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The Way Things Are

Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life

Huston Smith (Author), Phil Cousineau (Editor), Phil Cousineau (Preface)

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"Where can we find what is ultimately meaningful? How can we discover what is truly worth knowing?" In one form or another Huston Smith has been posing these questions to himself—and the world—all his life. In the course of seeking answers, he has become one of the most interesting, enlightening, and celebrated voices on the subject of religion and spirituality throughout the world. The twenty-three interviews and essays in this volume, edited by cultural historian and filmmaker Phil Cousineau, offer a uniquely personal perspective on Smith's own personal journey, as well as wide-ranging reflection on the nature and importance of the religious quest.

In The Way Things Are, readers will find Smith in conversation with some of the world's most influential personalities and religious leaders, from journalist Bill Moyers to religion scholar Philip Novak, and recounting his personal experiences with such luminaries as Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Daisetz Suzuki, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama. Throughout these engaging exchanges Smith speaks with passion and humor of his upbringing as the son of missionary parents in China, of the inspiring and colorful individuals he has known, and of his impressions of the different religious and philosophical traditions he has encountered. A fascinating view of the state of world religion and religious leadership over the past fifty years, the book also looks to the future with a final interview on the vital importance of the transcendent message of religion for the post-9/11 world. Readers will find The Way Things Are to be Huston Smith's most and accessible book to date.
Preface: The Way Things Are for Huston Smith
No Wasted Journey: A Theological Autobiography
Introduction by Huston Smith

PART ONE: THE HEART OF RELIGION
Chapter 1. The Way Things Are
An interview with Timothy Beneke
Chapter 2. The Primordial Tradition
An interview with John Loudon
Chapter 3. Winnowing the Wisdom Traditions
An interview with Mark Kenaston
Chapter 4. This Is It
An interview with Richard Marranca
Chapter 5. The Soul of the Community
An interview with Philip and Bridgett Novak
Chapter 6. Encountering God
An essay by Huston Smith

PART TWO: THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Chapter 7. The Place of Science
An interview with Steve Reuys
Chapter 8. The Limits of the Scientific Worldview
An interview with Jeffrey Mishlove
Chapter 9. Science as the Oracle of Our Age
An interview with Michael Toms
Chapter 10. Science, Faith, and Infinity
An interview with Tracy Knauss and the Reverend Jack Young
Chapter 11. Toward a Partnership between Science and Religion
An interview with April Thompson
Chapter 12. The Battle for the Human Mind
An interview with Richard Gazdayka
Chapter 13. The New Paradigm
An interview with Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney
Chapter 14. Countering Scientism
An essay by Marsha Newman
Chapter 15. The Striking Parallels
An interview with Phil Cousineau

PART THREE: FROM PLATO'S CAVE TO THE ENCHANTED GARDEN
Chapter 16. The Sacred Dimensions of Everyday Life
An interview with Jeffrey Kane
Chapter 17. Demystifying Spiritual Practice
An essay by Huston Smith, with commentary by Sarah Ban Breathnach
Chapter 18. The Varieties of Religious Explorations
An interview with Jeffrey Mishlove
Chapter 19. Cleansing the Doors of Perception
An interview with Richard Scheinin
Chapter 20. Fathoming Psychedelic Mysticism
An interview with Timothy White
Chapter 21. The Wisdom of Faith
An interview with Bill Moyers
Chapter 22. Why Religion Matters Now More Than Ever
An interview with Phil Cousineau

