ReviewTaking the California Out of Buddhism
Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey,by Stephen T. Asma, Hampton Roads Publishing, 179 pages, $22
In his provocative and readable little book Why I Am a Buddhist, Stephen Asma aims to introduce the uninitiated to Buddhism, to “remin[d] and inspi [e]” those who are already familiar with it, and to show how to apply basic Buddhist ideas in “concrete, usable life strategies.”
Asma has a distinctive agenda for pursuing those goals. He wants to formulate a more accessible and meaningful dharma that he labels “a kind of blue-collar ‘Chicago Buddhism.’” This requires, as he puts it, “taki[ng] the California out of Buddhism,” and purging it of certain unfortunate “hippy associations.” He wants to show the world a Buddhism that is more down-to-earth and Midwestern, less flaky and West Coast. Then, he hopes, Middle America might just go for the Middle Way.
Asma is not as hard-core anti- California as his sloganeering might imply. He concedes that he actually likes the state, and its best-known Buddhist, the poet Gary Snyder, turns out to be his most reliable source for Buddhist wisdom. So his real goal is to “counterbalance” the familiar West Coast Buddhism with a strong dose of working-class realism.
But even this tells only part of the story. Some of Asma’s most convincing observations emerge when he puts aside any working-class pretentions and exhibits a more professorial, skeptical, and rationalistic sensibility that would be difficult to label “proletarian.”
One of the appealing parts of the book is Asma’s account of his travels during his youth through what he calls “a wonderful swamp of mystical experiences and transcendental philosophies” on the way to the dharma.
Before arriving, he paddled his metaphysical canoe past Beatles music, sensory-deprivation tanks, psychedelics, and popular Hinduism. He then moved on from the pop-culture version of the “Wisdom of the East” to more sophisticated mystical thinkers such as Aldous Huxley, J. Krishnamurti, and Thomas Merton, and to the serious study of Asian religious classics. He also discovered jazz, which became for him a deep and lasting spiritual vehicle.
As a result of such experiences, Asma is in a good position to warn others about the many wrong turns on the road to nirvana. One of his strong points is his very clear Buddhist critique of dualistic philosophies and all forms of transcendentalism that yearn for some Higher World that is better and more real than the one we live in. He aptly describes the appeal of mysterious Oriental dualism for the young Westerner in rebellion against familiar religious traditions: “It had the cool stuff from Catholicism—afterlife and eternal God—but also a newly elevated status for my own little private soul.” Asma explains that he finally discovered, through Buddhism, that such a quest is a form of escapism and that what is really needed is not another higher world but a deeper experience and appreciation of this one.
Asma is severe in his judgment of what he considers pseudo-philosophical nonsense. Some of the best sections of the book are those in which his persona as the voice of reason or the tough-minded philosopher takes the stage. For example, in a section called “The Dreaded Quantum Mysticism,” he debunks new-age theories based on vague analogies between subatomic physics and the supposed tenets of some amorphous “Eastern Wisdom.” This pseudo-scientific pseudo-mysticism claims that the mind controls or even creates reality in some mysterious ways. But such claims are based on either questionable or debatable interpretations of quantum physics and, even worse, on “staggeringly fallacious leaps in logic” to draw conclusions about the human mind that would not follow even if the premises concerning subatomic particles were true.
Asma also challenges certain tendencies in the Buddhist tradition itself. In particular, he finds problems with interpretations of the doctrines of karma and rebirth. He argues that the only rational interpretation of karma is that it is a psychological (but not metaphysical) reality. This means that our choices and actions at any given time affect our character and our fate in the future. This is a good point, but, beyond this, karma can even be reformulated (ontologically, not merely psychologically) to encompass a recognition of how our collective history, including our evolutionary history, has continuing effects and produces constraints on us in the present.
Asma also points out that the doctrine of rebirth, or reincarnation, as it is popularly called, can often be highly misleading when disjoined from the basic Buddhist teaching that there is no soul, or separate, enduring self. So realistically, rebirth can mean only the continuing effects of a certain combination of elements (kandhas) that we falsely identify with separate selfhood. He might also have mentioned that in the Zen tradition there is another quite rational interpretation of rebirth, according to which each moment in which there is trishna