(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, we at CCLaP find ourselves sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)
The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha (2005)
By Stephen T. Asma
HarperOne / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Unbeknownst to readers of this blog, I've been spending this summer tearing through a bunch of books on Buddhism and especially Buddhist meditation; I've started practicing a secular form of meditation in my personal life over the last year, and the insights I've had about my life because of it was recently referred to by a friend as "accidentally Buddhist" in nature, so I thought it'd be interesting to learn a little more about actual Buddhism and to see why my friend made this comment in the first place. The books have generally been hit-and-miss, the natural side-effect of just grabbing a bunch of random titles off the shelf of my neighborhood library; but one of the best writers on the subject of Buddhism in America has turned out to be a local, Columbia College professor Stephen Asma who takes a decidedly blue-collar, rationalist, and no-bullshit approach to his interpretations of these ancient texts, and how they can be applied to the practical lives of contemporary Westerners, without needing all the hippie New Age accoutrements that have typically been carried with them into our country. And thus have I ended up making my way this summer through nearly the entirety of Asma's oeuvre, from practical guides to meditation to a "for dummies" style introduction to the philosophy.
His latest that I've read, though, 2005's The Gods Drink Whiskey, I thought was finally the kind of book that could be justified writing about here at the blog for a general audience; and that's because this is not just a hyper-specialized guide to Buddhism itself, but a sprawling and fascinating look at a year Asma spent in southeast Asia (headquartered in Cambodia but traveling extensively through the rest of the region), where he blends lessons about religion and philosophy with an engaging travelogue, a primer on the politics of these developing nations, and an astute sociological look at how Buddhism has been warped and changed by various local populations in order to fit what they've needed to get out of it. And indeed, by constantly comparing this process to the one Christianity has gone through in the Western world (think of prim Mormons in their Sunday finest, snake handlers in Texas, suburban liberals in New England, and Midwestern fundamentalists flailing about and speaking in tongues, all of whom are supposedly worshipping the same Jesus), Asma makes it easy to understand why there's so many different forms of Buddhism in southeast Asia, why they've been so influenced by the local culture of each area, and why there's so much disagreement between different sects over how to "properly" practice. (Just for one example, and probably the biggest surprise to Americans in the entire book, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism only comprises six percent of all practicing Buddhists worldwide, and is considered by most Buddhists to be an overly fussy, overly ritualistic form of the philosophy that relies way too heavily on mysticism and supernatural elements.)
All this would be interesting enough; but like I said, what makes this book truly spectacular is the way Asma weaves in his personal anecdotes about his travels there, and especially the ironic surrealism of being one of the most experienced veterans at the Cambodian Buddhist Institute where he was hired to teach, which is what brought him over there in the first place. (Although Cambodia is one of the nations where Buddhism was first cultivated thousands of years ago, the monstrous Pol Pot dictatorship of the 1960s and '70s systematically murdered nearly an entire generation of Buddhist teachers and practitioners, leaving an all-consuming gap in expertise after that radical Communist regime was defeated that has forced the nation to do things like hire Americans to come and teach their newest generation of Buddhist youths.) A funny, moving, eye-opening and always informative book, despite this now being a decade old it turned out to be one of the most illuminating and enjoyable travel journals I've read in years, which is why I wanted to do a writeup of it here for the main blog and not just my usual quick mention at Goodreads.com, like I've been doing with all the other Buddhism books I've been reading this summer. It comes very strongly recommended, as does Asma's other books, to anyone looking to get a better sense of what Buddhism is all about as a practical, secular philosophy, apart from the spiritual trappings it's picked up along the way from the various regional communities who have adopted it over the centuries.