References
Acknowledgments
Index
Huston Smith, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Syracuse University, is considered the country's preeminent public scholar of world religions. The author of The Religions of Man (1958, republished as The World's Religions in 1991) and Why Religion Matters (2001), Smith has influenced multiple generations of readers, artists, scholars, and students. He has been profiled in a PBS series by Bill Moyers and appears frequently on national TV and radio. Phil Cousineau is the author and editor of numerous books, including, most recently, Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times (2001), The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred (1998), and Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity (1997).
“Huston Smith’s ruminations are radiant, rich, passionate, informed and thought-provoking. They will remind you once again why religion matters so much.”—Rich Heffern National Catholic Reporter
“A remarkable autobiographical window into Smith’s soul.”—Gary P. Gillum Library Journal
"Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that he would gladly walk 100 miles through a snowstorm for one good conversation. Fortunately, readers don't have to trudge through a blizzard or even leave their armchairs to listen in on these 22 fascinating conversations. Readers will find themselves ravenously eavesdropping on captivating discussions... dialogues that are timeless. Cousineau's stunning preface is worth the price of admission alone."—Publishers Weekly
"Anyone who read his Why Religion Matters knows how demanding a thinker Smith can be; these candid conversations add new dimensions to his important work."—Derek Beres Global Rhythm
“Engaging . . . fascinating.”—Religion And Spirituality
“[An] engaging collection of interviews that cover Smith’s rich career of inuiry into religion and the nature of consciousness. In these interviews . . . Smith passionately lets us in on his fascinating lifelong journey to understand and practice a living spirituality in an increasingly secularized world. Like a profound conversation that lasts deep into the night, this book will captivate readers in search of a brilliant mind.”—Ions Review
“Can the spoken word make good literature? This book shows us that it can, at least when the interviewee is Huston Smith.”—Stephen Larsen Parabola
“This book is important because it reveals and honors the example of Smith’s life and work.”—Bridges: A Lib-Con Dialogue
“[A] substantive book that should make it to the best-seller lists. . . .Cousineau’s preface and Smith’s introduction, a theological autobiography, are worth the price of the book. . . .Smith helps remove our blinders to the spiritual realities of the universe.”—Paul Lowder News & Record
“Only a scholar as brave and plain-spoken as Huston Smith would try to produce a single, slim volume that makes sense of the world’s vast diversity of faiths. Smith, now 84 and frail, actually spoke this text in a question-answer format to interviewer Phil Cousineau, but his insights have been polished by a lifetime of scholarship until his answers are crystal clear. What’s so inspiring is that, after decades of witnessing religious conflict, Smith’s enthusiasm for the enduring lessons of faith remains undimmed.”—David Crumm Detroit Free Press
“Smith’s erudition, wit and conviction are engagingly displayed in wide-ranging exchanges.”—Marcia Z. Nelson Christian Century
“It is a rare thing in any age to find a model of sweetness and light so intent on the pursuit of the truth that [Smith] passes on his excitement like a holy contagion. But when you find one who can mix such rigor with such grace, and bring real spirit to real scholarship, you can consider yourself truly among the blessed.”—Shambhala Sun/Buddhadharma
“THE WAY THINGS ARE sparkles with philosophical insights, cross-cultural epiphanes, religious truths, memorable stories, and a wonderful batch of juicy quotations about the human adventure. This is a must-read.”—Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat Spirituality & Health
"My idea of heaven (here on earth) is sitting in a room and listening to Huston Smith talk (and sparkle and sing); the next best thing, surely, is having him here, as he is in these pages, passing on his contagious delight and excitement in the Real in a voice of miraculous clarity and humanity. I can't think of a more moving and beautiful, more rigorous and wise, book to help us through these troubled times."—Pico Iyer

"In this his new book, Huston Smith gives us his readers a priceless gift during our time of struggle with the nature of good and evil, carefully differentiating between the concepts of good and perfect."—Robert A. Johnson, author of Inner Work and We

"Huston Smith, in conversation, sometimes becomes as spontaneous and radiant as the ineffable beauty he talks about. Not all the time. He admits to having a spiritual flu on some days. Wherever he is, though, a clean wind of truth blows through his presence. He always makes me feel more alive! He knows, and lives, and loves whereof he speaks."—Coleman Barks, poet and translator, Rumi: The Book of Love

Chapter 16

The Sacred Dimensions of Everyday Life

 

This interview by Holistic Education Review editor Jeffrey Kane took place during the summer of 1993 and appeared in Holistic Education Review 6, no. 4 (Winter 1993). Reprinted by permission of Holistic Education Review.

 

Jeffrey Kane: Holistic Education Review begins with the idea that there is a spiritual dimension to reality and that it should make a difference in the way we educate children. The first question I'd like to ask you is, As you walk down the street, or as you eat your meal, or as you go to bed at night, do you see a spiritual dimension which pervades everyday existence?

