Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Huston Smith, an authority on the world's major religions, has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington University and the University of California. His books include "Why Religion Matters" and the classic text "The World's Religions." I interviewed him in Berkeley, California. Well Houston first of all thanks for taking the time to talk to me here.
Huston Smith: Oh no it's a pleasure.
Wright: Now in your new book you have some pretty severe criticisms of not of the modern world but of some modern ways of looking at the world and looking at the universe and our place in our universe...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: ... can you can you kind of tell us what the essence of your critique is?
Huston Smith: Well I think it can be put quite simply. The chronicle of higher education had a one significant put much of the point in one sentence when it said "If anything characterizes modern it is the loss of a sense of transcendence." And then it goes on to define what it means by transcendence. A reality that encompasses and surpasses our everyday affairs.
Huston Smith: Now let's just start from there.... that is a tremendous loss. My work had been in the world's great religions, all of them emphasize transcendence...
Wright: So the world has loss it's sense of there being a transcendent reality...
Huston Smith: Another reality which by the way is not elsewhere it's not like up there it's more like a wider circle that encompasses us and is right here.
Wright: But it's beyond the physical world ...
Huston Smith: It's not physical and that's why science cannot pick it up and because science due to it's tremendous prowess in understanding the physical world we have made a an actually a very simple but a fatal mistake in assuming that science is the royal road to truth in the whole area which it is not. It is at the same time the near perfect way of understanding the deep structure of the physical world but it cannot get it's hand on value meaning purposes... these things that are live lives are just made of and I'll just add one more word... up until the rise of modern science, everybody believed that we were descendant or created from a reality greater than we are. I could run through the gambit but that might might not need to do that but that's been unhorsed by this single fatal mistake.
Wright: Yes well... In fact in your book in your other book this is the book you are best know for which has sold I guess millions copies around the world "The World's Religions" or "The Religions of Man" back when it was permissible to say that. You summarize something that, although in your view all the world's religions have in common...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: ... first of all, ethically there are commonalities. Secondly, in the virtues that they see there are commonalities... things like humility, veracity, charity... and then you you define a commonality of vision ...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: ... of all the world's great religions and you say that they all share three things...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: What what what what are those?
Huston Smith: The three are they say first that things are more beautiful than we normally experience, you know in our everyday life so many things make no sense, they don't fit together, in fact there's a little joke if you want to give your grandchildren a toy that would teach them about life give them a jigsaw puzzle no two pieces of which fit together now that will teach them what life is like and that's the way on the surface it seems. But here science is coming to the aid of religion metaphorically because the deeper it delves into the structure of nature the more the laws lock together. I mean a clear example is space, time and matter use to be 3 things now there's no way... they are interlocked so each implies and so on. The other...
Wright: But but you believe there's there's ultimately a unit even great than anyone that science can show us.
Huston Smith: Yes because it includes life and our lived lives... values, meanings and purposes and science can't touch those. But there is a hero, or the Lord thy God, the Lord is One... Shama... the Jews... hero Israel the Lord thy God the Lord is One and they all say that in their various terminology. So that's the first thing that ...
Wright: So all the religions, whether or not they are monotheistic per say whether or not they're even theistic per say whether or not they even profess belief in a God you're saying they see an underlying unity to ultimate reality...
Huston Smith: Right. Right.
Wright: Now there are two other things that that you mention that's common to all religions in the realm of vision, there's there's the world is more mysterious than it seems there's more than meets the eyes and the world is kind of friendlier than it seems, is that right or better than it seems?
Huston Smith: Better. This is universal, the symbolism of space... the horizontal arm symbolizes space the vertical arm symbolizes worth, value, meaning and purpose and here again metaphorically science comes to religion's aid in (()) way because it's as a space which before the devices of modern science and was a very kind of cosy little place and now 15 billion light years across I mean we can begin to imagine the difference. Now the startling that the religions say in common is that the vertical axis as much longer that is going towards greater and greater worth, value, meaning until it climaxes the scholastics called it the end's perfect t-symbol, perfect being and so that's the third thing that the religions say in unison.
