Smith is not quite a stranger to television; as early as 1955, he appeared on educational TV (excerpts from that program show the fresh-faced scholar, in suit and tie, demonstrating lotus position atop a desk). A university professor for 50 years, Smith has written a bestselling text, “The World’s Religions,” which has remained in print since its 1958 publication. But even more impressive is his lifelong work as a spiritual seeker, immersing himself in religious practices and often studying with masters.
To illustrate Smith’s points, producer-director Pamela Mason Wagner intercuts the conversation that drives the program with lovely, sometimes witty visuals, mainly archival film footage and stills.
In the first of five hourlong segments, “Hinduism and Buddhism,” Smith discusses his initial visits to India and the instant connection he felt to its people and spiritual life. On a 1964 trip to the northern part of the country, he spent time with a group of exiled Tibetan lamas, and returned to academia with the first audio documentation of “multiphonic” chanting, the “holiest sound” he had ever heard.
The monks have since performed in Europe and the States as part of their mission to alert the world to the persecution of Tibetans by China. Home-movie footage by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart sweetly captures the 1995 California reunion of Smith and one of the monks.
While he doesn’t deny its dark side, Smith focuses on the positive aspects of religion, showing us how art is religion in Hinduism and how expressions of beauty can be forms of “spiritual technology”– e.g., Buddhists’ intricate sand mandalas, which take weeks to create and are destroyed in an instant.
Second hour focuses on Confucianism and Tao, subjects dear to Smith, who, as the son of Methodist missionaries, grew up in rural China. Smith sees the value of missionary work but stresses that it’s a two-way process.
Indeed, his dialogue with Moyers articulates the need for true cultural exchange and tolerance. Crucial to this give-and-take, Smith points out, is the knowledge that, for each of us, there are esoteric places in “other people’s religion” that we will never understand.
But Smith and Moyers take us some way toward understanding the rituals and ideals of the world’s great faiths, Moyers the rapt student and Smith a joyous teacher.
When Moyers asks the scholar to read a poem he’s written about India, Smith, smiling beatifically, begins by saying, “I’m not a poet.” To the contrary, this inspired series shows quite clearly that he is.