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A Half-Century's Search For Insight and Answers

It was "like a powerful dream," he said, a "beatific vision" in which he climbed the various links on the Great Chain of Being "from the meagerest life form . . . all the way up to the infinite" -- an experience described by mystics of various religions as ascending a stairway to God.

"Then I got to the penultimate, the next-to-the-last link," Smith said. "I stopped because my emotions were mounting so powerfully that I actually felt that if I took that last step into the infinite, my physical organism could not stand the emotion and I would die."


Historian Huston Smith, 85, is author of "The World's Religions." (Randi Lynn Beach - For The Washington Post)

Smith Lecture
From washingtonpost.com 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.

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After four decades pondering that experience -- and other visions prompted in the 1990s by taking peyote in Native American rituals -- Smith believes it possible to reach the infinite without giving up life. "I don't think if I had decided to take the final step I would have died," he said. "It seemed clear then, but not now."

Smith wrote of his drug experiences in a 2000 book, "Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals." The volume includes eight revised journal articles about the importance of researching the similarities between the use of "God-enabling" drugs (as Smith defines entheogens) and religious visions people have reported after suffering delirium from typhoid fever or hunger.

A life of learning about religious faith and practice has not always been comfortable. Sufis, Smith told Bill Moyers, believe there are three ways to know fire: to hear about it, to see it, to get burned by it.

Moyers asked if he had been burned by religion.

"Yes," Smith answered. "There are wonderfully intrinsic moments when life makes sense, and doubts are banished as irrelevant in those moments. Of course, we can't stay in that state. We're not here to be blissed out all the time."

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.


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