The Gods Drink Whiskey
Stumbling Towards Enlightenment
In the Land of the
Tattered Buddhas

Stephen T. Asma
(Harper San Francisco)
I've just articulated a rather unpopular view among the vanguard Western liberal elites, who tend to romanticize indigenous paradigms, but I suspect that very few of them have actually lived in developing countries --- countries where a simple wisdom tooth infection can kill you, where infant and mother mortality rates are through the roof, where bat hearts are eaten for asthma, where smearing blood on doors is considered good strategy for fighting off bacterial epidemics, and where magic cows can cause death to your enemies and machete-justice can right the wrong.
--- The Gods Drink Whiskey
Asma is a guy who had the presumption to go to Cambodia to teach Buddhist history ... to Buddhists. Yet he strikes one as being almost too pissy to be, say, one of your regular pacific Buddha types.

For instance, he has some tart words for other branches of Buddhism ... other, that is, than Theravada which is predominant in Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. For example, the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama represents only 6% of the 4,000,000 Buddhists in the world. One of his friends, a student of Buddhism, a cynic from the former Sri Lanka, says that Tibetan Buddhism --- Mahayana --- is "a master-slave religion."

Asma also has some particularly funny comments about the Christian religions now moving into Cambodia under federal sponsorship. The converts? He calls them "rice Christians."

    Mormons offer a container of rice to the families that attend. This phenomenon, which is happening all over Cambodia, is producing what are called "rice Christians" --- people who convert, become baptized, and go through the motions in order to get the lifesaving rice supply every Sunday. Many of the Khmer people become "Christian" in name only. When your family is starving, you'll jump through any hoops they give you.

Asma sees a permanent harm coming to Buddhism --- and to Cambodia --- from this high-handedness:

    missionaries are turning up the volume on their "good news" campaign. They have started to proselytize with bullhorns in the countryside, telling locals not to feed their Buddhist monks and telling them that their misery will end if they just convert. Failing to feed the monks is doubly damaging for Theravadans. Obviously the monks start to go hungry (and they're already on a pathetic ration of leftovers from poor villagers), but the villagers themselves lose an important means of building spiritual merit, punna kamma.

He is a guy who will talk for awhile about Nirvana --- called here Nibbana --- and then go off to see a sex show or visit a whore house; he is one who will have a few beers before going off to meditate in a wat. He eats some pot pizza, has visions, and then watches horrified as one of the political heavies of Phnom Penh gets shot right there in front of him.

He is up to here with facts: that Thich Quang Duc (the monk who immolated himself in 1963) wasn't protesting the Viet-Nam war but, rather, the Catholics of South Viet Nam who closed down the Buddhist temples, hounded and murdered Buddhist priests.

He suggests that the Buddha was truly a Socratic thinker , one who existed long before Socrates, whose message was don't take it on faith; try it and see if it works.

Nibbana is not some far off paradise-in-the-sky. It's here, right now, but most Westeners don't get it because we are "always becoming." Nibbbana arrives when one has given up something very simple: desire. To abandon desire means abandoning pain.

He compares the universe to a laser photograph: All of a picture is included in any of the tiny portions of the negative ... thus, "the whole story of the universe is implicit in any part of it."

Most of all, Asma has a love for the Cambodian Khmer world, which he conveys it with simplicity:

    I'd sit down at a sidewalk food stand, and the proprietor might come sit next to me smiling and introducing family members, while an elephant lumbered by slowly, and a man with no legs or lower torso rolled up on a cart and took my shoes off for shining, and a snack plate of barbecued insects appeared on the table, followed by an amazing fish dish served inside a halved coconut, and the streets might literally flood in minutes with monsoon rains, leaving motos and cyclos to wobble slowly through the muddy streets. I was forced to focus on everything because everything seemed to require it --- I had to practice mindfulness by necessity. But even though my mindfulness was almost coerced by the exotic environment of Southeast Asia, I did carry some of that appreciation back to my less exotic life in Chicago."

§     §     §

Asma's affection for the Theravada culture is infective. He seems to regard all the Khmers with deep love and respect; as a Buddhist, he accepts many, condemns few, living in now --- in his case, the day-to-day of Phnom Penh. He's a merry soul, perhaps a young Buddha. (Buddha said that we are all Buddhas.) "You actually get what you most want by not wanting it anymore. In other words Buddhism taught me the oblique pursuit of happiness.

"The basic assumption is that when we get that one last thing --- the tank-sized SUV, the customized guitar, the trophy wife, the Gucchi bag --- we will finally be satisfied and fulfilled."

    But we are doomed, like a modern-day King Midas, to ruin every true happiness we have by touching it with our insatiable obsession. The life of hedonism cannot find its own termination --- it's a fire burning inexorably across an infinite tinder field.

The structure of The Gods Drink Whiskey is part of its virtue. We start off with the adventures of living in Cambodia, the street life, the sometimes scary Khmers, the violence of Pol Pot. Then, as we progress, we find more lessons on Buddhism, nicely phrased, nicely placed. Asma is a good egg. Makes you proud of Chicago wise-ass Buddhists, this one in particular.

--- Deb Das

A Room for the Summer
Adventure, Misadventure, and Seduction
In the Mines of the Coeur d'Alene

Fritz Wolff
In the old days, the three months of college summer were scarcely enough time to do anything important. Frank Conroy played in a drunken jazz band. Art Swayze worked in Illinois in what was commonly called the "booby hatch." (He told us many disgusting tales about the disgusting things the patients did with their food and their bodies.)