Wright: Ok ... in one form or another. Now when you say the universe is better than it seems, reality is better than it seems, suppose you say that to someone who is suffering from tremendous pain and they say you know "How can you say that? My universe is what I'm feeling right now and if it feels painful it by definition is painful that is that is my ultimately reality from my point of view." I'm sure you've heard this?
Huston Smith: I've not only heard it, I've experienced it and this leads to what is technically called the kind of pastoral question... I would never breath a word about the whole scheme of things being perfect to someone who is valley of the shadow of death. The only appropriate response to such a person is to take their hand and just cry cry with them for 20 minutes and leave it well sit with them for as long as you can but don't breath a kind of so called consoling because that's just patronizing and it would be totally inappropriate however in another context like we're trying to use our minds here to understand reality and on a different occasion why the only way to make sense of suffering is to place it in a context which is so much vaster that that it can show it to be what the let's just say a little black dob on the magnificent painting where it serves a kind of purpose. If we place in context, one other analogy ... if a 2 year old drops her ice cream cone it's the end of the world. The mother knows it is not. The mother has a wider perspective and I deeply believe that the great theological metaphysical system of the world's great religions have a context so vast that it can take the most agonizing suffering... Christ in Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion and place it in the context where in it makes sense.
Wright: And and what is the source of this belief? I mean you acknowledge that this is not something that you can prove to someone you can't show them on a piece of paper the way you can verify scientific theories... what is it and there are a lot of people who would like to agree with you...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: ... but can't bring themselves to do so... what is it... how are you so sure?
Huston Smith: I honor those people and I respect their integrity and the worst mistake we can make is to pretend to believe something that really doesn't go all the way through our being. Sorry for the interruption.
Wright: Well just ... did you I mean have you did you have a particular religious experience or? I know in your view it's possible to know something without being able to fully articulate it. In fact, this is to some extent the nature of religious knowledge I guess. Is that... have you had experiences that were as they say (()) but ineffable, in other words, they filled you with great conviction and you understand that other people haven't had them but you have is that ...
Huston Smith: Yes. I would let Job speak for me. I had heard of you through the hearing of the ear but now I see you and by the way there was a man who really suffered and yet he came to a theophony wherein suffering made sense and I have had such experiences but that's not the main reason for my belief and if I put it whimsically as one great theologian did when asked how why "How do you believe that?" and he said, "You're not going to like this but my grandmother told me." Now I won't put it quite that simplistically but I have sought out and spent an average of about 5 to 8 years with the greatest minds and spirits that I could find and I've circled the globe to search for them and getting to know them and and it was their blend of their powerful intellect that had radiated into their lives and by the way that doesn't mean like when they walked into a room the lights go on and things like that, it could be very low key and they were very unassuming you might say but watching them over the years in varieties of experience I came to recognize these people know more than I do and I came to believe what they said but because of their modesty they in turn say "Well we didn't figure this out" because between the finite and the infinite there is no commencerability and there is no way the finite is going to comprehend the infinite on it's own. That would be like trying to lift yourself from with your own boot straps. If there is going to be a wooing kind of a love relation between the finite and the infinite it has to be the infinite that takes the initiative and that is the deepest meaning of revelation. So they in turn would say, "I believe that not because my mentors would say... I believe it not because I figured it out but because the Upanishad or the Sufi mystics or whatever received these revelations which give the gist of the most profound religious views of life.
Wright: Ok but but of course there are a lot of things in scriptures in ancient scriptures that aren't true and there are a lot of things that your grandmother tells you that aren't true and there are a lot of things that smart people believe that aren't true. So was it was it something about the aura of these people that gave them credibility in your eyes or?
Huston Smith: They would agree. They all agreed with that... that one has one is never relieved of using one's intelligence and one is never relieved of one's conscience which tells you yes this clicks, this makes sense I'm going to believe it and then you come upon something like (()) or slavery or gender relation and you say and what they tend to say it is beyond us to know what the circumstances were that generated these social thing but be that as they may today they are anathema so there was nothing like (()) cow-cowing to even the greatest scriptures and I can add one thing ... of course their views of the nature of the universe physical universes passe they were I mean Copernican and all this kind of thing... second is well we've been talking about social relationships and those new occasions teach new duties time makes ancient truth uncouth... yes, they all agreed that agree to that they winnowed it it was only on the biggest picture, the widest angle lense on the nature of things that they felt in that area they have never been surpassed and I agree.
