Winnowing the World’s Wisdomsam
by Robert Rabbin
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 is one such person, and it is about an encounter with him that I wish to write.
Huston Smith is, to my mind, a living saint, a man of prodigious knowledge and wisdom. A few lines from his Wikipedia biography shed light on his distinguished life of spiritual devotions:
“Huston Smith was born in Soochow, China to Methodist missionaries and spent his first 17 years there. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver from 1944-1947, moving to Washington University in St. Louis, MO for the next ten years, and then Professor of Philosophy at MIT from 1958-1973. While at MIT he participated in some of the experiments with entheogens conducted by Professor Timothy Leary at Harvard University. He then moved to Syracuse University where he was Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy until his retirement in 1983 and current emeritus status. He now lives in the Berkeley, CA area where he is Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at U.C. Berkeley.
“During his career, Smith not only studied, but practiced Vedanta, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism for over ten years each. In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith’s life and work, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.” Smith has produced three series for public television: “The Religions of Man,” “The Search for America,” and (with Arthur Compton) “Science and Human Responsibility.” His films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won awards at international film festivals. He is the author of numerous books, including The World’s Religions, the most widely used university textbook on comparative religions.”
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 “brand” 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.
A few 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.”
It’s important to know who Aldous Huxley was (as if being one of Huston’s mentors weren’t enough!). Huxley was brilliant: a true pioneer of consciousness studies, one of the midwifes of the human potential movement, and the acclaimed author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Huxley was, like Smith, a rare and potent blend of scholar, interpreter, explorer, and experiencer of the inner realms of mystical consciousness and human motivation and behavior. Together, they are a dynamic duo of spiritual super heroes, which is why we must pay close and careful attention to their answer to the question I put to Huston, 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 as profound and practical as an embodied being can be. If we would all keep his words alive in our minds and hearts in each and every moment, and let Huston’s words, the winnowed wisdom of the world, 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.
Robert Rabbin, founder of Radical Sages, is a contemporary mystic, keynote speaker, executive coach/consultant, and writer. He is a leading exponent of Silence and self-inquiry as a way of revealing our authentic being and of living in wisdom, love, and peace. For contact and further information, please visit www.radicalsages.com.
© 2006/Robert Rabbin/All Rights Reserved