Huston Smith: If I answer honestly and personally (it's a personal question), the answer is some days I do, and some days I don't. But let me say immediately that on the days that I don't, I feel unwell, you might say. It is as if I have the spiritual flu—something like that. When you have the flu you feel rotten, and when you have the spiritual flu the world seems drained of meaning and purpose—humdrum and prosaic. But I've lived long enough to be able to say when those days roll 'round: okay, this is the yin and yang of life—ups and downs. This is one of those dark days of the ego. Most of the time, though, meaning and purpose are discernible, often to lyrical heights. Those moments are privileged; they are gifts. Even when my happiness isn't at a rolling boil, I tend to know that there is a spiritual dimension to all things.

 

Kane: When you think about the spiritual dimensions of reality, is it in the everydayness of the world, is it in a glass of water, or in the air that we breathe?

Smith: It's everywhere. Everything is an outpouring of the infinite that is spiritual in essence, so everything reflects that spirit. Blake is famous for having said that if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it truly is—infinite. For him infinitude was also perfection. Limitations exist in us, not in the world.

 

Kane: Would it be going too far to say that everything is truly sacred if we see it rightly?

Smith: Not too far at all. As the Thomists say, esse qua esse bonum est: "being as being is good." Of course the evil in the world tests that principle, but I think it can be defended.

 

Kane: I remember back to C.S. Lewis, in the beginning of The Screwtape Letters, where he explains that the devil must consume souls because he has no being himself.

Smith: That's a good way to put it. There's another route to the same point. Heroin is horrible, but at the moment of the high, that high itself isn't bad. It's the toll it takes that is bad. Even cancer cells aren't bad in isolation. It's only the way they prey on other cells that's evil.

 

Kane: Do you think we might actually have here a very quick first inroad to educating children? Would it be too much to say that one of the most fundamental things we need to do if we are to educate children is to help them see all things as sacred?

Smith: It would be wonderful if we could do that. Education is more your province than mine, but I've always thought that if I stop teaching university/college students I'd like to teach preschool. Somehow it's two ends of the spectrum that attract me.

 

Kane: Incidentally, Rudolf Steiner made a point of saying that people who teach the youngest children should be the oldest teachers. Such matters aside, do you believe Emerson offered a signpost to the sacred with his contention that the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common?

Smith: He's right. I wonder if tribal peoples, being closer to nature than we are, do better at that—seeing everything aglow with the sacred. That may be only a myth that we somehow need today, but I think it's more than that. Unencumbered by the busyness and humdrum of contemporary life, tribal peoples seem able to hold on to the shining world that children are heirs to.

 

Kane: Do you think that the "doors of perception" can be cleansed through aesthetic experience—through experiences of nature, for example?

Smith: Definitely. Just this morning I wrote something on that subject because The World's Religions is coming out in an illustrated edition that will include the world's religious art. In writing the preface for this new edition, I found myself saying that the function of sacred art—and indeed beauty of every sort, virgin nature emphatically included—is to make easy what would otherwise be difficult. If one is viewing an icon (in a way, all sacred art is iconic), then the icon basically disappears by offering itself up to the divine. The energy of the divine pours through it into the viewer, one consequence being that the viewer's heart is expanded and becomes uplifted by a great work of art. Note that word uplifted. Can you imagine performing in that state a despicable act? It's often difficult for us to act compassionately, but sacred art eases the difficulty by ennobling us. So your point is well taken, including your emphasis on virgin nature.

 

Kane: Might nature be considered the greatest of sacred art?

Smith: That's interesting. I do think of sacred art and virgin nature as two of the clearest apertures to the divine, but I've never thought of rank-ordering them. I think of Plato's statement that "beauty is the splendor of the true." I like that because it gets us beyond thinking of nature and art simply as pleasure giving. They do far more than that. They offer insight into the true nature of things.

 

Kane: Beauty wouldn't then be simply in the eye of the beholder?

Smith: Not ultimately, though there's partial truth in the saying that when a young man falls in love with a girl, he sees something in her that others don't see. The romantic illusions that color his perception don't alter the fact that at that moment he is closer than any other human being to seeing her the way God sees her. When I hear someone say, "I don't see what he sees in her," I feel like responding, "Don't you wish you could?" I don't think it's naively romantic to think that romantic love opens a window to the inner nobility of the beloved, one that is closed to ordinary eyes.

