which in terms of the pictograph, is composed of two radicals. The first is for a human being -you have a torso and two legs. And then the second is two lines -two human beings. So jen is the ideal relationship between any two human beings. And the heart of that relationship is empathy. Can I empathize with your feelings and your interests? And to the extent that I can, then my wings are tipped up, and moving through these human-as these human relationships come at us every day, why, my maturity will increase.
A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself, but it’s open to the hearts of others. If it is sincere enough, it will feel the heartbeats of others as if they were its own. The character for love, and you have highlighted the character for heart, which is right at the center of the sentiment of love.
Just one last step. In this ongoing Confucian project of human maturing or fulfillment quest to become -he would say to become fully human, because this is our potential in life.
It goes-this empathy, jen, this quality of empathy, goes like ripples of circles into wider, wider confines, beginning first by trying to overcome my self-centeredness in the family and have their-empathize with their interests equal to myself. But if you do that, then you have a kind of nepotism. So the next step is to break beyond the family to the community, your town. But if you stop there, then you’ve got provincialism. So you should extend this empathy to your own people, all black-haired children of Han. But if you stop their, then you’ve got nationalism, so you’ve got to expand that empathy to the whole world and among the four seas, all men are brothers. And we would add, all women are sisters. And now you might say, “Well, we’ve reached the limit.” Oh, no. Because the human scene is set within the cosmos. And therefore, it’s a mistake to think that because Confucius did emphasize the human it is a kind of humanism-stops with humanism. No. We have to empathize with the universe, with all nature.
BILL MOYERS: It’s the imperative of the social order, of our living together in a civilized way.
HUSTON SMITH: That is absolutely-I started to say absolutely-almost absolutely true. Because, again, we have to beware of mistaking this emphatically human emphasis for the all of his-he did believe in heaven, and he did say “Heaven only is great; Earth is small.” Therefore, it’s not just a stunted humanism; it’s a humanism in a cosmic environment.
BILL MOYERS: Somewhere you wrote that Confucius believed he was creating our second nature. What do you mean by that term? What was he doing in creating our second nature?
HUSTON SMITH: Our primary nature is biological, physical, DNA and the like. Our second nature is cultural. And he was creating a culture which would shore up these ideals in the direction that would bring human fulfillment. And that’s why he was so attentive to cultural forms -the dance, the music. There’s a wonderful line, because I happen to be audio-sensitive, that on one occasion, he heard a melody on a flute and he lost his taste for meat for three months. [laughs]
BILL MOYERS: What did he think music, poetry, painting did for us and for civilization?
HUSTON SMITH: In the long run, he thought what will prevail in international relationships is the culture of the countries in question. Kublai Khan conquered China physically, but after a generation, why, you find Kublai Khan apprenticing himself to his conquered slave in trying to create calligraphy, and already he is hoping against hope that he will be mistaken for a Chinese. There is the melting pot. Culture that, by its own refinement, attracts people to emulate.
BILL MOYERS: Did all of this influence your decision when you came back to the United States to make comparative religion the work of your life?
HUSTON SMITH: When I came to this country, why, at first I thought I was going right back as a missionary.
BILL MOYERS: How old were you then?
HUSTON SMITH: I was 17, and my only American male role model was my father. And so I grew up assuming that missionaries were what American boys grew up to be. But I was totally unprepared for the dynamism of the West. You know, never mind that it was Central Methodist College, enrollment 600, in Fayette, Missouri, population 3,000. Compared with Podunk, China, it was the big time and the bright lights. And by two weeks, China had faded into a happy memory. I wasn’t going to squander my life in the backwaters of rural China. But I just moved over across the street, so to speak, and I’d be a minister. And then-that held in place for about two years, and then, in my junior year, something truly extraordinary and amazing and unexpected happened. I entered college and I wanted to be big man on campus and so I entered all the organizations I could get into. That was my extroverted nature. Then, something happened in my junior year and I ended trying to get out of as many organizations as I could in order to focus on my studies. I—
BILL MOYERS: Why? What happened?
