Huston Smith may be as close to a sage as we have in America. My affinities with him go back to 1969 when I first met him in the guest room of Kyoto’s Antai Temple. I was leaving Antaiji after autumn training when Uchiyama Roshi called me into his study. “Here is an American professor with his students. Can you help translate?” And here was Professor Smith leading MIT students on a field trip to a Zen temple.
Fast-forward thirty years to Berkeley in 1999 and a phone call from Professor Smith explaining that because he was moving to a smaller house he wanted to donate a portion of his books to our library at the Institute for World Religions. I drove up the hill to help out and came back down with 600 volumes! We established the Huston Smith Collection at the institute’s library as a result.
Fast-forward again to the professor in his late eighties, when most men would be slowing down and resting. On this day in the fall of 2005, the professor was concerned about his driving test coming up in the afternoon after our interview and planning his trip that evening to a university in Tennessee. We met at his Berkeley home. Because his first language was the Suzhou dialect of Mandarin Chinese, our conversation was punctuated with Chinese asides and puns. His humor and sparkle are razor-sharp. He is a living testimony to the beneficial effects of spiritual practice in dignifying and ennobling the human condition.
Last spring on a visit to the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, where I am director, Professor Smith handed me a long wooden stick with Japanese writing on it. He said, “I’ve kept this for years as a link to my Zen training experience. I need to thin out my trophies and I want you to keep it at the Institute for World Religions’ Huston Smith Collection. I can think of no better place.”
—Rev. Heng Sure
Rev. Heng Sure: So how did this keisaku come to you?
Huston Smith: Well, as you may know, my interest in Buddhism developed with Daisetz Suzuki [Japanese scholar and author]. He introduced me to Buddhism as well as to meditation. And what intrigued me the most was his account of satori. I had never had a full-fledged mystical experience, and I wanted that satori that he described so wonderfully. I wanted it more than anything else, except family. My friends charged me with “whoring after the infinite” and maybe they were right.
One thing led to another, and the way was paved for me to go to a monastery in Kyoto called Myoshinji, which means “the temple of the marvelous mind.” Isn’t that a wonderful name?
I was allowed into that monastery only out of the good offices of my roshi, who had spent some time in Los Angeles and could speak English. No Westerner had ever been admitted to Myoshinji-sado, which was known as the strictest monastery in all Japan. But my roshi knew how much I wanted that satori experience, so he took mercy on me and got me admitted.
Only one of the thirty-three monks who lived there knew any English, so my roshi sent an interpreter with me. The man delegated to receive me at the temple was telling the interpreter what I should do, and at one point, he came up and felt my shoulder blade and upper back. Then he said something to the interpreter, and they both laughed. I demanded to know what they were laughing at, and my interpreter said, “He says it’s going to be difficult to miss the bone.” I was even thinner then than I am now. As you know, the monastery has a kind of sergeant at arms called the jikijitsu who paces quietly behind the monks and watches them meditating. He is carrying a piece of lumber over his left shoulder, and if he detects signs of drowsiness, a ritual follows.
First the sergeant at arms taps the drowsy monk on the shoulder. Then he bows and the monk gashos back to him, signifying there is nothing personal about what’s going to happen. The monk then leans to the right and the sergeant at arms gives him two sharp whacks on the left shoulder. When I say sharp, I mean—out of the corner of my eyes, I watched—he brings the stick way back and with all his might gives a forceful whack. Then the monk offers the right shoulder and gets two more severe whacks. Finally, the monk and jikijitsu each bow to the other—nothing personal in this—and the monk will have no trouble with sleepiness, at least for the rest of that session.
Anyway, the first time I got whacked, the sergeant at arms did indeed hit one of my vertebrae. The jikijitsu apologized to me. Later, when I left the monastery, he presented me with the keisaku and said, “I present this to my respected Professor Smith as a commemoration of his having spent one week of the hardest zazen training, Gematsu Ohsesshin, at Myoshinji-sodo, and you have been struck with this keisaku for encouragement of your will by me, July 26, 1957. Daijo Shiozawa.”
This has been one of my prized possessions ever since and has hung here on the wall of my study. However, with ever-advancing age and not wishing to load my offspring with sorting through our possessions when we drop the body, I have presented it to the Huston Smith Collection at the Institute for World Religions.
