A Life of Exploring Religious Frontiers

Originally printed in the July - August 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Sminth, Huston. "A Life of Exploring Religious Frontiers." Quest  90.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2002): 124-131.

By Huston Smith

Huston SmithIt is a great honor for me to have the opportunity to inaugurate this Kern lectureship. As a student of world religions, I am, of course, very familiar with the lines “One to me is fame and shame; one to me is loss and gain; one to me is pleasure, pain” (Bhagavad Gita). To practice those lines is to bring together the opposites—I’ve been working on doing that for many years, but tonight is a holiday. And my spiritual mentor for tonight is Joe Lewis, who towards the end of his life said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; and believe me, rich is better.” So tomorrow I’ll get to work again on “One to me is fame and shame,” but tonight I’m just going to wallow in glory and celebrity and enjoy it.

I would never have thought to propose the title of these remarks, which I owe to the organizers of the lectureship. As you might imagine, publishers and agents, more and more every year, have been leaning on me to write my autobiography, and I have flatly refused. There is nothing that lures me in that direction whatsoever. But this lecture comes at it from a different angle, not so much the facts and events of a life as the key points in its development, providing an opportunity to take notice of issues that I’ve come upon in the course of my journey. And I must say, the more I got into the suggested topic, the more I enjoyed reflecting back on what were the key points that directed me on my life’s journey.

The first poem I ever memorized was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer,” which had a great impact on me. It goes like this:

“There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”
      So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
       Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
      On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
      “Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

I must have been about twelve years old when I memorized that poem, but even then I recognized that, yes, I wanted to go and look beyond the foothills where the trails run out and stop, to find what is hidden behind the Ranges. For this evening, I have itemized twelve frontiers that I crossed to explore what lay on the other side.

1. My life began in China, with missionary parents in a small inland town where we were the only foreigners. That wasn’t a frontier, that was just home. Growing up there, I had the language of a native speaker, and in fact my two brothers and I have been told that, after we all came to America, when we were together we would talk in Chinese rather than in English. So my small town in China wasn’t a frontier, it was home. My first frontier was America, when I arrived at college age and came to the United States.

That was an amazing frontier. Never mind that my landing pad in the United States was Central Methodist College, enrollment 600, in Fayette, Missouri, population 3000. Never mind all that. Compared with Podunk, China, it was the Big Apple, bright lights, and the big time. After all, Fayette had radios, a motion picture theater, and of course, cars. I had come over intending to get my educational credentials and go right back to China. Because I had only one American male role model, my father, I assumed that missionaries were what American boys grew up to be. But that lasted about two weeks. With all the dynamism and action in Fayette, Missouri, I wasn’t going to go and waste my life stagnating in traditional rural China.

2. After I had come to America and crossed that frontier, the next one was the frontier of the mind. It happened very dramatically. I’ll prefix it with a confession. (We all know that an honest confession is good for the soul—unfortunately, it can be very bad for the reputation, but I’ll confess anyway.) When I entered college at 17, I wanted to be Big Man on Campus, and I thought the way to do that was to join all the organizations I could get into and make my presence known. That continued for two and a half years until midway in my junior year. There was in this college, which was anything but distinguished, one splendid professor, and that’s all a college needs. He was in philosophy and religion, my field. He started a little philosophy of religion club, and I feel sorry for the students today in their mega-universities. In my little college, we were in and out of our teachers’ homes all the time. One evening a month we would go to this professor’s house and take turns reading a five-page paper and then discuss it. At the end, cherry pie a la mode would appear, and we would go back to our dorm.

For me, one of these evenings was different from all the others. From the start, I felt a tremendous agitation as I was drawn into the issues we were discussing, and that lasted on the way home. My fellow students and I just kept talking, and when we reached the dorm, a little nucleus of four or five of us stood in the hall of the dorm for another ninety minutes, going at it hammer and tongs. When I finally went up to my room, the ideas were still charging around my mind. And that kept on until around two o’clock in the morning, when it seemed like my mind detonated.

