Huston Smith: Spirit Chaser

By Moina Arcee, Aug 23, 2014, edited August 28 2018

Huston Smith biography

Hot off the presses is Dana Sawyer’s authorized biography of Western Civilization’s premier spiritual and religious mind: Huston Smith: Wisdomkeeper, Living The World’s Religions.

The reader groans: Not another beatifically smiling guru telling me I’m doing everything wrong and my only chance of redemption is buying his product…

Relax. Huston Smith isn’t selling anything. Or maybe he is selling everything – everything religious, that is. Huston Smith has had perhaps the most remarkable religious life of any living human being. And at a lucid, clear headed ninety-five years of age, he is not over his love affair with religions.

That’s right. ‘Religions’ in plural form. For Huston Smith never met a religion he didn’t like. He has been a committed Hindu, a devout Buddhist, and a reverent Muslim. Quite a spiritual palette for a Methodist missionary’s kid born and raised in China. Smith remembered growing up speaking Chinese with his brother, and assuming that every Christian family was missionary. While many people have bittersweet memories of their religious upbringing, Smith’s memories are positive:

“The faith I was born into formed me…in my case, my religious upbringing was positive. Of course, not everyone has this experience. I know many of my students are what I have come to think of as wounded Christians or wounded Jews. What came through to them was dogmatism and moralism, and it rubbed them the wrong way. What came through to me was very different: We’re in good hands, and in gratitude for that fact it would be well if we bore one another’s burdens (Interview with Mother Jones magazine, see Sources).”

Gerald Heard

At age seventeen Smith came to America to become a minister, and then return to China. Intrigued by the subject of mysticism, Smith became a follower of Gerald Heard in 1947. Also the son of a clergyman (Anglo/Irish), Heard came to America to write and speak about science, politics, theology, philosophy, and the evolution of consciousness, a topic that really caught on in the 1960’s.

Unknown today, Heard was a true spiritual pioneer in the Western world of rationalism, scientism, and a schizoid Christianity: liberal Christians who tolerated everything but dogma and doctrine, and conservative Christians whose worship of dogma and doctrine bred religious exclusivity. Flying above and below this duality, Heard was one of the first champions of comparative religion, a subject Huston Smith would mine for the rest of his life. When Smith landed a teaching post in St. Louis Missouri, Heard encouraged him to contact Swami Satprakashananda, founder of the St. Louis Vedanta Society. Smith recalled:

“I was perfectly content with Christianity until Vedanta — the philosophical version of Hinduism — came along. When I read the Upanishads, which are part of Vedanta, I found a profundity of worldview that made my Christianity seem like third grade… Later, I found out that the same truths were there in Christianity — in Meister Eckehart, St. Augustine, and others. But nobody had told me, not even my professors in graduate school. So, for 10 years, though I still kept up my perfunctory attendance at my Methodist church — a certain kind of grounding, I think, is useful — my spiritual center was in the Vedanta Society, whose discussion groups and lectures fed my soul.”

The Young Professor

So for ten years Smith was a Methodist Hindu. Then Buddhism came along and, according to Smith, “another tidal wave broke over me. In none of these moves did I have any sense that I was saying goodbye to anything. I was just moving into a new idiom for expressing the same basic truths.” Smith devoted himself to the study of Zen Buddhism under the rigorous Rinzai Zen master Goto Zuigan for the next ten to fifteen years. Smith tells humorous tales of becoming completely infuriated trying to solve Zen koans, yelling at his calm, smiling Zen master, and just not getting the hang of Zen – at least at first.

In 1958 Huston Smith was appointed professor and chair of the philosophy department at MIT. That same year his first book was published: The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. It became his most enduring (and best selling) book.  Smith was professor at MIT until 1973. During that time his immersion in Buddhism transitioned into the study of Islam. He also experimented with taking LSD, again with an assist from Gerald Heard.

