Huston Smith, the grand master of world religions, speaks to Tricycle about his current concerns
The Religions of Man, Huston Smith’s classic introductory text, was first published in 1958 and has been widely used in high schools and colleges. Its chapter on Shakyamuni Buddha became one of the galvanizing forces in the rapid spread of interest in Buddhism. The book has since been reissued as The World’s Religions and has sold close to two million copies. Smith has taught at Washington University, MIT, Syracuse, and the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000).
I am concerned about the relationship between “spirituality” and “religion” and the way those terms are being used because it’s become increasingly common for spirituality to indirectly denigrate religion. People used to make a distinction between religion and religious institutions, and that is a valid distinction. But then spirituality came along, and everything spiritual was good and everything to do with religion was bad. Religion became equated with dogmatism and moralism. Of course, there are institutional problems with religions. There’s not a single institution that doesn’t have a dark side. Would you dispense with learning because of the institutional problems of universities? I was born a Methodist and have immersed my life in Christianity, not only conceptually but experientially, as deeply as I could. Christian institutions have committed all kinds of sins. You can’t tag any sins onto spirituality because it’s not an object, it’s an internal virtue, an internal state. So religion has gotten tarred, and within the academy, where I’ve spent my life, it gets very roughly handled.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Buddhism is a religion. And actually Buddhism has, I think, probably the best social record of any of the great religions. Of course, right now monks in Sri Lanka have become vicious little militant leaders. But looking at the whole history, we see relatively few instances where Buddhist teachings were used to justify violent action. There are exceptions, but overall not many.
Now Buddhism is meeting up with secularism. America today, and Western Europe as well, is the most secular society that history has ever experienced. And it remains to be seen if a society this secular can endure. I think the society will endure but move back gradually from its rank secularism. And here is where spirituality plays a very important role. For example, Steven Pinker, head of the Cognitive Science program at MIT, and Richard Dawkins, teamed up to give huge sellout talks in London and Paris—people were scalping tickets! And the title was, “Is Science Killing the Spirit?” Even those people accepted the word “spirit,” because it gathers into itself only positive meanings. For this reason it can be used to good ends, because spirituality can seep into the culture subtly, with less scrutiny and friction than any new religion. But it doesn’t have to gain ground by putting down religion.
In religious studies as a whole, Buddhism is a special case because the Buddha himself had no personal god. It seems clear enough that Gautama felt that this notion of a personal god had become a crutch in Hinduism. So he pushed it aside and that left its mark. But this very aspect is what appeals to “spiritual” interests. Folks feel that they don’t have to make a commitment to a personal god. But of course Buddhism is a demanding, rigorous path. Renunciation, within a monastic context or a secular context, is at the heart of this religion, just like the others. When people choose to define Buddhism as “spiritual” and not “religious,” their view tends to accompany an attitude that says, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
America is not only the most secular society in the world, it is the most individualistic. For many American Buddhists, the favorite saying of the Buddha is, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Now actually, you find that same thing everywhere in Christianity—“Seek and ye shall find,” et cetera. But in Buddhism, in the absence of a god figure, this can become license to do whatever you want and still call it Buddhism. But Buddhism itself doesn’t support that. All religions, including Buddhism, have organizing principles, proven pointers, to help guide us through our lives. And if you sign onto Buddhism and don’t follow these, well, then you’re left with Saint Ego picking and choosing things that satisfy oneself. That is not Buddhism.
One alternative to this is to find a master. A master gets one beyond choosing only what appeals to one’s own ego. Of course, over the last twenty years we’ve seen abuses of power by gurus. That’s the downside. The upside is that we need models. Children need models, and in the spiritual life we are all children. But how do you know when you ought to be standing on your own feet? Or when you realize: I’m in the presence of somebody who is more on top of life than I am, and I have something to learn from this person. There are people who are further along than we are, and to pour one’s life into the mold of such persons can be very constructive. But when should we put the emphasis on one foot or on the other? There’s no formula.
I’ll be seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama soon. He’s my guru, so I’m not going to challenge him. But I am concerned about something he’s been saying recently, that “we need a religion of kindness. Kindness is my religion.” Further, he has been adding that religion creates differences and division. This is all true, of course, and it is also true that he’s in a special position in history, which makes it important that his words echo and resonate in the minds and the hearts of people. But I’m afraid that this view accommodates the self-oriented tendency to do what you feel like doing and also falls in with the denigration of religion.
These are interesting times, very promising times in many ways. We may have started to work our way out of our excessive secularism. We seem to be realizing that materialism, secularism, reductionism, and consumerism are inadequate premises on which to lead our lives—that they drain the wonder and the mystery out of life and experience and are dead ends. Buddhism is helping with this and carries the force of being a very old religion. “Spirituality” can’t get traction in history the way religions—spiritual containers, if you will—can. That’s why, for all its sins, the Christian churches have been able to play crucial roles in, say, the civil rights movement, or in keeping the U.S. troops out of Guatamala and El Salvador.
One of the important roles that Buddhism has played in the West is that the West took the esoteric or mystical aspects of Buddhism out of the monasteries and made them available to the laity. This helped revitalize interest in the mystical aspects of Christianity and Judaism. In some cases, it furthered the return of contemplative practices in those religions that had fallen into neglect. Mystics all speak the same language. They understand each other. Buddhism has brought new life to the Abrahamic religions, and this has been a wonderful contribution.
Photo courtesy HarperSanFrancisco