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Interview with author, Stephen Asma

April 14, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to speak, briefly by e-mail, with author of “Why I Am A Buddhist…” and “Buddha, A Beginners Guide”.

PM: Hi Stephen, thanks for taking some time to talk with me. I just got done
reading your book, “Why I Am A Buddhist…”, and I’m glad you wrote it.
You mention at the beginning, people may not know you, so why pick the book up? Here’s a small opportunity to let people know just who you are. What’s your background? Do you follow any particular tradition/ lineage? Why Buddhism?

Stephen Asma: I’m a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago, and Buddhist philosophy is one of my areas of interest. I lived in Cambodia for a while and also China, studying and teaching Buddhism. I’ve studied Buddhism in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Hong Kong. I’ve written three books on Buddhism, and I tend to stress the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia.

I learned about Buddhism originally when I was in high school, because I really liked Zen art forms, but then I started studying its philosophy formally in college. After I got my PhD I travelled throughout Asia and studied Buddhism “on the ground” so to speak. I think Buddhism has wonderful psychological techniques for disciplining the mind and bringing greater tranquility into one’s life –no matter what culture you were raised in.

PM: You have some interesting takes on things such as karma. You claim there is nothing solid to prove it exists. How did you come to this conclusion?

Stephen Asma: Karma is a very contentious issue in Buddhism. My own view is that it is a conceptual left-over from the Brahmanism of 6th century BC India. It has very little connection to the Four Noble Truths. That said, it is a wildly popular part of cultural Buddhism in Asian countries. Many Buddhists in Southeast Asia make sacrifices at the temple and generally work hard to ensure good karma. My own criticism of karma is inspired by the great Thai forest monk Buddhadasa Bikkhu. He argued that Buddhists were overly focused on metaphysical ideas like karma and samsara, when they should be more focused on compassion and freedom from craving. He saw himself as a Buddhist reformer, trying to get back to the heart of the dharma.

PM: Your book reminded me a lot of Stephen Batcheor, maybe a little less
stoic, and with a bit more humor. Your book didn’t seem to be as secular either, but still retained quite a bit of skepticism. How important is following a tradition or lineage to you?

Stephen Asma: I’ve heard this comparison with Stephen Batchelor before, but I haven’t read much of his stuff. I think we share a common skeptical scientific orientation, one that stresses the psychology of Buddhism rather than the metaphysics or cultural trappings. Having said that, however, I still respect many of the cultural permutations of Buddhism that I encountered living in Asia. I got to see how the religious aspects of Buddhism help Cambodians or Laotians on a daily basis. I’m not hostile to the more magical aspects of Buddhism, even though I find them to be departures from the simple teachings of Gotama’s Four Noble Truths.

PM: As Buddhism in the US flourishes, there seems to be quite a few folks
that are following a helps you stay mindful. I am a father of 3 children
and see where more unaffiliated kinds of Buddhism fit. As Buddhism hits new areas, it definitely evolves and adapts to the culture. Do you see
Buddhism in the US becoming more institutionalized? Where do you see it going?

Stephen Asma: Buddhism has already institutionalized in the States, in certain areas. But, yes, many people follow it in a more flexible, unaffiliated fashion. The ideas can be applied so well with dedicated practice, but you don’t need a guru or a priest. Some kind of sangha is always best, but we can practice on our own too. I see Buddhism emerging as a sophisticated alternative to other religions, and this gives me optimism. But I also see the tendency to make Buddhism into a New Age commodity and a juvenile form of supernatural wishful thinking. I’m not a fan of this tendency, and I hope smarter forms of the dharma prevail in the U.S.. My own books are a modest attempt to celebrate the rational aspects of Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

PM: Over and over, you refer to the fact you are a father, and how being so
helps you stay mindful. I am a father of three children and see where
you are coming from. As a father, do you find it hard to find quiet,
contemplative time? What advice do you have for other fathers out there that also follow this path?

Stephen Asma: Well, yeah, I gotta admit, I get very little quiet time for reflection. Sitting meditation is next to impossible, when you have kids. But Buddhism also gives us “action meditation” –mindfulness in everyday activities. So I try to be present in the moment when my son and I are doing things together. Cooking can be quite mindful, and other routines can be like little meditations. Plus, kids have a way of dragging your consciousness out of the past and future and bringing you right into the present moment. I’m frazzled a lot but, I’m not as egocentric as I was before I became a parent. And that’s a good transformation.

PM: Lastly, how do you feel about what some call “engaged Buddhism”? Does it exist as something other than Buddhism? Isn’t all Buddhism engaged?

Stephen Asma: I’m a fan of engaged Buddhism, but as you suggest, all Buddhism should be engaged. The folks who created the name were trying to stress the social justice aspect of the dharma –something that’s always been there in the Buddha’s teachings about compassion. But they felt the need to stress the engaged social aspect because Buddhism can sometimes devolve into individualistic navel-gazing.

PM: Thanks again for the time Stephen. Any word on a new book soon??

Stephen Asma: Thanks so much for these excellent questions Nate. It’s been a pleasure for me. I’m writing a new book right now (my seventh) for the University of Chicago Press.

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