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Religion `rock star' turns his eye inward

Huston Smith, honored for his 14 books analyzing the world's faiths and their leaders, is persuaded to work on his memoirs.

December 26, 2006|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Superstar religion scholar Huston Smith has made pilgrimages to Himalayan holy sites, was rescued from lions by Masai warriors and floated into the psychedelic 1960s reclined on Timothy Leary's couch on New Year's Eve 1959, under the influence of mescaline.

Not surprisingly, friends and publishers for years have been nagging Smith to write his memoirs. Instead, he plunged deeper still into the world's great faiths and shared what he learned in books and passionate public lectures.

The impasse ended this year. The grand old man of comparative religion -- he's 87 -- is hard at work on a new book, perhaps his last, on his toughest subject yet: himself.

Gazing out the living room window of his hillside home at trees shedding leaves past their prime, Smith said, "I've been dead set against writing an autobiography. But a friend said, 'Huston, no one living has had the range of experiences you've had. You owe it to posterity to put it all down.' "

So Smith is pressing ahead with the book, although he continues to recuperate from ailments that have landed him in the hospital four times since May.

Smith doesn't set out to write inspirational books, but many readers cherish his books as inspiring beacons to steer by. Filled with anecdotes and character sketches of religious figures, his works offer accessible but scholarly analyses of the world's faiths. "Religion is not primarily a matter of facts," he once wrote, "it is a matter of meanings."

The working title of his autobiography is "Tales of Wonder, Tales of Deep Delight." The title was drawn from a phrase in a poem by Robert Penn Warren. .

Leaning back in an easy chair, the venerable professor with gossamer white hair said it's never been his style -- or that of the spiritual leaders he's apprenticed with over the years -- to call attention to his personal life.

"Autobiography just pumps and inflates my ego, which is already inflated anyway," he explained with a wry smile. "And frankly, I had other books I wanted to write."

"I'm a religious communicator," he added. "And I want to work myself out of my ego. I want to be turned outward onto this fantastic world and other people and their needs and not on myself."

That would explain why he initially toyed with a different title for his memoirs, "Here Lies No One."

Although Smith's is not a household name, his 14 books include "The World's Religions," a standard introductory college textbook that has sold more than 2 1/2 million copies. The holder of 12 honorary degrees, he rose to national attention in 1996 when he was featured in a five-part PBS series, "The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith." A recent book, "Why Religion Matters," won the Wilbur Award for the best book on religion in 2001.

In honor of Smith's literary legacy, Harper San Francisco, has created a new award category for authors who best "embody the spirit of Huston Smith's work of promoting the history and cause of religion in the world and its interface with culture," said his publisher at Harper, Mark Tauber.

The Huston Smith Publishing Prize will be awarded beginning in 2008 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his magnum opus, "The World's Religions," which was originally titled "The Religions of Man," in 1958.

"Huston Smith is beloved. He's a rock star," Tauber said. "We have great respect and patience with him. We think his memoirs are going to be a big deal when they come out."

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, agreed. "What Huston has accomplished," he said, "verges on the timeless. His analysis of the world's enduring religions is not so much dependent upon what other scholars have said as on what he discovered for himself is foundational about those religions."

Smith's has been an extraordinary life.

He was raised by missionary parents in Suzhou, China, and went on to teach religion courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley.

An ordained Methodist minister, Smith apprenticed for two to 15 years with the wisest spiritual leaders he could find in various traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism and Hinduism.

In the meantime, he crossed paths with many of the thinkers who shaped 20th century civilization. Memories of those encounters with the likes of author Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ram Dass are grist for his work in progress.

Take the time his car ran out of gas while he was exploring Africa's Serengeti Plains. Locals had warned, "Anyone lost out there at dusk must be eaten by lions."

Just as the sun was sinking over the horizon, a dozen Masai warriors appeared seemingly out of nowhere and pushed his car to what turned out to be the Olduvai Gorge camp where anthropologist Louis Leakey years earlier had discovered the human bones that added a million years to the history of the human race.

"Leakey wasn't there," Smith recalled. "But I spent that night on his cot, drinking his whiskey."

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