Why I Am a Buddhist

Why I Am a Buddhist by Stephen Asma is subtitled "No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey". You might think it's a how-to guide on being a Buddhist while maintaining your fun passions for steak and alcohol. However, what this really is is one man's personal biography of his path through Buddhism. It's not about sweeping generalizations, and it spends a lot of time focused on Asma's love of Beat literature and Blues music. With that in mind, it's a lot of fun to read and it does provide a solid background of historical information as well.

Asma explains how there are two main groups of Buddhists, all variations aside. There is the group which grows up with Buddhism as a "native language", considering it as natural as speaking and breathing. Then there is a second group which comes to Buddhism later in life, seeking it out. He finds that generally the first group tends to be devotional, weaving their Buddhism in with their praying and dreaming. The second group tends to be drawn by the meditation / psychology aspects of Buddhism.

On to the topic at hand. Buddhism was never about vegetarianism! Buddha himself ate meat. He had *tried* the aesthetic path - and rejected it. He found a life of denial was not one that worked. What Buddha preached was moderation - and care for others. Yes, eat chicken, but make sure it had a happy life. Yes, eat a cow, but make sure it was well cared for.

This moderation extends into all areas of life. Be patient, take your time, and prepare yourself before you act. People who marry before the age of 24 are 37% likely to divorce. People who wait until they're 35 are only 6% likely to divorce. That is a HUGE difference. He talks about being willing to look straight-forwardly at the reality of a situation and either accepting it or moving on. "You cannot date a boy and expect him to be a man," he advises.

He talks about people who spend their time and money serving a God. To Asma, funneling all that cash and precious minutes could have a far better purpose. The God does not need your help - but needy fellow humans do. If you have time and money you can spend, then do so in the service of others.

He provides some interesting metaphors to think about. To explain how energy moves from person to person and from generation to generation, he has us imagine a candle. Now imagine we light as second candle from the first, and blow the first out. Then we light a third candle from the second, and blow the second out. It's not the same candle, or the same flame, at the third candle. However, the energy is all related.

Asma is a great proponent of the arts. He feels creating and enjoying works of art ARE acts of meditation, activities which can bring you great knowledge and insight. Meditation is not solely about going within to a space of quiet. It is also about drawing new thoughts and connections from something visual / sense related.

There are giant sections on things Asma loves. Sex. Parenting. Dizzy Gillespie. Kerouac. If you're bored with these sorts of topics then you'll find yourself skipping a bunch, but people who feel a kinship will get even more out of the book. Near the end, there is a section which is actually more of a "functional Buddhism" instruction set, on how to be serene and happy at work. It is almost odd to find that how-to information after all of the rambling memoirs. You're told that being happy is *internal* - if someone bugs you, let it go. Your serenity is inside.

Another metaphor which is worth pondering is about growing a garden. Say you plant lettuce, but it doesn't grow well. You don't scream and yell at the poor wilted lettuce plant. Instead, you check the water levels, you check the fertilizer, you watch the sun. You figure out what is not providing the lettuce with what it needs.

Near the end we come back to the message of balance. Buddhism is all about a middle road. If you train yourself to love expensive food, then you'll always be at the whim of making and having money. If instead you learn to love simple foods, good friends, and intellectually challenging activities, then you'll always have those by your side and be quite content.

Similarly, the internal satisfaction of being able to do something well - write code, make a chair - *anything* - can never be taken from you. Find what you love to do and learn how to do it well. Your skills and your inner serenity can never be removed.

There's an interesting section on why some areas of the world have conflicts with Buddhism, when this should be a peaceful way of life. He explains that Buddhism, like all religions and paths, has its healthy and unhealthy practitioners. Just like some churches became obsessed with wealth and stole from people, so did some Buddhist monks become very wealthy and power-hungry at the expense of the poor. Some Buddhists would uses torture and violence against any who threatened them. This would then (naturally) cause others around them to be upset with their activities.

Buddhism is about a peaceful path - but not about being a doormat. Asma tells about a dragon who talks with a Buddhist and who decides to become Buddhist. He stops blowing fire and becomes very quiet. The local children start tormenting him - poking his eyes, throwing rocks at him. When the dragon asks the monk what he should do, the monk tells him to blow some fire. Not to hurt the children - but to keep himself safe and to draw a boundary line of what behavior he will accept. In the same way we should all be peaceful, but we should speak up respectfully for ourselves if we are not being treated well.

The book could use a bit of editing. For example at one point Asma says, "the Buddha offers a simile (SN 47.20) ..." What is a SN? This book is written for newcomers, so some description would be nice.

There are also some statements which I'd like to see more backing for. Apparently people whose ring finger - on their left hand only! - is longer than their index finger has extra testosterone in their body.

I did not enjoy how he dismissed some points of view as "childish". Surely if he has a rational reason for disagreeing with someone he can state what that rational reason is instead of demeaning them. He says things like "Dream it, and it will happen ... somebody get me a bucket." I'm annoyed by both his rude statement and his callous dismissal.

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