The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Lifeby Huston Smith
"Where can we find what is ultimately meaningful? How can we discover what is truly worth knowing?" In one form or another Huston Smith has been posing these questions to himself--and the world--all his life. In the course of seeking answers, he has become one of the most interesting, enlightening, and celebrated voices on the subject of religion and spirituality throughout the world. The twenty-three interviews and essays in this volume, edited by cultural historian and filmmaker Phil Cousineau, offer a uniquely personal perspective on Smith's own personal journey, as well as wide-ranging reflection on the nature and importance of the religious quest.
In The Way Things Are, readers will find Smith in conversation with some of the world's most influential personalities and religious leaders, from journalist Bill Moyers to religion scholar Philip Novak, and recounting his personal experiences with such luminaries as Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Daisetz Suzuki, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama. Throughout these engaging exchanges Smith speaks with passion and humor of his upbringing as the son of missionary parents in China, of the inspiring and colorful individuals he has known, and of his impressions of the different religious and philosophical traditions he has encountered. A fascinating view of the state of world religion and religious leadership over the past fifty years, the book also looks to the future with a final interview on the vital importance of the transcendent message of religion for the post-9/11 world.
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The Way Things Are
Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life
By Huston Smith
Copyright © 2003
Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
The Sacred Dimensions of Everyday Life
This interview by Holistic Education Review editor Jeffrey Kane took place
during the summer of 1993 and appeared in Holistic Education Review 6, no.
4 (Winter 1993). Reprinted by permission of Holistic Education Review.
Jeffrey Kane: Holistic Education Review begins with the idea that there is
a spiritual dimension to reality and that it should make a difference in
the way we educate children. The first question I'd like to ask you is, As
you walk down the street, or as you eat your meal, or as you go to bed at
night, do you see a spiritual dimension which pervades everyday existence?
Huston Smith: If I answer honestly and personally (it's a personal
question), the answer is some days I do, and some days I don't. But let me
say immediately that on the days that I don't, I feel unwell, you might
say. It is as if I have the spiritual flu-something like that. When you
have the flu you feel rotten, and when you have the spiritual flu the
world seems drained of meaning and purpose-humdrum and prosaic. But I've
lived long enough to be able to say when those days roll 'round: okay,
this is the yin and yang of life-ups and downs. This is one of those dark
days of the ego. Most of the time, though, meaning and purpose are
discernible, often to lyrical heights. Those moments are privileged; they
are gifts. Even when my happiness isn't at a rolling boil, I tend to know
that there is a spiritual dimension to all things.
Kane: When you think about the spiritual dimensions of reality, is it in
the everydayness of the world, is it in a glass of water, or in the air
that we breathe?
Smith: It's everywhere. Everything is an outpouring of the infinite that
is spiritual in essence, so everything reflects that spirit. Blake is
famous for having said that if the doors of perception were cleansed, we
would see everything as it truly is-infinite. For him infinitude was also
perfection. Limitations exist in us, not in the world.
Kane: Would it be going too far to say that everything is truly sacred if
we see it rightly?
Smith: Not too far at all. As the Thomists say, esse qua esse bonum est:
"being as being is good." Of course the evil in the world tests that
principle, but I think it can be defended.
Kane: I remember back to C.S. Lewis, in the beginning of The Screwtape
Letters, where he explains that the devil must consume souls because he
has no being himself.
Smith: That's a good way to put it. There's another route to the same
point. Heroin is horrible, but at the moment of the high, that high itself
isn't bad. It's the toll it takes that is bad. Even cancer cells aren't
bad in isolation. It's only the way they prey on other cells that's evil.
Kane: Do you think we might actually have here a very quick first inroad
to educating children? Would it be too much to say that one of the most
fundamental things we need to do if we are to educate children is to help
them see all things as sacred?
Smith: It would be wonderful if we could do that. Education is more your
province than mine, but I've always thought that if I stop teaching
university/college students I'd like to teach preschool. Somehow it's two
ends of the spectrum that attract me.
Kane: Incidentally, Rudolf Steiner made a point of saying that people who
teach the youngest children should be the oldest teachers. Such matters
aside, do you believe Emerson offered a signpost to the sacred with his
contention that the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in
Smith: He's right. I wonder if tribal peoples, being closer to nature than
we are, do better at that-seeing everything aglow with the sacred. That
may be only a myth that we somehow need today, but I think it's more than
that. Unencumbered by the busyness and humdrum of contemporary life,
tribal peoples seem able to hold on to the shining world that children are
Kane: Do you think that the "doors of perception" can be cleansed through
aesthetic experience-through experiences of nature, for example?
