Rabbi Elie Spitz Reflects On The Passing Of Professor Huston Smith, A Communal, Spiritual Treasure

Huston Smith (2009)

Huston Smith, who died at the age of 97 this past Friday in Berkeley, was a towering, spiritual sage. My visits with him endure as gifts of spiritual wisdom and the modeling of genuine goodness. Professor Smith was a trailblazing explorer of religions from the inside, stating, “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”

Although spending only a handful of hours together, his presence endures powerfully for me, as do his writings. Below are some notes from my visits:

My first meeting, Summer of 2004:

Forty weeks around the world would soon begin, a huge canvas of time in which to deepen bonds with my family and enhance my understanding of other faiths. For sixteen years I had served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel. With great anticipation I looked forward to the adventure, learning, and freedom before me. Yet, I did not need to travel far to encounter profound thinkers and to expand horizons. On the summer before my departure, I attended what I would call “The Guru’s Convention.” In unanticipated ways, it would both foreshadow experiences ahead and provide expectations that would be dashed.

The Joseph Campbell Centennial held in Palm Springs, California brought together many of the prominent spiritual personalities and over a thousand attendees. Among the most admired presenters was Professor Huston Smith, who looked his eighty-five years, bent-over and unable to hear except with the aid of a device that looked like a computer mouse. In the mid-1950’s he had written the first textbook examining the wisdom of the respective major faiths. In the course of his academic career, he would teach at M.I.T., Syracuse College, and Berkeley. Despite the passing of decades, his book, The Great Religions (1958, 1991), was still widely used in University classes across the country. During a time when America largely saw itself as a White Protestant Nation, Professor Smith honored the diversity of faiths around the world and did so not only be examining their respective sacred texts but participating in the ritual and daily life of the respective religious communities.

Smith’s curiosity and humility, the aliveness of his spirit and the twinkle in his eye impressed me greatly. During a chance meeting, he requested that I walk him to his lecture and repeat the questions posed to him into his hearing device. It was a great honor to serve as his aide and to begin forging an enduring relationship with him. Only after that meeting did I begin to read his books, which would influence greatly how I saw other faiths. In his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, he would describe growing up in China to Christian Missionary parents. His exposure to Chinese culture had cultivated curiosity and respect for those who were different than him. He also retained a deep identification with the power and value of religious life. As a young man, he traveled to the United States to study in a Christian Seminary, where he would marry his mentor’s daughter. Rather than becoming a pulpit minister, he became an academic. In his introduction to The Great Religions, he wrote, that he sought to present the wisdom and goodness of a variety of faiths. Just as in a book on the history of world art, you would see the masterpieces and not the mediocre, let alone poor art, so he sought to convey the profundity of each religious tradition. His writing drew me to even have a greater appetite for encountering the wisdom teaching of other faiths. My meeting him was well-timed for in the coming months I would set off with my family on a tour around the world.

Berkeley, CA –The Regency, a rehabilitation facility.
Monday, August 3, 2009

Met with Huston one-on-one in his small room. Due to osteoporosis it is hard for him to get around. When the phone rings, he moves with the aid of his walker from this comfortable chair to his desk, where his phone sits. He has to take out his hearing aid to use the phone; and hits a button to magnify the sound. He is usually to the point. When he finishes what he needs to say- “call back in an hour”-he hangs up. It is not that he is impolite, rather he has great difficulty hearing. He was warm and forthcoming. At the age of 91, he was still writing and curious. He made me feel quite welcome and at the end asked if I would come to visit with him again during my Berkeley stay.

Ideas shared:

Lack of progress in human consciousness. Individuals grow in their awareness; but he does not believe that human culture has. As an example, the Lascaux Caves in France. They are contained in a network of eight miles of underground caves, with only a small amount of light. The drawings of animals are remarkably life like. When Picasso saw them he said that they evidenced perspective and shadowing and were remarkably sophisticated. [In Tales of Wonder he says that he has lost the belief that we as a world are rising in consciousness- as others teach. I frankly do not agree that the arts have not moved forward- such as music, dance, and art. He did say- “Now I admittedly like Matisse and realism more than abstraction and Picasso.”]

Reincarnation: As Ram Dass [Richard Alpert] shared in a meeting of students in his home: “It is there when I need it.” It is a question that regularly comes up when he speaks. For those in India it is a given. What Huston does not know if whether we come back as a human or in another form.

On the spirit world: Folk religion was overwhelmingly the religion when he grew up in China. There is a divide between folk religion and the more literate forms of religious thought identified with the major religions. 80% of the people were illiterate, so they had not read the I-Ching or Confucious. Walking down an alley there were bottles turned on their side, so as to catch the demons; since spirits can’t turn corners, none of the lanes were straight, but meandered. Folk religion is still a dominant religion. My parents in China had a greater sense of purpose precisely due to the illiteracy and superstition of the people around them. The historical religions began when local ideas moved across geography.

