From The Wisdom of Faith series…
Huston Smith was born in China to Methodist missionaries. Confucianism and Taoism are among his favorite topics, and also considered to be what he most eloquently writes about.
Smith says it is not accurate to think of Confucianism and Taoism as different religions. If asked which religion do you belong to, most religious Chinese would reply, “The Great Church” which is made up of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and a good smattering of monism folk religions. Every Chinese is a Confucianism on state days, but when illness fell, you’d best go to the Taoist sages. And when death comes, then the Buddhist priest becomes necessary.
This is the equivalent of saying you are Methodist, Catholic, Orthodox Jew, and Church of Religious Science which is completely inconceivable in the western world, but would be perfectly normal according to Chinese thinking. Different religions service different components of the self.
Confucianism and Taoism could be seen as part of a whole, but overlapping and intertwining like the ying yang.
Five constant relationships:
- Parent and Child
- Spouse and Spouse
- Elder brother and younger brother
- Elder friend and younger friend
- Ruler and subject.
We work out our humanity in these cross currents of relationship. Wren is the ideal relationship between any two human beings and the heart of this relationship is empathy. Can I empathize with your feelings and your interests? To the extent that I can, my wings are tipped up and I can maneuver skillfully. To the extent that I cannot, my wings are tipped down and I will likely spiral out of control.
First step is to be able to empathize within the family. But this can create nepotism if you go no further. So the next step is to empathize beyond the family to the community. But if you stop here, then you have provincialism. Then you should extend this empathy to your own people. But if you stop here, you have nationalism. So you have to extend this empathy to the entire world. It is a mistake to think that because Confucius taught that we should empathize with humanity it should stop there. Confucius believed that we need to empathize with all of the universe/cosmos.
At one point in Smith’s career, he was listed as the associate minister at the local Methodist Church and was also President of the Vedanta society of St. Louis which was teaching him metaphysical profundities that his church was not teaching. It all came to a head on Christmas eve. Christmas in Methodism was all about the happiness of the family together. But when it came to spiritual depth, what the Swami Satprakashananda said about the incarnation fed his soul more than anything he learned at the Methodist Church. The title of his sermon was always: Jesus, the Light of the World. The reason is because the Swami fully believed in the incarnation and the church did not. His church had been diluted by modernism so the Swami was more true to original Christian teachings than the Methodist church was.
I think what is really interesting about this is that Smith was receiving missionary help and claimed this was a very good thing. His parents were Christian missionaries in Asia and he feels that his parents offered equally crucial help. We get stuck in the notion of having to belong to “one” religion, but all of the religions inform one another and so the missionaries, by bringing their religion into the traditional religion of a country, provide a fresh approach to the traditional religions. Smith claims to be in favor of the missionary enterprise but claims that has to be accepted both ways. It’s not just about Christian missionaries informing other traditions but about other traditions informing Judeo/Christianity. This is especially helpful for those who have experienced the negative features of the religions they were brought up with.
Smith says the world’s historical religions divides into three families, each with a distinctive characteristic: the west (Judeo-Christianity) is more oriented toward nature. The Chinese are more oriented to the social structure (relationship to other human beings rather than to nature). And the South Asians (Indians/Buddhists) are more oriented toward the inner self.
Somehow – the interview ends up being about yoga. Smith introduced yoga to America in the 1940s and the 1950s through a television program (where he was introducing all of the world religions). He sat on his desk in a suit and tie and a fashionable crew cut in the lotus position. He has done yoga all of his life since the 1940s.
Yoga comes from “yoke” so basically means to unite. By extension it means to unite the human spirit to the ultimate spirit. This involves 4 stages. 1) Moral preliminaries – if your life is in chaos and you have troubles with other people, that must be worked out first because otherwise you won’t be able to have a still mind so you have to straighten out your basic morality first; 2) Body – we are psychosomatic people. The asanas (postures) have various roles, one being to provide flexibility into older age and the other to help quiet the mind; 3) Breath – the doorway between the mind and the body; 4) Mind – if it wanders, notice that it wanders and bring it back; 5) you lose awareness of yourself and are 100% focused upon what you are doing and eventually even that disappears.
Hindu prayer – “Oh thou before whom all words recoil”.