The Meaning of Tradition: A Conversation with Huston Smith

Remembering Parabola contributor, Huston Smith who left us on December 30, 2016 at the age of 97.

Parabola’s first issue, Winter 1976, included the magazine’s first interview. Conducted by then-editor John Loudon, it questioned religion scholar Huston Smith, author of the bestseller THE RELIGIONS OF MAN, whom Loudon described as “a man who has traveled widely, but deeply, learning the many languages for what is primordially true.” What follows is an edited version from our 2013 summer issue: “Heaven and Hell.”

Parabola: You speak of the primordial tradition. What do you mean by it?
Huston Smith: If we look at human beings, the first thing that strikes us is how different they are—different heights, different shapes, different complexions—and yet we know that underlying this manifold diversity, the structure of the human spine that holds all these bodies erect is surprisingly similar. Now it has come upon me that the collective outlooks of mankind are analogous to this situation concerning human physiques. When we first come upon the Native American Indian outlook or the Hindu outlook or the Islamic outlook, what strikes us first is, again, how distinctive they are, how much they differ from one another. But the thing that has become ever more evident the longer I work with these traditions is that at the heart of all of them is what we might call a conceptual spine which is extraordinarily the same. It’s as though, behind the scenes, a kind of invisible geometry was drawing them all towards a truth which in the final instance is single. That I call the primordial tradition. It has a certain resemblance to what people familiar with philosophy know as the perennial philosophy.

P: How is this primordial tradition related to the great historical religious traditions? How does this primordial tradition take on the different flesh of the various traditions?
HS: To begin with, it is the font and spring of them all. But it takes on, as it were, different coloring as it enters into, and in ways is also the source of, differing civilizations. To take an analogy from human life, the same individual might couch the same point in different ways, depending on the audience to which he is speaking. A father, say, talking about the same general subject might speak in different language to his wife or to his five year old or to a professional audience. Such diversity is appropriate, indeed essential, for communication. lf the primordial truth had delivered itself in the same idiom to all mankind, it would have been understood by none. One could say that God, to connect with the different temperaments of the different civilizations, perforce must meet them on their own ground. Now if we don’t like to think in those terms, then we could say that the deepest truths welling up from the unconscious of the great spiritual geniuses—Mohammed, the seers of the Upanishads, the Prophets of Israel, Christ, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu—naturally are filtered through the distinctive sensibilities of the various civilizations. So the unity is, in this sense, transcendent in all the traditions. They point toward it, converge toward it, and yet it eludes being fully deliverable or describable in any finite mode.

P: You also seem to like very much [Frithjof] Schuon’s distinction between the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of the traditions and to find this a useful way of talking about unity amid diversity. Could you explain the basic distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric?
HS: The key difference has to do with the notion of infinity. A true infinite is without limitation of any form and, by the same token, beyond any positive definition, because definition would demarcate and therefore limit. Some minds, faced with this notion of the infinite, are enticed, one might almost say, entranced. Their response to it is affirmative, embracing. They are like a moth before the candle flame: they go for it. Other minds are rebuffed by such a notion. Repelled may be too strong a word, but they are certainly turned back by it. At best, they can’t get their hands on it, their minds around it, and so it’s meaningless. At worst, it’s frightening, a little scary, or at least certainly unappealing. So, the esoterics are those for whom the infinite is a positive notion; the exoterics are those for whom it is a negative notion.

P: Might the esoteric be regarded as a privileged or higher state and the exoteric following of the tradition somehow for the more ordinary people?
HS: Either can be saints, so sanctity is no monopoly of one or the other.

P: Which way would you point a person who has become alienated from his or her tradition, or whose development has been arrested, or who has become acutely aware of the pluralism of religious traditions—back to his or her own tradition or outward to exploring another one?
HS: The important point to be stressed is the parity and importance of the great traditions—both the ones I deal with in THE RELIGIONS OF MAN and what Eliade calls the archaic ones, like those of the Native Americans. Parity: that in principal and practice the authentic traditions are equal. Importance (and this is likely to be the most controversial thing that I will say): that these traditions have a saving power which in all likelihood is· greater than the saving power in any one of us as disconnected individuals. I know very well that Gautama says, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.” But in the traditions, statements like this assume a corporate base. One must also remember that “the spirit bloweth where it listeth”: there will always be exceptions that prove any generalizations. Still, on average, as between a private sadhana (spiritual quest) which an individual Scotch tapes together for himself and one outlined by an enduring tradition, I place my confidence in the latter. That’s somewhat out of tune with the temper of the times, and I may be less convinced about this than about the other things I’ve said, yet I more than suspect that it’s true. It’s a case of “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The moral is not necessarily that one return to his or her own tradition. There may be alienating factors at work there—a bad Sunday school experience or whatever—that would take a whole lifetime to undo. The moral is to find some tradition and to steep one’s soul in it. To me it is immaterial which tradition; it is of maximum materiality that it be a tradition.

