Stephen Asma tries to avoid other Buddhists at parties. Once they hear what his religion is they’re likely to share a “mishmash of their pseudo-Eastern-quantum-herbal beliefs,” expecting the same in return. “I always smile carefully and back away slowly, looking desperately for the bar,” he says.

Asma, who teaches philosophy at Columbia College, explains in his new book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, that “I am a Buddhist” isn’t quite the same as “I am a Christian” or “I am a Muslim.” Buddha taught that everything, including the self, is transient and that if you get too attached to anything you’ll suffer and cause suffering. He then drew the logical conclusion: if Buddhism itself becomes an object of inordinate attachment, you should discard it. Hence the saying, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” Reminded of this, Asma chuckles and says, “Yeah, I kill that fat bastard every day!”

Asma, the son of a Chicago steelworker, grew up Catholic but started reading about Buddhism when he was 15. He came to believe in what he calls philosophical Buddhism: he doesn’t meditate, he thinks science and the scientific worldview are humanity’s best hope, and he’s on a mission to “take the ‘California’ out of Buddhism.” This was his strident message when he appeared at Transitions Bookplace in 1996 to promote his book Buddha for Beginners. He says his talk emphasized the Buddha’s corrosively skeptical take on metaphysics and the supernatural and his denial that there’s a soul that passes from one life to another. The audience didn’t seem offended, but the store manager started yelling that he was wrong.

Asma softened his tone a little two years ago, after he went to Cambodia for a semester to teach Buddhism to a dozen Cambodian graduate students at the Buddhist Institute–an odd necessity because the country is only slowly emerging from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide. “In Cambodia you can’t go to the library or the bookstore and buy Buddhist scriptures,” he says. There simply aren’t a lot of books around. “The cities have storefront shops with old photocopy machines that are constantly breaking down and being repaired. People bring in their few precious books and copy them. I read Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a Graham Greene novel in these shoddy copies.” He expects that’s how his new book will circulate there.

Books were the least of the casualties of the Khmer Rouge reign, from 1975 to ’79, when just being able to read or wearing glasses was enough to get a person tortured and killed. Everyone Asma met had lost at least one family member, usually many.

Cambodia’s rich heritage of Theravada Buddhism hadn’t been obliterated, but what survived often seemed like a shoddy copy. Asma learned that people would leave shot glasses of whiskey in little “spirit houses” at the full moon to keep local spirits happy, make pilgrimages to a pagoda said to contain the Buddha’s tooth, and fertilize crops by directing flowing water over hundreds of carved penises. They didn’t know much about the Buddha’s teachings and didn’t always like listening to people who’d studied them. Two young monks who’d spent years studying in Sri Lanka told Asma they couldn’t teach what they’d learned because they depended on daily handouts from the devout. “If we preached these religious and philosophical theories,” they said, “we wouldn’t eat.”

Asma says he went to Cambodia with an attitude “like the Protestant attitude toward a lot of Catholic rituals–let’s clear all this stuff out.” But while he didn’t lose his preference for philosophical Buddhism, he began to appreciate the stories, the imaginative power, and the social glue that the superstitions of what he calls cultural Buddhism provide.

Cambodia is no one’s candidate for a holy land. As Asma describes it in his book, it’s a place where “for approximately sixty dollars, one can . . . buy an ounce of marijuana, a half-gram of heroin, a handgun, and a full day at the brothel, finished off by a relatively decadent meal.” He saw a man shot to death next to his regular spot in an outdoor cafe. He routinely encountered land mine victims, some missing three limbs, begging for coins or shining shoes. (Back home in Chicago this led him to reply to an able-bodied panhandler, “Dude, you’ve got arms and legs.”) He saw the consequences of superstition, as when suspicion of witchcraft led to a triple homicide (the victims were so poor their house had to be torn down to make their coffins). “Monks smoking cigarettes and hustling tourists for money at Angkor Wat made my skin crawl,” he writes.

Yet Asma saw another Cambodia too. “The quiet pride and gentle humor of my kindhearted friend Kimvan, who lost most of his family to violence,” he writes, “or the way my grizzled hotel owner saved a baby who had been abandoned in the street and adopted him as his own–these experiences showed me a kind of human dignity and care that can be witnessed more readily where people have lost a great deal.”

Asma keeps coming back to an especially humbling experience. Like many Americans, he’s skeptical of authority and isn’t inclined to get on his knees for anybody. But one day Cambodia’s supreme Buddhist patriarch, Maha Ghosananda, came to visit his class. Ghosananda lost his entire family to the Khmer Rouge. In 1993 he risked his life leading a 16-day, 125-mile walk for peace through territory the Khmer Rouge still controlled, and he subsequently led numerous other peace walks. He’s sometimes called Cambodia’s Gandhi and arguably is working under worse conditions.

For safety reasons, Ghosananda’s visit to the institute had been kept quiet, writes Asma, “but as soon as he emerged from the van he began to be recognized by other monks, nuns, teachers, and laypeople. My students dropped to their knees in a group, as did the rest of the crowd that was now gathering in the driveway of the institute. Some of the older Khmer, those who had lived through the horrible years of violence, began to weep quietly, and some sought to touch his robes or help him mount the stairs. . . . Never had I seen such a spontaneous, unstaged outpouring of admiration and gratitude.”

Asma sees Ghosananda as transcending the divide between philosophical and cultural Buddhism, though he’s quick to point out that if Ghosananda is something of a Buddhist saint it’s “not because he performed a miracle, but because of his integrity, his nonviolent resistance to these oppressive forces.” He was so in awe of the man that when someone introduced him to Ghosananda as a teacher of Buddhist philosophy he was mortified. “I got a very weird feeling from this introduction,” he says, “like I had just learned the C Major scale and somebody introduced me to Mozart as a music teacher.”

Asma’s trip shifted his assumptions, a change he’s willing to call a spiritual awakening. Maybe the next time he meets a new age Buddhist at a party he’ll have something to share.

Stephen Asma

When: Sun 6/12, 2:30 PM

Where: Printers Row Book Fair, University Center, River Room, 525 S. State

Price: Free

Info: 312-222-3986

When: Tue 6/14, 7 PM

Where: Transitions Bookplace, 1000 W. North

Price: Free

Info: 312-951-7323

More: See Section 2 for a complete festival schedule.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.