Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey


In my experience, raising a child has been like having a miniature war under our roof. Quiet contemplative meditation seems like a very remote luxury to me. I fantasize about joining a monastery and letting wolves raise my son instead. But then, what good is my Buddhism if it can't handle the chaos of everyday life?

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In my experience, raising a child has been like having a miniature war under our roof. Quiet contemplative meditation seems like a very remote luxury to me. I fantasize about joining a monastery and letting wolves raise my son instead. But then, what good is my Buddhism if it can't handle the chaos of everyday life?

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
For contemporary Western readers, Asma (philosophy, Columbia Coll.; Buddha for Beginners) has written a new vade mecum about Buddhism that is at once acute, innovative, and refreshing. As a student of philosophy, Asma tries to distance the best of Buddhism—and us—from the mystical, regimented, or dogmatic tendencies of many of the forms of Buddhism that have become popular in the West; he is interested in the rigor of the noncreedal Buddhism the Buddha taught. For him, Buddhism does not require giving up one's passions but recognizing their impact. Asma writes with vigor and humor; he is at his strongest applying his insights to personal and social life but perhaps too rangy for effectiveness in discussing Buddhism and the global village. VERDICT Unlike the stream of books promoting Mahayana Buddhism and its rituals, texts, and temples, Asma's well-written work translates the Buddha's oldest ideas directly for modern readers. An eye-opener for experienced and innocent Buddhists alike.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571746177
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/1/2010
  • Pages: 179
  • Sales rank: 1,517,831
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities at Columbia College in Chicago. He is also a jazz musician and a popular guest on Chicago area NPR programs.Visit him at stephenasma.com.
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Why I Am a Buddhist

No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

By Stephen T. Asma

Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Stephen T. Asma, PhD.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57174-617-7


A Newly Elevated Status for My Private Little Soul

Discovering Transcendentalism

To escape the alienation of high school, I enrolled in one of the available subcultures. Subcultures were, and are, great consolations to teenage angst. Some of my friends chose Goth subculture as a palliative—dyed black hair, black lipstick, black garments, clothespins pierced in ears and cheeks, and a whole genre of music that celebrated the Romantic version of the misunderstood individual. While some of the Goth aesthetic and ideology appealed to me, the idea of dressing up in a costume at the age of sixteen struck me as too desperate. I was also just too lazy to spend time making myself look like a corpse.

The other big subcultures in the 1980s included the neo-hippies, the New Wave, the heavy metal kids, and the lingering punk culture. I chose the consolations of hippy life, spending a couple summers tripping on mushrooms, camping out, and watching Jerry Garcia noodle his way into occasionally sublime musical territories. I was attracted to the improvisational aspect of the music and, of course, the drop-out aspect of the unshowered fan culture (although I didn't see why we couldn't say no to the oppressive shackles of society and still attend to the personal hygiene thing).

Most alienated kids are looking for some subculture that announces to their parents, and every other authority figure, that "you're not the boss of me!" Heavy metal culture did so, like punk, with defiant fists raised. There's nothing like a good aggressive punch-up at some booze-soaked party to establish your rebel credibility. But hippy defiance is more gentle—it's the wispy, dervish dance of the deadhead who is way too stoned to punch anybody.

Neo-hippy culture introduced me to the ideas and writings of proto-hippies like Henry David Thoreau, but also the more proximate countercultural icons like Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, and other proponents of mystical awareness. One of the great things about many high school subcultures is that they tend toward intellectualism. Goths tended to read books, as did metal fans, punks, and hippy stoners. These days, I'm sure the Internet provides even greater opportunities for alienated youth to reach beyond their stultifying local cliques and find kindred spirits of every freethinking variety.

The Buddha himself can be seen as a young man who also grew weary of his own tiny world, and who longed to break free to the wider realms of possibility. Born in 563 BCE in Kapilavastu to a wealthy family, Prince Gautama was sheltered and kept in virtual isolation throughout his early life. While his isolation was filled with the luxuries and pleasures that privilege affords, he was nonetheless channeled into a predetermined path of education, marriage, fatherhood, and business ambition. He had a bourgeois life in store for him, but it was not to be.