 

Kane: Would it be fair to say that beauty is something one is open to, rather than something that someone creates in the act of perception?

Smith: Yes, that's the case.

 

Kane: Could we rightly look at beauty as a matter of impression, as well as expression? Normally we think of art as expression, as subjective expression.

Smith: Something of the artist figures, but the accent is on what comes to him or her. It's imprinted, as you say. I like your way of putting it.

 

Kane: Perhaps we've reached a second education implication here, and I wonder what your thoughts are. If we are going to educate children rightly, perhaps we should spend a good deal of time in nature study and art (again to use the phrase)—as impression, attempting to open children to the beauty in the world.

Smith: I am sure that is true.

 

Kane: There was once a teacher who taught me about Shakespeare. He said that Shakespeare pointed to various aspects of human existence and the human condition, and that he pointed beautifully with great accuracy. He (my teacher) said what we often do in school is we say, "Look how nicely he points. You see how his eye is lined up with his finger? He's pointing very directly." But this overlooks what he's pointing toward. I wonder if that isn't true as well—a flower unfolding, or a cloud passing in the sky, again, opens a door, or provides a lens into something beyond itself.

Smith: The notion of pointing, of course, suggests the Zen adage of the finger pointing at the moon. If we obsess over the finger, we overlook the moon. It's very true. Much of education falls into that trap. In higher education I am distressed by the proportion of attention that goes to methodology rather than content.

 

Kane: When we begin to think of there being sacredness, or when we recognize this sacredness in the everyday, does knowledge have a different "shape" than we normally think of knowledge having in the West?

Smith: I think it does. My favorite book on this subject is Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Knowledge and the Sacred. He speaks from a traditional point of view. To fill in the background, in the hundred of years of the Gifford Lectures—the most prestigious humanities lecture series in the West—Nasr is the only non-Westerner ever to have been included. His thesis is that knowledge is not so much that which discloses the sacred as that which is sacred in itself for partaking in the knowing source from which intelligence derives. Human intelligence is a reflection of the intelligence that produces everything. In knowing, we are simply extending the intelligence that comes to and constitutes us. We mimic the mind of God, so to speak. Or better, we continue and extend it.

 

Kane: So knowing and being are intimately related?

Smith: In the end they are identical. That probably holds for all positive attributes. The closer to their source we draw, the more we find them converging.

 

Kane: I think it is a particularly important point that, in the West, the concept of knowledge is impersonal and detached. We take out being, and say it has no place. What you are saying here is that knowledge is imbued with being. It is a direct experience. Knowledge cannot be detached as such. Would you say that knowledge of that sort is what helps you on those days when you see the sacred in the everyday?

Smith: I am sure that is the case. To linger for a moment on this issue of detached, objective knowledge, writing—whatever its virtues, and I think there are some—is especially vulnerable to becoming detached, because writing can be disconnected from the writer. There it is in print, dead and frozen. Speech, on the other hand, is not only alive, it is life, because it cannot be separated from the living person in one mode of his or her own being. Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead knowledge, dead facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.

 

Kane: To quote Emerson once again, "To the wise, fact is true poetry." Would poetry present the same dilemma?

Smith: No, because poetry is art, and we've already talked about that. Poetry is a special use of language that opens onto the real. The business of the poet is truth-telling, which is why in the Celtic tradition no one could be a teacher unless he or she was a poet.

 

Kane: Would you say if someone has learned and has become inwardly active through learning, then the knowledge gained becomes part of his or her being? Would he or she be a different person than he or she was prior?

Smith: We have to differentiate between life-giving learning and kinds that deaden the mind. I think of a TV program around mid-century (there have doubtless been other since) that featured savants, essentially. They were amazing—veritable walking encyclopedias—

 

Kane: —what was the day of the week for January 1, Year 1, that sort of thing?

Smith: Yes, and, Who won the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1952? I was living in Saint Louis at the time, and the national champion in that particular series turned out to be a Saint Louisan. People knew him. He was unemployed. Couldn't get a job as a postal clerk because he couldn't pass the civil service exam. So when we talk about knowledge and learning, we have to distinguish between useless kinds and kinds that are useful—practically useful, but more important, useful in raising the stature of our lives.

