Why I have avoided becoming a Buddhist (Review: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D)
I have just finished reading an astonishing book, Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago. I read this book over three days, probably the fastest I’ve read any whole book since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in high school. This book is funny, enlightening (in the broadest sense of the word), and has opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning about something very interesting, but also something very useful for my life.
My impetus for learning about Buddhism is (what else?) the crushing stress I have found myself in during graduate school. I have two classic ways of denying this stress: (1) I deny that it has anything to do with graduate school, it’s just life; and (2) I deny it exists at all. However, having two kids, a wife who’s a physician and being in graduate school does add up to a recipe for incredible stress when one doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with it. I have been crippled by migraines for the past few years, and have sought all kinds of medical help for it; not only that, but without getting too personal, I’ve also spent a lot of time ruminating about things that happened when I was a teenager, and this led to even more stress. Luckily Asma covers all of these bases in his book!
I knew that I needed something, or rather some thing that was going to form a whole philosophy for dealing with the stress of my life, making me more efficient at work, and overcoming and living up to challenges. I started practicing meditation a few months ago after reading Daniel Siegel’s book Mindsight. I was impressed by how rapidly I’ve been able to use concentration and mindfulness to handle my daily life better: even having really difficult, uncomfortable conversations has become almost effortless since I have the calmness of mind to focus on the task at hand. I’ve started actually dealing with my kids the way I’ve always wanted to: modeling good behavior, encouraging them, and stopping punishing them. Unfortunately in the past couple weeks I’ve gotten frustrated with meditation, and I started to wonder what my goals are. At this point I decided to do some reading.
But why was I avoiding Buddhism? I’m not a religious person, and therefore have no religious prohibitions about learning about new (old) religions. Why the denial on that level? There are two major reasons: (1) I’m not much for institutions and (2) I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Again, Asma’s book deftly deals with both these problems.
One thing that has held me back is that Buddhism seemed, from what I knew of Asian culture, to be a huge part of the established religion of Asia. I’m not one for temples and gongs and socializing over spirituality. For me if I have any spirituality it is very very private (I’m surprised I’m even writing this) and not only is it nobody’s business what I believe but I don’t really care what anybody else believes. Buddhism, in all the contact I’ve had with it, seemed a very social, very institutional enterprise. I’ve always had an interest in Taoism, but I’ve recoiled in disgust whenever I’ve heard someone say “Taoist temple” or “Taoist priest,” because I didn’t want it to be an institution. I love universities, but governments, religions, arts academies, the press, and even professional societies I belong to, seem far too wrapped up in ensuring their own existence to be helpful at all for anything in my world.
The other problem was where I grew up, or more specifically the white-bread Buddhist converts I had contact with trying to be an intellectual in a city full of (some other) intellectuals and countless sycophants. Again, I knew plenty of Asian “cultural Buddhists” as Asma calls them, as well as Hindus, Muslims, Mormons (wait, they’re not Asian, are they?) and Christians. However, the (white) Buddhists were mostly trust fund babies and arrogant jerks. There are a few major exceptions: some of the people I knew that were associated with Naropa were some of the nicest people I’ve known in my life, and I still count them as friends, but they were the exceptions. A lot of these people were serious pains-in-the-ass who would believe anything as long as it came from further east than Jerusalem. I knew a lot of their children (who were all on drugs) and they were the most stuck-up, prejudiced kids in school. An art class from Naropa trampled a Lark Sparrow nest during my honors thesis research project. Naropa also angered the wildlife community in Boulder by scheduling a fund-raising birdwatching event called “Birdathon” whose funds went to Naropa, not a wildlife-related cause, while the Boulder County Audubon Society had been holding their own Birdathon for over twenty years.
I’m full of stories about Naropa and its tendrils, and its unintended consequences, but I won’t go into them here. The point is I obviously wasn’t going to take up Buddhism surrounded by that. However, the other night while browsing the book stacks in the Durham Public Library (of all places!) I read the first chapter of the book subtitled “No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey.” I have already given up red meat, but I got the idea. Even more encouraging was the excerpt on the book’s back cover:
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?
That sounded about right to me. Actually it sounded ironically useful. Through the first few autobiographical chapters, Asma teaches the reader about the basic characteristics of Hinduism and how Buddhism responded to it. This was highly revelatory: much of what I thought (or had been told) was Buddhism back in Boulder was actually Hinduism. It didn’t make sense to me then, and Asma points out how Buddhism offers a totally different perspective. More interestingly, he says that one of his goals of the book is to “take the California out of Buddhism,” and create what he calls “Chicago Buddhism.”
Many Westerners who have adopted Buddhism are remarkably humorless brown-rice eaters, who look like they wake up every morning and say “no” to life. In short, they are masochistic personalities. But this should not be taken, by the rest of us, as a strike against Buddhism. These characters would practice any religion in the same cheerless manner.
