And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life — Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World's Great Religious Leadersby Huston Smith
Spiritual trailblazer Huston Smith has written comprehensive books about religion and a memoir of his own life, but nowhere has he merged the two elements of seeking and experience with such storytelling flair as he has in these pages. Few have done as much as Smith to explore and illuminate the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, and none have done it with such accessibility, wonder, and delight. In this joyous volume, he looks back on his extraordinary life, describing riveting scenes with unforgettable characters in India, Africa, Tibet, and Japan. Smith’s charm and exuberance come through on every page.
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And Live Rejoicing: chapters from a charmed life
Personal Encounters With Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World's Great Religious Leaders
By Huston Smith
New World LibraryCopyright © 2012 Huston Smith
All rights reserved.
Saving the Moon and Other Memories of a Boyhood in China
Given my age, I may be the only person still living who witnessed the moon being saved.
My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in a Chinese town, Dzang Zok, about seventy miles from Shanghai. One night, when I was about ten years old, we heard an alert that the moon was in danger, a deafening din that woke us in the middle of the night. We knew from this noise that the dragon — the Chinese symbol of terror, awe, and might — was swallowing the moon and had to be scared away. So the townsfolk seized whatever noisemakers they could lay their hands on, such as pots and pans, to bang with large wooden spoons, and put them to frantic use. The strategy of noisemaking always prevailed. When the eclipse was total, the dragon eventually disgorged its prey, and the moon was soon safely back in the sky.
When I think about that exciting night, I ponder the fact that there we were, an American family surrounded by our Chinese neighbors, alike in our human capacities but worlds apart in our outlooks.
Today, more then eight decades later, I muse on that wondrous opportunity to experience two such radically distinct worlds. One world was populated with fire-breathing dragons, and the other features the Hubble telescope and all the other stunning discoveries of modern astronomy. Let me tell you more about growing up in China.
MY FAMILY IN TRADITIONAL CHINA
I was born in 1919, the second-oldest son to my parents, Wesley and Alice Smith. Our mother was born in China, for her parents were also missionaries, which means that my family's missionary lineage dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. We children were privy to a way of life that was relatively unchanged from the previous century and has since vanished into history.
My mother was fond of telling stories about the exotic side of China. I remember seeing a photograph of a man being carried in a sedan chair. Our mother told us that in the early days in China women were not to be seen outside their homes. To "go abroad," as we said in those days, meaning to leave the house, women had to be carried in sedan chairs that were completely encased in black cloth.
Occasionally, she would see on the streets of our town an elderly Chinese man with fingernails on one hand that were eight inches long. The arm was secured by some means to the opposite shoulder and moved so infrequently that it was virtually paralyzed. The point of this strange practice of growing such long fingernails was to underscore the fact that the man was a scholar, a much-revered profession in old China, and did not have to work for a living.
Around the same time, 1929 or 1930, with America mired in the Depression, my parents showed us a photograph that our grandparents had taken of a man who had been caught stealing. In China's marginal economy, prisons were out of the question, so the Chinese devised an ingenious alternative that local authorities meted out as punishment, the cangue, which dated back to at least the Ming dynasty. The invention was something like the pillory in the West, but portable. It was a square board with sides slightly longer than the length of the upper arm, and it was cut in half, with a half-circle in each half, so that when the boards were joined they would encircle a thief's neck. Fasten the boards together and — voilà! — you had a mobile prison. The prisoner could neither feed himself nor lie down without the help of his "jailers." What was perhaps even worse was the fact that the erstwhile thief was wandering the streets, unable to go home, and was being publicly shamed, which meant he lost face, almost the worst of fates in traditional China.
The punishment was so effective and inexpensive that one wonders why it was given up. I suspect it was because the Chinese didn't like to air their dirty laundry in public.
Traditional China was a meritocracy, and it produced another peculiar practice witnessed by our family. Every three years, government examinations were given in different parts of the country. One of those sites was in Nanking (the Chinese pronunciation is "Nanjing"), and its examination hall was close to the house where our mother had spent several years of her childhood. The hall was divided into cubicles large enough to contain only a bed, a table, a chair, and a commode.
The examination consisted of a single question — and it was the same question year after year — namely, to write about the Confucian classics. For the theory was that the study of those classics taught students to think for themselves. The classics were considered so important that government positions were given each year to the students with the highest scores. To prevent cheating, students were locked into those cubicles for the two days allotted for the examination. Food and water were pushed through an open slot at the bottom of the door.
One day, when she was a little girl, my mother was shown a pony, a crib sheet that a student had used on an examination. Knowing that the exam would determine whether or not he would receive a government position, the cheating student had written the classics in tiny characters on the lining of his gown and copied them onto the page provided by the school. The competition among the thousands who took the examinations was fierce; the students lived under a terrible strain. When it was all over, a student was occasionally found to have lost his mind, actually gone mad from the stress. The cheat sheet was social history. Today it would be hung in a museum.
