Huston Smith

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Huston Smith in 2005

Huston Smith (May 31, 1919 – December 30, 2016) was a religious studies scholar in the United States, notable for the number of religions of which he considers or has considered himself a member. He is most well known for his book The World's Religions, formerly titled The Religions of Man.


  • No other civilization saw, appreciated, and classified so precisely the full spectrum of human personality types ... an achievement that has earned for India - the title of the world's introspective psychologist. The key to this psychological perceptiveness is her recognition to the extent to which people will differ and the degree to which these differences are to be respected.
  • Hinduism's cosmology was prodigious in scope and depth, but India did not stop there. She went on to advance what was probably the most daring hypothesis man has ever conceived. We are ourselves are the infinite, the very infinite from which the Universe proceeds. Everything in Hinduism works to drive the point home.

The World's Religions (1991)[edit]

  • The sheer immensity of the human self as envisioned by the world's religions is awesome.
  • In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. It is like the quantum world, where the more we understand its formalism, the stranger that world becomes.
  • [...] if we were to find ourselves with a single religion tomorrow, it is likely that there would be two the day after.
  • Not only is the destiny of the individual bound up with the entire Church; it is responsible for helping to sanctify the entire world of nature and history.
    • Discussing the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Mystics of every faith report contacts with a world that startles and transforms them with its dazzling darkness. Zen stands squarely in this camp, its only uniqueness being that it makes breaking the language barrier its central concern.
  • Signposts are not the destination, maps are not the terrain. Life is too rich and textured to be fitted into pigeonholes, let alone equated with them. No affirmation is more than a finger pointing to the moon. And, lest attention turn to the finger, Zen will point, only to withdraw its finger at once.
  • The religions begin by assuring us that if we could see the full picture we would find it more integrated than we would normally suppose. Life gives us no view of the whole. [...] It is as if life were a great tapestry, which we face from its wrong side. This gives it the appearance of a maze of knots and threads, which for the most part appear chaotic.
    From a purely human standpoint the wisdom traditions are the species' most prolonged and serious attempts to infer from the maze on this side of the tapestry the pattern which, on its right side, gives meaning to the whole. As the beauty and harmony of the design derive from the way its parts are related, the design confers on these parts a significance that we, seeing only scraps of the design, do not normally perceive.
  • Sex is the divine in its most available epiphany.
    • The World's Religions.(1991)
  • All human thought proceeds through words, so if words are askew, thought cannot proceed aright. When Confucius says that nothing is more important than that a father be a father, that a ruler be a ruler, he is saying that we must know what we mean when we use those words. But equally important, the words must mean the right things. Rectification of Names is the call for a normative semantics--the creation of a language in which key nouns carry the meanings they should carry if life is to be well ordered.
    • On Confucian values.
  • The point is not merely that human relationships are fulfilling; the Confucian claim runs deeper than that. It is rather that apart from human relationships there is no self. The self is a center of relationships. It is constructed through its interactions with others and is defined by the sum of its social roles.
  • Confucius saw the human self as a node, not an entity.
  • Reserved as he [Confucius] was about the supernatural, he was not without it; somewhere in the universe there was a power that was on the side of right.
    • Arguing that Confucianism ought to be considered a religion and not a 'moralistic rationalism.'
  • Traditionally, every Chinese was Confucian in ethics and public life, Taoist in private life and hygiene, and Buddhist at the time of death, with a healthy dash of shamanistic folk religion thrown in along the way. As someone has put the point: Every Chinese wears a Confucian hat, Taoist robes, and Buddhist sandals. In Japan Shinto was added to the mix.
  • What a curious portrait this is for the supposed founder of a religion. The Old Boy didn't preach. He didn't organize or promote. He wrote a few pages on request, rode off on a water buffalo, and that was it was far as he was concerned.
    • On Lao-Tzu, the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching and founder of Taoism.
  • Taoist yogis sought to harness the Tao directly, drawing it first into their own heart-minds and then beaming it to others. Yogis who managed this feat would for the most part be unnoticed, but their life-giving enterprise did more for the community than the works of other benefactors.
  • They [Taoists] were fond of pointing out that the value of cups, windows, and doorways lies in the part of them that are not there.
  • We are a blend of dust and divinity.
    • Summarizing the Jewish view of human nature.
  • He [Jesus] could have been that [a healer and exorcist]--indeed, he could have been "the most extraordinary figure in … the stream of Jewish charismatic healers," as the same New Testament scholar goes on to say--without attracting more than local attention. What made him outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed though him not just to heal individuals but -- this was his aspiration -- to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.
  • A second arresting feature of Jesus' language was its invitational style. Instead of telling people what to do or what to believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so their behaviour would change accordingly. This called for working with peoples' imaginations more than with their reason or their will.
  • The people who first heard Jesus' disciples proclaiming the Good News were as impressed by what they saw as by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed--men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquility, simplicity, and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the enterprise everyone would like to succeed at--that of life itself.
  • A loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules, and threats. Love only takes root in children when it comes to them--initially and most importantly from nurturing parents. Ontogenetically speaking, love is an answering phenomenon. It is literally a response.
  • Only while they are conforming their actions to the model of some archetypal hero do the Arunta feel that they are truly alive, for in those roles they are immortal. The occasions on which they slip from such molds are quite meaningless, for time immediately devours those occasions and reduces them to nothingness.
    • On Australian indigenous spirituality.
  • Primal time is atemporal; an eternal now. To speak of atemporal or timeless time is paradoxical, but the paradox can be relieved if we see that primal time focuses on causal rather than chronological sequence; for primal peoples, "past" means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things. That the Source precedes the present is of secondary importance.
  • Looking at the difference between pre- and post-Islamic Arabia, we are forced to ask whether history has ever witnessed a comparable moral advance among so many people in so short a time.
  • There are circumstances in the imperfect condition we know as human existence when polygyny is morally preferable to its alternative. Individually, such a condition might arise if, early in the marriage, the wife were to contract paralysis or another disability that would prevent sexual union. Collectively, a war that decimated the male population could provide an example, forcing (as this would) the option between polygyny and depriving a large population of women of motherhood and a nuclear family of any sort. Idealists may call for the exercise of heroic continence in such circumstances, but heroism is never a mass option.
    • On polygyny is Islam.
  • What are the ingredients of the most creatively meaningful image of human existence that the mind can conceive? Remove human frailty--as grass, as a sigh, as dust, as moth-crushed--and the estimate becomes romantic. Remove grandeur--a little lower than God--and aspiration recedes. Remove sin-the tendency to miss the mark--and sentimentality threatens. Remove freedom--choose ye this day!--and responsibility goes by the board. Remove, finally, divine parentage and life becomes estranged, cut loose and adrift on a cold, indifferent sea. With all that has been discovered about human life in the intervening 2,500 years, it is difficult to find a flaw in this assessment.
    • On the Torah's take on human existence.
  • What is distinctive in Hinduism is the amount of attention it has devoted to identifying basic spiritual personality types and the disciplines that are most likely to work for each. The result is a recognition, pervading the entire religion, that there are multiple paths to God, each calling for its distinctive mode of travel.

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