HUSTON SMITH:Well, what happened was there was a little discussion group that the philosophy professor organized. You know, these are the good old days of education. We were in and out of our professors’ homes all the time, small town and so on. And once a month, why, he would have us over and we would discuss a philosophical issue. I suppose it must have been mounting in me all evening. As we walked back to our dormitory, a little cluster of us, four or five, stood in the dorm hall until after midnight, just hammer and tongs, talking about the-as unlikely a group of peripatetics as you would find anywhere. But it kept on going, as I went alone to my room, until I don’t know when, maybe I found one or two o’clock, it’s just like my mind detonated, demolishing mental stockades. And it was almost like a mystical experience, like ideas were almost visible. The platonic forms were out there; you could almost touch it. And just receding from me, endlessly. And here I was, a young man. These were ideas-a young man with my whole life ahead of me, to explore these ideas. I wonder if I slept at all that night. But that was a changing point, and after that, why, never mind the organizations. To focus on this-and that has stayed in play. That has been, you know, the life-giving nature.
BILL MOYERS: Five decades ago, that life-giving lure led him to a teaching post at Washington University in St. Louis. The world of ideas revealed to him in college now beckoned. Just teaching about religion wasn’t enough, and he began to explore spiritual practices that to most Americans surely seemed exotic in 1948. He found himself, once again, on the verge of two traditions, Christianity and Hinduism, as he submitted to weekly tutorials with the renowned scholar, Swami Satprakashananda. Huston Smith first met the Hindu master in St. Louis at a religious and philosophical organization called the Vedanta Society
HUSTON SMITH: There was a moment in St. Louis, a few years, where I had a dual role. I was listed as associate minister at the Methodist Church nearby, and was President of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, which was teaching me metaphysical profundities that my church certainly was not preaching. This all came to a head on Christmas Eve, because there would be a four o’clock Christmas service at the church, which would be a family affair in the afternoon, so the children could come. And that was wonderful-Christmas music, “Silent Night,” all of that. All of the magic of Christmas and being together with our children was just glorious. But then we would go home, have a supper, put the children to bed early for their early rising. And then, I would slip off to the Vedanta Society where every Christmas Eve, Swami Satprakashananda -he never varied. This title -was “Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.” And even though in the Methodist church there was all the happiness of the family togetherness, when it came to spiritual depth, what he said, the swami said, about the incarnation, fed my soul more than any Christmas sermon in the Methodist Church. The reason? The swami literally believed in the incarnation, that God had metaphysically become a human being. Now, you see, I’m a living witness to the fact that I have drawn spiritual succor from an alien tradition which, however, was true to the metaphysical teachings of original Christianity more than my church, which had been diluted by modernism.
I cite that simply as an evidence of the missionary enterprise to this country and how it bears fruit. I’ve been asked many times, “Son of missionaries, do you believe in the missionary enterprise?” And my answer is “Yes, both ways.” I know, from experience, that my parents brought a Word to our small town that had never heard of Christianity, that was crucially important for a number of people. Now that I’m older, I likewise welcome the missionaries from Asia that are very much in evidence in our own culture. And I think the same thing is happening. There are people who have been wounded by their own tradition, wounded Christians, wounded Jews-
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, “wounded Christians, wounded Jews.”
HUSTON SMITH: Their experience with their institutionalized religion has rubbed them the wrong way, and therefore those negative features that they -excessive moralism and we’ve-got-the-truth exclusivism -that has become their image of what Christianity and Judaism basically is, and therefore they want none of it and find it difficult to pierce through that to the inner meaning.
BILL MOYERS: What are these emissaries from these other cultures, these other wisdom traditions -Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism -what are they bringing to this country?
HUSTON SMITH: They are bringing an emphasis on direct experience and a method for attaining that. I happen to think that the world’s historical religions divide into three families, each with their distinctive characteristics. The West is more geared to nature and working out our destiny in concert with nature. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The Chinese are more geared to the social problems -relationship not to nature so much as to other human beings. And the South Asian family, Hinduism and Buddhism, are oriented towards the inner self and therefore became historically the world’s introspective psychology. And I know-in fact, there are several movements in psychology today that are, in effect, oriented toward India because they believe that India, through this concentration, discovered things about the human psyche that the West has yet to catch up with.
And let me tell you one little moment which, to me, was an eye-opener as to what that meant. We are familiar with the waking state and we’re familiar with the dream state, which is very different. And third, we now know about dreamless sleep. If I were to ask you last night when you were in your dreamless sleep, were you aware then?
