In his lecture, "China's Place in World History," which is open to the public, Smith said he will focus on the Chinese emphasis on relationships rather than individual achievement.
"The Chinese began with the assumption that the group is the fundamental unit of reality," Smith said. "Individuals? Sure, we can factor them out from their groups, but let us not think that they as individuals have any viability apart from their group. To think that would be thinking that the eye could still see if it were extricated from its socket and the nerves severed."
Historian Huston Smith, 85, is author of "The World's Religions."
(Randi Lynn Beach - For The Washington Post)
at 1:23 PM
Huston Smith will speak on "China's Place in World History" at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the arts center theater at Sidwell Friends School, 3825 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Admission is free, but space is limited. 202-537-8181.
Westerners started with the opposite assumption, he said. "The basic unit of reality is the individual. Groups? Sure, there are associations into which individuals enter. To the Chinese, that seems wacky."
Smith is a lifelong Christian whose 16th book, "The Soul of Christianity: Reclaiming the Great Tradition," is scheduled for September publication by HarperSanFranciso.
But Smith calls himself a universalist and "refuses to prioritize" any one of the world's great religious traditions over the others. Each of those traditions -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and primal (indigenous) religions -- "contains truth sufficient unto salvation," he said. "They were all revealed by the same God."
What sets him apart from other historians of religion, Smith said, is that he learned the major traditions by apprenticing himself to great teachers within those traditions. Those apprenticeships took place while he was teaching classes and writing books, typically in once-a-week sessions with a Hindu swami, a Sufi sheik, a Zen master.
Smith's work hasn't been without criticism. During a teaching career spanning four decades at major universities -- Washington University, MIT, Syracuse University and the University of California at Berkeley -- some colleagues accused Smith of lacking objectivity.
"I'm not afraid of losing my objectivity as I grope" for answers, he responded when Moyers asked about that criticism. "I think it's transparent to the student from the first class that I don't want to indoctrinate them. I'm honest about that.
"I really try to make myself a plate-glass window so they're not listening to me, they're not looking at me. They're looking at these wisdom traditions and what they say. And if you give students, the students with all their busy-ness, if you put something before them of worth, they will see it and move toward appropriating it."
Others attacked Smith for participating in Timothy Leary's early 1960s experiments at Harvard University involving the mind-altering drugs psilocybin, mescaline and LSD.
"I took some hallucinogens and got criticized for it. But I don't care," Smith said. "No one in human history has given as much thought to the interweaving of altered states of consciousness and religion as I have. It's an immensely important issue which nobody is touching today."
Smith spoke of his association with Leary and the British novelist Aldous Huxley, who in 1954 -- four years before publication of "Brave New World Revisited" -- released "The Doors of Perception," a book promoting the judicious use of mescaline as a means of experiencing the divine.
In 1960, Smith was teaching at nearby MIT and became friends with Leary. He developed an even closer friendship with Huxley, who was on a six-month teaching fellowship at MIT. The three formed a "tripod," and Smith and Huxley supported Leary until the experiments started "careening off course" in 1963, Smith said. (Leary was dismissed after using graduate students in his research.)
Smith first took mescaline on New Year's Day 1961 and had "a very important mystical experience," he said. He still has trouble finding words to describe an 11-hour episode when he "blasted off" in Leary's home while lying on a davenport before a blazing fire in the hearth.