RHS: Yesterday I met with some meditation students and said, “Tomorrow I have an opportunity to interview Professor Huston Smith. Does anyone have a question?” One young man said, “Dr. Smith started out as a Christian and remains a Christian. We didn’t grow up as Buddhists, but we’re interested in Buddhist practice. Please ask Professor Smith to comment about Westerners looking East. Is it a good fit? What are the possibilities and problems for Westerners practicing Eastern religion?”
HS: I take refuge in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who, when he was asked about conversion, said it’s best if you can stay within your own tradition because you are imprinted from an early age with the overtones and the orchestration of that tradition. For example, in my case, with Christianity, there are Christmas carols. When a wonderful tenor sings Silent Night, it just goes straight into my soul. However, as His Holiness added, if you have been bruised by your tradition—in the years that I’ve taught at the university, I’ve encountered many bruised Christians and Jews—then it is good to look around and convert to another one. I was not bruised by my tradition, and therefore I have stayed with it.
My wife, Kendra, calls herself a Buddhist Unitarian. She belongs to the Unitarian Church, which is very good at getting people together—there must be about thirty-five small groups in her church. They do a lot of good works, but spiritually, she finds the Unitarian Church rather flat. That’s where her Buddhism comes in. She has done four rains retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, each one being three months of no reading, no writing and no speaking, except in small conferences with her teachers.
RHS: I have a question about steeples. I did a pilgrimage along California’s coastal Highway 1, bowing along the way, doing “three steps, one bow.” As I traveled I did not see church steeples, as one might see in New England towns. Instead, in each new town I saw television antennae and TV towers. Has television replaced something in the Western psyche that used to belong to the church?
HS: Well, I may be old-fashioned, and I’m well aware of the fact that I’m old. By the way, I used to say “old,” but now when I’m asked in interviews, “How old are you?” I reply, “Well, I grew up in China in a time when age was venerated, so I am eighty-six years venerable.” I will acknowledge that the age of electronic communication has brought some good things. I am not on the Internet but Kendra is, and it’s easy to keep in touch with the family that way. But I bemoan the degree to which our lives are devoted to electronic communication rather than the face-to-face kind, as we are doing here.
I have a student who, having gotten his doctorate under me in religious studies, couldn’t find a job. So he created a course on the Web or the Internet—I don’t even know the distinction—and he teaches that course every fall semester. Students get credit from the University of California, but he has never once laid eyes on any of those students. I think that is tragic! Communication involves the body and the entire self.
Your question also reminds me of those televangelists who imitate show-business people, entertaining in the name of religion. But being in an actual congregation adds something extremely important. For instance, in many Christian churches one segment of the service is called “the passing of the peace.” People rise and shake hands with the people next to them; when the person is of the opposite sex or is a special friend, they’re very likely to kiss them on the cheek. Now, electronically, we’re in Aldous Huxley’s brave new world, and we’re only going to get simulated kisses of peace. I don’t see it as a good thing.
RHS: Why do think Westerners are so drawn to Buddhism?
HS: First of all, you know that my field is comparative religion. I have found that of the eight religions that have played an important part in human history, Buddhism is the most psychological, and Westerners are fascinated with psychology. The Buddha came to an understanding of the human mind that is unequaled in any other religion, and as believers in science, Westerners appreciate that accomplishment.
RHS: In the West, most people are drawn to the meditation practices of Buddhism. Meanwhile, in Buddhist Asia the dominant practice is faith, devotion, nembutsu, with everybody reciting the Buddha’s name: Namo Amitofuo. In China, Buddhists developed the devotional side, the bhakti practices. Buddhism in America is still very young, and I wonder if Americans will also turn to bhakti as time progresses. Do you think the Asian experience will be repeated in this country as Buddhism grows?
HS: Very interesting question, but I do not know the answer. Now Heng Sure, we agreed informally that though you are obeying the orders to interview me, you are as knowledgeable in these religious and spiritual matters as I am, probably more so, so our conversation might phase from an interview into a dialogue. So here is a place where I’d like you to speak to the question. What do you think?
