A Columbia College professor seeks the
other side of Buddhism in Cambodia
When Stephen Asma watches a young Jeff Goldblum proclaim, "I forgot my mantra," in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, his skin crawls. It is that trendy, half-baked "pop-Buddhism" that the 38-year-old Chicago native feels is corrupting the religion's image into what he calls the "McDonald's version" of Buddhism.
The Buddhism Lite fad in Hollywood is what prompted the Columbia College philosophy professor to—as he says in his new book, The Gods Drink Whiskey—take the California out of Buddhism and put the Chicago in it. Yet he admits he started out as a pop-Buddhist, too.
"I was just a big Beatles fan," he reminisces, seated at a desk covered in piles of papers and books. His ramshackle office has the typical absent-minded professor feel, but Asma comes across as youthful and down-to-earth. "I got into Indian music in high school, and then I started reading Eastern philosophy."
Gods finds Asma a much different person, now a scholar and practitioner of Buddhism. The book is both an account of his time teaching at the Buddhist Institute in Cambodia and a travelogue of his trips throughout the rest of Southeast Asia. He has thankfully avoided the sterile, academic prose and instead produced an easy-to-swallow introduction to the heart of Theravada Buddhism, the tradition's longest-surviving form.
"People equate Buddhism with mysticism and meditation," he says. "Most Americans don't know much about this part of the world. They're not even to the point of misconception."
When most Americans think of Buddhism, they tend to envision the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetans, popularized by celebrities like the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere. That's thanks largely to the Dalai Lama, who Asma says "has good PR."
For Asma, simply being acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism or Japanese Zen is akin to fad dieting for people looking to get healthy. "Schools of Buddhism in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand are more difficult—they're out of a monastic tradition," he says. "That's not attractive to those who want enlightenment now."
The landscape and culture of Southeast Asia inform Asma's understanding of the religion, and much of his opinions are interwoven with insights into the political and social situations in Cambodia. One moment, Asma is writing about the nature of Buddhism; the next he's detailing the horrors carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed nearly 2 million Cambodians in the early '70s.
And not many books about spirituality go into a lengthy discussion of the sex industry, but it's unavoidable in Cambodia. Asma travels to red-light districts and meets the women who work there—and the johns who patronize them. From there, he dispels the misconception that it's all a slave trade exploited by Western tourists.
"[The prostitutes] want better prostitution, to legalize it and eliminate pimps," he says, adding that the industry is closer to Amsterdam than seedy back-alley solicitation. "The view you have from America is that the customers are white men visiting. But the sex industry is a local phenomenon."
During his hedonistic ventures to Asian watering holes—Asma is a loose-collared type of academic—he brings us to worshippers who offer whiskey to the gods, and pizza joints that sprinkle more than oregano on their pies.
It's not easy to reconcile the two cultures: the disciplined, peaceful nature of Buddhism and the sex trade down the street. In fact, it's precisely that dichotomy that Asma finds himself bumping up against throughout his journey. In a chapter titled "Karma and the Killing Fields," he provides a possible answer to the conundrum. Asma visits Khmer Rouge prison S21, an infamous torture chamber that he feels the need to see "like one feels obligated to visit a Nazi concentration camp."
A small woman takes him on a tour through the closed-down facility, and after some time, the two find themselves crying at the sight of the place. Buddhism kept her optimistic in such a horrifying place, Asma says.
"As I was leaving," he writes, "she told me that no matter what happens, karma will catch the Khmer Rouge offenders—even if a tribunal does not."
The Gods Drink Whiskey is out now from HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95.