By grace and good luck, I’ve been privileged to know some remarkable people during my 78 years. One of them was Huston Smith, who died a week ago at age 97. Forgive this longish post, but 97 years can’t be properly celebrated with a Tweet—not when they were lived the way Huston lived his.
Huston wrote the finest and most widely-read intro to world religions. First published as “The Religions of Man” in 1958, later retitled as “The World’s Religions,” it’s a book that opened new worlds for countless students.
A quote from the NY Times obituary reveals Huston’s boundless curiosity about the varieties of wisdom: “In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment — to ‘turn our flashes of insight into abiding light,’ as he put it — he meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.” But Huston remained a Methodist to the end of his life. He was large and he contained multitudes!
I have a vivid memory of sharing a three-day program with Huston and Rabbi Zalman Schachter at Naropa, the Buddhist-inspired university in Boulder, Colorado. One night, 800 people gathered under a huge tent on the Naropa grounds to hear Huston and Zalman discuss their understandings of God. At one point—as storm clouds gathered over the tent—their dialogue turned into a friendly debate. Huston was was challenging something Zalman had said, when one of the loudest thunder claps I’ve ever heard exploded right over the tent. As the audience gasped, Huston threw up his hands, leaned toward Zalman and said, “OK! You win! Call your guy off!”
Many knew Huston as a scholar. I’m one of the lucky ones who also knew him as a kind, gentle, generous, and light-hearted person. His humanity is on full display in an anecdote at the end of his obituary: “His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed. ‘Dear God,’ it said, ‘I’m doing the best I can.'”
Rest in peace, dear man. Thank you for spending nearly a century gifting us with your presence! You are already missed…