Smith: Definitely. Just this morning I wrote something on that subject
because The World's Religions is coming out in an illustrated edition that
will include the world's religious art. In writing the preface for this
new edition, I found myself saying that the function of sacred art-and
indeed beauty of every sort, virgin nature emphatically included-is to
make easy what would otherwise be difficult. If one is viewing an icon (in
a way, all sacred art is iconic), then the icon basically disappears by
offering itself up to the divine. The energy of the divine pours through
it into the viewer, one consequence being that the viewer's heart is
expanded and becomes uplifted by a great work of art. Note that word
uplifted. Can you imagine performing in that state a despicable act? It's
often difficult for us to act compassionately, but sacred art eases the
difficulty by ennobling us. So your point is well taken, including your
emphasis on virgin nature.
Kane: Might nature be considered the greatest of sacred art?
Smith: That's interesting. I do think of sacred art and virgin nature as
two of the clearest apertures to the divine, but I've never thought of
rank-ordering them. I think of Plato's statement that "beauty is the
splendor of the true." I like that because it gets us beyond thinking of
nature and art simply as pleasure giving. They do far more than that. They
offer insight into the true nature of things.
Kane: Beauty wouldn't then be simply in the eye of the beholder?
Smith: Not ultimately, though there's partial truth in the saying that
when a young man falls in love with a girl, he sees something in her that
others don't see. The romantic illusions that color his perception don't
alter the fact that at that moment he is closer than any other human being
to seeing her the way God sees her. When I hear someone say, "I don't see
what he sees in her," I feel like responding, "Don't you wish you could?"
I don't think it's naively romantic to think that romantic love opens a
window to the inner nobility of the beloved, one that is closed to
Kane: Would it be fair to say that beauty is something one is open to,
rather than something that someone creates in the act of perception?
Smith: Yes, that's the case.
Kane: Could we rightly look at beauty as a matter of impression, as well
as expression? Normally we think of art as expression, as subjective
Smith: Something of the artist figures, but the accent is on what comes to
him or her. It's imprinted, as you say. I like your way of putting it.
Kane: Perhaps we've reached a second education implication here, and I
wonder what your thoughts are. If we are going to educate children
rightly, perhaps we should spend a good deal of time in nature study and
art (again to use the phrase)-as impression, attempting to open children
to the beauty in the world.
Smith: I am sure that is true.
Kane: There was once a teacher who taught me about Shakespeare. He said
that Shakespeare pointed to various aspects of human existence and the
human condition, and that he pointed beautifully with great accuracy. He
(my teacher) said what we often do in school is we say, "Look how nicely
he points. You see how his eye is lined up with his finger? He's pointing
very directly." But this overlooks what he's pointing toward. I wonder if
that isn't true as well-a flower unfolding, or a cloud passing in the sky,
again, opens a door, or provides a lens into something beyond itself.
Smith: The notion of pointing, of course, suggests the Zen adage of the
finger pointing at the moon. If we obsess over the finger, we overlook the
moon. It's very true. Much of education falls into that trap. In higher
education I am distressed by the proportion of attention that goes to
methodology rather than content.
Kane: When we begin to think of there being sacredness, or when we
recognize this sacredness in the everyday, does knowledge have a different
"shape" than we normally think of knowledge having in the West?
Smith: I think it does. My favorite book on this subject is Seyyed Hossein
Nasr's Knowledge and the Sacred. He speaks from a traditional point of
view. To fill in the background, in the hundred of years of the Gifford
Lectures-the most prestigious humanities lecture series in the West-Nasr
is the only non-Westerner ever to have been included. His thesis is that
knowledge is not so much that which discloses the sacred as that which is
sacred in itself for partaking in the knowing source from which
intelligence derives. Human intelligence is a reflection of the
intelligence that produces everything. In knowing, we are simply extending
the intelligence that comes to and constitutes us. We mimic the mind of
God, so to speak. Or better, we continue and extend it.
Kane: So knowing and being are intimately related?
Smith: In the end they are identical. That probably holds for all positive
attributes. The closer to their source we draw, the more we find them
Kane: I think it is a particularly important point that, in the West, the
concept of knowledge is impersonal and detached. We take out being, and
say it has no place. What you are saying here is that knowledge is imbued
with being. It is a direct experience. Knowledge cannot be detached as
such. Would you say that knowledge of that sort is what helps you on those
days when you see the sacred in the everyday?
