Huston Smith has been a guiding light in my life.
I first encountered him in the 80s. I was teaching comparative religion in a small college and used his book, The Religions of the World, which students from diverse backgrounds always found engaging. In 1996, PBS broadcast a series of interviews of Huston with Bill Moyers, The Wisdom of Faith. I saw him speak in Santa Barbara several times at the Lobero Theater and always left with a clear mind and full heart.
If you lined up to have him sign a book, he’d ask you to write down your name on a piece of paper because he was wanted to spell it correctly. He would carefully inscribe a greeting and hand you the book. Then he’d look into your eyes and smile. A bright, warm light illuminated his face.
In 2010, I spent four days with him and a group of 30 retreatants at Esalen Institute in Big Sur (where this photo was taken.) He’d been teaching there for 50 years, and this turned out to be his last retreat.
He was 90. He entered the small seminar room slowly on the arm of his daughter, who helped him to his seat. His clothes were well-worn, and his yellow windbreaker was stained around the cuffs; it must have been a favorite.
After he was seated, his daughter welcomed us. She noted her father was now very hard of hearing, so we should direct questions to her and she would relay them through his good ear.
She nodded to him that we were ready.
When he began to speak, the wide smile emerged, and that light came to the surface. His told us his plan for the week was to tell stories about the people he had met over his life: Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama (before he was known in the West), Martin Luther King, Jr., Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Bishop Tutu, Suzuki Roshi, Native American elders, Joseph Campbell and a long list of writers, thinkers and spiritual leaders. He encouraged us to ask questions at any time.
In my blog I’ll be sharing memorable statements Huston Smith made. The first one has to do with enlightenment.
“How do you know if someone is enlightened?” a woman asked, and his daughter conveyed the question to him.
He paused for a moment.
“If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not,” he said with a grin. “Truly enlightened people don’t think about it; they don’t care.” He illustrated the point with a story of his first meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Over my career people have asked me who my favorite theologians are. I’ve often named Wendell Berry, Bach and Rembrandt. But I also point to the older people I’ve known in my congregations. They have lived through many hardships but are at peace with who they are and always looking for quiet ways to serve others.
I remember one such man, Walt Eby. Walt was a retired engineer from the Midwest who had come to Santa Barbara as part of a job transfer from Wisconsin. Walt was soft-spoken. He never served on a committee or spoke at an event. But at coffee hour, he would stand on the patio and scan for any new people who might benefit from a word of welcome. He would walk towards them holding his Styrofoam cup of coffee and introduce himself. Soon you’d see the visitor smiling, relaxing and conversing. If appropriate, Walt might introduce them to someone else on the patio with a similar interest or background. He did this every Sunday. His ability of sensing who might need such care was uncanny.
Walt had a particular gift for connecting with teenagers. One young man appeared with his mom at our service. Walt went over and introduced himself and began a conversation. When they came back the next Sunday, Walt was there again with his friendly, low-key presence. In time he discovered the family was going through a divorce and took a special interest in the young man. Walt would call and invite the young man to hit some golf balls or perform some simple job around the church, like mowing the lawn. He took him to serve the homeless at a soup kitchen. Later, the young man joined our youth group and helped build houses for the poor. Walt showed him how to serve others and had a profound influence on the young man’s life as he did on many of us.
The young man’s mother later told me how much Walt’s care and concern meant to both her and her son…it was a steady, loving connection in a difficult time.
This was his way of being.
If I had said, “Walt I think you are enlightened,” he would not know what I was talking about. Such words were irrelevant to him. It was just the way he was.
When I was Director at La Casa de Maria, we annually hosted 200 groups from every spiritual path imaginable, as well as many nonprofits. I was asked to review the application of a group that had come before. They were a growing group from LA focused on a charismatic leader. I asked the staff for any comments concerning their previous visit. I was told the leader had once become frustrated, and publicly berated a staff member. I gave instructions to deny the request.
“If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not.”