Heard introduced Smith to writer and spiritual savant Aldous Huxley, who in turn introduced Smith to Harvard professor Timothy Leary, who in turn introduced MIT Professor Huston Smith to psychedelic drugs.

At the time LSD was legal, and its use was respectable (until Leary got stupid about things). It was not viewed as a recreational drug, but as a possible portal into the mystic world of religious experience. Using LSD was strictly controlled and the recording of experiences was documented and assessed using the scientific method. Smith took LSD along with Alcoholics Anonymous’ founder Bill Wilson. Both thought LSD might help bypass the “tyranny of the ego” and open the human spirit to direct religious experience. Smith’s conclusion is a famous one:

“The heart of religion is not altered states but altered traits of character. For me, then, the test of a substance’s religious worth or validity is not what kind of far-out experience it can produce, but is the life improved by its use? That’s the test.”

Bill Moyers

He then moved to Syracuse University, where he was appointed Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion,. He also taught philosophy until 1983, when he retired from the university. But Huston Smith never retired from ardent spiritual seeking. In 1996 Bill Moyers produced a five part PBS special entitled The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith. Smith’s film documentaries on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism have won international awards.

Smith has written over a dozen books on various branches of religion. He has studied and conversed with virtually all contemporary religious and spiritual minds, for instance Alan Watts,D. T. Suzuki, Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama, Joseph Campbell, Ram Dass, and many others. After his retirement Smith became deeply involved in the study of Native American spirituality, and added a chapter on this subject to his World’s Religions book.

The World's Religions

About the only branch of spirituality Smith is publicly skeptical of is New Age. Despite his deep explorations of other religious traditions, and his belief in their validity as spiritual paths that lead to God, Smith still identifies himself as a Christian. He claims his parents “instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity.”

His more recent works are passionate defenses of Christianity and an insistence that a belief in God was crucial to the welfare of humanity: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” Smith is a universalist, that is, he believes everyone is saved, and that God made special paths suited for the temperament and gifts of different races.

While he decries religious fundamentalism (be it Christian or Muslim), Smith also claims to be a religious traditionalist: he believes in God, he believes there are religious rules which must be followed, and he expresses a belief in hell, although this is a subject very rarely mentioned. And for a religious traditionalist, Smith looks askance at organized religion:

“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.”

In the end, Huston Smith’s religion is difficult to classify. Is it possible to simultaneously be a Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim? Is it possible to be a religious traditionalist and believe everyone is saved?

Huston Smith

What comes through clearly in all his books, DVDs, and interviews, is that Huston Smith is sincere and passionate about God. Also clear is that Smith is not a spiritual gadfly. He did not flit from one religion to another like a dilettante. When he studied a religion that religion became a part of him, and he became a part of the religion he was studying. He is a fascinating man, and can speak from the inside out on the major religions of our civilization. Rather than try to classify him religiously, one may profit more by simply enjoying his “tales of wonder,” and “chapters from a charmed life.”



The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, 1958, rev. ed. 1991, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-250811-3

Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, 1976, reprint ed. 1992, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-250787-7

Beyond the Postmodern Mind, 1982, reprint ed. 1989, Quest Books, ISBN 0-8356-0647-3

The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions,1995, HarperOne, ISBN 0-06-067440-7

Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, 2000, Tarcher/Putnam,

Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, 2001, HarperOne, 1st ed.:ISBN 0-06-067099-1, reprint 2002: Islam: A Concise Introduction, HarperOne, 2001, ISBN 0-06-166018-3

The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, 2003, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23816-8 (cloth); ISBN 0-520-24489-3(paper) Edited and with a Preface by Phil Cousineau

Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, with Philip Novak, HarperOne, 2004,

The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, 2005, HarperOne, 1st ed. ISBN 0-06-079478-X[

A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom, 2006, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-24439-7 (cloth) Edited and with a Preface by Phil Cousineau With Assistance from Gary Rhine

Tales of Wonder, an autobiographical review of his life and associations.

And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life — Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders, 2012, With contributions from Phil Cousineau

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