Rolly Henderson worked in his father's bank, as a teller, and Laurie Phillips was a "skiploader," even though we never learned what a skiploader was.

Me? I was interested in broadcasting, so I wangled a $50/week job a WJVB, in Pablo Beach, Florida. The station's owner was gay and, according to the bookkeeper, spent all the station's income and assets --- and probably liabilities --- on his "boyfriends." The station manager, Ted Mims, had worked in network radio in New York, but television had driven him out. He and his wife Paulina had moved to Pablo Beach the year before. Paulina did the "women's" show.

The Mim's apartment was bare, but there was always sand on the floor, and the rank smell of large dog ... they had two Great Danes, heavy with mange, halitosis and phlebitis. When Ted was mad at Paulina, he wouldn't talk to her for days. Nor to us.

The morning DJ, Johnny Stinson, had come to us directly from clear-channel WGN in Chicago. He had a deep radio voice, one that could shake the room . But Johnny had had a falling out with Demon Rum. He got the morning program because that was the only time he was choate.

Our transmitter and studios were set out near the River Mugre. Our chief engineer said that the locale was perfect for ground conductivity, which is important for AM coverage (sometimes we got fan letters from 1000 miles up the coast). At the same time, the swamp was not the best for the staff. The station --- inside and out --- was often up to here with mosquitoes, sidewinders, skunks, skinks, stinks, spiders, sliders and snakes.

One morning Ted killed a rattler that had somehow gotten into our barred, noxious bathroom. I swear it was at least six feet long, if not sixty. Ted broke its back with part of the antenna that had fallen off in the last hurricane. He left the snake in the front office behind his desk until Johnny's program was almost over. Then, with my help, we sneaked it around to the parking area and draped it around the steering wheel of Johnny's 1948 Plymouth coupe.

Johnny got off at ten, filed all his records, and then went to drive to Lisa's for his first drink of the day. His preferred poison was vodka and Coca-Cola. He said no one could smell it, but phew --- when he turned downwind, it was not unlike being in a stinky tavern (like his favorite, the Pink Lady, at 6 AM).

When Johnny opened the door of his car he screamed. Scream is perhaps the wrong word. It was more a wail of pure terror. Flat-out terror.

Ted and I thought it was very funny but I don't think that Johnny ever forgave us.

§     §     §

Instead of working summers in the nuthatch or a bank or a radio station scaring drunks, Fritz Wolff ran off from his family's genteel house in Seattle and went to Kellogg, Idaho, to work in the Bunker Hill Company. He spent three summers a mile or two below the surface of the earth, what he refers to as "135 miles of drifts, shafts, stopes, and other development." The temperature below ground was an unvarying 94°. The humidity was close to the same figure. It was hard work, he assures us. And the chronicle of his daily load seems to confirm that.

A Room for the Summer is not only the story of a city kid growing, and growing quickly; it is also an introduction to the way the Idaho mines worked in the 1950s. We learn about the tricky job of running the elevator to get the workers up and down from the pits. This consisted of being in charge of the Nordberg hoist "whose twenty-foot diameter double-drum windings still sit like the queen of the fleet atop the #1 shaft at Bunker Hill."

We learn what it is like to be knee-deep in muck, trying to control a jackleg drill, "a machine that takes you where it wants to go." We learn about pulling what he calls a "piss-ditch post" into position with an gaff-like instrument called the "picaroon." We learn about setting 24 sticks of dynamite, and setting it up so that he and Chris --- his partner --- can get out of the way in time and not get blown up. We learn about mud and water and bulkheads and caps and wedges and sills and square-sets and the "picaroon."

We also learn how to survive when the little lamp on your miner's helmet goes out at the very moment the lamp on the helmet of your partner goes too. That chapter is called "Darkness." The only way back to the lights involved passing several abandoned shafts. "It seemed," Wolff says, "like my eyes were wide open, but I was unsure. Maybe they were closed..." They started to crawl back, Chris up ahead:

    Sometimes we got out of lockstep and I rammed my hard hat into his backside.

    "Look where yer going!"

    "If I could look, I would. Nothing personal."

§     §     §

Wolff is a cautious writer, very careful. Like one who has spent a great deal of time mining. In fact, as he excavates his past, we feel we are in the hands of one who has been in the deep too much of his life, who wants to make sure the roof doesn't fall and the lights go out, that we make it back to the surface. It goes without saying (so I will say it): he was a mining engineer for a quarter-century after he got out of college.

Like many of us, the older Wolff is not a little scornful of his younger self ... sees the younger Wolff as perhaps a bit of a dummy. For example, he devotes a dozen or so pages to his visit to the "U. and I." whorehouse: "I never found out whether the literal translation was 'You and I' or something else. I thought it a clever handle for a whorehouse and better than 'You and Me,' which might have been grammatically incorrect."

It is this cautious method of mining the truth from a hill of experience of long ago that may grate some readers, wanting him to just set the dynamite and then run off and be done with it. For others, the sincerity might be winning, even a bit of fun.

Still, God knows how the word "Seduction" got in the sub-title. Look as we might, we never found it. The "You and I" certainly wasn't a "seduction," At least not the way the rest of us remember seduction ... several thousand years ago when it was still possible.

--- Everett Walsh
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