BILL MOYERS: I’m not aware of having dreamed last sleep.
HUSTON SMITH: Yeah, but you know you did. Everybody dreams every night. But one also enters into a dreamless state and what I asked my students is we know this is true because scientists have evidence of this. When you were in your dreamless state last night, were you aware?
And most of them – I even force a vote on them – and most of them are “No.” I battled my teacher, my swami, seven years on this issue, insisting that I was not aware. And he said “No. That’s wrong. You were aware.” “Well,” I came back, “Well, at least I wasn’t aware that I was aware,” and he said “That cuts no ice because note how difficult it is to remember your dreams. We know about that.” When I wake up and I have an interesting dream and I want to tell Kendra in the morning, I have to — I consciously say it through in my mind, hoping that I will remember it, because it volatizes so fast when we come to consciousness that it’s very hard to remember even dreams. Now, my teacher said, “The dreamless sleep is deeper than the dream state. That state is of utter bliss.” And were it not the fact that every 24 hours, every human being establishes direct contact with that experience of utter joy, we simply could not keep up our hope in human life. The hard knocks, the pressures, the dismal aspects would just overwhelm us and we would not be able to keep our spirits buoyant.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s why sleep is restorative.
HUSTON SMITH: Absolutely. One of the reasons. Physiologically, of course, but spiritually also.
BILL MOYERS: So the good Hindu would say, “There are realms of gold hidden deep.”
HUSTON SMITH: That is the realm.
BILL MOYERS: This would explain, too, Hindus’ obsession with the oneness of reality and the whole importance of Yoga trying to get in touch with this inner unity, this inner reality, would it not?
HUSTON SMITH: It would, yes.
When, in the West, we think of yoga, we think of a specific kind which is called hatha yoga. Now, hatha yoga deals with physical exercises, postures, positions, poses. But in India, hatha yoga is embedded as only one of eight steps in a complete system of personal transformation. If you were to carve it out of its place in the eightfold sequence, then it would be purely calisthenics, but overwhelmingly in India, it plays its part as the third step in a program of transformation designed to pick you up where you are and set you down as a remade human being. For me, I do my best to adhere to the eightfold path of raja yoga in which this is only a component. It happens to be the most visible so it lends itself to the media, but it is far from the most important.
BILL MOYERS: Huston Smith rises early in the morning to practice yoga. In 1955, he introduced the ancient Hindu discipline to a wider audience through his televised course on world religions.
[Excerpt of Huston Smith’s 1995 course]HUSTON SMITH: We have, then, as the Hindus say, to make a journey from ourselves as we now are, to our real selves, which is divine. And that brings us to our topic for this evening. Let me summarize it with a word. We’re going to talk tonight about the yoga. Now, this is a very strange word to us. In fact, I find myself smiling in a Western context whenever I turn to this word. Because, well, we associate it with the bizarre, the fantastic, the occult, maybe even the fraudulent a little bit, the fakirs. This is where we come to the famous yoga position, and I want to just show you what this is. There’s always a little humor involved in this because it’s so strange to us. Nevertheless, I think we ought to know what this is. They say the most effective position which wills still the mind is the so-called yoga-the lotus posture. It doesn’t go very well with shoes, which is why I’ve taken mine off. Actually, it doesn’t go very well with trousers, either, but we’ll forget about that tonight. You put one foot up here in the lap and then all you have to do is to bring the other foot around like that. The spine must be completely straight. Now, they say, when you get used to this, the point is that this will put your mind at rest and keep out the bodily distractions better than any other positions. While it sounds strange and looks strange-
BILL MOYERS: There you are with your fashionable crew-cut, sitting on your desk in the lotus position. That was in the 1940s and ’50s. Not many people knew much about yoga, Allah, Buddhism, meditation, in this country.
HUSTON SMITH: I remember-that’s true. I remember one little item -it’s delightful -that came back to me from the mail and it was on just one of these quickie cards that fold together and not even an envelope, and it said “Dear Professor Smith, This letter will not be long because I cannot write well in my present position. I have my left foot in my right pocket and my right foot in my left pocket. How do I unwind? I am waiting your next program. ” But it caught on because-possibly because it was all so new to the people.