P: There seem at least two types of entry into a tradition, besides birth of course. One would be more along the line of “blind faith,” that is, after an initial encounter, putting your hand in the hand of the guru and committing yourself to this way unconditionally. It has the advantage of being an absolute involvement without which true experience of a tradition seems impossible. The other is a more gradual entry by which the truth you experience and know personally is confirmed and enhanced by the tradition you are entering.
HS: I think that puts it very well, and both are open options and much depends on the circumstances—whom one finds oneself in the presence of—as well as, again, one’s spiritual temperament. Perhaps the experience of al-Ghazzali is relevant here. He went through three stages: one very orthodox, becoming versed in the law, but finding that rather dry; then coming upon the Sufis, whose way was entirely esoteric, ecstatic, and mystical; and then finally—this is the important thing—he came to realize the dangers of excess if ecstasy is not curbed by orthodox guidelines. Thus he came in the end to a definitive blend of form and substance that has remained normative for Sufism. I respect that model.

P: I wonder if the contemporary increased awareness of the variety of religious traditions, through courses and books, encourages individuals to develop their own personal syntheses.
HS: It probably does. The question is whether such individual syntheses are likely to change people as much as involvement in a living tradition can. As you know, I side with the latter. Even so, by the mere fact of living in our polycultural times, there is likely to be some borrowing. Look at the art around my office here—from India, Japan, China. To a degree, that’s eclectic, and it can be welcomed, I think. What we have to realize though is that a religious outlook and a religious way is in the end more like an organism than like a mechanism. That means it is not basically constructed of random or interchangeable parts. We are learning from the difficulty with heart transplants that organisms tolerate intrusions from the outside to some extent, but not beyond given limits. We can learn from this analogy that each of us needs a religion that is not just a collage but an organic whole. And for me that means a tradition whose various ingredients have over the centuries (if we put the matter in human and historical terms) settled into relations with one another that are organic and whole. We need to ground our lives in a center that is holistic in this way. Fixed in that center we can, with appreciation, borrow some trimmings from one another, so to speak.

P: Backtracking a bit, would it be correct simply to identify the esoteric dimension of the traditions with what is more popularly called the mystical dimension?
HS: I think they certainly lie in the same direction. The problem is the many senses in which the word mysticism is used. Sometimes it means nothing more than a direct experiential encounter with the transcendent, whatever its form. From there it can go on to specify a dramatically different kind of experience. And the word is also used to emphasize the experience of unity, of the oneness of things. All of those would be involved in an esoteric encounter, but in addition that encounter, since to some degree it is of the Infinite, would be ineffable; it could not with any degree of adequacy be put into words. But esoterism doesn’t turn wholly on direct experience; it can take its stand on the conviction that the esoteric perspective is true without claiming a great deal in the way of experience of its truth.

P: My assumption, in listening to you, has been that some traditions have a larger dimension of the esoteric, and others have a larger dimension of the exoteric. I would assume, for instance, that in Zen the esoteric dimension would totally predominate.
HS: Yes, but I wouldn’t of course consider Zen a distinct tradition apart from Buddhism. You might think of it as an esoteric dimension within Buddhism, though not the only one. But I do think that by and large the Asian traditions tend to accommodate the esoteric perspective more routinely than do Judaism and Christianity, with Islam a border case in which Sufism is explicitly esoteric and much of Islam is not.

