Taking California out of Buddhism

by Spencer Rumsey, Newsday.com, Nov 25, 2006

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha
Author: Stephen T. Asma
HarperCollins, $24.95

New York, USA -- Stephen T. Asma, a professor of Buddhism at Columbia College in Chicago, says he's on a mission to "take the 'California' out of Buddhism" because it has become "just one more self-improvement gimmick among the designer-water-drinking set."

Here his own spiritual views are challenged after he's invited to teach Buddhist philosophy in Phnom Penh, where the oldest form of Buddhism, the Theravada tradition, long suppressed by the Khmer Rouge, is beginning to re-emerge from "the killing fields."

The contrasts between theory and practice never cease to amaze him, such as the ritual offering of shots of whiskey at the family altar. Asma gives a new twist on the "East meets West meets East" theme in this wonderfully humorous and profound look at a part of the world struggling to regain its spiritual balance after years of political turmoil. And he learns more than his students, he says.

"We tend to think of the spiritual as something that takes place in exotic places like Cambodia, but we must remember that even Wisconsin is exotic to a Khmer villager, because 'exotic' by definition means 'the place you're not at.' The real trick is seeing the exotic and the transcendent where you are"

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