Despite his overprotective father's plans, Gautama made a chariot expedition outside the palace walls and there encountered three deeply powerful sights. First, he saw a very old man, struggling and laboring with infirmed limbs, hunched back, and downturned head. The young prince was shocked by this experience. When the chariot driver explained to him that all people eventually end up in this decaying condition, he grew despondent. Next he happened to catch sight of a maimed person, and again he was surprised and depressed. Lastly, Gautama came across a rotting corpse lying in the street. He was shocked to realize that he and everyone he knew and loved would one day be just like this decomposing carcass. It was these three experiences—age, injury, and death—that wrenched Gautama out of his sheltered existence and forced him to renounce luxury and leave the palace to find a cure for suffering. Obviously teen angst is only one, rather trifling, form of suffering, and the Buddha had much bigger fish to fry. But the antinomian urge to emancipate oneself and get to some more essential truth is quite common in disaffected teenagers. The Buddha's quest is always appealing in that sense.

Before I could reach real Buddhism, however, I had to wade through a wonderful swamp of mystical experiences and transcendental philosophies. This chapter is a brief tour of my youthful evolution from an other-worldly adolescent theologian to a down-to-earth spiritualist. It's important to sketch this journey because so many other people will recognize themselves in this same meandering odyssey. But more important, as we'll see, the Buddha himself made the same basic sequence of steps. He was first attracted to transcendental theologies of God and soul, then he gradually became disenchanted, and finally he rejected them in favor of a new this-worldly enchantment. Part of why I am a Buddhist is that I unwittingly went on this same kind of journey.

Knocking on the Doors of Perception

Like many people I spent my teen years greedily knocking on all the inner doors of perception. A steady diet of George Harrison's spooky sitar tunes, drug experimentation, and surrealist art eventually led me to have a series of mystical experiences when I was sixteen and seventeen years old. Once, during a Peter Gabriel concert in the early 1980s, I seemed to experience the melting away of the subject/object distinction—the thousands of fans, bathed in an eerie blue light while undulating to some tribal rhythm, all melted together into a giant living organism. Many will attest to the fact that collective dance and music really seem to dissolve the ego in a pleasing way.

I also tried floating in a sensory deprivation tank. These tanks are filled with a thick saline solution that makes a person float suspended in the water, and they are kept at the same temperature as the human body. The inside is closed off to any outside light or sound. You crawl into the tank naked and slowly lie down flat in the salt water so that the body is entirely submerged, but the face is exposed in order to breathe. Since you are suspended in a fluid that is the same temperature as your body, you eventually lose track of where your body begins and ends. There is no point of contact with any stimulus—no shirt to rub on your neck, no chair to press on your butt, no pants to ride up on you, no glasses to pressure your face, and so on. Your tactile senses slowly fade away. So, too, your sense of sight slips away, because it's pitch-black inside. And your sense of hearing recedes because your ears are plugged and underwater.

The first time I tried this weird experiment, I lay down too quickly, accidentally got burning saltwater in my eyes, thrashed around like a hooked pike, and accidentally kicked off the roof of the fiberglass tank. Many subsequent trips to the deprivation tank, however, led to some interesting alterations of consciousness. I discovered firsthand, for example, that my thoughts could race at frightening speeds and along bizarre chains of association if they were not momentarily distracted and redirected by external sensory stimuli. In any ordinary experience, we are constantly tapped, poked, and nudged by tactile stimuli, or sounds, or sights, or smells. And these sensations are always quietly deviating and swerving our internal thought dialogue. But if you remove them altogether, then thoughts race in unfamiliar ways.

After about six or seven sessions in the sensory deprivation tank, I had a truly unique experience. I took it to be rather mystical in nature, but even then, during my most credulous era, I couldn't be sure about it. It was basically comprised of three qualitatively different "moments." First, my mind was spiraling in its usual out-of-control race of thoughts. Then utter black nothingness. Then a jerky and staggered return of the spiraling race of thoughts—which now included "what the hell was that?" The duration of these moments was impossible to tell. When you have no sensory inputs, you cannot measure time at all. A minute can feel like an hour, and an hour can feel like a minute—time becomes largely subjective and obscure. It felt to me like I was gone for a good long time, but I have no way of knowing.

Did I merge momentarily with God? Did I melt into the great emptiness of all things? Did I now know, as the Beatles had sung in "She Said She Said," what it's like to be dead? Or had I, more likely, just fallen asleep and then woken up again? The problem with experiencing the great unconditioned reality that lies beyond our ordinary doors of perception is that it has no features or qualities or souvenirs that you can bring back with you. So it may be that you haven't really gone anywhere.

At the time, however, I was marginally convinced that I had had some kind of experiential corroboration of a spiritual reality. I felt that some momentary encounter with the divine had been achieved, even if the content of that encounter was empty—or was it perfectly full?

