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Remembering Huston Smith, Noted 'World's Religions' Scholar


This is FRESH AIR. Huston Smith became a Methodist minister with the intention of becoming a missionary like his parents. But instead of spreading his religion around the world, he found his true calling by traveling the world studying different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism. He said that religions at their best are the world's wisdom traditions. He wrote the 1958 book "The Religions Of Man" and its abridged 1991 edition, "The World's Religions," which were used as textbooks and together sold more than 3 million copies. Smith died last Friday at the age of 97.

We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview we recorded in 1996, just before the premiere of the five-part Bill Moyers PBS series, "The Wisdom Of Faith With Huston Smith." Smith was telling me about how he'd incorporated practices from different religions into his own spiritual life, including saying Islamic prayers in Arabic five times a day and practicing yoga from the Hindu tradition.


HUSTON SMITH: I want to say something. Mine has been a rather peculiar history, and I don't want to leave the impression that one is in any way spiritually ahead because of this kind of incorporation. I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it's better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive. So I would not at all put what's happened, I feel, to be feasible for me in any way ahead of where I might be if I had devoted my entire spiritual exercises to Christianity.

GROSS: I know at some point - I think this is when you were still a student, but maybe it was after that - I know you went and studied in a Zen monastery for a while and studied Zen koan. I want you to explain to our listeners what Zen koans are and how they're used in the process of seeking enlightenment or meditation.

SMITH: Right. The word translated, koan, it means a problem. But it's a very special problem. And to strip it down to the way it works, you are given a problem which has no rational solution. There is a contradiction built into it. One standard - one is this is the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping? And so on. All right, so the first thing is that it brings your rational mind to an impasse. They use the example of a rat cornered by a cat just flinging itself against the wall not because of any hope, but what else are you going to do? And then by a variety of supplementing techniques - one of them is sitting in this full lotus position for hours on end, absolutely motionless, thinking about your problem, but your problem up against the wall. And then the hardest for me was the sleep deprivation.

GROSS: Now, would it be violating a trust or privacy or anything to ask you what your koan was? Is that something you're not supposed to say?

SMITH: No, I will tell you. In the monastery you're admonished not to gossip about your koan and your training. But I'm out of that context, and my roshi never told me I couldn't. My beginning koan, a little bit longer, a monk asked Joshu - he was a master back in China - does a dog have a Buddha nature? To which Joshu replied, moo. Now, I have to...

GROSS: (Laughter) These cows are always so inscrutable (laughter).

SMITH: Well, the - my roshi gave me a couple of hints. Now, he said by a Buddha nature that's something like a soul. And by moo - in China, it would have been mu - but that means a kind of a negative. So the problem you have is that here is this famous master who said that a dog does not have a soul. But everyone would note that the Buddha said even grass has a soul. So here is a dog, higher on the scale of being than grass. How can it be that grass has a soul and a dog doesn't? So you lock in to that and come back with all kinds of answers and they're all rejected and so on until it did work, in my case. I didn't - right up to two days before the end. But - do you want me to tell you?

GROSS: Yeah.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, what happened was that by that time I was at the end of my tether. I was just at my wit's end. I was in a state. Call it psychotic, whatever you want. But there was a huge rage underlying it all. And I went in one afternoon because part of the training is this one-on-one with the roshi. And I remember I went storming into his prison determined not just to throw in the towel, but to throw it right in his face. I thought, this is inhuman. And he said, how's it going?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SMITH: It sounded like a taunt to me. And so I just let him have it. I just shouted, terrible. And he said, you think you're going to get sick, don't you? Again, a taunt. And again, I just let him have it. Yes, I think I'm going to get sick. At that time, my throat was closing in on me, so I just really had to work to breathe. And then all of a sudden, his manner changed completely. And with absolute objectivity, he said matter-of-factly, what is sickness? What is health? Both are distractions. Put them both aside and go forward. Now, what I despair of conveying to you was the effect of those two sentences on me because I had been storming in beside myself in this rage, and with those few words he defused my anger completely. I can still remember my immediate response was, well, by God, he's right. And you see, this is a solving of the koan not with the rational mind. I still - (laughter) I have no idea why Joshu said that about the dog. But you see, it brings together the opposite. Sickness and health the same? Not in this life. Not in this world. I see those as diametric opposites. But I could bring those opposites together and truly affirm with the whole of my being that the opposites of life do coalesce in a resolution.

GROSS: So the Zen koan finally was not something that you were expected to have a solution to.

SMITH: No. By the way, there are about 700 in the whole course of training, and they function in different ways along the way. There are some that have rational answers.

GROSS: Right.

SMITH: But the first koan do not have rational answers. They are techniques devised over the millennia for triggering an actual experience.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a Methodist now? You grew up, again, you know, with Methodist missionary parents in China. You've been around the world studying traditions of the world. If I asked you if you're a Methodist, what would you say?

SMITH: My answer is that I have a body and I have a soul. And my body belongs to the faith - in fact, the church - into which it was born, the Methodist Church. And let me just enter a small parenthesis. That was a very good experience with the Christian tradition for me. Many of my students, they're - I have come to call them wounded Christians or wounded Jews, meaning that what came through to them from their traditions was two things - dogmatism - we've got the truth, everybody else is going to hell - and moralism - don't do this, don't do that.

To me, it was very different. What came through was we're in good hands and then gratitude for that fact. It would be good if we bore one another's burdens. And in all my globe circling, I still haven't come upon anything that tops that. All right, I've talked about my body. It was born into the - baptized in the Methodist church, and it will be buried in the Methodist Church. Meanwhile, I have a soul. And my soul cannot be confined to any human institution.

GROSS: Religion scholar Huston Smith died Friday at the age of 97. Our interview was recorded in 1996.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be the writer and director of the new movie musical "La La Land," Damien Chazelle. The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, has been nominated for seven Golden Globes and was named Best Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I think about that day I left him at a Greyhound station west of Sante Fe. We were 17, but he was sweet and it was true. Still I did what I had to do 'cause I just knew. Summer Sunday nights we'd sink into our seats right as they dimmed out all the lights. A Technicolor world made out of music and machine, it called me to be on that screen... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.