Wright: In addition, from reading your most recent book, I gather that in addition to discussions with people like this and moments of personal revelation, to some extent contemplating scientific findings themselves points you in the direction of religion and one example is quantum physics, right? Would you talk about that a little about quantum physics in particular?
Huston Smith: I will. Science can say nothing directly about God or that God exists or doesn't but analogically it's a goldmine. You asked about quantum mechanics, it has shown us that there are three great orders of magnitude each of which has it's own world and it's own law. In the very small, the micro world, this is quantum mechanics. Then there is a macro world that we're in right now and then there is a mega world of the astronomers and the sidereal space. Now it is impossible to map even the micro world or the mega world onto our macroworld and our language was devised to deal with the macro world so there's no way you can describe those worlds in ordinary everyday language. You try and you run into blatant contradictions at every point...
Wright: Like like something is both a wave and a particle for example.
Huston Smith: Yes. Or the double split experiment...
Huston Smith: ... the beam goes through both (()) simultaneously without dividing. Now there's no way our rational minds can comprehend that so that gives us analogically the point that the infinite which God is cannot be stated in our everyday language literally or you run into contradiction that are in all the scriptures... God is three but God is also one... Christ is divine but Christ is... and that's that so the moral of that is that greatest mistake in really moving deeply into religion is not agnosticism or atheism it's everyday-ism and thinking that we can state the basic truth about ultimate reality in literally in our language so literalism is the biggest barrier today of really understanding the profundity of religion.
Wright: The idea that anything real will be clearly describable...
Huston Smith: That right and that takes us back to the mystery that they all insist on...
Wright: ... that all great religions insist on...
Huston Smith: Right.
Wright: That all great religions insist on...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: I wanted to to to ask you a little about the relations among the world's religions right now at this point in history... there are certainly people who would say and they would point to things like Sept. 11th of last year or relations between India and Pakistan and say that religion is doing at least as much harm as good in the world. Now first of all I assume ... would you disagree with that? I assume you would that that you view religion as being unbalanced as a positive force in the modern world, right?
Huston Smith: Yes. I agree that it's profoundly ambiguous.
Wright: So it it works both ways ... under the name under the name of religion very bad things are done you would certainly agree.
Huston Smith: Horrible...
Wright: Now we're we're in a point in history where the world you know economically is becoming more and more integrated and it's more and more like one world and I'm wondering if you think that that process can continue without more in the way of integration in some sense among the world's religions. Are there adjustments that the world religions have to make or accommodations to one another that they have to make in in a period of globalization in order to keep from being destructive forces?
Huston Smith: Well, it's easy to say what the adjustments would be but whether they will be made or not is a is a very different question. What needs to be made the adjustment is now that we're rubbing shoulders with each other in multiculturalism we very much need in the area of faith we need a policy of live and let live... justice on the political theme... nations... different nations... let's try to move towards each can work it's own destiny. Now so the solution in theory is easy, in practice I am not optimistic and the reason roots back deeper than religion into human nature. All the religions say that we are very flawed creatures... in Christianity: original sin, in Judaism, missing the mark, in Islam (()) or forgetful of our true nature, in the Indian religion (()) or ignorance and in China, East Asia the uncarved block which is like the way we were came into being has been marred and gouged so they all say there is something flawed within us and they all agree to what that flaw is, to put ourselves above other people and our interests above other people and when you get institutions not only nations but also churches they create in group out group divisions and it's in the character of human nature to be egocentric in terms of groups and I think I've I can leave it at that that in theory yes what we should do whether we will achieve in doing it I'm far from optimistic.
Wright: Are are there some religions that historically have been better about tolerance of alternative belief than others.
Huston Smith: Well if I were forced to name one I would say Buddhism probably has the best record but I would not want to put a lot of emphasis in that certainly right now in Shrilanka is one example the Buddhist monks have become fierce little political enclave I wouldn't lay much stress on that but if I had to prioritize one I think Buddhism would surface.
