Interview with Dr. Huston Smith for Murshid Sam's biography—7/15/76
WALI ALI: When did you first meet Sam?
DR. SMITH: I can't remember exactly but I think it was soon after I went to MIT. I don't believe we had contact while I was still at Washington University in St. Louis, so that would have put it in probably the early 60's—I went to MIT in '58—but I don't recall that it was that immediate, and I assume that I came into his world by way of "The Religions of Man"; I can't think of any other way—and that was published in '58, so it looks like about 1960.
WALI ALI: I know that when you at one point offered a course at Berkeley I remember him being quite excited and showing up there in a robe with his Zen Stick. He used to tell the story that Dr. Smith had said there was one decent book in English on Zen—other than those by Suzuki—"The Three pillars of Zen," by Kapleau, and he said that he stood up in the middle of the room and shouted for joy, as he put it. He was so disturbed by all the speculations about Zen and not enough of just actually reporting about what actually goes on. I don't know if you recall that.
DR. SMITH: I remember the course very well, and I remember his attendance very well, and I remember that there were one or two such incidents like that with the Zen Stick and his rising and shouting. It is nice to be reminded of what he said.
WALI ALI: I'm not sure just how to proceed. Of course I would just like to get your impressions in whatever way you would most like to give them, and I perhaps will ask you some questions.
DR. SMITH: Actually this may be rather brief.
WALI ALI: I thought perhaps that it might be, but we'll see. We did an interview with Dr. Needleman whom I think you know. Sam used to attend Dr. Needleman's classes also, and we got some very interesting things from him.
DR. SMITH: He first came into my world through letters/correspondence, and they were frequent and they were long.
WALI ALI: Yes, that is a familiar story.
DR. SMITH: I would say that on an average, four single spaced pages, and the first one, I don't remember just when it came, I hardly knew what to make of it. I answered it; I was brought up to answer my mail, and as I said, I don't remember the content of that specifically, but then I remember that they kept coming. They were mostly carbons, and I'm not sure if he would mention who the carbons would go to—maybe sometime—but I had an impression that there were about four carbons or something like that, and I know I answered the first one, and thereafter my answers tapered off because I couldn't keep up with him, and I had other things to do and either he had more energy, which I can well believe, or fewer things to do, but anyway. So they kept coming, and as I said, I don't remember the specific contents of any of them, but I remember the tone of all of them. It seemed like there were always two constants in these letters: one was himself which would indicate his credentials around the world—the Masters that he had either studied with or who had honored him with some kind of recognition or some kind of validation of his experiences, and that was very extensive, needless to say. The other constant that ran throughout the letters was optimism! To hear Sam write you would think that the millennium was just around the corner. Things were always breaking and opening up in a very positive, creative way. That's my memory of the letters which is the way that he came into my life originally, and was the constant right up to the time that he died.
WALI ALI: I notice that the earliest letters we have written to you were from 1965. There must have been some before, but they didn't get into the files.
SABIRA: There is one letter that he wrote to Dr. Reiser—I'll quote what he said, and maybe you would comment on it: "Several years ago I questioned Dr. Smith about the parallels between the three-body doctrines of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity." And that's all he said on this in that particular letter.
DR. SMITH: Oh, the Trikaya doctrine—
WALI ALI: I know he was interested in terms of this sort—in fact I pulled out one of these letters in which he was trying to take some of the Greek terms from the Old Testament and show some of the parallels with the Sanskrit terms, and this might be interesting to you. I recall when he gave those lectures on The First Corinthians which used also the Greek, he was interested to point out the parallel of the subtle body, the spiritual body and so on in the Greek to the Hindu teachings etc.
DR. SMITH: Now when did I first meet him? It just may have been at that Berkeley extension class, and as I said, I don't remember all that he said—which wasn’t a great deal; I think I felt a little bit apprehensive when he turned up and first introduced himself to me. I thought, "Oh dear, here is someone who is going to be coming to upstage the teacher, and maybe even try to take over the class for himself," but there was none of that. There was none of that; he was not in the least disruptive. His comments were terse and to the point, and contributed to the class. I was impressed because whereas his letters made me suspect a large ego in the bad sense of that word because he announced his claims so repeatedly—and his attainments—in person there was nothing of. He did have credentials, needless to say (I'm telling you!), and had met more of the world's great teachers than I had. He could have used that as a lever if he had wanted to use the occasion for ego gratification; but I was not only happy but relieved to find that in person my suspicions of an enlarged ego were allayed.