 

Kane: Please forgive me if I ask you an unfair question: If we follow this through, is it possible that we educate whole generations of savants, just in the sense that you use the term?

Smith: More than possible, I suspect. And that's what turns off kids from learning, of course—when it seems like rote memory, and what's it for? We give them hoops to jump through, keeping the destination—purpose and the point—clearly before them.

 

Kane: Many educators have recognized the limitations of a positivistic model of knowledge. They know that role learning no longer works, or perhaps that it never did. The new paradigm that drives education is based upon a computer analogue wherein we storehouse individual bits of knowledge, discrete and separable. These bits can then be put into motion, as it were, through a program in critical thinking, for example. It often seems to me that we are trying to put the pieces in motion artificially without, again, reference to the content itself, without reference to being. So you might say that readers of this interview could argue, "Well, the fact of the matter is that we are teaching children how to put ideas together, how to think." But I wonder if that still doesn't miss the point.

Smith: I think it does. I've heard about this issue; I am not in close touch with what actually goes on, but I share your skepticism about teaching critical thinking in the abstract. It doesn't work because thinking never proceeds in a vacuum. So to be effective, thinking must adapt and be faithful to the context in which it works. My skepticism here ties in with my earlier skepticism about method in general. We always know more than we know how we know it, so we get farther by attending to the "what" than to the "how." The trouble with trying to work out a method for knowing is that it will rule out resources that don't conform to it. Every method is, in ways, a straitjacket, a Procrustean bed. True, we all do have methods, and when we run into problems, it might be well to try to spot and revise if need be the course that brought us to the problem. But to put method first is putting the cart before the horse.

 

Kane: If I am following you correctly, and tying it back to what you said before, it is being that animates knowledge. It is not the method that animates knowledge.

Smith: Yes. In the final analysis what we know derives from our entire being. Historians of knowledge are providing us with detailed examples of breakthroughs where frontier scientists, say, simply discarded oceans of evidence because something deep lying in them generated a "gut feeling" that the truth lay elsewhere. Had they toed the line of the so-called scientific method, the breakthroughs wouldn't have occurred.

 

Kane: E.A. Burt—

Smith: —he was a dear friend of mine.

 

Kane: —in his classic work, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Scientists, maintained that if Copernicus had presented his thoughts to thorough-going empiricists, he would have been laughed out of court.

Smith: Exactly.

 

Kane: I wonder if this might not be a good place to familiarize some of our readers with the modern Western mind-set that you've written about in a good many places. At this point in our discussion, you have begun to rout out some of the assumptions that we make (one being relative to "method") that might limit the knowledge that we gain, or perhaps again, our openness to being. What are some of the other assumptions that have characterized knowledge in the West and might keep us from cleansing those doors of perception?

Smith: Science works effectively on things that impact more complicated things—cancer cells devastating human bodies, for example. If we call this upward causation, science is good at that. What it's not good at is downward causation—the way the superior impacts the inferior—and when it comes to things that are superior to us, we human beings, it draws a total blank. Because the technological spin-offs from science are so impressive, we slip into assuming that upward causation, more from less, is the name of the game. The universe derives (exclusively) from a dense pellet. Life derives (exclusively) from inanimate elements. "Hydrogen is a ubiquitous substance which, given time, gives rise to intelligence," as one scientist has put it. But as another scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, has pointed out—one wishes that in practice he paid more attention to his aphorism—"absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." On balance, the wisdom traditions assure us, things proceed more by downward than upward causation. If science doesn't show this, it is because it is locked (as it should be, this being the key to its effectiveness) into a technically competent but metaphysically impoverished method—the issue of method again. The latest good book on this point is Bryan Appleyard's Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man.

 

Kane: Does this approach to understanding create particular problems when we apply it to understanding human beings? In education, we work with children all the time, and we often have positivistic models of knowledge when we conceptualize who the children are in themselves. Do you think this is particularly problematic?

Smith: I think poor self-images cripple children—and adults as well, for that matter. Moreover, our modern Western self-image is the most impoverished human beings have ever devised. We do not think well of ourselves, Saul Bellow observes, and Marshall Salins, the anthropologist, fills in the picture: "We are the only people who think we derive from apes. Everybody else assumes that they are descended from the gods."