I was ripe for such communion because I had been raised as a devout Catholic. Some people think that the conventional and conservative experience of Catholicism and the eccentric, lefty spiritualism of hippy culture are worlds apart. But, in fact, Catholics have a deep sense of mystery in the very belly of their religion. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics give themselves over to the irrational mystery, miracle, and authority. There is an undeniably conventional and institutional aspect of Catholicism, but beneath its traditionalism is a robust mystical approach to God.

When I was in primary and middle school I was an altar boy and even a lector. When I began to ask philosophical questions in my early teens, my blue-collar parents knew of no other outlet for such precocious intellectualism except perhaps the priesthood. I was dutifully driven to the local seminary to meet with priests and be interviewed to see if I had the calling. I didn't.

I had a variety of awkward conversations with priests, in which I asked them honest but difficult theological questions. Each cleric in turn was genuinely charitable with his time and his learning, but none of them could answer my pressing queries. For example, I wanted to know whether God made up the Ten Commandments or whether he discovered them. It seems like a trivial point, perhaps, but I had read enough to know that this was an old dilemma. If the all-powerful God freely makes up right and wrong, then, theoretically, he could change his mind and reverse the list. In principle, he could decide that coveting your neighbor's wife was now good and resting on the Sabbath was now bad. They're his rules after all, and he could (like my father) suddenly change the rules if he wanted to. This means that there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about the Ten Commandments, they are just the edicts of the most powerful king. Alternatively, if God discovered the rules, it preserves the idea that right and wrong are objective and intrinsic truths, but it also suggests that they are independent of God. On this version, God has done the research, discovered the good, and then reported back to us like a mere messenger.

After trying unsuccessfully to get off the horns of this dilemma, priests would invariably ask me to simply pray harder and ask for grace. These sorts of evasions are highly effective with polite adults, but youthful, impolite, determination always led me to sustain the interrogation. Because my grandmother was convinced that Jews, Hindus, Communists, and all pagans would eventually burn in Hell, I was always keen to press a man-of-the-cloth on this doctrinal point. My grandmother, it turns out, had a rather draconian sense of posthumous justice, but even the priests' more tempered version about Purgatory seemed to me to be highly unfair to the unwitting Bushmen, Chinese, Brahmins, and everybody born before Jesus. I had to agree with Charles Darwin's famous quip: "I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine." The more I read about different cultures and religions, the more naive my own Catholicism seemed. Christian theology didn't seem wrong, so much as provincial.

But the sense of mystery remained strong in me, even after my doctrinal disappointments. Like many Americans, or other people living in pluralistic societies, I began to create a pastiche religion from the bits of theology floating around in the melting pot. So when my high school flirtation with hippy culture exposed me to the folksy bong-wisdom of nature worship, I merely connected it to my ideas about a transcendent God, and the soul, and all that. The result was that my mind was prepared to experience something "transcendent," but my allegiance to any one dogma had already fallen away—so I was not forced into a specific theological interpretation of mystical experiences. I consider this a happy accident in the timing of my philosophical development.

If I had fallen in with a group of high school stoners that got lit up in order to loiter in the parking lot of the local mall, I could have missed the taste of higher consciousness altogether. But as it so happens, I chanced to fall in with some aesthetes and we used psychedelics to enhance our nature hikes, our museum trips, and, most important, our own artistic endeavors. We grew our hair long and formed a band that played improvisational hippy jams late into the night until my long-suffering father would yell at us to shut up and get haircuts too.

What all this meant is that a wonderful association formed in me—one that many people have experienced. It is the association of ecstasy in music and the same kind of experience in the spiritual traditions. Many people have noticed that the mystical experience, or peak experience, or oceanic feeling can be accessed via several different pathways, including art, sex, religion, and, of course, intoxicants. Late-night jam sessions, spiked with psychotropics, led to meditations on the oneness of all things, the infinite grandeur of reality, and other trippy realizations.

Many sticks of incense later, I became disenchanted with neohippy culture. Perhaps the writing was on the wall from the very beginning, because anybody getting into hippy ideology in the 1980s quickly realized that the very best part of being a hippy, namely, free love, was no longer available to us. I came of age in the era of AIDS. Sex with strangers was liberating and enlightening in the late 1960s and 1970s, but my generation's sexual maturity was accompanied by the nagging worry that fucking can kill you. With the free love ingredient missing, hippy culture had paltry other virtues to offer.

