October 2005

Bryan Miller


An Interview with Stephen T. Asma

“It is my mission in life to take the ‘California’ out of Buddhism,” writes author Stephen Asma. He takes a big step forward in achieving that goal in his latest book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, a readily accessible book that simultaneously serves as a study of religion, a travelogue, and a guide to ordering good marijuana pizza in Cambodia.

In The Gods Drink Whiskey, Asma bounces from bars (and, in one instance, the home of an expatriate British drug dealer) to shrines and temples throughout Cambodia and Thailand as he struggles to understand his religion in its original context. The professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University in Chicago makes the trek halfway across the world to become better acquainted with Theravada Buddhism, one of the religion’s earliest and most pure forms. (The other principal school of Buddhism, Mahayana, would later spawn Zen.)

Asma’s book is a layman’s philosophy guide, an off-center travelogue and an examination of Cambodia’s spiritual life. Lead-heavy chapters on Pol Pot’s killing fields are interspersed with stories about drunken motorscooter trips and Eastern perspectives of Western popular culture.

Bookslut recently caught up with Asma to discuss Buddhism, the lifestyle in Cambodia, and the philosophical underpinnings of the Iraq War.

So why do the gods drink whiskey?

Probably the same reasons that we drink whiskey; among other reasons, it's a tasty painkiller. In Southeast Asian animism, the gods and/or spirits are not "perfect beings" who are morally superior to us. Buddhism -- a more recent tradition when compared with the ancient animist traditions -- sees these spirit creatures as just another group of beings who are trying to work out their enlightenment. The gods who enjoy the little offerings of whiskey that Thais or Cambodians leave for them are basically motivated by pleasures and pains just like you and I.

What's most interesting however, is that the offering of whiskey tells us more about the human realm than the spirit realm. What I mean is that, in a very poor country, whiskey is not sitting on the average person's shelf -- it's an expensive and rare commodity. So, when a Cambodian or Laotian puts a shot-glass of booze in their little spirit-house shrine, it represents a serious offering. It represents a sincere intent and a real sacrifice.

Did you find it difficult to approach such a distinctly foreign culture with a minimum of cultural prejudices, without tipping too far into relativism?

My own policy is to try to be as non-judgmental about another culture as I can while I'm there. You know, "when in Rome..." and all that. But I'm not a complete relativist either. Aldous Huxley once said that when one is living in a developed secular country, one longs to live in a spiritual country instead. One craves the deep meaningful connections of ancient tradition. “One is all for religion,” he wrote, “until one visits a really religious country. Then one is all for drains, machinery, and the minimum wage.” When Huxley was living in England and America, he read the Buddha regularly and took great inspiration, but when he lived in India and the Far East he read biographies of Henry Ford with admiration. My own experience in Southeast Asia resonates with Huxley's insight about the ways that different cultures romanticize each other.

Why has Zen flourished in the West while Theravada has not taken off?

I think Zen has flourished in the West because it was watered down -- the hardcore monastic form was deemphasized -- and it became a spiritual exercise, sort of like yoga. Zen introduced Buddhism as a simple concentration practice and nothing more. Americans adopted the meditation idea but left behind the austere discipline of Zen and the cultural and historical context. This neutered Zen Buddhism has no baggage whatever, so Americans felt that they could drape it over whatever beliefs they already enjoyed. That seems like a virtue at first (“Look, I’m a Christian and a Zen practitioner!”), but it lulled Americans into thinking that Buddhism was the Silly Putty of religions -- infinitely malleable and conveniently fashionable.
Theravada is a much more philosophical intellectual tradition. It hasn't lent itself so easily to the cultural fusions that Zen has achieved.

Is there hope for Western Buddhism, or has it been hopelessly co-opted?

Oh sure, there's hope. The West is not the only geographic location to bastardize the Buddha's teachings -- all over Asia people practice corrupted versions of Buddhism. The challenge, East or West, is that the Buddha teaches difficult ideas... but human nature is such that we fall back into deifying the Buddha, or our fears and hopes cause us to get obsessed with the afterlife, and so on. Buddhism, which is a way of disciplining the mind and body, will always struggle with facts of human craving and the ideologies that such craving produces.

What element of Buddhism would most surprise a Westerner who is unfamiliar with more “pure” forms of the religion?

I think the most shocking thing for Westerners is the fact that Buddhism does not believe in God, does not believe in the existence of the soul, and does not pursue immortality as its primary goal. I think that leaves most Westerners scratching their heads because those beliefs are usually the defining foundations for most other religions. A lot of Westerners think that without God, soul, and immortality, you won't have ethics or meaning or values -- but this is just a provincial worldview. Buddhists have built a beautiful ethic of compassion and meaning and value on the premise that all things are impermanent.

Do you think it is particularly difficult for Westerners to conceive of a religion that is more grounded in philosophy than tradition?

They are historically accustomed to thinking in terms of these classic concepts -- a permanent God, an immortal soul, et cetera. And these ideas of permanent realities provide some psychological comfort for many people, East and West. The Buddha had to argue against these "transcendental temptations" when he criticized the Hindu ideas of Brahman [the Hindu term for God] and Atman [the soul]. But I would agree with the general point that philosophy is a more challenging and difficult path than simply following tradition.

What are the major cultural differences that you saw between living in a culture where immortality is sort of the assumed end and the East where it is not?

The major difference is that people in the West who see this life as just a temporary waiting room before one goes to eternal bliss in heaven tend to be less patient, less comfortable, in the mundane life they have now. Whereas those people who see this current life as all there is tend to be more present in it. They tend to be more accepting, more at peace with themselves and others.

Is popular culture -- at least in its current incarnation -- opposed to Buddhist ideals? Does it hinder Buddhist practices moreso now than in earlier times?

This is a good question and it ties in with this last point too. What I'm suggesting above is that the psychological and physiological facts of human craving can actually produce ideologies that help us to justify our craving behavior. Some of American pop culture definitely does this. Kids are constantly manipulated by mass media to believe that consuming and acquiring goods is somehow the very meaning of success. To that extent, it seems to run counter to the Buddha's teaching of liberation from craving and materialism. I prefer more underground cultural expressions -- underground bands, rappers, artists, et cetera, if only because they're not as explicitly participating in the commodity ideology of pop culture. There's something very Buddhist about celebrating the process of the art instead of the product.

On a slightly larger scale, how does this craving affect the American worldview that led to the Iraq War or similar global maneuverings?

Unlike the Western religions, which play a cultural role in the current conflicts of the Middle East, Buddhism does not claim "I have the absolute truth, and you should conform to it for your own good." There are no absolutes, according to Buddhism, so cramming your ideology down someone's throat because you've got the truth just doesn't happen. The Buddha said that we should think of Buddhism itself as a raft that helps you to get over a turbulent river. But when it ceases to be useful, you set down the raft and move on. You don't strap a raft on your back and carry it around with you the rest of your life. I wish some of these radical fundamentalists, both Muslim and Christian (and even hyper-democracy ideologues) would take a page out of Buddha's book and relax about their dogmatic attachment to their beliefs.