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Lions Roar : November 2009
39 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2009 ican university: soldiers who had fought overseas were eager to learn about ways of life in other parts of the world. also, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them, the public was taken with the thought that peace might be fostered through cultural understanding. To add to that, anything that mattered was being broadcast on television, and public television, in its infancy, needed to fill many hours with educational programming. smith paid little attention to television, but, he says, television “paid attention to me. in vaude- ville, if you had twenty minutes of good material you could work for twenty years. Tv, by contrast, devoured twenty years of material in an evening and always needed more, more, more.” when a representative from KeTc, the local station of na- tional educational Television (the forerunner of pBs), came to washington university and asked what the most popular course was, he was told “The religions of man.” For seventeen evenings in the spring of 1955, smith taught his course to neT viewers. his director, mayo simon, pushed smith during rehearsal to sharpen and brighten his presentation. he would say, “That doesn’t sound red-hot to me. Lose a Tv audience’s atten- tion for thirty seconds and you’re dead. Let’s have a funeral.” in forcing him to cut out acadamese and use more storytelling and imagery, simon helped create the tone that made the book based on the series such a success. pico iyer notes that his mother, a longtime professor of comparative religions, says she still finds that “it is the one book she can share with all of her students as an introduction to the great wisdom traditions, because it makes each of them come to life.” in dana sawyer’s mind, The Reli- gions of Man marks a bright dividing line in the history of how religion was treated in america. “nobody had ever done what huston did in that book,” he told me. “instead of starting with a theory of religion and then describing every reli- gion through that lens, he described each religion in a way that would make sense to a believer. he didn’t judge. he didn’t evaluate. he described a religion by getting inside of it.” The book made it seem possible to practice religions from far-off places—and many soon would. Through an odd twist of fate, the Tv show gave birth not only to a best-selling book but also to one of smith’s great lifelong pursuits: exploring Philosopher’s Disease Huston Smith didn’t know he had it until he tried to explain a koan to a roshi. The roshi aT mYoshinJi sodo monastery did not want spiri- tual sightseers, which he suspected i must be. he was training thirty monks fifteen hours a day to achieve a rarefied state of mind, and here was a western religious tourist (he assumed) who would de- mand exceptions to be made in his case. in my initial interview, goto roshi in effect dismissed me by saying that everyone there practiced sitting in the lotus position, knowing full well that westerners could not. as it happened, though, i could. i had never practiced the lotus position for longer than half an hour, but at the monastery we sat for hours at a stretch (or not stretched). my legs were in physical agony. The physical pain slowly abated over two months—and was nothing compared with my men- tal agony when i began the study of koans. Koans are Zen riddles that you do not solve so much as step through, as through alice’s looking glass, into mad hatterish co- nundrums designed to stun rational sense and in its place induce wordless insight. perfect, simply perfect, for driving a professor of philosophy insane. The most famous koan is, what is the sound of one hand clapping? (don’t try hitting one hand in the air. do, and you’ll hear the sound of one hand clapping—the roshi’s against the side of your head.) my koan concerned a monk who asked Joshu (a famous master in Tang-dynasty china), “does a dog have a buddha- nature?” Joshu’s answer seemed to imply no. The conundrum: since the Buddha said that even the grass has buddhanature, how can a dog not have it? every day i came up with another ingenious answer; every day the roshi frowned and shook his head no; every day the bell would ring and i would be told to come back tomorrow. i turned the koan upside down; i pulled it inside out; i unpacked each word and repacked its meaning. Finally i thought, i’ve got it. The key word was have. a dog does not have buddhannature, not the way i have a shirt or an ice- cream cone. rather buddhanature has, or is, momentarily taking the shape of that dog. But the roshi did not even hear out my ingenious solution. halfway through my explanation he roared at me, “You have the philosopher’s disease!” Then he softened a bit: “There’s nothing wrong with philosophy. i myself have a master’s degree in it from one of our better universities. philosophy works only with reason, though, and there’s nothing wrong with reason, either. Your reasoning is fine, but your experience is limited. enlarge your experience, and your phi- losophy will be different.” Ding-a -ling-a-ling sounded the little bell— the signal that the interview was over. i had my impossible assignment: to think of how to think the way i do not think. ♦ From Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, An Autobiography, by huston smith with Jeffery paine. published by harperone.