Huston Smith, one more time

A respondent to the post “Fascist Ideologies, I” asserts that Huston Smith provided a beneficial model of religion, one that for example proved inspirational to a “Midwestern Lutheran-raised Buddhist monk” by providing a useful representation of Buddhism.

The distortion of Buddhism resulting from Smith’s imposition of Traditionalist interpretations will require a fuller separate treatment, so please stay tuned.

However, in the short term, the inspirational character of Smith and his writings does not in my view justify his shoddy scholarship and plagiarism.

First, the shoddy scholarship. His Religions of Man, renamed The World’s Religions, was originally published in 1958. The Buddhism section of that work provided the bulk of his later Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. A careful review of the two versions (Religions of Man/World’s Religions) reveals that the only substantive change was the addition of a section on Tibetan Buddhism. In the last work (Buddhism: A Concise Introduction), Philip Novak added a section on Buddhism in the West, and Huston Smith added an Afterword on Pure Land Buddhism. Note the intentional use of the term “addition” here—it is used because despite more than half a century of new scholarship, the original material never underwent any substantive revision of its content.

Stop, take a breath and think about that. More than half a century of new scholarship completely ignored. This would be like an introductory survey of Christianity that failed to take into account the work on the Nag Hammadi library, and the results of the third quest for the historical Jesus, and the shift of Reformation studies to issues in popular religiosity, and Vatican II, and the spread of Evangelical Christianity to Latin America, and…well, perhaps that is enough for you to get the idea.

That is what I would call shoddy scholarship. What relatively little was known about Buddhism in the mid-50s, has long been surpassed in many important ways—but the undergraduate reading either World’s Religions or Buddhism: A Concise Introduction as a textbook, or the uncritical lay reader taking either at face value as an authoritative source, will not be exposed to those changes in our understanding of Buddhism. And these changes in Buddhist studies scholarship are not minor revisions or little tweaks, but radical changes to the groundwork of our knowledge of Buddhist thought, history and practice.

Would you trust your doctor to work on your appendix if you knew that he was referring to the same medical text that he’d studied in the mid-50s? Why trust your brain to someone who is effectively doing the same?

Second, the plagiarism. This is a serious accusation in academic circles such that standards of proof are high. Accidentally repeating a memorable phrase would not be probative. In Smith’s case, however, the acts of plagiarism were substantial in the two cases that I’m aware of.

In the first, describing a novel that he found offensively representative of the postmodern (William H. Gass, The Tunnel), he quoted almost verbatim a full paragraph from a review of the work. There have been cases where a block of text had been added as a quote and then the fact that it was a quote lost track of, getting edited in as original text. That is not the case here, however, as the text was changed slightly to flow smoothly in the frame of Smith’s own writing. See full treatment in note 9 to review of Does Religion Matter? (here) The serious quality of accusations of plagiarism is such that in that review, my much younger and professionally more vulnerable self gave Smith an out, suggesting that the act was probably unintentional. No doubt Smith did not intend to plagiarize, but that’s rather like saying that I didn’t intend to break the law when I went through a red light while rushing to a meeting. Breaking the law was not my intent, however…

More relevantly to our topic in this blog, though, is the plagiarisms embedded in the afterword on Pure Land Buddhism in Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. He takes a large section from the work of Tetsuo Unno’s introduction to Kenryo Kanamatsu’s Naturalness: A Classic of Shin Buddhism, and presents it with minor editorial changes as his own. [Unfortunately, the copy editor “corrected” Tetsuo to Taitetsu, a change that I did not catch prior to publication.] Smith similarly plagiarizes a short paragraph from Hiroyuki Itsuki’s Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace. The details of the plagiarism are in the Appendix to my essay “how-not-to-talk-about-the-pure-land.” These being the second and third instances that I’d myself encountered, I was no longer so tentative in identifying these as acts of plagiarism. Any instructor faced with similar instances in a term paper would know that they were looking at plagiarism.

Shoddy scholarship and plagiarism seem like issues that should disqualify an author from serious consideration. Apparently, however, there are those who feel that despite these shortcomings, if an author provides something pragmatically useful, or something inspirational, then those latter are justification enough. To my eyes this shows the extent to which Buddhism has been integrated into the culture of self-help, where pragmatic utility and inspiration—not to mention sales in the millions of copies—are considered important criteria. Smith’s work, however, is presented and treated as a work of scholarship in the field of religious studies, where criteria of intellectual integrity should take priority.


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