does not describe me fully
it is where to start
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Tales of Wonder by Huston Smith, A Book Review
Two strands thread prominently throughout my writing and this blog: multiculturalism and religion. More than any other person, Huston Smith, the now 90-year-old philosophy professor and religious scholar, has informed my thinking about the intersection of culture and religion. His landmark book, The World’s Religions, has sold almost 3 million copies and is a standard textbook in introductory comparative religion classes. Now, in the twilight of a long life in which he has published more than 15 books, taught at various universities, hosted TV shows, and traveled the world several times over, he has consented at last to tell his unusual and riveting life story in Tales of Wonder.
Born in a remote Chinese village to American Methodist missionaries, Huston Smith learned early about differing cultural and religious points of view. His was the only Caucasian and, originally the only Christian, family in a place which also had followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. This variety would later serve Smith well as he studied the world’s religions. It would turn out to be critical in his ultimately becoming a follower of the major religions, as well as of the folk and primal ones, all while he " ... never canceled my subscription to Christianity."
After he came to the States for higher education, Smith shed his parents' fundamentalist Methodist tradition and practiced a more secular, social activist version of Christianity. In this, he was influenced by his father-in-law Henry Wieman, the subject of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctoral thesis. Eventually, under the influence of other western and eastern teachers, Huston Smith came to embrace a mysticism which defines his religious views to this day.
In his introduction to Tales of Wonder, Pico Iyer says, “Professor Smith … created his own field, by not really comparing religions so much as encountering each one in turn and trying to find its burning core as well as its philosophical uniqueness.” Smith then presents his fascinating autobiography in two parts. Part I describes the historical markers of his life. Part II discusses his personal experiences with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, mysticism, primal religions, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.
Smith’s amazing life began with a Medieval-like upbringing in China but then went on to his becoming a professor at some of the finest universities in America and being acknowledged internationally as one of our pre-eminent religious communicators. Along the way, he has been on the frontlines of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, danced with Sufis, meditated around the clock for days with his Japanese Zen master, and helped Native Americans gain the legal right to use peyote in their religious rites. Even the Dalai Lama has acknowledged Smith as one of his spiritual teachers.
With such a complex tapestry of experiences and with Smith's first-rate writing skills, his autobiography promised to be fascinating. Tales of Wonder met brilliantly the challenge of describing this unique man. It also satisfied his life-long mission to promote understanding among differing religions. As always, Huston Smith appoaches his religious subjects in a phenomenological way, treating each religion with respect and without judgment. Given how divisive religion has been historically, Smith, in his life and in his writing, may have found the secret to helping us all get along.
My writing frequently explores multicultural themes. Born in Puerto Rico, I moved at a young age to the U.S., where my parents became Pentecostal ministers. Early immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman, a White House Fellow, and life aboard a trawler cruising from Martha’s Vineyard to South America. These sometimes incompatible worlds have given me a respectful outlook toward differing points of view. My short stories, poems, and essays reflect my own inclusive, yet sharply defined, journey across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. I recently published Peace on the Journey, a poetry collection which explores the theme of renewal in the face of adversity.
The defining image of this blog is a waterfall. Its inspiration comes from a scene in one of my novels in which the infant protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. While there, she experiences a mysterious sense of wellbeing, which she yearns to replicate for the rest of her life.
"I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow."
"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
About his fictional town Macondo, widely acknowledged to be inspired by his real home town of Aracataca, Colombia. “Macondo is not so much a place as it is a state of mind.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear."
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open."