RHS: I think contemporary Americans are caught in a materialistic dream, believing that happiness can be bought and owned, and that suffering can be drugged away. You take a pill, you drink, you turn on the TV and postpone your suffering. Maybe Americans haven’t suffered enough yet. In Asia, devotional Buddhism grew when times were hard.
HS: Oh, I like that answer and it opens! [gesturing to his heart] You have, of course, referred to Shin Buddhism, and Shinran, the founder of Shin, and his teacher, Honen. They noticed that the Zen Buddhism of their time—twelfth- and thirteenth-century Japan—was only serving the elite and those who could read. Honen saw that most people were very poor and worked from dawn to dark, and they didn’t have time to meditate. When they got home, they had a bowl of gruel, flopped down on the futon, and went to sleep immediately. They had fallen into a state of despair: “There is no hope for us; we are indentured to interminable reincarnation into this very, very hard life.” So Honen offered them a strand of Buddhism known as the Pure Land.
You know the story better than I do, Heng Sure. Many, many kalpas ago there was a man who through innumerable virtuous lives had brought himself to the brink of nirvana. But instead of passing over in the next life into nirvana, he deliberately came back to help the people. He had built up such a great ocean of merit that simply by imploring the Dharmakaya [“Truth body”], people could tap into his ocean of merit and be wafted into the western paradise, the equivalent of heaven in the West. This is the heart of Pure Land Buddhism.
So Honen brought hope to the people who did not have it, and Shinran picked up on that and worked himself to the point of exhaustion, day and night, spreading hope to these poor people. But this strand of Buddhism is not going to move into America until we come to a solid recognition of the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering.
RHS: Your answer reminds me of a question I have about reincarnation. When I gave a talk at the Graduate Theological Union, I mentioned that your film Requiem for a Faith was very important to me because it opened the possibility of samsara’s end. There was a line of candles, and the flame jumped from candle to candle, and then in one candle, it went “Puff!” The flame went out. I thought, “Aha! That’s my image of nirvana, the blowing out of the flame. No more incarnations.” Do you think Westerners are ready to understand or accept the doctrine of reincarnation?
HS: I do a lot of speaking around the country, and the question that gets asked most frequently is about reincarnation. I answer that it can be found in almost all religions, even in Christianity during its formative years. Christianity now officially rejects reincarnation, although there is currently a movement to bring it back into church doctrine. I’ve never taken a nose count, but I would say innumerable Christians already believe in it.
For myself, I like what Ram Dass once said. He was in my living room with a group of students who wanted to meet him, and someone immediately asked him, “Ram Dass, do you believe in reincarnation?” Without batting an eye, Ram Dass said, “It’s there when I need it.” I think that’s a wonderful answer, and I would say the same. Philosophically, there is no other answer to the problem of evil that rivals reincarnation. Inwardly, I rather believe in it, but the only reason I do not officially endorse it is that I take my stand on the revealed text of these eight world religions, and not all of them include it. So I kind of finesse—maybe it’s weaseling out—and I do not say forthrightly, yes, I believe in it. Let’s just say, I’m inclined towards believing in it.
RHS: To close, would you please describe your current spiritual practices?
HS: Well, as you know, I am a so-called expert in the field of comparative religion, and I have tried practices from all of the major religions of the world. At this point in my life, I just try to keep up some simple exercises for body, mind and spirit. For my body, I did hatha yoga for thirty-five years, but since this osteoporosis struck I just try to do the simple exercises that my physical therapist gave me. For my mind, I read a few pages of sacred text every day, sometimes the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, or, recently, The Secret of the Golden Flower. For my spirit, I do something between prayer and meditation. People always think of prayer as verbal and meditation as silent, but I think they often merge. Remember, the classic three-part formula of prayer is to praise, then petition and then become silent. Prayer flows into meditation.
Those are my practices, along with attending church. As I said, my heritage is Christian, and at the end of my life I am feeling very close to the church. In the church I am not only praying but also honoring my father and mother. I’m connecting with the spiritual essence as well as with generations of family.
Huston Smith is among the preeminent religious studies scholars in the United States. His work The Religions of Man, later revised and retitled The World’s Religions, is a classic in the field, having sold over two million copies. During his career, Smith has not only studied but also practiced Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Sufism for over ten years each.