If I can bring this discussion back to children, there's much talk today about the wounded child within. I won't say that's all bad, but it runs the danger of encouraging self-pity. How about the struggling adult within—more attention to that, and how the fragile adult might be strengthened? I hope it's clear how our over-reliance on the scientific method has been the (indirect and unwitting) cause of our impoverished self-image. It is as if the top of science's window stops at the bridge of our nose, so that in looking through it, we see only things that are beneath our full stature.

 

Kane: As I listen to you, I am thinking that physics, which we often think of as the most complicated, most difficult of all sciences, is, indeed, the simplest in its own way because it deals with things that are essentially lifeless. The mineral world, the physical world of atoms, I don't know if I would call the cosmos dead, but the way we view it certainly is.

Smith: You're right. The hard sciences deal so effectively with their objects because those things have no, or negligible, freedom.

 

Kane: Science seems to lose some of its power when it turns to animate objects. I am thinking now of the Chinese notion of chi, that there is a life force which we cannot explain in terms of physics or chemistry. More power is lost when it turns to the animal kingdom. And regarding the human self, little of importance admits to scientific proof.

Smith: I think that's exactly right. To pick up with the second level where microbiology enters, R.C. Lewontin has noted that "despite the fact that we can position every atom in a protein molecule in three-dimensional space, nobody has the slightest idea of the rule that will fold them into life." Microbiologists appropriately seek that rule, but I wonder if it exists on a plane they can access.

 

Kane: I have read of biologists who have synthesized protein compounds which, when given electrical charges, do begin to self-replicate, but then you still end up with the more primary question: Who is putting the electrical charge in to begin with? Where is it coming from? I think we're going to find in the ultimate that there are questions we ask that cannot be answered by modern science. I once found myself writing that we need to elevate our concept of science to meet the reality of the world, rather than to lower the world to meet the limitations of earth science.

Smith: I agree in principle but wonder how much the scientific method can be altered—elevated, expanded—without compromising its power. The power of science comes from its controlled experiments, and the nobler things in life can't be proved. We don't have to expect science to do everything.

 

Kane: I know that there have been a great many people (I am thinking of Martin Heidegger, for example) who see a split between meditative thinking and calculative reason—reason being closer to science and thinking (as he uses the word) to meditation. But I can't help think that Goethe, through his understanding of art and aesthetic perception, might actually have a key to how they can both be combined. I'm not sure.

Smith: I'm not sure, either, but it is interesting. Wolfgang Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and Emanuel Swedenborg—all three were visionaries who connected science to the human spirit in original ways. But I haven't studied them enough to say more.

 

Kane: In another vein, can religion or ceremony bring us to the deeper dimensions of reality, or can they close us down to them?

Smith: Both, I think. Just as the world is religiously ambiguous in the sense that both theists and atheists see it as supporting their position, so too is religion itself an ambiguous enterprise. It is made up of people, and as we well know, people are a mixed bag. When they congregate in institutions, it is not surprising that we find both good and evil results. Religions do horrible things because they reinforce in-groupñout-group feelings. At the same time, they nurture the transcendent urge that has compassion as its wake. In this mode it shatters existing social structures. The Book of Jonah shows the Jews expanding their theology to include even their enemies, the Ninevites. This was radical. We have to be sensitive to the two faces of religion: conservative and progressive. But that's true of almost anything. A while ago we were talking about art, but bad music as well as good has been written. The important thing is not to be cynical—realistic, yes, but not cynical. By functionalist criteria alone, religion would not have survived if it were not doing something right.

Connecting this to education, can religion contribute the empowering kind of knowing we have been talking about? I think it can. Why do I say that? First, because the noblest human beings that I personally have encountered have been shaped by religious traditions—His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa jump immediately to mind. Second, when I look at the sacred texts that inspired these people—and the commentaries that have been written on them by giants such as Shankara [Indian philosopher and theologian], Dogen [thirteenth-century Zen master], Nagarjuna [Indian founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism], Augustine, and Meister Eckhart (not excepting Plato and Plotinus, who write in the same vein)—I find no alternate texts that are far beyond the public schools that we have been talking about. All I am saying is that the wisdom is there to be drawn upon and calibrated to the minds teachers seek to nurture.