Wright: It's I mean the problem you have pointed to is the problem that in a sense religions are supposed to solve I mean wouldn't you say that one of the most fundamental things that religions are about is getting us to transcend our own narrow perspective?
Huston Smith: Right.
Wright: So it's it's kind of kind of ironic if if this is the very hurtle that religions themselves can't get over... right? I mean the ... that should be what they are specializing in, right?
Huston Smith: Well they all say this is the fundamental problem of human life and if you put it in terms of the virtues, the virtues would be charity or at a more deep level empathy, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who mourn and recognize your neighbor as fully one just like you yourself are but we can't do that. Nobody can feel the hunger of a starving person as in the way that he or she would feel it if they were starving and that just carries all the way across so the best way to think of it is this is the challenge of life and though we can never achieve it completely within these mortal coil the guideposts are very clear and we can work incrementally towards increasing our empathy for other human beings.
Wright: Ok. Do you see any signs of that happening of religions in a modern globalized world making accommodations to one another possible doctrinal accommodations....
Huston Smith: No this is this is a very bleak time because religions are seize on by politicians and politicians have no conscience about they will seize anything that will help their political ambition and so much of the mischief, that's too light a word, tragedy and so on that religion gets blamed for is actually the politicians should be blamed for it because they use religion for their own end.
Wright: So in a sense what the religions are missing is the the fundamental or a fundamental message of your first book, "The World's Religions," which is your contention at least that they are all all religions are saying at some fundamental level the same thing, right? That...
Huston Smith: Right.
Wright: That in theory they should feel a kinship with one another.
Huston Smith: Right.
Wright: And and is...
Huston Smith: I like the Irish tailors adding trousers singular at the top plural at the bottom and that holds analogically for religion, at their deepest point they converge.
Wright: Now does does this mean you subscribe to what is sometimes called the perennial philosophy?
Huston Smith: That name has spun off from Aldous Huxley's book about that which stresses the mystical dimensions of religion and there's a saying that mystics speak the same language and it is true that if not identically at least more in more the same message.
Wright: Ok. The word and I saw this in a chart in your book the word "Godhead"... the the idea that and this is kind of very much kind of a Hindu notion I guess the idea that beyond that that that all the specific gods that that people believe in at a more fundamental level they are all the same and they are all grounded in what is called the Godhead. Is that is that right? That's the notion?
Huston Smith: Yes. We come back to the matter of mystery. All of these religions in their more profound aspects fades into mystery and that ultimate mystery cannot be articulated and cannot be put in to words. There's a technical word, two word, apophatic, katophatic in Greek. what can be spoken. apophatic cannot be spoken. or the via negativa devia politiva. you can put in the words via negativa, you fade beyond that so the ultimate truth where in they all converge is ineffable and that to make that distinction Eckhart used the word God for God who is conceivable sometimes called the personal god because it is endowed with personal attributes love compassion mercy power and so on but beyond that there is the Godhead or Tillich also spoke of the god of god and then the god beyond god which would be the equivalent of the godhead but let's recognize most people are very busy and they don't have the time and luxury that I've had to study these and one has to be very understanding that most of them are not able to lodge their ultimate belief in something cannot be defined. So we must be tolerant of that...
Wright: Although a mystic would say some mystics would say that although they can't articulate what the godhead is they've had some apprehension of it, in other words to say you can't talk about it isn't to say you can't know it in some sense... now have you had the sense of knowing or sense of contact with it.
Huston Smith: Oh yes.
Wright: But you can't say anything about it I guess?
Huston Smith: No I can well there is a wonderful short poem on Everest the the (()) and I wish I could quote but I can't but I can give you the gist. The stone grows old. Eternity is not a stone. I mean it doesn't grow old. And the it goes on to say that having reached this experience near the top of experience I will go down and time will weave itself around me but having known now those two words are crucial to the poem having known why time will no longer bind me in and always I will feel it unraveling at the edges for once I stood in the white windy presence of eternity. So it's that having known and we're back to Job, now my eyes see thee...
Wright: So you are enduringly liberate by by one of these experiences...
Huston Smith: Oh yes. It of course it fades, you can't stay in it all the time but you can always remember it.
