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Lions Roar : September 2005
THE GODS DRINK WHISKEY Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha By Stephen T. Asma HarperSanFrancisco, 2005; 256 pp., $24.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY PAUL W. MORRIS EARLY IN Stephen Asma’s The Gods Drink Whiskey, we learn that “There is no such thing as Buddhism.” It’s a bold statement, especially in a book ostensi- bly about Theravada Buddhism. Rest assured, though, it’s only a prelude to the many outrageous and often har- rowing stories that comprise this engaging collection of essays about the author’s travels and life in Southeast Asia. As opposed to the many special- ized books on this region recently published, which range from John Burdett’s thrillers set in Bangkok to biographies of Pol Pot to Cambodian refugee survivor Loung Ung’s memoir, Lucky Child, Asma’s work runs the gamut of these genres. In fact, it’s not too bold to suggest that this book has it all, including a serendipitous guest appearance by the Booker Prize-win- ning author of The Life of Pi. Like Yann Martel’s 2003 novel about a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Gods is a raw, heartbreaking confluence of religion and adventure rarely encountered in works of nonfiction these days. Asma, a professor of Buddhism at Columbia College in Chicago, accepted a teaching position at the newly reopened Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh and went to Cambodia for a year of living dangerously. “It’s sort of like seeing a really good punch coming at your face,” he writes of his acclimatization to Cambodia, “bracing yourself as best you can, but getting knocked senseless anyway.” This pugilistic sensibility might account for his claim that Buddhism doesn’t exist; perhaps, the reader thinks, he’s been struck once too many times, becoming unhinged like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (which happens to be the name of a popular bar close to where the author lived in Phnom Penh). Like any good teacher, however, Asma is just being provocative in order to get our attention. As a matter of fact, he clarifies, there are several Buddhisms present here, all existing side by side, even overlapping one another, the kind of wonderfully discordant palimpsest that you can only discern once you have immersed yourself fully in an alien culture. Nowhere is this more difficult than in a place like Cambodia, a country still struggling after years of genocide and war. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge exterminated an estimated two million men, women, and children— destroying roughly two-thirds of Buddhist temples and monasteries in the process—in attempt to turn back the clock and create an agrarian culture. “Year Zero,” the name for Pol Pot’s insidious plan, was brought to a halt when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979. The country’s regeneration has been a slow one, though, and even twenty-five years later a visitor can plainly see the struggles of a country trying to reclaim its identity. Whether Asma is hosting the honorable Maha Ghosananda (thrice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize), visiting the grand temple ruins of the Angkor com- plex, witnessing a political assassination, or suffering through a bout of dysentery after an unfortunate encounter with a sidewalk food vendor, his stories rest on that razor’s edge A Broken, Buddhist Land A monk at Banyon temple, Angkor Wat, Cambodia. He is one of the few Buddhist monks who survived the Khmer Rouge purge there in the 1970’s. PHOTOBYCHRISRAINIER/GETTYIMAGES SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 77