Religion Scholar Huston Smith at 93 — ‘Be Happy!’

Huston Smith signed books for the crowd at Sagrada bookstore, Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall.

Huston Smith signed dozens of copies of his book at Sagrada Bookstore. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Ninety-three-year-old Huston Smith rolled into the Sagrada bookstore in Oakland, California, in a push wheelchair the other day, ready to do what he does best – say something.

In his nineties and plagued as he is by hearing loss, weakened eyesight and debilitating osteoporosis, you’d think the popular author and religion scholar would be ready to take it easy.

Huston Smith is cheerful at 93. photo by bf newhall

Huston Smith at 93. Photo by BF Newhall

Huston has taught religion at MIT, Syracuse University and UC-Berkeley and he has fifteen books to his credit, including the award-winning Why Religion Matters and the perennial The World’s Religions, which has sold more than two million copies.

If I were in his shoes, I’d be sitting back in my push chair and calling it a day. But as of last Sunday Huston Smith wasn’t quite done speaking his mind.

There was something he wanted to say to the dozens of fans and devotees who’d squeezed into the colorful Telegraph Avenue bookstore to ask him to sign copies of his latest – and probably last – book.

(There are no guarantees about that “last” part. When I wrote a post about Tales of Wonder, published in 2009, I was pretty sure it would be Huston Smith’s swan song. Not so.)

The title of this latest book says it all, Huston told the crowd. It’s a memoir, stories of pivotal moments in the author’s personal and spiritual life. The title, And Live Rejoicing, is taken from the eighteenth century hymn, “Oh Happy Day,” popularized in the ’70s by folksinger Joan Baez.

Oh happy day, oh happy day,

When Jesus washed my sins away.

He taught us how to watch and pray,

And live rejoicing every day.

The point Huston wanted to make today at age 93, toward the end of a life of studying and, in some cases, practicing the world’s great religions, was this:

Happiness — we should have more of it.

Happiness is the human birthright,” he said. “And if we are not happy then that’s a sign that there is something wrong with what we are doing – to alert us to the fact that we must change.”

In other words, from his vantage point of nearly a century devoted to the study of life and truth and the meaning of it all Huston wasn’t telling his fans they could have more happiness. He was telling us we should have more of it.

To live rejoicing is something of an obligation we have as living, breathing sentient beings with just enough free will to make some choices.

His happiness point made, Huston’s 93-year-old brain skipped to another topic – his years

huston smith and mary busby of Sagrada bookstore sing How Can I Keep From Singing? Photo by BF Newhall

Mary Busby of Sagrada bookstore led the crowd in “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Photo by BF Newhall

growing up the son of missionaries in the town of Dzang Zok, China. He told a favorite story about how from time to time in Dzang Zok the moon had to be saved from dying.

“What do you mean save the moon? Well, on the other side of the globe in the small town where I grew up saving the moon was serious business.” Whenever there was an eclipse of the moon, it was believed that a dragon was swallowing the moon. The townspeople would rush to save it by pouring out of their houses in the middle of the night banging on pots, pans and other noisemakers to scare the dragon away.

“The strategy always worked,” Huston noted. “The moon was saved and, come to think of it, it is still up there with us today.”

During the Q&A, someone asked whether Christianity and Zen were compatible.

Huston said he thought that all of the major religions – he calls them revelations – were channeled by the divine. “I do not prioritize any one of them, not my Christianity or any one of them. If that be heresy, then make the most of it.”

Still, he said, “I was born of missionary parents and that meant that I was imprinted with Christianity from the very beginning. You peel Christianity off of me and there is no Huston left.”

“And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life — Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders,” by Huston Smith with Phil Cousineau, New World Library, 2012, $15.95, paper.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to read “The Trouble With Daffodils.” More about Huston Smith at “Huston Smith — Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian.”

Huston Smith signs "And Live Rejoicing" for teacher Bob Zorad. Photo by BF Newhall

Huston signs a book for Bob Zorad, who teaches religion at De La Salle High School in Concord, CA. Photo by BF Newhall




  1. Rich Hansen, Oakland, CA says:

    On March 7, 2013, this catching up on numerous internet sites’ information about long time friend Huston Smith is again making me need to visit him and his wife Kendra during this Happily Lenten pause. Glorious Easter to Be to All…

  2. Julio Edwards says:

    Just a note to say I was fortunate to have Huston on two of our cable access shows back in 1995. He was just about the nicest person we ever met and so down to earth. You can see these shows on Youtube at:
    Spiritual Spectrum – Huston Smith – His Life and
    Spiritual Spectrum – Huston Smith – His Thoughts
    It was humbling to have THE ambassador of the worlds’ religions appear on our Denver TV show, but he was quite happy to be with us and we were honored beyond words. I still have his photo on our site at

  3. Betsy McCabe says:

    Thanks so much for this update on Huston Smith. For those of us unable to attend (living in NY) it’s wonderful to see that he is still living and loving in his own inimitable style. What a blessing he has been for all of us!

  4. The newest is not what Huston will be remembered for, but he’s already made his contribution. Now he gets to be instead of do. The Polish say: sto lat (may you live 100 years).

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      So true. And it was so nice to see Huston enjoying himself the other day. Taking his own advice, I’d say.


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