WALI ALI: He used to say, that he got known at one conference as "The man who wrote the longest letters and gave the shortest speeches."
DR. SMITH: And another nice thing was that he was very friendly, and several times during the two weeks, he would come up and make supportive comments. At the close, the last day, I remember that he got up and made a very short but lovely tribute to the course.
WALI ALI: I know that for him he had been given an assignment from his spiritual teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan, to serve as a link between the mystic and the intellectual. So he spent many years, with a very unorthodox personality, trying to make some kind of link, and had met with a lot of closed doors, as you might imagine. Thus, he was very gratified, to see, come the mid-sixties, that there was a new generation of professors in this country who were less interested in outer things and more interested in seeing if there was any substance behind it. And I think that he honestly felt very good about what he saw that was happening not only with your work, but with a lot of other people that he felt was a new turn in terms of honesty and the people that were dealing with religious phenomena in the universities.
Dr. SMITH: Then he came east to Cambridge a couple of times, I forget the number of times, I forget how many—at least two.
WALI ALI: I think two.
DR. SMITH: Both times he wrote ahead that he was coming and would like to drop in on me, and did so a couple of times. He came by and saw me in the Cambridge area. The first time I don't remember so well, but the last time I remember very vividly. There were about three disciples, and I remember asking if they would like tea, and I forget whether he accepted, but I have a feeling that maybe he did. There was a very good feeling in the room for that hour. There was very little conversation. We just sat together in peace and happiness—and it was very satisfying. When 4:30 came around he left. And that was I guess the last time that I saw him. The next time was on film right here.
WALI ALI: He was always referring in his letters to you that one of his disciples named Otis had been your student. . Do you remember that?
DR. SMITH: Possibly—a scrambled memory of that. Did he later take the name of Murshid?
WALI ALI: Mansur.
DR. SMITH: Mansur! My memory of that is that I was on a lecture swing, and one of my stops was somewhere in the northern States—it really seemed out of the way, maybe not Bimidji, Minnesota, but something like that. Now did Mansur ever—
WALI ALI: I think he was teaching in Iowa or somewhere like that-
DR. SMITH: I think it was a little farther north than that, North Dakota or Minnesota or somewhere, and my recollection is that that is where I met him. He was married, I believe, and it was one of those nice visits because in one sense it was this out of the way place stuck up somewhere in the woods—and while very visit can be useful in a way, this was memorably meaningful. Mansur and his wife met me at the plane, until they put me on the plane for departure, we were almost constantly together. I think there was a gathering after the lecture, either in my hotel room with a few of their friends and intimates or in their place. And we stayed up a little longer than usual because it was obviously a meeting of the spirits. That is my recollection, of it, but not that they were ever formally my students.
WALI ALI: I noticed one other thing while I was just quickly reviewing this file.
DR. SMITH: By the way, where is he now?
WALI ALI: Mansur is presently outside of Boston in Hull, Mass. and he is in charge of a Sufi center there.
DR. SMITH: Excuse me-
WALI ALI: That's quite alright—I was just seeing if I could come across this—this was in 1963 or perhaps '69, I notice that he subscribed for you, sent you a subscription to "The Periodical Studies in Comparative Religion." He did the same thing for Dr. Needleman. I think it is very curious, and I don't know if that was your first exposure to that publication, but I do know that he had been very interested in Schuon and some of those classes.
DR. SMITH: That interesting! My gratitude, I am glad you mentioned that. It had totally slipped my mind but that must have been the first introduction to that journal, which I still read almost every morning! That is the only journal that I always read cover to cover.
WALI ALI: They do good work.
DR. SMITH: And I usually do it rather meditatively, two pages a day or something, like this morning. Thank you again.
WALI ALI: He felt that those were the people who were doing the real work that he had been designated to do of trying to make the bridge between mysticism and the intellectual community. Part of his life, you know he was like a Mercury messenger, making all these various connections
working at a very tremendous speed and constantly trying to link up this knowledge with that person who might be able to use it. He only outwardly functioned as a spiritual teacher for only a certain number of years at the very end of his life. He had quite a number of different roles. I found it rather fascinating getting into a certain amount of research towards the book.
DR. SMITH: That's going to be an interesting book.
WALI ALI: On the line of just this inquiry, I don't know if you had any discussions with him about the many different phases of Sufism, but I do believe that you have taken a great interest in what is going on in Europe and other countries, that is true isn't it? I recall one symposium you gave at the Unitarian Church on the "Two Faces of Sufism," and I stood up and tried to offer a third face in the middle of it.