BILL MOYERS: Have you been doing it ever since the ’40s when you were introduced to it? Have you been practicing yoga?
HUSTON SMITH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to you when you’re in this?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, I make no claims except it makes the days go better. I’ll just leave it at that. The days go better when I do it, and my favorite happens to be the headstand. And that may be because the downside to it -I have to laugh because I think maybe it’s my favorite because I’m so greedy with my time. And I-it is my understanding that you get more metabolic toll in that position than any of the other postures you can strike.
BILL MOYERS: Now, this is a very complicated concept for people, so let’s stay with it a moment. Describe yoga as if you were talking to a stranger who had never heard about it before.
HUSTON SMITH: Right. Yoga-it comes from our same word as “yoke” and so basically it means to unite, yoke, and by extension, unite the human spirit to the ultimate spirit. Now, in the classic yoga exercises, it moves three stages, actually four. It begins with certain moral preliminaries because if your life is in chaos and troubles with other people, you aren’t going to be able to have a still mind. So straighten out your life in basic morality. Having done that, then it moves on to the body, because we are psychosomatic people. We have bodies and we have minds, and we’re learning more and more about the interface between those two. So the work with the body begins with certain asanas. They-asanas is postures, and some of them are to produce flexibility and to keep our muscles from just contracting over age, but then the other aim is to quiet the body, to still the body. You know, you can lie flat and you’ll be quiet, but how about being alert? Having done that, they move on to the breath, as it were, the doorway between the mind and the body.
BILL MOYERS: Breath is essential to this. It’s really a concentration of the breath, isn’t it?
HUSTON SMITH: The breath is probably the most useful thing to concentrate on because it is like a bridge from the physical. It is physical. Air is physical. And yet, it’s invisible, and it is so diaphanously physical that it is a natural link between our bodies and our consciousness. And then, from the body, we move on to the mind. If it wanders, you simply notice that it’s wandering and then come back, bring it back to counting your breaths, which is a good way to bring the focus of the mind. And then finally, this leads into a stage where you lose awareness of yourself, and 100 percent you’re focused on what you are -that little joss stick, the burning ember, or whatever it is. And then beyond that, even that disappears and the mind is simply alone with the infinite with no imager at all.
BILL MOYERS: I have more than just an intellectual curiosity about this, because even as we talk, I’m undergoing a program in cardiac conditioning right here in New York at Beth Israel Hospital.
HUSTON SMITH: Oh, good. Good.
BILL MOYERS: And the third part of this program is elementary yoga.
HUSTON SMITH: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And I’m only a novitiate. I’m brand new. I’ve just been introduced to it.
HUSTON SMITH: Well, welcome to the club.
BILL MOYERS: But I wish we could find words to explain to people what words barely hint at. Because it is a changing consciousness-
HUSTON SMITH: Oh, it is.
BILL MOYERS: -that somehow calms the emotions, liberates the mind from this frenetic running, and by the end of the hour — well, there’s an old Taoist saying: “To the mind that is still, the world surrenders.” And there is a moment at which it simply seems my life is as still as the reflection of the moon in the calm of the lake.
HUSTON SMITH: Wonderful. Wonderful.
BILL MOYERS: But again, these are only words. They’re not the experience.
HUSTON SMITH: Of course. Of course. But as they say, they are pointers to the moon, even they are not the moon. But they give-as you spoke, you know, I get the sense of what you’re saying.
BILL MOYERS: But it’s not a weird experience. It’s just an unusual experience because we are so–we in the West are so unaccustomed to this kind of natural state of being.
HUSTON SMITH: I hope this it’s not a metaphor for our whole conversation, Bill, because when one gets into the things of the spirit, why, it really-words can do something, but it is so ultimately and basically an experiential matter that if one hears only the words, why-
BILL MOYERS: You know, an old Hindu prayer -“Oh, Thou, before Whom all words fail.”
HUSTON SMITH: Oh, wonder — recoil. “Oh, Thou before Whom all words recoil.” You know, it’s like we throw our flaming torches towards the sun but they never make it to the sun. They fall down to the earth.
This transcript was entered on April 2, 2015.