I slowly gravitated to a tougher-minded form of musical improvisation—namely, jazz. And I simultaneously graduated to a tougherminded mysticism, reading Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, and Thomas Merton. I wore out my copy of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Once I had acquired a taste for that elusive transcendental experience, I pursued the well-worn path (trod earlier by the Maharishi-following Beatles) to Hinduism. I struggled with the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, the principal Hindu scriptures. Most Westerners think that the sacred scriptures of Hinduism are replete with mystical gems of wisdom about consciousness and reality. In truth, these passages comprise a small percentage of the overall amount, and an unguided dive into the Hindu scriptures turns up a staggering number of texts devoted to hygiene ablutions, fire-building rituals, horse care recommendations, and other mind-numbing daily life minutiae. Eventually, however, one finds the more philosophical passages and gets a sense of the metaphysics.

At first, Hinduism fit nicely with my romantic sensibility and it possessed features that reminded me of the best parts of monotheism. This world of experience, according to Hinduism, is a veil of illusion (maya). We might have wonderful pleasures and terrible losses in this material world, but we should understand that the material world itself is just an ephemeral bit of foam when compared with eternal reality. Hinduism claims that a highly disciplined mind can have communion with God. The Bhagavad Gita says, "When his mind is tranquil, perfect joy comes to the man of discipline; his passions are calmed, he is without sin, being one with the infinite spirit" (6th Teaching, #27).

Those ecstatic experiences that I found in music, drugs, and even sex could be, according to Hinduism, momentary connections to the divine. I fell for this stuff hard. Talk about a consoling subculture! The Goths and the heavy metal kids had nothing on this stuff. Losing the ego in ecstasy is the ultimate escape from alienation. Some people overcome their teen angst by getting a girlfriend—I sought to heal my estrangement from the whole universe. Obviously, I was a rather melodramatic lad. And I had finally discovered transcendentalism.

The Transcendental Temptation

Transcendentalism is a theory embraced by thinkers as diverse as Plato, St. Augustine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Vedantic Hindus. It posits the existence of two worlds instead of one. The physical world that we live in is, according to the transcendentalist, a corrupt copy of a more perfect world. My slowly decaying body, my material possessions, my faltering democracy, and my entire sensory experience, to take a range of examples, are all just fleeting shadows when compared to the ideal and perfect realm believed to exist by transcendentalists. This is not an obscure or uncommon theory. The vast majority of religious humans, both Eastern and Western, embrace some form of transcendentalism. If you believe that God is in his heaven, that he created the physical universe and is in some sense above and beyond his creation, then you are a transcendental thinker.


Excerpted from Why I Am a Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma. Copyright © 2010 Stephen T. Asma, PhD.. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter I A Newly Elevated Status for My Private Little Soul: Discovering Transcendentalism 11

Chapter II Climbing the "Everest" of Cravings: Buddhism and Eros 33

Chapter III A Natural Exercise in No-Self: Buddhism and Parenting 59

Chapter IV Science Is Mysticism-without the Magical Thinking 85

Chapter V Jack Kerouac, Haiku, Charlie Parker, and the Artistic Quest 111

Chapter VI Work: Wealth and Worth 133

Chapter VII Dharma and the Global Village 159

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 4, 2010

    Very good book for Modern Buddhists

    I picked this book up because of the line on the jacket that said "In my experience raising a child has been like having a miniature war under our roof."

    As Buddhist I enjoyed Dr. Asma's perspective on being a Buddhist in a modern life. I think that Buddhists of all traditions will garner so knowledge from this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Elements of Buddhism I never knew

    It was on page 143 where the author writes 'Now Buddhism is austere, but not like some other ascetic traditions (like Jainism). The Buddha recommended the Middle Way because real happiness comes with comparatively low-level prosperity and comfort. Like Epicurus in the West, the Buddha claimed that it is better to train oneself to enjoy simple foods rather that fine gourmet meals, because economic political, and even weather changes could suddenly rob us of our exotic spices and delicacies. If we had allowed ourselves to become attached to such connoisseur pleasures, then we will suffer in ways that could have been avoided. We are advised to focus on more stable and reliable sources of happiness: simple fare, friendships, family, and intellectual cultivation. There is nothing inherently wrong with certain foods, pleasures and even wealth itself. There are only problems of attachment. So, lets be clear, Buddhism does not want you to be poor. Remember that after his big-pimpin' days in the lap of luxury, Gautama tried and rejected poverty as a life strategy. Moderation is the successful path.'

    Now I mention this part of the book, because I have had a tug of war with my Buddhist views, since I believed for a long time that self denial in ALL areas of ones life was a must. But then I would see celebrities and other well known people who have nice homes, new cars, nice clothes etc and were so opposite of someone like the Dalai Lama, that I would end up with a head ache. But this book has really helped clarify things for me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 25, 2010

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