DR. SMITH: Oh yes, I remember that now.
WALI ALI: Do you recall any stories? One thing about Murshid was that there were always these very funny, modern Nasruddin stories that used to happen and we have been making a collection of them, so to speak, and I just wondered if you had any recollection of any.
Dr. SMITH: I don't think so, you (Sabira) were telling me some of these and they are delightful, but it wasn't in such context that I knew him. As I recall the two weeks in the Berkeley class, and then twice in my office were the only times I was with him. I don't think there are any Nasruddin stories.
WALI ALI: I don't know if you've seen this book that came out this year from Crown; this was just recently published and is an anthology of his things which includes a lot of stories too. It has done rather well. (In The Garden) I don't know where to go; maybe, as you said, this is going to be very brief.
DR. SMITH: Unless you think of some angle that would trigger something.
WALI ALI: Did you have an impression of him as a scholar?
DR. SMITH: No, I don't believe I had occasion to discover that side of him. He must have written some articles, but I don't recall seeing them and that is where the scholarship would surface. In his comments they would be on small points but not a sustained argument on a specific point, so he obviously had a wealth of information, but often his points were out of the way ones that I didn't know about. I didn't know really what to make of them. I guess my impression was of someone who in the outward sense was all over the map—in terms of the world, and the people he made contact with—and possessed of a very lively mind that darted here and there, but not the kind of scholar's mind that compresses it all and reworks and reworks until it comes out as a solid body that is original or systematic. He made all kinds of connections, but they were between traditions, the Trikaya, the Three Bodies and so forth, but they would almost be like dart-and-run observations. It might be a mistaken impression, but there it is. And then his other side was just the opposite, contemplative, that showed that he really wasn't just all over the map in a scattered sense. That last hour in my office he sat completely calm and centered.
WALI ALI: Have you seen this book, by any chance?
De. S: No, I haven't.
WALI ALI: I would like to give you a copy of it simply because it tells something of the silsila of the Chishti order in India which is the Order with which we are associated; also there is a section at the end of it with some of the world orders and organizations. It shows a connection with Hazrat Inayat Khan.
DR. SMITH: I don't know if you know, but I am doubly grateful for this, because I am on the eve of going around the world and I'll be leaving in September for eight months. I'll be in India for three, and needless to say one of my prime objects in the Delhi area will be to visit the holy areas. Have you been over there?
WALI ALI: No, I haven't, but I am in touch with the people there. Of course Ajmir is the spiritual center of the Sufi Order because that is where Moineddin Chishti is buried, where his tomb is—a tremendous pilgrimage is done every year. And Delhi is the tomb of Nizamuddin Alia, he was the fourth successor to Moineddin Chishti, and that is also where Hazrat Inayat Khan is buried near the tomb of Nizamuddin Alia.
DR. SMITH: That's what I thought, but who is buried at Ajmir?
WALI ALI: Moineddin Chishti, who is the founder of the Chishti Order.
Dr. SMITH: What date was he? I'm not sure. Oh well, the book will tell me. The Big Five—are these the five central orders?
WALI ALI: No, these are the five successors to Moineddin Chishti, the first five successors, and each represents a particular tradition. In fact Farid who is one of the successors is also one of the Gurus in the Sikh line, mentioned in the Granth Saab. It disappeared somewhere around the time of the 12th century, I could be a little off on that date. A lot of the Sufis who came a few hundred years later mixed right across religious lines, and this is the tradition that we come from. There is such a running argument today about the adherence to the religious order and religious tradition and whether or not it is absolutely necessary to observe the Shariat entirely in order to be a "Sufi," or not. In many of the silsila there were hundreds of years in which there were not these distinctions and differences so strongly. Mian Meer who was a Chisthi Sufi laid the cornerstone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
DR. SMITH: How does this book come down to Hazrat Inayat Khan?
WALI ALI: This book only gives the early teachers, and of course is colored with the Indian manner of writing, and as you know, any miracle or account is always included, "Because why miss a bet?" But still there are a lot of useful things in it, and I am sure that I sent you a copy of "The Jerusalem Trilogy," Murshid's work.
DR. SMITH: Oh yes.
WALI ALI: I would like for you to have this also (In The Garden), it gives a certain picture of Sam, one of joy. And I want to thank: you very much. I feel very good to have had the contact with you.
DR. SMITH: It was a pleasure. I certainly wish you well with the book.