Wright: And what do you have to say to people who aren't fortunate enough to have one of these? I mean I guess there are things you can do and in fact you you meditate don't you everyday? Although I've also read that you don't you don't claim spectacular results on a daily basis or anything in you meditation at all. But is that an example of of a tool that someone can use to try to move in that direction?
Huston Smith: Oh yes. Yes. Meditation is coming in in America largely through Buddhism but also the (()) other thing and there's been a tremendous rise of in meditation so that's one way to open one's sensibilities to the incursion of and directly experience the incursion of the more...
Wright: Ok. Have you also had experiences that were just unbidden you know that that that you you weren't seeking through meditation but they just kind of hit you out of blue?
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: And is you can't but they're hard to talk about I guess they're hard...
Huston Smith: No I can talk about I can I can never do justice...
Huston Smith: ... but one can circle it and give some information. One moment that will never leave me is happened about 35 years ago high up in the foot hills of the Himalayas at 3am on the full moon night of October when sitting with the Gutana Tibetan monks that I had gone to spend my sabbatical learning about the Tibetan tradition and in this the first morning of their four day pujas as it turned out the full moon and so on why the first hour sitting them was they were chanting and it was the first hour was very monotonous rhythmic and so on very deep and then suddenly they splayed out into a tonic chord and I thought, my word, they've got basses baritones tenors and I had always understood harmony as a Western phenomenon but here I was in Asia and there it was but that was nothing until the after about 10 minutes the choir cut out and left it all to a cantor and that cantor was doing it all by himself and what I mean doing it meaning the 1st 3rd and a 5th coming out of one barrel-chested (()) that was moment of epiphany.
Wright: And you helped make the West aware of the phenomenon didn't you? As I recall?
Huston Smith: Yes I my I cannot say I was the first Westerner to hear that sound but I certainly can say with compliment I was the first Westerner who heard it understandingly because my mother was a music teacher and grounded us from infancy on in harmony and also our my hearing is shot now but it was very good to pick up and distinguish tones. So I was instantly aware I was in the presence of something the West knew nothing about so I scrounged around got a little tape recorded took it back to MIT where I was teaching and passed it by the leading scientist working on the acoustics of the human voice, he agreed that the West knew nothing about that, so I got the grant easily to go back and get a quality recording which I brought out as a disc and then Mickey Hart picks up the trail of the Grateful Dead who himself as a fine ethomusicologist on the side so he put the infrastructure of the Dead behind a group of these monks and how they now made five coast to coast sell out concerts so it's becoming known.
Wright: But this was an epiphany of a religious sort for you ...
Huston Smith: Oh that's an understatement. Understatement. It was the holiest sound I had ever heard. Now granted that the that the surrounding contributed, those Himalayan mountain washed in the full moon light and so on was the context of of it...
Wright: But for you it was a moment of contact with something beyond I mean some people would say yea that was would experience and say it was very beauty it was a moment of great beauty but they wouldn't feel that they had been in touch with something literally transcendent but to you that's what the moment meant.
Huston Smith: Right. It ...awe... also my 20-25 year of dunking my life in these profundities of these religions at their wisest I'm sure of contributed to the sense of the holy...
Wright: But do you think some people are just kind of spiritually handicapped in a sense in other words they're (()) just their intuitive interpretation of something like that will be fundamentally just different from yours and and less profound?
Huston Smith: Yes. Yes. That's true. And there are what shall I say by nature atheists and it serves them very well and I respect them do not fault them but I one of my claims to originality that in studying the world's religions for 50 years I've come to the conclusion that there is a spiritual counterpart to Carl Jung's psychological personalty type. Jung thought there was intuitive the of I can't remember the fourth now the ...
Wright: The analytical...
Huston Smith: Yes. Sensing ... the intuitive... the rational and anyway but there's a counter part to that which is the atheist, there is no God, the polytheist there are many gods, shaman get in touch with them and so on, the monotheist, there is one god and the mystic there is only god because God encompasses everything and I'm inclined to think that just as Jung thought that we're born into one of these types, religiously probably we are two and we ought to respect those difference.
Wright: Well what do you say to someone who would very much like to feel the way you do about the universe but isn't so inclined to do it you know someone who's really seeking spiritual depth is there something they can do to get closer? something in the way or daily practice or or...