Smith: I am sure that is the case. To linger for a moment on this issue of
detached, objective knowledge, writing-whatever its virtues, and I think
there are some-is especially vulnerable to becoming detached, because
writing can be disconnected from the writer. There it is in print, dead
and frozen. Speech, on the other hand, is not only alive, it is life,
because it cannot be separated from the living person in one mode of his
or her own being. Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead
knowledge, dead facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.
Kane: To quote Emerson once again, "To the wise, fact is true poetry."
Would poetry present the same dilemma?
Smith: No, because poetry is art, and we've already talked about that.
Poetry is a special use of language that opens onto the real. The business
of the poet is truth-telling, which is why in the Celtic tradition no one
could be a teacher unless he or she was a poet.
Kane: Would you say if someone has learned and has become inwardly active
through learning, then the knowledge gained becomes part of his or her
being? Would he or she be a different person than he or she was prior?
Smith: We have to differentiate between life-giving learning and kinds
that deaden the mind. I think of a TV program around mid-century (there
have doubtless been other since) that featured savants, essentially. They
were amazing-veritable walking encyclopedias-
Kane: -what was the day of the week for January 1, Year 1, that sort of
Smith: Yes, and, Who won the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1952? I
was living in Saint Louis at the time, and the national champion in that
particular series turned out to be a Saint Louisan. People knew him. He
was unemployed. Couldn't get a job as a postal clerk because he couldn't
pass the civil service exam. So when we talk about knowledge and learning,
we have to distinguish between useless kinds and kinds that are
useful-practically useful, but more important, useful in raising the
stature of our lives.
Kane: Please forgive me if I ask you an unfair question: If we follow this
through, is it possible that we educate whole generations of savants, just
in the sense that you use the term?
Smith: More than possible, I suspect. And that's what turns off kids from
learning, of course-when it seems like rote memory, and what's it for? We
give them hoops to jump through, keeping the destination-purpose and the
point-clearly before them.
Kane: Many educators have recognized the limitations of a positivistic
model of knowledge. They know that role learning no longer works, or
perhaps that it never did. The new paradigm that drives education is based
upon a computer analogue wherein we storehouse individual bits of
knowledge, discrete and separable. These bits can then be put into motion,
as it were, through a program in critical thinking, for example. It often
seems to me that we are trying to put the pieces in motion artificially
without, again, reference to the content itself, without reference to
being. So you might say that readers of this interview could argue, "Well,
the fact of the matter is that we are teaching children how to put ideas
together, how to think." But I wonder if that still doesn't miss the
Smith: I think it does. I've heard about this issue; I am not in close
touch with what actually goes on, but I share your skepticism about
teaching critical thinking in the abstract. It doesn't work because
thinking never proceeds in a vacuum. So to be effective, thinking must
adapt and be faithful to the context in which it works. My skepticism here
ties in with my earlier skepticism about method in general. We always know
more than we know how we know it, so we get farther by attending to the
"what" than to the "how." The trouble with trying to work out a method for
knowing is that it will rule out resources that don't conform to it. Every
method is, in ways, a straitjacket, a Procrustean bed. True, we all do
have methods, and when we run into problems, it might be well to try to
spot and revise if need be the course that brought us to the problem. But
to put method first is putting the cart before the horse.
Kane: If I am following you correctly, and tying it back to what you said
before, it is being that animates knowledge. It is not the method that
Smith: Yes. In the final analysis what we know derives from our entire
being. Historians of knowledge are providing us with detailed examples of
breakthroughs where frontier scientists, say, simply discarded oceans of
evidence because something deep lying in them generated a "gut feeling"
that the truth lay elsewhere. Had they toed the line of the so-called
scientific method, the breakthroughs wouldn't have occurred.
Kane: E.A. Burt-
Smith: -he was a dear friend of mine.
Kane: -in his classic work, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern
Scientists, maintained that if Copernicus had presented his thoughts to
thorough-going empiricists, he would have been laughed out of court.
Excerpted from The Way Things Are
by Huston Smith
Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Huston Smith, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Syracuse University, is considered the country's preeminent public scholar of world religions. The author of The Religions of Man (1958, republished as The World's Religions in 1991) and Why Religion Matters (2001), Smith has influenced multiple generations of readers, artists, scholars, and students. He has been profiled in a PBS series by Bill Moyers and appears frequently on national TV and radio. Phil Cousineau is the author and editor of numerous books, including, most recently, Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times (2001), The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred (1998), and Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity (1997).
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