To try to give an impression of what I experienced, I remind those of you who have seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey of the scene that tried to convey the future rushing at you. Streamers came out of the back of the screen, directly at you, and flashed by, disappearing into the past behind you. My experience was like that. But it wasn’t like special effects, it was like Platonic ideas, and they were so real that they were palpable. There I was, a young man with an entire life to explore those ideas. I wonder if I slept a wink that night. But in any case, that was the turning point that led me to the vocation of a professor of philosophy and religion.

3. The next frontier was science, and it led me to the University of Chicago, where science was very prominent in the curriculum. What impressed me was the power of science—it has changed our world beyond all recognition. My friends and our servants in the Chinese town could never have imagined the world we inhabit in the technological West. Along with its technological innovations, science has also changed our worldview. I was young, impressionable, fresh to the confusions of the world, and I became converted to what I now call scientism, the belief that science gives us the biggest picture—not the Bible, as I thought in my youth—not even religion—but science. And I answered that call with every cell of my being. That frontier stayed in place until I was within a couple of months of completing my doctoral dissertation, when all of a sudden, another frontier—a very different one—appeared on a second unforgettable night. I’ve only had two nights as dramatic as those (leaving aside my wedding night—I just thought of that).

4. The second unforgettable night came from reading the first book on mysticism I had ever encountered: Gerald Heard’s Pain, Sex and Time: A New Outlook on Evolution and the Future of Man. It presented mysticism and the mystical worldview. From its opening page, that book took me over, and I found that from the soles of my feet all the way up, I was saying “Yes! This is the way things are!” As for my scientific worldview, which I had been so gung-ho for, it collapsed that night like a house of cards. So I crossed the frontier into mysticism. Mysticism was not in high regard in the middle of the twentieth century. I had an undergraduate degree in religion and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion, and I had never been required to read any mystical text. That wouldn’t be possible today, because now mysticism is everywhere. I’m sure that the mystics were listed in the bibliography of suggested readings in some of my course books, but whoever gets to those? Because mysticism was not fashionable in academia then, I turned to the closest thing to it: world religions.

5. Being then at the beginning of my teaching career, I requested to teach a course in “World Religions” because Heard’s book had shown me that the mystic comes up in every culture, and I wanted to explore it. Just before moving to Washington University in Saint Louis, I paid a visit to Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. And they said, “You’re going to St. Louis, we hear; there’s a very good swami there.” Swami? I don’t think I even knew what the word meant. However, I was hanging onto every word of theirs, and they even gave me his name—Swami Satprakashananda of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Order. And so the first week I was in Saint Louis, I looked up his name in the phone book and paid him a visit. It set my course for a decade. I had met learned scholars before and holy individuals before, but I had never found holiness and scholarship combined in one individual, as they were in Swami Satprakashananda. So naturally I apprenticed, and in ten years by weekly tutorials, he laid down the Vedanta in my understanding.

Eventually I moved east, where Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University was bringing Zen Buddhism to America. I was then at MIT, which wasn’t far away, so I went down to New York very regularly. I studied with Suzuki for another ten or more years, culminating in his paving for me to go to Japan to train in a Zen monastery.

After that, Rumi came onto the scene with the Sufis, and so it has gone on. People think that maybe I started out with a shopping list. Coming out of Christianity, first I’ll tick off Hinduism, and then I’ll check out Buddhism, and then I’ll do Sufism and Islam. It wasn’t that way at all. At every stage, I was perfectly content with what I had. But it was as if the tidal waves of different traditions came crashing over me, and how important I found that for my religious understanding! There isn’t time to prioritize in each and say, this is what practically knocked me over. But that’s the frontier into world religions, which has continued as the focus of my career. I wasn’t looking for these frontiers, they just appeared.

6. The next frontier was writing, and here’s how it came about. When I was at Washington University, a new Dean of Liberal Arts was appointed whose field was a biology. When he was appointed Dean, he said, “I don’t know what liberal arts are—I’m a biologist.” So he applied to the Carnegie Foundation, and they gave him $18,000 to learn what liberal arts are. The way he went about his self-education was to pick out a dozen or so faculty members in liberal arts whom he considered the brightest minds in each field. For an academic year, we met every other week in his apartment, discussing great books like The Aims of Education by Alfred North Whitehead and The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman.

