His first language was Mandarin Chinese , spoken with Suzhou dialect. A in , and at the University of Chicago , graduating with PhD in philosophy in Louis, Missouri for the next 10 years. During his visit he heard the monks chanting and realized that each individual was producing a chord, composed of a fundamental note and overtones. He returned to record the chanting in and asked acoustic engineers at MIT analyze the sound.

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Why are we here? What does it all mean? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? Since the rise of modern science, however, they have turned increasingly to it for answers. This is understandable, for controlled experiments enable science to prove its theses; and with those theses it has remade the world. Not entirely mistaken, for science and its spin-off, technology have their place.

Recognizing this clears the way for looking seriously again at the enterprise that does connect with them: religion. Such serious looking and listening defines the object of this book. It may be wondered if this aim is not too broad. The religions we propose to consider belt the world. They stretch back thousands of years and are motivating more people today than ever before.

Is it possible to listen seriously to them within the compass of a single book? The answer is that it is possible, because we shall be listening for well-defined themes. These must be listed at the outset or the reader will be misled. This is not a book about religious history. This explains the dearth of names, dates, and social influences in its pages. Historicalfacts are kept to the minimum that are needed to situate in time and space the ideas the book deals with.

Even respecting ideas, the book does not attempt to provide an inclusive overview of the religions included, for each hosts too many variations to make sense of in short compass. Instead of trying to catalogue them all, I try to do reasonable justice to the leading perspectives in each tradition. The book is not a balanced account of its subject.

The full story of religion is not rose-colored -- often it is crude and barbaric. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous. A balanced view of religion would include witch hunts and inquisitions, pogroms and persecution, the Christian Crusades and holy wars of Islam.

The catalogue would have no end. Why then do I only mention these things? My answer is so simple that it may sound ingenuous.

This is a book about values. Probably as much bad art as good has been chiseled and painted, but no one would expect it to appear in these pages. Others will be interested in weighing the virtues of religion against its atrocities.

That has not been my concern. Having targeted my subject as the enduring religions at their best, let me say what I take that best to be. Their theological and metaphysical truths are, I am prepared to argue, inspired. Institutions -- religious institutions included -- are another story. Constituted as they are of uneven people partly good, partly bad , institutions are built of vices as well as virtues, which has led one wag to suggest that the biggest mistake religion made was to get mixed up with people.

When we limit ourselves to these, a cleaner side of the religions emerges. They look like data banks that house the winnowed wisdom of the human race.

Finally, this is not a book on comparative religions in the sense of comparing their worth. I have tried to let the best in each faith shine through. Readers are free to make their own comparisons if they are inclined to do so. In saying what this book is not, I have already suggested what it is, but let me be explicit.


Huston Smith



The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions


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