At a recent book signing at a New Age bookstore, author Stephen T. Asma got into a discussion with several audience members who took issue with the ideas proposed in Buddha for Beginners. Asma's new tome is a sort of comic book for adults that distinguishes the original teachings of Buddha from later permutations of the religion. "There was definitely some hostility from people who thought that Buddhism was magical stuff, that chanting a mantra and invoking spirits was crucial, and I was challenging that idea," he says. "It was all very congenial, but at the same time nobody wants to hear that what they thought was wrong."
Asma addresses a host of misconceptions in the book. For one, Buddha--Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the sixth century BC--was Indian. Buddhism didn't hit China until several centuries after the birth of Christ, and when it got there it mixed with the local religions. "Zen Buddhism is more like Taoism, a Chinese philosophy that was already in place when Buddhism arrived there in the eighth or ninth century," says Asma. "A lot of people into Tibetan Buddhism think that a mantra is really important, that you meditate by saying a short phrase over and over again. That aspect is a much later development and it's not in the original ideas, although Buddha did teach meditation.
"A lot of people also think that in Buddhism there's a soul, a kind of eternal persona that everyone has and takes you through your life, and that it's the thing that jumps onto another life and another life. That's actually a Hindu idea, and Buddha was critical of it."
Asma's often humorous text is accompanied by 300 illustrations that took him more than a year to draw. A longtime fan of "Books for Beginners," a comic-book series designed to demystify such complex subjects as Islam and the theories of Kierkegaard, he'd also had an interest in Buddhism since he happened upon the Dhammapada at a bookstore when he was in junior high.
"Growing up in the Judeo-Christian context you have this set notion of what a religion is--God, heaven, savior, soul--and what you want to do is get immortality," he says. "I started to look into Buddhism, and I thought, this is weird. There's no God. They don't want immortality and there's no soul. It was exciting because it was so peculiar.
"My book is not a definite end-all to Buddhism, but it's a gateway some people can use to go to the primary texts and do the research themselves. What I'm trying to do in the book is show what is still preserved from the earliest ideas, from what the actual man said, and what has been added later."
Asma follows many of Buddhism's tenets but says he doesn't have time to meditate. He was trained in painting before he got his PhD in philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1992 and is a full-time philosophy and humanities instructor at Columbia College. Last year he published a scholarly book, Following Form and Function: A Philosophical Archaeology of Life Science, and until recently played guitar for the blues band Howard & the White Boys.
He says that Buddhism is not really a religion. "It's more about developing a healthy psychology, where you are as free as you can be in day-to-day life. Once you realize there's no metaphysical stuff about god and soul, you begin to see it's more about developing a healthy attitude.
"The crucial idea of Buddhism is that all things are impermanent," he says. "The world is impermanent, you are impermanent. Pain, suffering, happiness, and joy come and go. To try to turn any of them into a permanent condition is where all the suffering starts to come in.
"The example most relevant for me is that I'm having a little bit of fame right now, which is sort of nice. But if I start getting up in the morning and read the newspapers with the hope that one of them will do a story on me--that sort of thing is craving. In Buddhism you want to watch the ego like a hawk and make sure it doesn't get out of control."
Asma will discuss and sign copies of Buddha for Beginners Wednesday at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th. Call 773-684-1300.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stephen Asma photo by Randy Tunnell.