25 September 2007

The Gods Drink Whiskey

The Gods Drink Whiskey, by Stephen Asma, is not quite what it seems. It was deep, fascinating, and well worth a read. And I don't think the cover blurbs were written by people who'd actually read the thing.

I picked this book up thinking it was a travelogue. The top cover blurb from the Dallas Morning News says "An account of the ultimate hippie road trip." Steve Asma isn't a hippie. This isn't a road trip. And if you look at the entire blurb from the DMN on the back, it becomes apparent that the reviewer never actually read the book.

This is not a book about getting drunk and stoned and patting the Buddha's belly at Angkor Wat. It's not even a travel book, except in the sense that Asma did in fact travel to Cambodia and did do some traveling while he was there. But while he went to Vietnam and Thailand and possibly elsewhere, chronologic tales of these trips are glossed over in favor of philosophical trips the author took while on those travels. It's a much deeper book for this.

I actually wanted to read this with a highlighter at times. Asma says much that I've been thinking lately (and no doubt this book has influenced my thinking plenty). He discusses what I mentioned above, the incapacity of Americans both to be happy where they are and to actually be happy when they get that one thing they wanted that they thought would make them happy. By contrast southeast Asia's Buddhists are taught to eliminate craving and find their happiness and satisfaction whatever the present circumstances, to experience the now and not confine themselves in the prison of craving for the future or living in remorse for the past.

But Asma, a Buddhist himself (he traveled to Cambodia not for some hippie road-trip but to teach Buddhist philosophy at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, quite an honor for an American but important since Cambodian Buddhism lost most of its philosophers during the Khmer Rouge era), is no starry-eyed idealist about the virtues of Southeast Asian Buddhism and lifestyle. Around him he sees grinding poverty, blind mysticism, meaningless violence. He sees where Buddhism has helped the people live in this environment, but also sees where a little Western modernity would help them live better in their environment. He wants neither to make Cambodia a Buddhist America, nor to make America a prosperous Cambodia. No place is perfect, no society has all the answers. But there is good in many places, and Asma notes how these goods could be combined, if only.

If only is the problem, and again, our author and mentor and tour guide is a realist. He has trouble grasping the horrors of Khmer Rouge era when confronted with them at the S-21 prison, where tens of thousands of innocents, many of them children, were tortured and killed for no real reason. He has trouble reconciling the mystical neak ta temples and lingam (penis) worship cults with the deliberately non-mystical Theravada Buddhism that is the official religion of the state (and Mr. Asma).

I'll go ahead and say this is my favorite book of the year thus far. Whether it's the best is open for debate depending on your view of "best." I tend to think Fierce Invalids might have been "better," and it gave me plenty to think about, too, but The Gods Drink Whiskey was just the sort of philosophical brain food I needed right now. I mean, Asma makes the point in chapter 3 (I think) that Americans are actually often made prisoners of their liberty as much as they are liberated by it. Because we have, and demand, freedom of choice in so many areas, we are often overloaded by choices, incapable of feeling confident about making the right choice, and beset by anxiety over how to choose. That's me to a tee. I would fain lay down my life before I'd give up my liberty, but I clearly don't understand how to use and appreciate it. It makes me anxious and depressed; I don't trust my instincts and frequently regret my choices. Sometimes with hindsight and meditation I can be satisfied with choices I've made in the past, but I worry excessively about upcoming choices and refuse to let myself be satisfied once a choice is made. Asma isn't too sure that we wouldn't all benefit from a little less liberty and opportunity at times, and while I'm not convinced of that I had to put the book down and take a walk after reading his discussion of it because it rang so true in my life and I've never considered it. With effort I hope I can learn to recognize the benefits of liberty without allowing myself to sink into the prison of it.

And there was the comment about the division of labor in Southeast Asian families vice that in American (and most Western) ones. Asma doesn't claim the patriarchal society and family values of Cambodia are better than the equality of American family life. Actually, he believes Cambodia could benefit from a little Western-style women's liberation. But he also notes that in the Cambodian family, there is less family strife because family roles are clearly delineated. Thus even arranged marriages tend to hold up better than Western marriages do because everyone understands going in what they can expect of the other partner and what is expected of them. It isn't that the man should work and the woman should run the household; it's that somebody needs to take on the responsibility of running the household finances, and somebody needs to give that responsibility up to the other partner, instead of both constantly fighting to get things done their way. Indeed, it isn't at all necessary that one partner work and the other stay home, as long as both partners recognize that each will responsible for certain things. If both work, no one can be responsible for maintaining the household. Asma points out, too, that while in Southeast Asia the men are responsible for making the money, the women are entirely responsible for spending it--and they have a responsibility to be thrifty and spend less than the husband makes. I would say in American families, with both partners working (okay, I know I'm not working now, but that's not intended to be permanent, and I am still drawing a paycheck), the key is to say, we will live entirely off of one partner's paycheck (as much as possible). Should that partner then be responsible for the family budget? Should the other partner be responsible for keeping house? It doesn't matter; the key is, those responsibilities should be delineated, and expectations should be understood, so couples aren't fighting over every decision. The same can then be extended to dealing with kids.

Yeah, this was a book I needed to read right now. But lest you think it's all philosophy and Eastern wisdom, I'd like to point out the marijuana pizza, and the story of the schoolchildren who wanted their pictures taken with exotic white foreigner who threw up all over the front lawn of the sacred shrine (to the Buddha's toe, or hair or something). I mean, this is actually a really fun read, and I would be doing the book a great disservice not to point that out. There are plenty of laughs here, and the narrative moves along. There are a good number of unfamiliar words, and as ever I wish Asma has at least given us approximate pronunciations of the Khmer words ('Khmer' included), since there are lots of unfamiliar consonant combinations there and I stumbled over lots of the terms. Still, this isn't important.

Asma's prose is generally light and enjoyable, although at times following his train of thought through levels of philosophy takes some work. It's well worth it, though, and at the turn of the page he brings the reader back to the surface for a breath of air and a comment about something funny such philosophical introspection brings to mind when surrounded by a totally foreign culture.

In other words, this book is both fun to read and challenging at the same time. It's tough to marry those two, and for that reason alone this book is a worth a read. I highly recommend it.

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