05 February 2007

Meeting Huston Smith

The only thing that is unqualifiedly good is extended vision, the
enlargement of one’s understanding of the ultimate nature of things.

Huston Smith

The World’s Religions

After the days of silence in Olema, I arrived in Berkeley, two hours before I was due at Professor Huston Smith’s home.

The neighborhood around the University of California’s Berkeley campus is filled with small, neat houses. Professor Smith’s was a cream-colored adobe with lavender trim and a gray painted cement walkway leading to the front steps. A silver station wagon in front had a blue bumper sticker that read: “Coexist,” – each letter the symbol of a different religion.

I was nervous, not even certain, precisely, what I was there to do but sure I needed to be there, to tell the man whose book provoked my desire to do this what I was doing, to hear whatever it was he might have to tell me. I hadn’t even turned off the engine when the “what ifs” started yammering in my head with their very creative list of why doing this was stupid, why this wasn’t the “right” time or why my preparation wasn’t “enough” to allow for any prospect of “success” even though I had no clear notion of what success might look like. But stubborn commitment to commitments and curiosity forced me out of the car and up those clean steps to ring the doorbell with a bouquet of pink and white flowers in my hand.

The bell caused several small dogs inside to start barking. After a few moments, Professor Smith answered the door himself. I was instantly sorry I’d brought the flowers. I’d heard Professor Smith, who was eighty-seven, had had some health challenges but I’d never stopped to consider what they were. Or I guess I assumed that, if they were severe, he wouldn’t have been willing to meet or he’d have someone to help him with visitors. None of this was true. This slender, once tall, regal man’s back is giving out. His wife wasn’t home or was elsewhere in the house so he struggled, bent over a walker, to answer the door himself.

He said, “The flowers are very lovely but unnecessary.”

I tried to make up for the misguided gesture. “May I put them in water for you?”

“No, please take a seat in there,” he said, waving the heavy bouquet towards the living room nearby. “The red chair is mine. Take any other you like.” As he turned his walker around with one hand while holding the crinkling bouquet in the other, he said, “And I’ll take care of these. I know my wife will enjoy them even more than I will.”

One of the squat, happy dogs kept his eye on me. There was more hardwood than oriental rug, more clean wall than art, and little in the way of religious iconography. His red chair had a large, well-used wooden writing surface off to one side, ready to be swung into place while another black leather chair stood quite close beside it. The room was set for single visitors with questions. It was clear that a consistent flood of faxes come like mine and he probably says yes a lot more than he says no.

As Professor Smith was sitting down, he apologized in advance for having very little time to talk. A relative he hadn’t seen for decades was arriving shortly and he and his wife were taking him out to dinner and, most of all, he was hard at work writing “his memories.” This warm and generous man, his kind face unfairly slipping beyond his control after nearly nine decades of use, then locked his eyes on my lips to help his hearing. One small dog curled up to sleep on the floor but another Corgi-like dog sat, almost erect, in the middle of a formal loveseat across the small room, as if monitoring the conversation. I felt as conscious as I’ve ever been that time was precious and I had best not use much of his.

After listening to the quickest and shortest explanation possible of my background and plan, he said, “I’ve retired from giving advice. There are only two things I can say confidently and I say to every serious seeker: seek and ye shall find. And the other is: follow the light where it leads. But beyond that, why, uh, it’s your project, if it’s what you want to do with your life ahead, for several years or something, why, God bless you. Do it.”

Out of the advice giving business? I was unsure what to talk about if advice was off-limits. I struggled for a minte, then figured I could ask how he’d come to his lifelong passion for the religions of the world.

Professor Smith’s parents had been Methodist missionaries and, because of that, he’d grown up in a small frontier town in China. Smith still considers himself a Methodist.

I asked, “But how did you go from the tradition that you were raised in to an interest in other faiths?”

“I’ve been very, very fortunate. I hope you feel that way about your life, too.” He waited, genuinely interested to find out if I felt I was leading a truly fulfilling life.

I said, “I do, so far. I am very, very grateful.”