The sessions were enjoyable and stimulating, but when the academic year came to an end, the Dean said, “I’ve learned a lot from these discussions, but the Carnegie Foundation says it wants a report of what I did with their $18,000. So Huston, you’re a bright young punk. Here’s a bushel basket of the notes that I’ve made on our sessions. You’re scheduled to teach this summer, but I’ll relieve you from teaching, and instead of that, you write the report.” I did, he liked it, and the Liberal Arts faculty approved it, saying, “Yes, this is what we’re going to do.”

And there it would have rested, had I not, when crossing the campus one day, met a colleague in the Speech Department who said, “Huston, I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you—one of my courses this semester is choral reading. And as one of our numbers, we’re reading three paragraphs from that report you wrote.” The idea struck me as bizarre—a committee report intoned as art? But when I got to my office, I reached into my file, pulled out the report and found the three paragraphs he had referred me to. And as I read them, I found myself saying, “Hey . . . not bad . . . very good!” So on impulse I reached for an envelope and addressed it to what was then the publishing company Harper Brothers; and within a week a response came, saying “It has to be expanded tenfold,” but a contract was enclosed. There I was, about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old and I already had a book contract. When I think how hard it is for unknown people to get a book published today, I am still amazed, but there it was. I discovered from that and from the response the book received that I could write. And so I crossed that frontier, and to this day, if I can manage to do so, I spend the hours before noon writing.

7. Next came an invitation to join the faculty at MIT. Washington University had come to like me, and I liked the university, and they did everything to get me to stay. But it was the challenge of a new frontier. MIT was the most important technological institute in the world, and they were inviting me to start a department of philosophy. What could be more interesting or challenging? And so I went and stayed for fifteen years, the longest stint I have ever taught at one place. Those years were tumultuous because, during them, two worlds were trying to live together inside me—one scientific and one traditional. The MIT world was the scientific cutting-edge frontier of the future, and my inner world was humanistic. Those two rubbed together for fifteen years. All of my students were science majors, most of my colleagues were world-class scientists, and I was a humanist in religion. It was rough and tumble.

I remember once, when I was talking with a scientist in the faculty club, the issue came up, as it often did—“What’s the real difference between science and the humanities?” We were getting nowhere in resolving the question, but as I was saying something, he broke in and said, “I’ve got it: the difference is that I count and you don’t.” That was wonderful because mathematics is the language of science, and in my work I don’t do much counting. His double entendre carried the connotations of both numbers and academic standing. Those years were turbulent, but I could never have been anywhere else that was as stimulating in forcing me to think through the issues between science and religion.

8. After fifteen years, Syracuse University called and said, “We’ve gotten an endowed chair in our graduate program, would you be interested?” I said, “You can try to interest me, but I don’t think you’ll succeed.” But they did. And the reason was that all of my teaching had thus far been undergraduate, and the appeal of teaching on the graduate level won out. I wasn’t disillusioned or bored with undergraduate teaching, but I knew what that was like, and I didn’t know what directing graduate study was like—going deeper with a nucleus of students. So I went to Syracuse, crossing the frontier from undergraduate to graduate teaching.

9. But more important was the fact that at Syracuse I crossed the frontier to the tribal indigenous peoples and their religious outlook. Soon after we moved to Syracuse and bought our house, we discovered that it was only five miles from the Onondaga Reservation. One afternoon, we drove out to the reservation, and afterwards I repeated the drive many times. Gradually I started spending more and more time with those Native Americans and their chiefs. I remember driving home one Saturday afternoon after having been on the reservation the whole day; and, as I sometimes do when I’m alone in the car and get excited, I talked out loud to myself. I can still remember finding myself saying, “Huston, for thirty-five years you have been circling this globe trying to understand the worldviews of people different from you, and here is one that has been under your feet the entire time, and you haven’t given it the time of day.”

