Professor's gone, but still immersed in Cambodia

BY LISA LENOIR, Chicago Sun-Times, July 10, 2005

Chicago, USA -- A picture of Stephen T. Asma and Khmer students hanging in his office is a visual testament to the impact a 2003 trip to Cambodia had on his life. Standing on the steps of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, they radiate, smile under the daytime glow.

"This means a lot to me," says Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, pointing to the image. "I am still in regular contact with them. They are the first class to become researchers in Buddhism. Spending time with them was one of those life-changing experiences."

Adventures such as his six-month assignment to teach Buddhism at the institute touched Asma enough to fill a journal and pen a reflective book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha (HarperCollins, $24.95). His conversational prose allows us to float on a longboat through the Chao Praya River and smell the stench of decaying animal matter, excrement and rot; to learn how Christian missionaries landed in the region, and to realize how pop culture icons such as Elvis and Britney Spears aren't on a Cambodian's daily radar -- but the cell phone is.

More importantly, he unfolds how Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia exists in this poor, volatile area, yet enriches its practitioners.

"I learned to accept the confusion of it all [there.]"

A chat in Asma's downtown office revealed some more of his insights:

Q. How did you avoid being a mere tourist parachuting yourself into Cambodia? What lessons were extracted from there?

A. I knew there were some lessons [in Cambodia.] I just didn't want to be a tourist just passing through. I am living there. There were people who suffered in ways that the majority of Americans never experienced. I found despite all the hardship, they were able to find joy, happiness, and they were hard workers. Buddhism plays a huge part in their lives and the lives of the whole region. There is a powerful force keeping them afloat amidst so much violence and chaos.

I kept trying to find the good, the positive. I tried to set aside my own set of assumptions. I learned how to respect that they could do things radically different from the way we do things, yet it still works -- from trivial things like eating cobra snake or drinking whiskey with a scorpion in the glass to their political structure; it's not a democracy there.

Q. How did you want the book to clear up misconceptions about Buddhism?

A. I was raised Catholic, but I am like a lot of lapsed Catholics. Buddhism is so exotically different from Christianity. I like it because it's so intellectual but it has a great message of compassion. In America, people have learned about Buddhism through some celebrity -- Richard Gere, Beastie Boys. A pop culture connection turns people on to it. The purpose of the book is to clear up the confusion about Buddhism. People can see what Buddhism is like in the everyday. I didn't want to lecture someone about it. That's not effective.

Q. What drama did you experience?

A. I was sickened by the smells [at first]. I thought, I am going to die or be kidnapped. I had to get used to the grime, filth and danger. But you get used to it ... you have to have a certain disposition.

Q. What do you want this story to impress upon readers about Cambodia and its people?

A. The Khmer culture is rich. It isn't just a dangerous place; it's a spiritually deep place. The temples are the focal point of the community. People donate food to the monks; there are spiritual teachings every hour, every day. It's a rich, beautiful culture. People should experience it now before it's radically different -- it's going to change because of globalization. It's wonderful to go someplace and not be saturated by consumerism. There's no Starbucks.