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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #2 (January 10, 2006), page 11.
Something to challenge just about everyone
The Gods Drink Whiskey:
Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha
By Stephen T. Asma
Hardcover, 256 pages, $24.95
By Josephine Bridges
Itís a good thing that Stephen Asma, a professor of Buddhism at Chicagoís Columbia College, was invited to teach a graduate seminar on Buddhist philosophy to a pilot class of 12 Cambodian students at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh. Itís an even better thing that Asma chose to write about this surreal experience. In his preface, the author writes, "I ask that you approach the story with an open mind and read it with an interest in challenging your views rather than just mirroring and confirming them." There is something in The Gods Drink Whiskey to challenge just about everyone.
"It seemed poetic somehow that I should have to travel through an open sewer to get to the Buddha," writes Asma, in his introduction, of a boat ride so appalling that "even a giant statue of Alfred E. Newman would have brought me peace and tranquility." The authorís expansive sense of humor and his baffled compassion help readers to endure the written witness he bears to the hideous violence and abject poverty that are too large a part of Cambodiaís legacy.
"The idea of human rights is not really a foundational building block in these countries," writes Asma of Southeast Asia in general. "The individualís rights are not sacrosanct. This is the creepy underbelly of cultures that are oriented more toward the collective than the individual." But he goes on to discuss a growing movement toward human rights in the flesh trade, of all places. Many womenís groups in Asia and the Pacific favor "disentangling the amoral sex work of consenting older prostitutes, which they want to decriminalize, from the morally disgusting phenomenon of child exploitation, which they want prosecuted to a greater extent."
Asma is alarmed by the practice of what he calls "supernatural Buddhism," a blending of Khmer folk religion with the faith he practices and teaches, the original ideas of which he sees as "largely consistent with contemporary science." When an epidemic in northeastern Cambodian is eventually brought under control, village leaders believe that their sacrifices and ceremonies, and not the antibiotics administered by the World Health Organization, are responsible. Pointing out that "most Western intellectuals are nervous about judging between supernatural and rationalistic paradigms," Asma writes, "Iím not so nervous. I suspect that a bacteria caused the outbreak, not a spirit," and, "modern medical remedies, not shamanism, contained the disease. In this health-related example, supernatural spirituality seems Ö dark, witless, and infantile."
Missionaries come under Asmaís scrutiny in a chapter titled "My God Can Beat Up Your God," and the author tackles American pop culture in "Britney Spears? Never Heard of Her." In the latter, Asma writes of his love for America, particularly in light of a dental problem and his relief at not having to visit "the Khmer guy down the street with the big pliers."
You canít live in Phnom Penh without reflecting on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, at whose hands almost 30 percent of the people of Cambodia lost their lives. Asma doesnít just take readers on a tour of S-21, the infamous security prison from which 17,000 people never returned. He presents the Venerable monk Tep Vongís controversial perspective that "the Cambodian people may have deserved Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge atrocities as karmic payback for previous sins."
Having travelled all this way with Stephen Asma, readers may be distressed but not surprised to learn that the author eventually witnesses an assassination. In "Seeing a Man Get Shot to Death," he muses on the soul, the self, and cutting-edge cognitive science, concluding that "obscurity is the destiny of all of us" and rededicating himself to "this present moment and the riches it contains."
Stephen Asmaís son is born six weeks after the author returns to Chicago. He is in an elevator, holding "this fragile newcomer" when a woman riding with him tells him that his life isnít his own anymore. "Oh, it never really was," he replies. What more is there to say?