Spirits for him are not to be discounted. Not psychology, but ontology. As a chicken has no concept of the nature of how we use language to convey culture; so we in our finite minds are like chickens before the possibilities of awareness.  The NYTimes materialism is smug. Yet, there is much more to reality, other planes of reality, than what is physically before us. He stated his belief in survival of the soul.

When he was at MIT, they had a poet in residence for three weeks, Robert Schaeffer. His public talk drew 4,000 students. He had dinner one night with the faculty of the philosophy department. His opening remark: “What do you philosophers have against ghosts?” The chair of the department almost choked on his food. To change the topic the chairman said, “I really love your love poems.” Ghosts and the spirit world are a taboo in our academic world. But, I believe that they are real. There is another plane of existence.

On Shamans. Singular pronounced sha-man; plural shai-main. All religions have their origin in healing and shamans- I added that it is true for the Ba’al Shem Tov. Huston referred to his UCI psych friend- Roger Walsh, whose writing has documented the widespread nature of shamans. Their work is to enter the spirit realm bringing energy to the good spirits and seeking to dispel the negative ones.

Mitzvah. His daughter, Karen [who had converted to Judaism and lived as a Shabbat observant Jew], as she was dying of cancer said to him, “I have been thinking a lot about angels. Not your Christian angels. Rather the energy that persists after the doing of a mitzvah. It is a force that allows healing in the world.

On the brain: Noam Chomsky, the only genius that I have known, in a lecture spoke of the mystery of the brain’s ability to do its many functions, particularly those that relate to consciousness. Consider the brain as material matter. It is a piece of flesh that can fit inside your hands. How it is able to comprehend, see, communicate is all beyond our comprehension and will remain so. The brain is not the mind.

On Mystery. We are born in mystery, live with mystery and die to mystery.

American Indians-A Seat at the Table: The first time that he met Indian leader/shaman, Rubin Snake, he said: “Your humble serpent.” At the third World Conference of Religions he did a public interview with Native American leaders. One said, “The White people raped our women and took our land. We are aggrieved but there is no way to undo the past. We do not expect our land back. All that we ask is a seat at the table,” suggesting a desire for dignity.

Family. Asked me about my own. Listened with attentiveness. He has a daughter, who lives in Boulder, who visits twice a year; and a daughter in San Jose, who has one son. Of his sole grandchild- “He makes up in quality for what we lack in quantity.” He ended our conversation at 5:15, because he needed to get downstairs for dinner. He explained that he was one of the few with faculties intact and that others relied on him. In his book he wrote of how he gets up each morning eager to do good- to help others. He spoke of my having a nice face, reflecting a blessed life, and shared that the face that we have after forty is the face we have earned.

Religion.  Religion brings out the best in people. Just as in sports a team brings out the potential talent, so in life a group is important for actualizing and motivating the best.

He impressed me as genuinely gentle, thoughtful, and caring. To be continued is my question of what he got out of ten weeks of silence in the Kyoto monastery.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Returned with my son, Jon, and our friend, Michaela Matt. Huston interviewed me about atonement. Said that the day before he was asked to write a piece and felt that the request was well timed since a rabbi was coming to see him the next day. I smiled as he took notes about fasting and its meaning.

He told us about his ten weeks in Kyoto and how painful it was to sit in the lotus position. He had spent nine-months using his desk drawer to stretch his tendons so as to sit lotus. What he did not know is that a five-minute break every twenty-five minutes was not enough time for the tendon to relax. The pain of sitting all day was excruciating, although by the end of ten weeks he could do so. For eight days he was only given 3 ½ hours of sleep. He became kind of psychotic for the lack of REM sleep. He glared at the head of the monastery when they met. The monk said to him a bit tauntingly, “You think you are going to get sick?” “Yes I do,” he responded with anger. Then matter of factly with a kinder tone, the master continued, “Pain and illness are irrelevant.” The comment struck him as a revelation and the pain slipped away. He also felt as if the head had sent him energy from his chi center to Huston’s. He completed the last three and a half days of the sit. Whenever he feels ill or tired he returns to the comment and feels relief.

At 5:30 our meeting ended as he needed to go for dinner- “people wait for me to help them.” Huston lived his religious ideals. My final image was of him pushing his walker quickly and purposefully toward the dining hall. The son of missionaries, he actively served others and pursued spiritual experiences while drawing from the wellspring of the Divine. As in the picture above, his open eyed warmth and curiosity endure as a model of life well lived.

Obituary from the NYTimes (January 2, 2017):