Following the Vietnam War, the communist Khmer Rouge regime outlawed Buddhism in Cambodia. Monasteries and shrines were burned...

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“The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha”
by Stephen T. Asma
Harper San Francisco,
256 pp., $24.95

Following the Vietnam War, the communist Khmer Rouge regime outlawed Buddhism in Cambodia. Monasteries and shrines were burned, monks were jailed, some executed after being stripped of their saffron robes because the executioners feared the karmic power of the robes.

Twenty years later, the purge had failed and a gentler government was installed. Phnom Penh’s Buddhist Institute was reopened, and in 2003, Stephen Asma, a young American professor of Buddhism, was invited to teach there.

In “The Gods Drink Whiskey,” Asma’s eyepopping, often hilarious account of his year in Cambodia, the author describes a brutal political assassination, overzealous Christian missionaries, his own bad singing in a karaoke bar, elephants eating French bread; there is also a soul-stirring moment when he invites the reader to weep with him in the Killing Fields.

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Brilliantly threaded throughout this spiritual travelogue, Asma, himself a practicing Buddhist, reveals the vast differences between the Theravada Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia and the neo-pop styles of Buddhism practiced in today’s Western countries — the most twisted, perhaps, in the United States. Theravada, Buddhism’s oldest form, is closest to the historical Buddha’s personal practice.

Asma’s sheer exuberance and noncynical style reveal his naiveté when he refers to Mao’s Cultural Revolution as “moderate” in comparison with the Khmer Rouge Cambodian purge.

And yet, it is this same fresh and youthful approach that makes this book a must-read for anyone with spiritual stirrings who finds organized religion wanting and Buddhism, American-style, deeply flawed.