Zen Sex by Philip Toshio Sudo HarperSanFrancisco, 208 pp.

Let's get this straight once and for all (then we can quit writing books with the word Zen in the title): Zen Anything is to do that activity with your whole body and mind, entering into it wholeheartedly without concern for the results. A Zen poet gives himself to the poem as fervently as any writer who ever lived. Then he is careless with the final product. He loses it, or gives it to a friend.

Such a way of living is not easy--one might even call it impossible--but Zen practitioners do their best (the result is not important here either), with the idea that coming close is still pretty good.

They prepare themselves for the most complicated activities by practicing a very simple one: sitting meditation, or what the great 13th-century teacher Eihei Dogen called "full engagement in immobile sitting." As they give themselves completely to this very simple activity, they see how difficult even that can be, and also try to take the awareness they develop into everything they do.

So there can be a Zen of anything: archery, flower arrangement, tea making, motorcycle maintenance, and now--God help us all--sexual intercourse. All of these activities are somehow--as a 15th-century Zen master said in a poem--the same:

for us no difference between reading eating singing
making love not one thing or the other

I have no problem with the overall concept of this new book by Philip Sudo (who has also written "Zen Guitar" and "Zen Computer"; he is making a small industry out of this idea). I am puzzled, however, by Sudo's rather bold statement, in a sentence that would startle Zen monks, that "'Pure' Zen is not a religion, but a spiritual philosophy." I would respond it is not a philosophy but a practice, a way of living, and in that way the highest form of religion. And Sudo barely mentions meditation, curiously addressing the extremely complicated activity of sex without first addressing a simpler one.

Sex is complicated because our ego--the part that Zen works to eliminate--is mightily involved, especially in contemporary Western culture, where we are all supposed to be not only sexually attractive but also knowing and proficient. Sex touches our deepest place and brings up all of our ego defenses: Our various sexual quirks and fetishes seem to develop in order to protect us against raw sexual energy itself, which seems so fierce that it might blow us apart. Yet we also long to give in to this energy, which is obviously divine, the force of creation itself.

Sudo understands all this: "Coursing through every living thing is a vibrant energy, by its very nature a sexual life force. We're all born of it; we all manifest it.... The challenge of Zen is to become so absorbed that we feel this energy at every moment." His heart is definitely in the right place.

Unfortunately, he has chosen to write a how-to manual, with phony divisions like the "seven ways" of the mind, body, and spirit. Needless to say, he's making this up as he goes along, and gets stuck in his own method, flailing around trying to fill out his lists so that "accepting" becomes one of the "ways of the body," along with "the eye," "the mouth," and "the cry." He even falls into giving little homework assignments, which are especially annoying:

how many times have you made love to your lover?
remember your favorite details
then make love again,

Fortunately he has peppered his work with the poems of the great Zen poet Ikkyu, a renegade master from the 15th century. Ikkyu was a monk but threw all the monastic rules aside because he knew the real Zen experience--the real experience of life--is beyond rules.

Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon.

Many of his greatest poems cannot be quoted in a family publication, much less a religious one, but he was a religious and poetic genius. To learn about Zen sex--or about life lived ardently--read his poems. The rest of this book you can skip. Especially the homework.

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