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


Stephen J. Asma, PhD.

  Hampton Roads Publishing Company  
Release Date:


  dharma, autobiography  
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Recently, it seems like there have been a lot of books that try and relate Buddhist doctrine to modern American life. (See also: Brad Warner and Lodro Rinzler.) However, unlike those two writers, Asma is not a Buddhist teacher. He is a lay practitioner who has studied Buddhism extensively, but he does not make a living teaching this stuff. I think that gives him a slightly different perspective.

Now, let me just start out by saying that i am the target audience for this kind of thing. As a meditator who lives and works in corporate America, i often try to make sense of my world by filtering it through the ideology that seems to make the most sense to me. I read a lot of books like this, and i have to say that Asma has written one of the better ones.

He has a plain writing style, and while he makes references to the sutras where appropriate, he does not do so too often. Reading this book is like having a conversation with a regular dude, probably over a drink. He is very down-to-earth, which makes the book flow well. And he has a way with words, peppering his anecdotes with both humor and Buddhist tradition.

He starts by tracing his own path into Buddhism from a normal American upbringing. He spends a chapter giving a good summary of the Four Noble Truths, putting them all in the American context of trying to get laid. I found his analogy here to be effective, and pretty self-explanatory.

Then he spends a chapter talking about annicca (impermanence) and compassion from the context of parenthood. Parenthood is not something i am all that familiar with, but his analogies take ancient concepts and apply them to the real world in a way that a non-breeder like myself could accept as "realistic". Your mileage may vary along with your child-rearing experience.

Then Asma spends about 30 pages making an argument that i often make in favor of Buddhism -- that Buddha was a scientist and that the dharma is basically a set of instructions to replicate an experiment that Buddha ran. To my mind, this "go ahead and prove me wrong" aspect of Buddhism has always seemed to be its strength. Asma makes a really good case for this, and says it better than i can in this brief space. Go and read Chapter 4 of this book. Do it.

He spends some time talking about art, and hey, they guy is a musician too, so i guess that makes sense to him. Everything he says about the meditative aspects of making art (playing guitar, writing poetry, even working on reviews) is nothing that i haven't read before. His argument is concise and clear, but has been made so often that i am not sure if he does it best, or if, say, Brad Warner does. A tossup.

Asma spends an interesting chapter talking about Buddhism and the workplace. This is another topic that i have several books on, and while Asma's take is not new, it is well-stated. Meditation has certainly helped me deal with the futility of American corporate life, and i think that this is a real benefit of the ideology.

He ends the book by contemplating the future, but wondering what will happen as globalization brings people into greater contact with other ideas. Buddhism's rational nature (its scientificism) as well as it's basis in the idea of compromise (The Middle Path is another term for Buddhism, after all) offer something of value in a world where mystical people slaughter one another in the name of their competing afterlives. Or, at least, Asma and i think so.

My verdict on this book is that it is a well written and relatively short set of coherent thoughts on things that i myself hold. Asma and i have a good bit in common. And, of course, it is human nature to think that your own ideological beliefs are worth sharing, so in that spirit, i urge others to read it, absorb it, live it. Be a better person; explore your own inner PostLibyan-ish-ness.

On the other hand, you can't really convince most people of anything, so this type of book necessarily preaches only to the choir. That makes it harder for me to judge than, say, the latest Black Sabbath record. (Which you should totally listen to!) Still, i think that there is something worthwhile in Asma's book, and the entertaining writing style makes for easy reading, at least.

One note of caution -- i have been immersed in the dharma for over two decades now, so i bring a lot to the table when he discusses Buddhist concepts, history, and teachers. It is impossible for me to judge how much i am projecting and how much is clear from Asma's writing. It may be that he is vague on Buddhist tenets, and i am mentally filling in the gaps, so if you read this as an "introduction to..." and get confused, my apologies. I guess this might really be an intermediate text.

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