The basic concept of studying the classics still strikes me as sound — not the emphasis on rote memory, but this type of meritocracy. What would our nation be like if it were ruled by intelligence instead of the hugely bankrolled campaigning that currently tips our own elections?
A WORLD OF NEVER AGAINS
With that brief dip into my mother's China, I will return to my own childhood there. The world that I grew up in, rural China near Shanghai in the 1920s, was a world, as I stated in Tales of Wonder, my first volume of memoirs, of never agains.
Never again will there be a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants that has never known an engine, a machine, or even a bicycle and has no telephones or electricity, though our family had a small coal-stoked generator that produced enough electricity to light our house.
Never again will there be a city of such size where the only outdoor sound that can be heard after dark is the barking of stray dogs. Hoping to quiet them, we first threw rocks at them from an upstairs window but soon discovered that pieces of coal worked even better because they shattered.
Never again will there be a place where the single-page newspaper is pasted to the walls in various parts of the city so it can be read by the 20 percent of the population that is literate.
Never again will there be a place where there is no pollution and stars hang so close overhead that one can imagine one is viewing them from the Himalayan peaks.
Never again will there be a place where men pull passengers in two-wheeled carriages known as rickshaws or carry them in sedan chairs, on which two men with flat poles on their shoulders carry passengers.
Never again will we have towns where the most conspicuous religion is folk religion and where bottles are positioned horizontally over the lintels of doors with their noses pointed outward to simulate cannons — it was believed they could warn evil spirits and that if these spirits tried to enter town they would be blown to smithereens.
Never again will there be a place where one can be awakened in the middle of the night by the piercing stench of night soil that is being carried to fertilize rice paddies.
Never again will the world hear the cry ting wou — "bowls mended" — by an itinerant craftsman who is vending his skill. I say never again because bowls today are made of plastic, which does not admit of clean breaks, and also because now it would be cheaper to simply replace a broken bowl than to mend it — even if we knew how to do that.
The list could be extended indefinitely, but I think that this is enough to make my point, and I hope I have given you a stronger sense of what my "never again" childhood was like.
RITUALS I REMEMBER
One of the other predominant memories I have from those early years in China is how crowded our hometown was. The houses shared common walls that divided their living quarters, and the town's labyrinthine lanes were so narrow that when I stretched out my arms, my hands touched the wooden walls of the houses on both sides of the lanes.
Even so, our back gate looked out over a vacant lot. The empty lot was reserved for the well-to-do in town, who had paper "death houses" built on them when they died. These death houses contained facsimiles of furniture, and often we would find genuine silk coverlets on the mock beds. The town's leading people streamed through the death houses to stare at the family's opulence and to revel in how the affluent lived.
At the appointed time of the funerals, Buddhist priests in their robes circumnavigated the death houses in a clockwise direction, chanting and playing their flutes. The sheaves of straw that were leaning on all sides of the house were ignited. The Buddhist priests circled the house as the house was engulfed in flames, carrying its ashen contents upward to serve the deceased in his afterlife.
On the last such occasion that I witnessed, a cardboard "death car" was parked by the front door of one of the cardboard death houses. It was surely one of the oddest sights of my life.
In the last such ceremony I attended, I witnessed the appearance of professional mourners, those who were hired by someone in the upper class to sit in at funerals from dawn till dusk. They were paid to weep and wail and pour out their souls.
Looking back on this memory it seems to me a perfect illustration of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen's influential theory of "conspicuous consumption," but on the other side of the world. The Chinese version of this social phenomenon was that only the rich could afford to hire mourners, called chi ku (in Wade-Giles transcription), which literally means a "bitterness-eater," those who were hired to devour the sorrow of those grieving at funerals.
A DEPRIVED OR A GIFTED CHILDHOOD?
Over the years some well-meaning people have suggested to me that it must have been hard to put up with the privations of my childhood growing up in rural China. But those people are wrong — dead wrong. For one thing, it never occurred to us children to think of being deprived, for we had never possessed, or even known about, many of the things that are commonplace today. Even now, as an adult in my twilight years, I don't think of myself as having been deprived, for growing up in China immeasurably enriched my life by expanding my experience. For I know about — and have lived — two different lives. Being raised in an ancient world meant owning far less paraphernalia, while my life in modern America has meant accumulating more encumbrances than I think are needed. I feel blessed by the good fortune that has come from living in two worlds in one lifetime.
My family lived during a time when China's central government was weak and warlords battled one another for power and control. Twice in my childhood the American consulate in Shanghai sent word that for safety's sake we must leave our town the next morning and go to Shanghai. We were told in no uncertain terms we could only take with us what we could carry in our own two hands. Only on the second of these sudden evacuations was I old enough to understand what was really happening. Our parents told my brother Walter and I that we could each carry one toy on our escape. I took my beloved Peter Rabbit stuffed animal.