 

Kane: Would you think that religious ceremonies have a place in educating children generally?

Smith: I do, though in this context I don't want to get into the complicated issue of church/state and the public school. Rituals help us celebrate, and at the other end of the spectrum they help us to connect deeply with people in times of sorrow. The repetition that ritual always involves sets the present moment in a larger context and infuses it with wider meaning. It's difficult to invent rituals. The Unitarians are trying, but for the most part rituals, like myths, emerge spontaneously.

 

Kane: Then a myth must be what it is and cannot be made different?

Smith: It must grow out of a deep historical experience like the Exodus, or from deep, unconscious layers of the psyche.

 

Kane: As I listen to you, I am wondering if ceremony doesn't provide a set moment in time for you to be silent and listen. Ceremony may be a way of blocking off the everyday—one must pay the water bill, and run to the store, and all that. Ceremony might just set apart moments of time in which you can get in touch with deep parts of one's self and the other dimensions of existence.

Smith: That is well put. You used the word silence. I wondered when you said that whether you mean literal silence or an inner silence even when there is chanting and litany.

 

Kane: In this instance, I was using the word to mean there is no nonsense running around in your mind, in your head, you have no inner dialogue for a moment, you're actually quiet. You're receptive, rather than working daily things through.

Smith: Sounds right. What I am not sure I had thought of before is that this apartness can come even while you are chanting or singing, for because the material is memorized, your conscious mind doesn't have to be attending.

 

Kane: Do you think that meditation in any of the great traditions, whether it be a Buddhist meditation, or Hasidic meditation, or Rosicrucian meditation, has any place in the education of children?

Smith: I don't really know. Questions of age would enter, and the kind of meditation. If we think of silent meditation, I find myself saying yes. It would probably be very good to encourage even small children to sit still and shift their minds into a different gear.

As I get into the subject, I once received an invitation from a third-grade class in a parochial school in the Boston area while I was teaching at MIT. It was so cute, I remember it verbatim: "Dear Prof. Smith: We are studying religion. We do not know much about religion. Will you please come and teach us about religion?" Signed, "The Third Grade." So I went, but it turned out to be last period on a Friday afternoon, and you can imagine the blast of restless energy that met me as I stepped into the room. I heard a clear inner voice say, "Don't try to talk to these kids. Nothing you can say could possibly hold their attention. They've got to do something." So I said, "You asked me to teach you about religion, so I am going to tell you about religion in a different part of the world. In Japanese religion, they sit on the floor, so we have to move all the desks against the walls." Instant pandemonium—everybody pushing things and bumping into one another. So we got the floor cleared, and I said, "Okay, everybody on the floor. When Japanese sit religiously they sit in a special position." I demonstrated the lotus position. "Can you sit that way?" A few show-offs could. "Also they sit in silence. Can you do that?" Heads nodded vigorously. "How long?" "Fifteen minutes," a voice sang out. "Are you sure? Without making a sound?" "Five minutes." We finally settled for two, and even that was too long for them. But we were off to a great start, and they gave me a bag of jelly beans as my honorarium—

 

Kane: You should work with young children!

There is often a distinction made between learning by doing and learning through detachment. There are many Hassidic stories which end with the conclusion that one learns through doing. Was what you did simply a pedagogical device, or do you think that it might have illustrated that one can learn most about life's spiritual dimension by being engaged in some kind of activity, a practice?

Smith: Perhaps the latter was involved. I find it difficult to rank-order modes of learning, because when I think back over my own experiences of learning, they have been so different—all the way from the Zen monasteries to sitting spellbound before gifted teachers who just lectured. I find if difficult to prioritize learning situations.

 

Kane: I guess part of me likes to say one thing is more important than another, but it's important to step back. I wonder if we might now move a bit to the question of moral values. Do you see religion, or aesthetics, or beauty, or any of the things we have discussed as having an impact on the moral development of children?