That realization opened my eyes, and it culminated in the revised edition of The World’s Religions, in which the final substantive chapter is on the primal religions, the religions of the indigenous peoples of the world. That ending is appropriate because the other religions treated in the book, our historical religions, go back no more than about six thousand years. But the religions of indigenous peoples go back to the twilight zone of history. I’m glad I will not go to my grave with a book on the world’s religions that totally overlooked them.

10. The tenth frontier is the issue of justice, which my wife, Kendra, and I explored together. As far back as Washington University, in the mid-twentieth century, we were founding members of the organization CORE, the Committee on Racial Equality, and we gave it a lot of our energy, first of all integrating the university, which had been segregated, and integrating public places by going as interracial groups to restaurants, swimming pools, and so on. That’s one aspect of the tenth frontier, but there are two more.

When China invaded Tibet, both of us took on the cause of Tibetans in that time of their great ordeal. We’ve sponsored five families and even now have a Tibetan single parent in our mother-in-law apartment downstairs. But what I want to mention particularly is that, in my research on the Tibetans, I came upon the only empirical discovery of my career, namely a very extraordinary mode of chanting developed by the Tibetans, which has introduced a new term into the lexicography of musicology: “multiphonic chanting.” It produces more than one tone, in fact three, a tonic chord—a first, a third, and a fifth—all issuing from one larynx.

The third aspect of the justice frontier has been the Native American Church. In April 1990, the Supreme Court issued a decision that stripped that church of its constitutional right to exist because its sacrament is peyote, which in our irrational drug laws is scheduled right up there with crack, cocaine, and heroine, though it is impossible to become addicted to peyote, and not a single misdemeanor, let alone crime, has ever been traced to its use. Contrast that with the sacrament of Christianity, which is alcohol. Despite the toll it takes, it can be emblazoned on billboards because that’s our sacrament. But peyote is their sacrament, so it is not permitted. I spent two years helping Reuben Snake edit One Nation under God: The Triumph of the Native Church, which helped that church win back its right to exist.

Those have been my three issues on the frontier of justice: racial justice, the cause of the Tibetans, and the cause of the Native American Church.

11. I have to double back in time to mention my eleventh frontier, which some may consider a disreputable part of my journey. Through my friend, Aldous Huxley, I became introduced to what used to be called psychedelic substances. Because their use careened in a crazy way during the psychedelic 1960s, those who are interested in seriously exploring dimensions of the mind that this very small class of nonaddictive substances can open up have adopted a new term for them: “entheogens,” a word suggesting “God enabling.”

I was at MIT when research on those substances began in the early 1960s. And again responding to an inner urge, I crossed that frontier and participated in the research while it was not only legal, but respectable, the research being at Harvard University. William James and Aldous Huxley both say that it is impossible to close our accounts on reality without taking account of those regions of the mind that are brought to light through such substances. So I was prevailed upon to write a book about that research. By the way, after the first half dozen experiments, I followed the dictum of Alan Watts, who said, “When you get the message, hang up.” And after a half a dozen or so experiences, which were important to my understanding of the nature of the mind and its world, I hung up, but have continued my historical interest in the way these substances have woven in and out of religious history, in the soma of India, in the peyote of the Native American Church, and in the kykeon of the Eleusinian mysteries of Greece.

12. My last frontier relates to an issue I’ve touched on before, but one that has occupied an important position in my mind throughout my career: understanding the nature of ultimate reality. Until the rise of modern science, all the peoples of the world believed not only in this world, but also in another world, which, although invisible, is more real and more important than this one—the world presented in Plato’s allegory of the cave, which depicts this world as only the shadows cast by a transcendent world.

Let me quickly put on my hat as a historian of religions and give you a quick Cook’s tour of the traditional religious worldview, which has always included both this world and also another. In East Asia, this world is Earth and the other world is Heaven, of which Confucius said, “Only Heaven is great.” In South Asia, this everyday world is Samsara and the other world is Nirvana. In the Abrahamic religions, this world is the physical creation and the other world is the Creator—Yahweh, God, Allah.

