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The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddhaby Stephen T Asma
Synopses & Reviews
In this astonishing journey through Cambodia and Southeast Asia, intrepid traveler and scholar Stephen T. Asma explores and explains the basics of Buddhism in a way that could not be more entertaining, nor more thought provoking.
After the Vietnam War, the communist Khmer Rouge outlawed the practice of Buddhism in Cambodia. To enforce their decree they burned temples and jailed monks. Twenty years later, the newly reopened Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh invites the young American professor Stephen Asma to come teach Buddhism to its students to help resurrect the ancient religion after years of suppression.
The oldest and purest form of Buddhism, Theravada, once flourished in Southeast Asia, and Asma scours the countryside to find its traces. He climbs mountains to meditate in temples housing golden Buddhas and treks through jungles in pilgrimage to sites swallowed up by overgrown banyan trees. What he finds has little in common with the popular forms of Buddhism practiced in America. Buddhism Cambodia style is thoroughly intertwined with a sturdy set of Hindu fertility rituals and popular beliefs in ancient local spirits who enjoy gifts of flowers, fruit, and whiskey. Asma discovers that not even the Khmer Rouge, with its communist antireligious prejudices, could destroy these traditional practices.
Walking the streets of the cities, Asma talks with saffron-robed monks and discusses philosophy with hard-drinking rogues, while a world filled with elephant-taxi drivers, dignified prostitutes, entrepreneurial street children, and unrelenting beggars maimed by abandoned land mines crosses his path. He weeps at the infamous killing fields, philosophizes over marijuana pizza, and carouses with students at a Cambodian karaoke bar. He experiences life and witnesses death in ways that will change him forever, and returns home to Chicago with life lessons that can benefit us all.
With stories of political assassinations, over-zealous Christian missionaries, animistic monkey-god-and-phallic-symbol rituals, and an eye-opening visit to Asmas classroom by a Buddhist monk thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, this chronicle of a year of living dangerously provides a compelling, darkly comic, never-before-experienced look into the clash of cultures in a little-known corner of our shrinking world.
"Asma opens this memoirish spiritual travel guide with a central purpose: by journeying to Cambodia to see the collective manifestations of Theravada Buddhism, the tradition closest to that avowed by the historical Buddha, he will disabuse Western readers of the widespread misconceptions so prevalent in a privatized, narcissistic and consumerist Buddhist mentality. Asma, professor of philosophy and a practicing Buddhist who taught Buddhism in Cambodia in 2003, dispels the basic falsehoods common to all schools of Buddhism, e.g., that nirvana is heavenly bliss, that austere detachment from one's deepest feelings is par for the course or that karmic merit can be acquired by magical or superstitious practices. Curiously, he scarcely discusses the most basic schism between Theravada and Mahayana (the other great school of Buddhism), namely, the consequential difference between an arhat and a bodhisattva. Nor does he, in the field of practice, explain how the magical shamanism pervading Cambodian Buddhism is different from Western practices that also use, for instance, fortune-telling or individualized mantras as magical panaceas. Nonetheless, Asma's descriptions are skillfully interwoven with firsthand encounters from his time in Cambodia. His forays into Southeast Asian politics, violence and globalizing trends, colorfully entertaining as travel writing, illuminate the ways in which Buddhism plays a primary role in the collective welfare of the region. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A sometimes funny, always thoughtful, action–packed spiritual travelogue through Southeast Asia where the oldest form of Buddhism is slowly emerging from its post–Khmer Rouge oppression.
The Gods Drink Whiskey is about a relatively unexplored part of Buddhism––the Theravada Buddhist tradition (considered the oldest and purest form of Buddhism, which focuses on the historical Buddha) as it is manifested in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, etc.). An accomplished teacher, Asma tells wonderful, exciting stories about his time in Southeast Asia teaching Buddhist philosophy in Phnom Penh years after that area (and its religion) was decimated in the early 70s by the Communist Khmer Rouge and the invasion by US and Vietnamese troops. Through his first–hand experiences (of drinking with holy men and poets, encounters with overzealous Christian evangelical missionaries, witnessing a political assassination, climbing mountains to visit ancient animistic temples, observing the clash of Western pop culture and Southeast Asian culture, etc.), Asma successfully teaches the reader a great deal about Buddhism.
In addition to observations on Western/Eastern culture clash which these books provide, the edge Asma has going for him is his academic credentials and interests which focus his book more on explaining the tenets and history of Buddhism within the context of a lively travelogue.
o For armchair travellers and those interested in Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy.
o Asma has a wonderful narrative style that draws the reader in and keeps them reading–he's a born storyteller, and this book is all about the stories–both his and the unusual people and places he meets.
o There has been relatively little written about the Theravada Buddhist tradition (the oldest branch, which focuses on the historical Buddha); Asma explores and immerses himself in Theravada Buddhism as it's practiced in Southeast Asia, and finds it much different than he expected.
o Asma has taught Buddhism for several years, and in his travels, experienced Buddhism in its many forms.
This funny, action-packed travelogue through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka introduces readers to the basics of Buddhism in a way that could not be more entertaining, nor more thought-provoking. This is a "Year of Living Dangerously" that provides a compelling look into the clash of civilizations in a little-known corner of our shrinking world.
About the Author
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of Buddhism at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of the illustrated, bestselling Buddha for Beginners and the highly acclaimed Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums.
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