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Smith, Huston

Category: Ordinary person

Huston Cummings Smith (born May 31, 1919 - died – December 30, 2016) was a religious studies scholar in the United States. His book The World's Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man)  sold over two million copies and remains a popular introduction to comparative religion.

Smith was born in China to Methodist missionaries and spent his first 17 years there. Upon coming to the U.S. for education, he studied at Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago.

As a young man, he turned from traditional Methodist Christianity to mysticism, influenced by the writings of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley.

In 1947, before moving from Denver to St. Louis, Smith wrote to Gerald Heard, who invited him to his Trabuco College in Southern California, where Heard made arrangements to have Smith meet Aldous Huxley. It was there that Smith was told to look up Swami Satprakashananda of the Vedanta Society once he settled in St. Louis. So began Smith's experimentation with meditation and association with the Vedanta Society of the Ramakrishna order.

During his career, Smith not only studied, but practiced Vedanta, Zen Buddhism (studying under Goto Zuigan), and Sufi Islam for more than ten years each.

Smith also developed an interest in the work of René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. This interest became a continuing thread in all his writings.

Smith taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for ten years. He was then appointed professor and chair of the philosophy department at MIT from 1958 to 1973.

Thanks to his connection with Heard and Huxley, Smith went on to meet Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and others at the Center for Personality Research, where Leary was Research Professor. The group began experimenting with psychedelics and what Smith later called "empirical metaphysics." The experience and history of the group are described in Smith's book Cleansing the Doors of Perception. During this period, Smith was also part of the Harvard Project, an attempt to raise spiritual awareness through entheogenic plants.

He eventually moved to Syracuse University, where he was Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy.  During his tenure at Syracuse University, he studied the religious traditions and practises of the Onondaga Native American people. Smith also supported Native Americans in their battle in the Supreme Court to use Peyote as a religious sacrament; with his help in 1994, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendment.

Smith retired in 1983 with emeritus status. At the University of California, Berkeley he was visiting professor of religious studies. 

Smith remained a practicing Christian until he died in December 2016.  He credited his faith to his missionary parents who had "instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity ".

If we take the world's enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.
Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion... religion is institutionalized spirituality.
The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.

References

Interview - Quite a good interview with Huston Smith where he talks about his books and death.

Television - In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith's life and work, "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith". Smith produced three series for public television: "The Religions of Man", "The Search for America", and (with Arthur Compton) "Science and Human Responsibility".

Film - His films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won awards at international film festivals.

  • The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith: A Bill Moyers Special: A Personal Philosophy, 1996, PBS, DVD
  • The Roots of Fundamentalism: A Conversation with Huston Smith and Phil Cousineau, 2006, GemsTone, DVD
  • Death and Transformation: The Personal Reflections of Huston Smith, 2007, Fons Vitae, DVD
    The Arc of Life: Huston Smith on Life, Death & Beyond, 2012, GemsTone, DVD

Music recordings - In 1967, during a trip to India, Smith stayed in a Gyuto Tibetan Buddhist monastery and recorded the monks chanting and asked acoustic engineers at MIT to analyse the sound. They confirmed it was overtone singing. The recording was released as an LP titled Music of Tibet

Books

  • The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, 1958,
  • Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions, 1976, reprint ed. 1992,
  • Beyond the Postmodern Mind, 1982, reprint ed. 1989,
  • The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions,1995,
  • Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, 2000,
  • Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, 2001,
  • Islam: A Concise Introduction,
  • The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, 2003,
  • Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, with Philip Novak, 2004,
  • The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, 2005,
  • A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom, 2006,
  • Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, (autobiography), 2009,
  • And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life — Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World's Great Religious Leaders, 2012

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