When that worldview, which is unanimous in all the traditional religions, came face to face with modern science, modern science demoted it. Because of the technological cornucopia science provides, it retired the traditional view—not for everybody—certainly not for you and for me—but for our media barons and those, you might say, who rule the intellectual culture of our time. To be sure, many things in traditional worldviews deserve to be retired, for example, their views of the physical universe, which has been permanently superceded by science, and their social platforms of slavery, caste, gender relationships, and so on. In those cases, let the dead bury their dead.

In the big picture, however—in the widest-angle lens we can have on reality—there is nothing in modernity that equals the convergent wisdom of the world’s great religious traditions. The biologist Edward O. Wilson has said that the battle between the religious and scientific worldviews will be the struggle for the human soul in the twenty-first century. He thinks that the scientific worldview will be victorious. I do not think that it will be, but that is a crucial issue of our time, with the current battlefront being on whether Darwinism has the resources to give us the whole story of how we got here.

The fundamental issue in evolution is not origin, it’s anthropology, meaning who we are as human beings. The Darwinists say, “We are the more that have derived from the less.” Those who hold the religious view say, “We are the less who have derived from the more.” The latter believe that we are created in the image of God (or of whatever you wish to call the divine), and that gives us a stature that cannot be produced by natural selection working on chance variation. Both views have part of the truth. And, of course, the hope is that we can come to a reconciliation by acknowledging that fact. But at the moment the unfortunate thing is that Darwinians—I won’t say all, but the noisiest ones—will not allow religion any foothold in accounting for life and the universe, other than possibly what caused the Big Bang. They say, if you want to believe that God caused that at the beginning, well that’s your right. But they will not allow any intermediate causes to be countenanced.

I come now to my close, and I have three closes, but only one sentence each. One is that of a very prominent Victorian lady whose name I forget. Her last words were, “It’s all been very interesting,” and that certainly is the case as I look back over my life. The second is that, the older I get, the more the boundary between myself and my world appears perforated. There comes a time when I look back on the past I have traveled and say, “This is me”; look across the table at my wife of fifty-six years and say, “This is me”; feel my broken hip and its replacement and say, “This is me.” So it goes. The boundary between oneself and what one has experienced becomes perforated and tenuous. But I think the third close is my favorite. It comes from Saint John Chrisostom, who at his death was said to have exclaimed, “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.”

Thank you.


Huston Smith is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Syracuse University. He also taught at Washington University in Saint Louis, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California at Berkeley. His book Why Religion Matters was named the best religious book of the year 2001. This article is transcribed from the First Kern Lecture, delivered at the Bederman Auditorium, Chicago, Illinois, on April 18, 2002.


America’s religious landscape is changing before our eyes, and no one has done more to prepare us for the new religious reality than Huston Smith. —Bill Moyers

The amazing thing about Huston is that he was working on the perennial philosophy long before most people had even heard of it. Years before it became fashionable—multicultural wisdom traditions, the world’s religious heritage, the celebration of spiritual diversity, and spiritual unity—Huston was doing the work. —Ken Wilber

You have meant so much to so many, you have come with the voices of angels to remind us who we are, youhave come with the light of God to shine upon our faces and force us to remember, you have come as a beaconradiating in the darkest night of our confused and wretched souls, you have come as our own deepest beingto never let us forget. And you have done this consistently, and with integrity, and with brilliance, and with humility and courage and care, you have left, and are still leaving, a path in which we all will follow, and we will do so with more gratitude and respect and love than my words will ever be able to convey. —Ken Wilber

This is the task that is set before us. Personal transformation is the pathway of Theosophy and all quests for Truth. With sustained effort we can regulate our attitudes and actions, and little by little we can change our keynote to one of compassion and concern for all. Then the vibration of our being will be able to permeate the atmosphere, not with the distress of a siren, but with the call to responsible living and the music of altruism.

Hast thou attuned thy heart and mind to the great mind and heart of all mankind? For as the sacred River's roaring voice whereby all Nature-sounds are echoed back, so must the heart of him “who in the stream would enter,” thrill in response to every sigh and thought of all that lives and breathes.

—Voice of the Silence


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