Smith: All of them. Certainly, if what we were saying was true about beauty having an elevating effect—but let me be concrete. I don't think I've ever spent three or four hours in a great museum without the world looking different in a way that somehow purifies my motives. So there is beauty. As far as religion, we have to distinguish in the history of religion between three periods. In the "pre-axial" period of religion, before the rise of the great prophets and sages, around the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., religion was occupied mostly with time—death and the perishing of existence—and ethics didn't much enter. People were living in tribes and got along pretty much the way normal families do. In the post-axial period, though, populations began to be citified, which meant that a good part of one's dealings were with people who were not in one's primary group. Ethics needed bolstering, and from the golden rule to the prophets, religion shouldered the job. The modern period adds social ethics to religions agenda, for we now realize that social structures are not like laws of nature. They are human creations, so we are responsible for them. So to beauty we must add religion with its post-axial ethics and concern with social justice. So always, if we look back, concern for face-to-face morality, and its modern emphasis on justice as well, have historically evolved as religious issues.

 

Kane: To pursue this central theme here, I wonder if you see moral ideas as humanmade or as human replications, or human manifestations of a higher order of law? In other words, are they subjective, circumstantial developments, or are they reflective of something higher and more universal?

Smith: Something of both, but more replicas than constructions. Morality always aims at harmony or unity, and unity is a great idea, but not only an idea. It's great because it is a mirroring or reflection of what ultimately reality is. Reality is one. In an esoteric sense, the number "one" is beyond the entire numerical sequence, not just the first in an order of integers. It is qualitatively of a different order. If it had remained that, though, it would have been finite because it would have lacked multiplicity. And since the ultimate is also infinite, it must include the multiple in some way. It is not a relation of parity, because the one has a dignity beyond the many. Still, it requires the many for it to be infinite. Multiplicity poses a problem, because for things to exist they must have centers and boundaries.

Yet something is there that doesn't love a wall. Boundaries have their downside. We have this centripetal urge, but it can be narrow and confining, so we have to live with the tension to be ourselves and also identify with others. How can we, at the same time, be ourselves and embrace others? That is one way of defining life's project. As Aldous Huxley put it, "The problem of life is to overcome the basic human disability of egoism." This is a roundabout answer to your question, of whether morals are humanmade, but what I want to say is that to some extent they are—there can be silly, mistaken, and even pernicious judgments that individuals and even societies fall into. But it is also the case that this is a moral universe, and through lots of trial and error, history is trying to discover what its moral laws are.

 

Kane: Would you say that there are certain universals that one would find through many of the world's religions?

Smith: Yes. Two levels need to be distinguished here. The one which is the more explicit is what we should do, but beyond that is the question of the kind of person we should try to become. Now, on the first level, what we should do, there are four problem areas in human life that have to be dealt with. These are violence, wealth, the spoken word, and sex. In lower forms of life these problem areas are monitored quite adequately by instinct. Man, though, is an animal without instincts, so these problem areas can get out of hand. Moral precepts are devised to secure appropriate, life-sustaining behavior in the four areas, and they are remarkably uniform across cultures: don't murder, don't steal, don't lie, don't commit adultery. These are the basic guidelines concerning human behavior.

As for the kind of person we should try to become, the virtues point the way. In the West these are commonly identified as humility, charity, and veracity. Humility has nothing to do with low self-esteem; it is to recognize oneself as one and fully one but not more than one, just as charity is to look upon your neighbor as fully one (with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto) just as you are one. Veracity begins with not being deceitful, but it ends in the sublime objectivity that sees things exactly as they are, undistorted by our subjective preferences. These are the virtues in the West. Asia, interestingly, has the same three but enters them by the back door, so to speak, by speaking of the three poisons—traits that keep the virtues from flourishing in us. The three are greed (the opposite of humility), hatred (the opposite of charity), and delusion (the opposite of veracity). To the extent that we expunge these three poisons, the virtues will flood our lives automatically. The convergence of East and West in these areas is remarkable.

 

Kane: If you were to look at these in an educational context, what is the meaning of what you just said for someone who now steps into a classroom filled with children?

Smith: This is your turf, and it would be presumptuous for me to pontificate. So I'll content myself with a single point. The most powerful moral influence is example. There's a saying, "What you do speaks so loud that I can't hear what you say." That's what makes it so difficult—we have to aspire to be models for our students. At the same time, what nobler goal could we set for ourselves?

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