His concern answered, he continued, “I have always had the deepest yearning within me to nurture what Aldous Huxley called that ‘small precarious flame, (which) kindled or quenched, creates the noble or ignoble man we are, the worlds we live in, and the very fates, our bright or muddy star.’ And I wanted to tend that flame. And then part of my good fortune was that I came upon Alduous Huxley’s book, The Perennial Philosophy (that’s basically an anthology of mystical texts) and I found myself saying: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ And, when I met him, he said, ‘You’re going to St Louis, you say?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘There’s a very good swami there.’ Swami? I doubt that I even knew what the word meant but he gave me the name.”

While continuing his devotion to Christianity and attending church every Sunday, Professor Smith soon found himself in weekday classes with the head swami at the fledgling Vedanta Society there, classes he said were “like Bible study” held in the small apartment then used by the Vedantists in St Louis.

The Society soon outgrew its space and had the resources to buy a building but it was 1950. Professor Smith said, “When the owner found out he would be selling it to one of those heathen groups, they refused to sell. And so we did kind of an end run around them and I bought the building - with their money, of course - and then it turned it over to the Vedanta Society. The current swami (there), Swami Chetananda said, ‘The deed for this building is still in your name!’”

After some discussion on how to go about doing this kind of project, the subject of Ramakrishna came up. I asked what he thought of him. Without pause and as if the answer was utterly obvious, he said, “Oh, he’s an Incarnation.”

“You feel that way for sure?”


I don’t know why I felt so paralyzed by the conviction in his answer but I was. I retreated into asking for names of the most profound thinkers he knew in the various traditions, people who might be willing to share their wisdom with me.

Soon it was clearly time to go. I thanked him for his time.

“Remember my two dicta? Can you repeat them?”

I wasn’t prepared to be tested. I sputtered, “Uh, follow the light…”

And Profesor Smith finished, “Where it leads.”

I went on, “Seek and ye shall find.”

He nodded and said, “So, that’s my advice to you.”

I started to put my notebook away. I don’t know what I’d wanted, what I’d imagined. I got names of people to talk to, books to read -- what more could I expect? His blessing?

The dogs were on their feet, ready for anything, their nails slipping on the hard wood floor. As I stood up, I said, “I may let you know from time to time what’s happened.”

“All right. You have my address.”

Before I knew it, I was moving to touch his feet. “I know I should do this because this is what I feel.”

He laughed for the first time. “Oh no! I should push you away! Swami Satprakashanada said, ‘When I’m in India in my robes, then I accept that. But in America, no.’”

“Well, that’s how I feel. Thank you.”

“You are welcome. Because of my back I’m just going to let you make your own way out. Be well.”

Back down the steps and then out into my car, I was kicking myself for all the questions I was too shy or too scared or too conscious of time to ask. But it was done. There was no going back.

But the very next day there was a message on my cell phone. “Marley? This is Huston Smith. I have an afterthought about our conversation yesterday afternoon. I expect to be here until about six o’clock this evening or all of tomorrow. Good bye.”

Before I returned the call, I faxed him the one question that gnawed at me most: “How do you distinguish an “Incarnation” from the idea that there is divinity in each one of us? And how do you know so clearly that, for example, Sri Ramakrishna was one?”

He answered the phone himself later that night. “I have received your fax. I’m holding it in my hand.”

In answer to Professor Smith’s request that I clarify my question, I said, “I believe there’s divinity in everybody—”

“I do, too; it’s a fundamental element in each of us, the divine spark.”

“And is it that someone like Christ or Ramakrishna is different from us in that they are more aware of that fact?”

“Well, I would use different imagery,” Professor Smith said. “There was an early Christian theologian who put it: ‘God became man so man could become God.’”


“An incarnation is what God would be if God had to fit himself into human form.”

But that wasn’t the reason Professor Smith had called. He found he did have some advice for me after all. “You are an experienced reporter but reporters present facts; it is very important that your book be a story of your progress.” What I feel, what I come to know, and how that changes my life – and me – over time.

For someone used to sticking her nose in other people’s business—I mean, for someone used to reporting on the world and the people in it while trying hard to remain invisible, this reversal has felt strange and awkward a lot of the time, so much so it’s made me wonder if I’m going about this in the right way, if this kind of personal probing is really the way to do this. To have Huston Smith tell me there really is no other way to go doesn’t remove those feelings but does say it’s time to let go of my endless second-guessing. There's nothing to do but continue on with “my story.”

5 February 2007