I have been fortunate to meet several people who taught me about wisdom and in whose presence I traveled deeper and farther into the world of wonderment, beauty, grace and silence.
Huston Smith, Ph.D., is one such person and is, in my mind, a living saint, a man of prodigious knowledge and wisdom.
During his distinguished career as an author and professor of philosophy and religion, Dr. Smith managed to not only study, but practice Vedanta, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Sufism for over 10 years each. In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a five-part PBS special to Smith’s life and work, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.
Huston Smith has paid his dues.
He has earned his credibility the old fashioned way: through many years of study, practice, reflection and realization. He embodies wisdom. One of my favorite Smith aphorisms is:
“The goal of spiritual practice is not altered states, but altered traits.”
I love this emphasis on behavior as the signature of authentic spirituality. Anyone can talk the talk, and many do; but how many walk it?
In these modern times of quick fixes and instant everythings, of faux Vedanta and simpleton solutions to existential complexity, of unseasoned and inexperienced teachers, of commercial success trumping inner maturity, Smith is a unique beacon of depth, clarity, and compassion—a man whose light comes from a born-long-ago star of authentic being.
Some years ago, I went to a bookstore in Berkeley to hear Huston speak about his newest book, Why Religion Matters. When he asked for questions, I raised my hand. He called on me and I said, “Dr. Smith, if you had a microphone to speak to the entire world for 60 seconds, what might you say that would represent the essence of the world’s wisdom traditions?”
His smile was beautiful, as was the gleam in his eye. He didn’t even have to think.
He spoke immediately, but with words carefully considered,
“Well, that’s an easy question! In fact, I asked the same thing to one of my mentors, Aldous Huxley, many years ago. I can’t really do better than to tell you what Aldous told me, in answer to the same question which I put to him many years ago. He took in my words, and then was silent for a while, reflecting, I would imagine, on his lifetime of study, practice, and experience. Finally, he said what I will say to you, in answer to your question to winnow the world’s wisdom.”
I was sitting on my chair totally focused on Huston, opening every ear in my being to hear whatever he would say next. It was a glorious moment.
Here was Huston Smith, about to impart the essence of what he knew, of what Aldous knew, of what the wisdom-keepers throughout human history knew—the entire scope and spectrum of fathomed wisdom from the first dawn of human existence to this evening in Berkeley.
He smiled. His light was enormous. Finally, he spoke.
“Here is what Aldous told me. Here is what I tell you, and what I would tell the world. Here is the essence of the world’s wisdom…”
What he told me may not seem like much, or enough. Perhaps you’re hoping for something more transcendently exotic, or intellectually dense or philosophically subtle.
To me, what he said is both profound and practical.
If we would all keep Huston’s words, the winnowed wisdom of the world, alive in our minds and hearts in each and every moment, and let them guide our every act, however big or small, if we could do this, if we would do this, I believe we’d create heaven on earth within minutes.
Here is what Huston Smith said to me:
“Try to be a little kinder.”
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Reddy Aprianto/Flickr