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Lions Roar : November 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2009 41 whiLe smiTh was Finding solace and inspiration in Buddhism, his professional life became increasingly unsatisfying. he still felt that he was an outcast within the faculty at miT, a seeker condemned for his subjective, indulgent, and unscientific folly—his popularity with undergraduate students a testament to his lack of philosophical rigor. But the administration wanted him, so each time he was offered a position elsewhere, they raised his salary. he was financially better off but professionally depressed. Finally, Kendra told him it would be masochism to stay. a move to syracuse university in 1974 breathed new life into smith and spurred him, as ever, into exploring frontiers. on a trip to Japan, he was asked to lecture on shintoism, about which he knew practically nothing. he picked a book off the shelf, On the Trail of Buddhism by Frithjof schuon, a swiss author who gave a very good explication of shinto and its relation to Buddhism. Like so many times before, this first book led him to many others by the author, including Understanding Islam and Transcendent Unity of Religions. a lover of the quest, schuon turned out to be something of an analogue to smith, and natu- rally he became determined to meet him. “The world overflows with glorious expressions of spiritual- ity,” schuon told smith when they met, “but if you want to be in my fraternity, my tariqa, i urge you to become a muslim.” The World’s Religions presented islam in an inviting way, but smith had admitted that its holy book seemed impenetrable, writing, “no one has ever curled up on a rainy weekend to read the Koran.” But once he joined schuon’s tariqa, he came to hear what he now calls the Qur’an with new ears, understanding the sublime po- etry that adherents say is its gift. smith became a sufi, attracted to praying with the body through dance. smith emphasizes that his embrace of islam was not limited to sufism. “ecstasy is only one mood, and sufism is only one mode of islam, and neither exhausted its appeal for me,” he recalls. To the extent possible he followed the five pillars of islam, answering the call to prayer five times daily for twenty years. it pains him today, he says, to see the islam he discovered through spirituality obscured by ideology. For him, the daily greeting of the islamic world, As-salamu alaykum, says it all: “peace be upon you.” in 1983, at age sixty-four, huston smith retired from syracuse and moved to california to be close to his three daughters. But he took up teaching again, at the university of california at Berkeley, until 1996. That year, Bill moyers called him back to Tv for what became a celebrated five-part series on the world’s wisdom tradi- tions. he continued to advocate for a contemplative way of know- ing against the modernist, rationalist position that denounced anything mystical. he took on all comers. at one meeting of the american academy of religion where he was the keynote speaker, he said little and simply played the chanting of the gyuto monks, challenging people to deny the palpable validity of religious exper- ience. according to dana sawyer, “some were inspired and some thought huston had finally lost it.” in recent years, he has sought to restore something of christianity’s original purity and power in the face of fundamentalism and cultural warfare. “his 2005 book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, is magnifi- cent,” says pico iyer. “it demonstrates how the life of the spirit and the pursuit of the real transform the student.” The waning years of smith’s life have brought deterioration— about which he is philosophical, saying simply, “it’s okay”—but they’ve also brought tragedy: the death from cancer of one of his daughters, and the murder of a granddaughter. he has had dark nights of the soul, he says, including his first night alone in assisted living. True to form, though, it has become another Smith with his wife, Kendra. ➢ page 89