P: How would you characterize the freedom the mystically inclined person has in regard to his or her tradition?
HS: It’s difficult to generalize on that, because the answer differs at different stages. In early stages when the individual life really needs to be made over—cast in a different mold, one might say—too much individual discretion could compromise needed rubrics. I am assuming, of course, that one begins the quest because one wishes to be born again, or changed into something different from what one already is. But then later on, as one’s feet are more firmly planted on the way, over-dependence on external authority could be, in certain cases, debilitating. There’s a wonderful mondo in the Zen tradition on that. When one of the students went to his roshi to report a great satori, the roshi heard him out but said, “Well, that wasn’t such a great satori; it was just a little satori.” Whereupon the student replied: “I don’t care what kind of satori you think it was; it was a great satori!” To which the roshi responded, “Well, in that case, it was a great satori.” So there comes a time when the independence and appropriateness of private judgment comes back into the picture.

P: I would think that Thomas Merton’s experience might bear out the legitimacy of this gradual independence within an on-going dialectic between freedom and form.
HS: It is a dialectic. The Zen tradition, as we know, has many stipulations like, “When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha!” or “Tear up the Sutras!” Such teachings have their place, but we tend to over-generalize them, divorcing them from the contexts for which they were intended. Too early in the game, we appropriate to ourselves the right to take the liberties they counsel.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Glen Moret

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Glen Moret

P: Does following a religious way, a path of faith, necessarily involve spiritual disciplines of some sort?
HS: Yes. Again, we must recognize that “the spirit bloweth where it listeth,” so there may be one in a million who may be the exception. But overwhelmingly the need is for wisdom and method both; all the traditions so teach. As the saying goes, we need to walk on both feet: right views and right practice.

P: Regarding the interrelationship of religious traditions, what about the individual traditions’ claims of exclusivity and preeminence?
HS: It’s totally understandable, because that to which one gives one’s life one must think is ultimate. Otherwise, it doesn’t deserve ultimate allegiance. If one gives one’s life to Christ, exoterically conceived, then it’s almost as though one wouldn’t be wholly committed to Christ unless that Christ were absolute above all other exoterically nameable deities.

P: Otherwise you’d always be on the threshold of commitment and never committing yourself actually.
HS: That’s why Schuon says that for the exoteric the preeminent, privileged status of one tradition is not only inevitable but appropriate. Now such people are going to have problems, because we live in a world where people are aware of other traditions. And how God’s mercy is to be reconciled with his apparent favoritism for one tradition will probably be a lifelong koan for those people. But whatever one says, this is no problem for the esoteric, because the esoteric core is common to them all.

P: The discussion of the unity of religions seems to be growing now, and there is an increasing awareness of the pluralism of religions as a central issue. Does this augur some change within the great religious traditions themselves?
HS: Growing awareness of other faiths is an undoubted fact, but we should not assume that our degree of awareness here is typical. Would an average villager in India be more aware of Taoists, say, than his great-grandfather was? But in the West, at least, increasing consciousness of other religions is raising in a rather acute way the question of the relation of one’s own tradition to other traditions. Beyond those obvious facts, the matter grows more subtle. There’s been an emphasis lately on ecumenism, with spotty results. In trying to combat prejudice and divisiveness, it is well motivated, but it has not brought a clear gain, because much of the empathy towards other faiths has been at the cost of a diminished confidence in one’s own tradition. It has been said that a Muslim in the Middle Ages respected a Crusader who sought to kill him out of conviction more than he respected a man who preached tolerance toward him but believed nothing.

P: Do you think, then, in terms of an extended “axial age” in which the great religious traditions were founded, ending with the emergence of Islam, with the result that the great traditions are already with us? Or is there the possibility of the emergence of another great religious tradition or of a tradition that is somehow synthetic?
HS: I’m not waiting for it. There is a clear assertion in one of the traditions, namely Islam, that it will in fact be the last major revelation of this cycle. And it happens that for thirteen hundred years, that has proved true. My personal feeling on this question is one of equanimity and ease. I don’t see the need for a new religion. What is lacking in the vehicles, the rafts, the yanas we how have?

P: What would the ordinary, virtuous, non-religious American miss out on by not aligning him or herself to a religious tradition?
HS: Sat, chit, and ananda: “infinite being, infinite awareness, infinite bliss.” Does the ordinary, decent, secular American aspire to that? Does he see it as within his register? There is a special circle in Dante’s hell that is populated by souls whose only fault was that their aspirations were too low. ♦

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