Huston Smith: Of course of course go to work and the first thing and most instructive and probably easiest is to read accounts and they're graded in terms of profundity but I would start with the Bhagavad Gita or the Sermon on the Mount or the Upanishads and then if that peaks their interest and I'm just accounting my route, I would then search out the most profound and wisest person that I knew whose life was religiously centered and go to school to them.
Wright: Ok. I I I I'd like to ask you a little bit press you a little further on your conception of God I mean we've we've talked a little about the Godhead which is something even more profound that God in your view and which by definition you can't really talk about clearly...
Huston Smith: Well one can circle the question ...
Huston Smith: And aim at it but realizing one will with the finite mind one will never get fully there.
Wright: Ok but but God in your view as distinguished from the godhead, God is something that you can talk about a little more precisely? is that...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: Right... and I'm I'm curious about your conception of God because of your background. You were you you you told me you attended a Methodist church and in fact your parents were Methodist missionaries but you've there's something very Eastern about your perspective and I guess one reason is because they were missionaries in China and that's where you grew up and in all your writing it seems to me you give a lot of weight to an Eastern way of describing spiritual experience or ultimate reality...
Huston Smith: Let me, if I may, change that slightly. It's true that I came upon these profound truths through Asia through the vedanta and Buddhism and the like and the Sufi but I came to realize that they are all present in Christianity. It is just that there were never told me nobody ever pointed me to those same profundity in Christianity.
Wright: So so then for example you would say that maybe brahman what the Hindus call the ultimate reality is comparable to what Eckhart may have called the godhead is that an example?
Huston Smith: Yes. yes.
Wright: Ok. The the ... Eckhart... Meister Eckhart... Does it but I I guess that's kind of my question... how give how broadly grounded you are how how specifically can you have a a a conception of God in your mind I I when you go to your Methodist church? Are you thinking about it the way the other people in your Methodist church are thinking about it?
Huston Smith: Probably yes and no up to a point yes but I don't make any great claim I've just had the great fortune to spend my working years plumbing these traditions these people are very busy and they don't have that time but I feel bonded with them because in the area of God of over against the godhead why I share their view and when I go to church well let me precede this by saying you know you cannot speak language you can speak French, German, Japanese, Portugese and so on you have to speak a language therefore it would be a delusion to think that I could zap straight for the godhead. No. And on that level of God why I'm deeply bonded with them and my heritage and my present and on Sunday mornings in church, I don't want to hear about the other religion. I know it's become kind of fashionable for mainline churches to give sermons on Buddhism and so on and I don't like it because every tradition needs it's boundaries otherwise it just splays out into a few moral aphorism and we need the definition at least I need the definition to form the basis from which I can go like a springboard up into the higher dimension of truth.
Wright: Well at the same time you do believe that even as you worship a God in church that a non-theistic Buddhist, although there are plenty of theistic Buddhists, but a non-theistic Buddhist has a religious experience that's in a sense every bit as valid as yours.
Huston Smith: Oh absolutely and that's a little tricky in terms of language, theistic and non-theistic, it depends on what you mean by God and personal God yes a Taravata Buddhism is atheistic but in terms of a trans-personal godhead (()) just as strongly.\
Wright: And is Nirvana a form of that?
Huston Smith: Yes.
Huston Smith: And finally I just wanted to ask you a little about about death. That that for a lot people this is a lot of what religion brings to them: it's consolation about the inevitability of death. But in different religions people have a very different conception of what death is like. Christians might think of pretty much themselves being transported to another land that's better than this one whereas Buddhists some Buddhists at least might have a very different conception of of what it is that you're aspiring to in the after-life. What ... again it gets back to the fact that your perspective is so broad and in a way inclusive ... how do you you think of it and and is it is it of comfort to you?
