Tantra and the Art of Zen Cooking

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Khajuraho Sculpture

Environmental activist, Rachel Carson, sounded for us the alarm bell for the potential danger of pesticides. Modern science and technology are often used as weapons to conquer nature. Thus, pesticides are developed and used against what we perceive as our enemies. The problem is that man and insects share the same planet and what poisons the bugs may also poison man. The war against nature could turn suicidal. Thus, Carson said, “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Our war against sex is very similar to our war against nature. In fact, it is part of the war against nature. In this case, instead of trying to conquer some external object, we attempt to conquer ourselves. But the consequences of this conquest mindset is equally damning. Humans are sexual beings. We are also members of the animal kingdom. We cannot condemn our deep-seated sexual nature and needs without also condemning what it means to be human.

In the Buddhist tradition, there are two basic approaches to spirituality. One is dualistic. It is also the majority view. It treats sexual desire and sensual pleasure as the enemy and tries to eradicate them in an attempt to eliminate suffering. For example, verse 215 of the Dhammapada says:

From sensuality is born grief,

from sensuality is born fear.

For one freed from sensuality

there’s no grief.

This is quite representative of the spiritual philosophy that underlies the entire Pali Canon. Due to the fear of suffering, the aspiring Arhat shuns the sensual objects and denies himself pleasure. But aren’t pain and suffering integral parts of living? Don’t happiness and sadness arise together, just as light and darkness depend on each other to exist? More importantly, isn’t the desire for sex a basic human need? Isn’t a fulfilling sexual life important for our well-being? Even more concerning is what suppressed or repressed desires would do. There is something like Newton’s Third Law operating. To every action, there is a reaction. Sigmund Freud wrote that “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

The other approach to spirituality, as embodied in Taoist philosophy, Tantric teachings, and some Mahayana teachings, is holistic. Instead of condemning sexual desire, it embraces it and sublimates it. The Vimalakirti Sutra, for example, has the teaching of “practicing meditation while in passion.” How can we understand this? The sutra uses the analogy of a lotus flower. In order for the lotus plant to flourish, it needs to have its roots in damp and “dirty” soil. The lotus plant cannot grow if it is hung in thin air. Botanic life also requires fertilizers for nutrients. I grew up in old Hong Kong when excrements and urine were used as fertilizers in the fields.

The basic principle of Tantra is similar to the basic principle of Zen, which has its roots in Taoism — it is the idea and the attitude that everything in the universe has a proper place and can be put into good use. An excellent introduction to the Zen way of life is Master Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook. In Zen cooking, the guiding principle is to use everything. In Buddhism, greed (including lust) and anger are two of the Three Poisons. Commenting on this work of Dogen, Roshi Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields observed: “The accomplished Zen cook is something of an alchemist. He or she can transform poisons into virtues.”

While the dualistic Buddhists label things as “pure” and “defiled,” “sacred” and “profane,” the operating principle of a Tantrika (a practitioner of Tantra) is that of non-rejection. In particular, he or she does not reject human nature or anything that is an intrinsic part of being human. The Zen practice is that of transformation. How can we transform “poison” into the seeds for enlightenment? There are two big ideas: (1) Observe the ego. (2) Think in terms of the Bodhisattva’s Path, which is one of love and service. The puritanical mind thinks of sex as a selfish pursuit of pleasure. This is the demonization of something natural. It does not have to be so. Lovemaking can be an act of co-celebration. It can be a form of deep love and service. The partners take care to serve each partner’s needs and create joy for all.

The core of Zen or Tantra is easy to understand, although it is completely contrary to many traditional religious teachings. It is the principle of honoring everything in nature. It is the principle of non-rejection. Basic human needs are never “low” or sinful. When we learn to honor everything in human life, then everything becomes sacred and a vehicle for our enlightenment.

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