The Gods Drink Whiskey

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, by Stephen T. Asma. ISBN 0060723955. 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 Asma’s 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.