Huston Smith: I think of it as I do most of the important areas of religion as a case of theme and variation. The variations are great, just an obvious one, India believes in reincarnation we come back in a different form in or a different body in this world and Christianity it's not too well known that for the first three centuries Christians believed in reincarnation too but then it was pronounced a heresy. In any case, the variations differ but now what about the theme that runs through them all? First of all, they all say as Saul Bellow the novelist put it once, nobody believes that the pictures stop and that's the first thing. The second thing is that now here there's one variation but I'll say for the rest they all say we do not complete our life's work when we shed the body as India puts it there is more to be done and this more is in the form of cleansing and then again the metaphors differ ... purgatory, hell and so on and the reason they all say there must be cleansing is all of us do things in our life that we some of them we admit others we rationalize away but heaven which is only a metaphor for our spiritual destiny is completely pure and we cannot take our cross into that realm so the grim dross has to be gotten rid of and the dominant metaphor there is flames and is hell but there's a great difference in sophistication of seeing that literally or metaphorically and those who realize that the truths of the infinite cannot be stated consistently in ordinary language they that the deep truth that they are metaphors these physical flames are metaphors for is that when we die we will see our life with complete objectivity which we cannot now and like drowning people one hears that the whole life passes before them in a few seconds it would be like that but this time we will see how our actions affected other people very clearly and it will not be a pleasant sight. It will in part but all the misdemeanors and selfishness and self-centeredness the pain we cause even the one's we love will be starkly before us. There will be no place to hide and that vision will be the Greeks had the myth of the shirt of (()) that was made of fire that for a period it will our conscience it will be like a shirt of (()) as we are brought face to face how faithless we were towards other people, self-seeking, putting ourselves first and things like that but it's temporary and all except the literalist who stopped at a kind of third grade level the Buddhists put it in terms of bardos bardos and other state and when the impurities have been fully faced and recognized then that shirt of (()) falls from our back and our spirits will be pure and capable of entering heaven, Nirvana, whatever you want to call the eternity of spirit.
Wright: So you you on the one hand don't have a real detailed conception of the afterlife the way some people might but you defiantly envision a period first of all of kind of unpleasant atonement or acknowledgment of the inevitable short comings of life but that is ultimately followed by something which again I guess you can't conceptualize very clearly but it's preferable to that first phase it sounds like...
Huston Smith: Well the Buddha was very diligent in recognizing that Nirvana could not be described in everyday language and all of his descriptions are it's not this it's not this (()) but he used one positive word, he said Nirvana is bliss. In other words the full meaning and glory of all existence would be made evident to us.
Wright: Well that's a positive note to end on and a reassuring one. Thanks very much for... do you have something else to say?
Huston Smith: Well I'm a little disturbed by earlier you said is it a comfort to you and then now you say reassurance well yes it is but that patronizes the basic religious stand which is not though the charge is made over and over wishful thinking. The real reason is truth.
Wright: The real reason for...?
Huston Smith: For believe that is that you recognize that it's true. India says it in an aphorism there is no right that that that is superior to that of truth and I would insist on that it is a harkening view of life but we have the saying it's too good to be true. What meanness of spirit causes us to put it that way rather than say saying oh that's scenario is too bad to be true?
Wright: And it also seems to me that as in some ways reassuring as some religious doctrines may be a truly in some sense a a a deep spiritual life a reflective spiritual life can be very uncomfortable in some what the way you suggest because...
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: ... the object of the game part of it is to be aware of your own egotism...
Huston Smith: Absolutely.
Wright: And and including in it subtle forms that you're usually not aware of unless you really pause to think about it.
Huston Smith: Right. Right.
Wright: So part of the goal of the religious life should be to become uncomfortable with yourself in some sense.
Huston Smith: That's true and when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, the class was just beginning to get underway, like you know how brash 20 year olds are and one of the students before the class began asked the professor why are you a Christian and without batting an eye he said because I believe in the forgiveness of sin and that is what you're saying, recognition of the flaw...
Wright: And recognition of sin being a prerequisite for the forgiveness.
Huston Smith: Well that can go down many roads but I guess forgiveness implies a forgiver and whether you think of it as the more ominous part within you the deeper part or externally those are simply spatial metaphors, they come to the same thing.
Wright: So then a completely kind of non-theistic person could be deeply religious in your view if they draw on that part of themselves. If they get if they ... if they demand of themselves first of all honest recognition of their short comings and then having recognized them forgive themselves.
Huston Smith: Yes.
Wright: Ok. Well that's encouraging. Well again thanks a lot for taking the time.
Huston Smith: It was a pleasure. Thank you.