I was so glad to learn that I am not alone in thinking this! The following chapters cover all very interesting topics that highlight the teachings of Buddha and the important aspects of Buddhism: how do we deal with our strongest cravings, namely sexual and romantic cravings? Another topic that should obviously appeal to me is Asma’s alignment between Buddhism and science: he believes that Buddhism is science in a way, because Buddha doesn’t say “Take my word for it,” but invites the practitioner to see for himself. Asma repeatedly points out that Buddhism is about suffering in this life, rather than in the next one, something that is totally different from what I previously thought about Buddhism. Another especially interesting and practical chapter about work and wealth was especially helpful in finding that Buddhism is incredibly practical. A closing chapter deals with misconceptions about the politics and cultural significance of Buddhism and its place in the global society of today. A fairly misplaced chapter mostly about Jack Kerouac explores the appeals of Buddhism to artists; I saw this as mostly history (much of which I already knew from growing up in Boulder, again). This chapter is interesting, and certainly doesn’t detract from the book, but I may have to read it again to really get the point.
This book is not only educational but is downright funny: especially when the author is talking about raising his son, I laughed out loud. I’ll add that since taking an interest in Buddhism seriously, I have laughed out loud more in the past few days than I have in the past few years. I take this as a good sign. I especially enjoyed a passage about the value of work, versus fame, where the author asks his students to name a single scientist: “Well, um, isn’t there that one dude who’s in a wheelchair…?”
That brings me to another reason I found the book so instructional: I can not only relate to the author as a father, but as a like-minded thinker. He talks about how he loved Carl Sagan, and the Cosmos series: I did too (and I’m making sure my kids see it). He was also a Deadhead; I never toured with the Dead, but I love their music. Asma is also a musician and his repeated musical metaphors really appealed to me.
Another very appealing aspect of the book is that it doesn’t deal with “mechanics.” Asma does not relate any meditation methods or discuss specifics of how to live an ethical life. Instead he focuses on the psychological and philosophical aspects of Buddhism. It’s almost like he knows you’ll get better advice somewhere else, but I suspect it’s more than that. He’s simply sticking to the topic of “Why I am a Buddhist” and meditation techniques, or meditation itself should not be enough to convince someone to lead an ethical life of moderation. He does an excellent job of repeatedly stressing how Buddhism fits into the real world, in a philosophical sense, and a practical sense. He focuses on Buddha’s teachings, and not on saints, shrines, offerings or any of that stuff that has turned me off.
And he does an excellent job of dispelling myths. As I said, according to Asma, much of what I thought was Buddhism is actually Hinduism. Not only that, but much of the other woolly thinking that gets associated with Buddhism in places like Boulder, is transcendental, New Age nonsense. I knew plenty of people who would believe anything as long as it involved some sort of unknowable, transcendent reality; these people always struck me as Christians who had just changed their dramatis personae. Even when my girlfriend in high school was practicing Wicca, it didn’t seem that different cosmologically from the same-old Abrahamic worldview. Asma points out that Buddhism is radically different, and consequently highly practical.
He even takes a stab at Fritjof Capra, who I once thought really had it together, but then seemed to just be selling books. Asma points out, through his first-hand knowledge of Asian culture, that there is no “Eastern philosophy,” no matter what Capra says, to align with modern physics. One fatal chink in Capra’s Tao of Physics that Asma doesn’t point out is that the parallels that do exist between Taoism, Hinduism and quantum physics are intentional, since physicists are generally smart people, enjoy learning, and some of them learned about Taoism (Nils Bohr) and Hinduism (J. Robert Oppenheimer and others). Asma does a great job of pointing out how anybody like Capra (e.g. Deepak Chopra) who sells this sort of “quantum healing” is just selling more transcendentalism, i.e. not dealing with the real world.
But why am I telling you this, faithful readers of “Sex, Math and Programming?” I’m telling you because Asma’s book has taught me that Buddhism embodies a lot of things that I already believe anyway. If it’s true for me then it might be true for you. This was eerily similar to the first time I read about the software freedom movement. I already hated Microsoft, knew their software was crap, and that there was something unethical about agreeing to proprietary software licenses. What Richard Stallman did was to codify things and give it a name — without turning it into a boring institution, of course. Instead he gave a practical voice to the ideas that any smart person will come upon in the course of examining the world. According to Stephen Asma’s book, that’s what Buddha did, too.
Another reason I’m telling you, O faithful readers, is that Buddhism has a certain amount of Unix-appeal. Particularly the chapter on work, and how work can be meditative, and satisfying, there’s one way to do things (well), all really appeals to my Unix-guy sensibilities. Asma even uses coding as an example of work that can be done well. This only surprises me because most people I know who aren’t programmers (even the other scientists) don’t think about coding. Again, these are things that any smart person will come to on his own conclusions, but it’s good to have names for these concepts and to be able to discuss them.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a stressful life, or who is interested in pursuing a well-done life.