The next morning I watched as our father handed over the house key to Tsai Kung, our cook, not knowing if we would ever see him or our house again. I saw a single tear drop from Tsai Kung's eye onto the key, and we departed.
After four months the political situation settled down enough for us to return home and pick up where we had left off with our lives.
During our sixty-seven years of marriage, my wife, Kendra, has often remarked that I seem to have a guardian angel perched on my left shoulder. On occasions I have had reason to think she was right.
My earliest memory is of being desperately thirsty as a young child when our area in China was suffering from a drought. One day when I was sick with flu my thirst was intensified by an interminable half-hour wait until I could have a teaspoon of cool water, because that was all that I could keep down without vomiting. But against heavy odds, I survived. All I could do then was endure the experience, but if I had had words to communicate thoughts, they would have expressed my gratitude and rejoicing that my life had been saved and that a future awaited me.
The future was far from assured, however. Twice again in my early years my life was almost snatched from me.
Dzang Zok, the city where we lived in China, abutted a hill, which as children we called a mountain because it was the highest we had ever seen. Our city was surrounded by a wall about thirty feet high. At 10:00 p.m. the gates in the city walls were closed and padlocked to prevent the looting of warlords and bandits, as discussed above.
One pleasant summer afternoon I decided to take a walk. I exited the North Gate and began to circumambulate the city wall counterclockwise. Incidentally, ours was one of three city walls in all of China that was round. All the others in the country were square. No one knows why there were these three exceptions.
When I had walked around the wall for about half a mile it occurred to me that I might climb over the wall and then almost roll down the hill to our house, which was at the bottom of it.
Let me insert a bit of contextual history here.
If it had been two centuries earlier, I could have walked a little farther around the city walls and entered the West Gate, but it had been walled up because a plague had decimated the city's inhabitants and the feng shui adepts said that the plague was being caused by evil spirits that were pouring through the West Gate. So, they declared, it had to be walled up. They also advised that a stubby pagoda be built on top of the hill to incarcerate any evil spirits that might escape.
I pondered my situation. The wall sloped inward as it ascended, and I noticed that it was tiered at each level and that the ledges could accommodate little more than half the width of a shoe if the shoe was placed sideways on them.
Glancing upward, I also noticed that the wall was thickly matted with heavy vines that I thought I could chin myself up on. The venture seemed feasible, so I started my climb.
As I ascended, however, the scene began to change in some worrisome ways. For one thing, the ledges were beginning to narrow to the point that they could no longer securely accommodate my feet. Also, the vines, having less soil to nurture them, were becoming sparser, and with less dirt for their roots to grip, they gave way at the slightest tug.
I became apprehensive. As I continued my climb, apprehension turned into panic. For what could I do? I couldn't descend, for I couldn't see where to place my feet. As for ascending, the danger increased with every step, for the vines were coming out with the slightest tug.
Still, I had to do something, for I was growing more and more fatigued. So with no time to think, I slinked my body up to the wall and, hoping against hope that the precariously narrow grip of my left shoe would hold, I lunged upward and managed to get a left-handed, two-finger grip on the top of the wall, followed by a right-handed, four-finger grip. I chinned my body to the top of the wall, flopped over, and rolled down the hill to our house, exhausted but safe. Thank you, guardian angel.
SHANGHAI HIGH SCHOOL
I loved our town and its people. I can't imagine a place where I would rather have been raised, or that would have served as a better launching pad into my adult life. However, eventually I was ready to move from my mother's tutelage around the dining room table to the Shanghai American School, or SAS.
My transition from Dzang Zok to Shanghai was typical for children of missionaries. We were taught at home until eighth grade, then we went to Shanghai for high school, and then we were off to America. There was no real conversation about it. It was just expected.
I was excited to fly the coop.
The day before I left for high school, a journey that took five hours by launch to Soochow, or Zhugjo, in Mandarin, then three hours by train from there to Shanghai, my father took the opportunity to tell me, "We're sorry to see you go away to Shanghai, but we would be even sorrier to see you stay." They knew how good it would be for me to go.
Excerpted from And Live Rejoicing: chapters from a charmed life by Huston Smith. Copyright © 2012 Huston Smith. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author
Huston Smith is recognized and revered as the preeminent teacher of world religions. Smith has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has written fifteen books, including the classic The World's Religions, which has sold over two million copies in many translations, and the New York Times bestseller Why Religion Matters. He has been bestowed with twelve honorary degrees and was the focus of the five-part television series The Wisdom of Faith hosted by Bill Moyers.
Phil Cousineau is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, filmmaker, creativity consultant, and literary tour leader. He has published over twenty-five books, including the worldwide bestseller The Art of Pilgrimage, for which Huston Smith wrote the foreword. Cousineau has written or cowritten eighteen documentary films and contributed to forty-two other books. Currently, he is the host and cowriter of the nationally broadcast television series Global Spirit on PBS. His forthcoming books are The Painted Word and Who Stole the Arms of the Venus de Milo?
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