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Lions Roar : November 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2009 40 religions through travel. he received a startling letter from wil- liam danforth, the self-made man who headed ralston purina. it began by stating, “i understand that some of the religions you are teaching in your television course are in countries you have not been to,” and went on to offer to pay for a round-the-world trip for smith and Kendra. he accepted, of course, and became so voracious a traveler that he preferred to sleep on overnight buses so he would start the day in a new destination. he brought many students on tours to religious sites, eventually having to inform some parents that their son or daughter had decided to stay in mother india and not return to college. For many years, smith also used the road as an escape. Just as his book came out, he accepted a prestigious position as head of the new philosophy department at miT, but he soon found it was a place where his exploratory methods and embrace of mystical experience were not warmly received by his colleagues. although he taught there for fifteen years, he never felt at home. The fact that his rationalist, quantifying colleagues felt he “didn’t count” (their pun) helped drive his explorations of new parts of the world, new religions, new experiences. “The audience ThaT emerged in the sixties was really ready to hear the kind of messages huston offered,” dana saw- yer says. “in a period of burgeoning interest in spiritual growth, while everyone was grinding their own ax and saying ‘our path is the best,’ huston was an unbiased yet enthusiastic resource. reading the first chapter of The World’s Religions, you felt certain he was a hindu and the whole rest of the book would be from a hindu perspective. By the next chapter, you were convinced he was a Buddhist.” whatever people wanted to explore, it seemed smith had already been there and had insight to offer. he trav- eled the path of the sixties before the sixties had begun. smith took part in psychedelic culture just as it was coming into being. in 1960, aldous huxley visited miT at smith’s invita- tion. he suggested that smith pay a call on a researcher at harvard named Timothy Leary, who hoped that psychedelics could become miracle drugs which would help people break long-established patterns such as violence and alcoholism. But, smith says, subjects repeatedly described mystical experiences, “and Tim didn’t know beans about mysticism. so he enlisted me. i figured, though, if i’m going to be a counselor, i’d better know what i’m talking about.” during a lunch at the harvard Faculty club in late 1960, smith and Leary took out their appointment calendars and decided on new Year’s day, 1961. on that day, around noon, in Leary’s home, he and Kendra took mescaline. his experiences ran the gamut from bliss to mild terror. he concluded, as many after him would, that the drug indeed offered mystical experience. over the following months, he also tried psilocybin and Lsd several times to compare the experiences. Before long, though, he says, he followed ram dass’ advice: “after you get the message, hang up.” while he valued the experiences, he became skeptical that psychedelics could offer one a genuine religious life. a more enduring force in smith’s life during the sixties and early seventies was Buddhism. once again, television figures into the story. Based on the success of his earlier program, public television invited him back. he was to interview major figures such as eleanor roosevelt and the theologian reinhold niebuhr about contemporary values. smith said the producers wanted to include a “token asian, a wise man from the east,” so he invited d.T. suzuki, the professor of Buddhist philosophy whose book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, was widely read (aided by the fact that it had a lengthy foreword by carl Jung). smith marveled at suzuki’s composure. a very old man in strange circumstances under searing hot lights, and yet he rendered “impromptu wis- dom.” when the day was over, the cameraman discovered he hadn’t loaded any film. suzuki repeated the whole thing, and his grace and manners were impeccable. smith became determined to explore Japan to find out how suzuki came to be that way. For about a decade, Japan would be a second home to smith. his ten visits were pilgrimages, and his most intensive experi- ence came while training at myoshinji sodo monastery under goto roshi. during a koan interview, or sanzen, he became very angry and snarled at the Zen master that he was becoming “sick because of you!” The teacher responded matter-of-factly, “what is sickness? what is health? put aside both and go forward.” That moment marked smith indelibly. Though he says the heart of the experience can’t be conveyed in words, “sickness and health sud- denly seemed beside the point of what it means to be human.” huston smith came to be considered an authority on Zen and wrote prefaces to two of the must-reads of early Zen in america: The Three Pillars of Zen by roshi phillip Kapleau and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by shunryu suzuki roshi. he also practiced in Burma and absorbed the feel of the Theravadan Buddhism of south asia. in 1964 he began his friendship with the dalai Lama during a tour of himalayan monasteries. early one morning on this journey, he was jolted awake by the sound of chanting, which changed from a monotone into beautiful tonal chords. he recorded it and offered a copy to musicologists at miT. The term “multiphonic chanting” en- tered the lexicon. The grateful dead heard of smith’s discovery and made the gyuto monks famous by sponsoring several world tours. smith was in on the ground floor of the psychedelic sixties, opening the doors of perception with aldous huxley and dropping acid with Timothy Leary in 1961.