Many of us who have practiced Zen Buddhism beyond the point of all reason (right discipline—effort, mindfulness and meditation); and reached the turning point where one might reasonably expect to notice some significant changes in one's behavior and attitudes (right conduct—speech, action and livelihood); and perhaps overly hopefully, a profound degree of alteration in one's own attitude (right wisdom—view, and thought or understanding); suddenly come to the realization that any such expectations or aspirations have failed to materialize. We find ourselves falling back into the same compulsive and sometimes or somewhat destructive behavior patterns that were part of the complex of syndromes that drove us to seek out the practice in the first place.

This has come up often enough in my own experience and that of members of the Sangha of the Silent Thunder Order, going back literally over decades of dialog and correspondence, and more recently in email and dokusan, that I decided to attempt to address the phenomenon in a more comprehensive manner than usual. As this will run long, I will post it in parts, not knowing how many parts it will take to get to the end. And perhaps with this subject, there really is no end.

Part 1 will begin with one of the most recent communications and work backward. I will quote selectively (and anonymously—you know who you are) from selected comments and questions, those which have most inspired me to consider the central importance of the dilemma. Its meaning and significance will hopefully unfold through this process of self- and other- examination. The first quote to be examined:
Hi Sensei. This will be my first foray into starting an email dokusan dialogue with you. I have a question regarding the continual process of renewing one's commitment to the Zen path in the form of vow and repentance.

From time to time, I waver from the precepts. I don't think that I have made any major infractions, as I can gauge from the fact that I have not brought about any horrible karma to myself or others. I do however diverge at times from what I see to be the most skillful ways to put the precepts into practice. I had once read (I cannot remember the source) that the precepts are the natural way to act for one who is free from greed, hate and delusion, and we adopt them in combination with zazen practice so that in time they will become   effortless part of our practice. I see my divergences from the precepts primarily as an indication of the amount of greed, hate and delusion that are still present in my practice. Sometimes I can even see myself doing things from the moment the thought comes into my head, forms into desire, and leads to action. This seems like progress to me that at least my actions are not buried below my consciousness and if I can be aware of them perhaps I can weaken their persistence by letting go of the thoughts before they turn into desire, or the desire before it turns into action. But still, even if I am aware of them as they are happening, some of my habits are too strong for me to just not indulge in altogether.

My question to you on this subject is twofold:

1) When one does diverge from a precept, what is the most skillful way to return to the path? I know that part of it is to renew one's commitment through repentance and renewed vow, but I also find that my natural inclination is to start to feel like a failure and have all sorts of feelings like this. It seems to me that if my failure is based in delusive clinging, then clinging to these negative feelings that comes as a result as a way of coming back to the path does not seem to be a cogent strategy. It seems to me that it would be better to repent, vow and just let things go, including the negative feelings as well.

2) When I am faced with my habits, do you have any good strategies for practicing with them as they are happening. For instance, I find a lot of my habits stem from feelings of dissatisfaction with some aspect of my life, which in turn brings about fantasies of sensual pleasure, and lead to all sorts of actions trying to fulfill these desires. Intellectually, I know that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same reality, just as are life and death, dark and light. But intellectualizing offers no consolation when I am feeling down. I do however notice that these habits have lessened over the past few years since I have started practicing zazen daily. Perhaps this will just continue over time? I thought I would ask just in case you had any more specific practice strategies.

Well that is the first of many practice related questions that I have been taking notes on over the past few months, but that is a good start for now. I appreciate any insight that you could offer related to this.
This kind of issue arises frequently, as in a recent discussion with another student, where it revolved around a relationship that had unexpectedly erupted in discord. The break in comity was bad enough, but following repeatedly, every day, and especially in zazen, this person began to experience a kind of obsessive rumination over the event, without ever coming to any real resolution or satisfactory acceptance. This is a common experience.

Some psychiatrists, people who dedicate their professional lives to these kinds of coping issues, have published warnings that the various forms of meditation, including Zen Buddhist meditation (as they understand it—more on that later), are not panaceas. They do not necessarily address, nor may ever fully resolve, some of the fundamental habits of behavior and reaction to circumstance, especially emotional stress, to which we are all subject. Some go so far as to suggest that it is better to avoid meditating, unless one has a therapist to help deal with some of the emotions, suppressed or immediate, and repressed memories, that may arise. This may be seen as somewhat self-serving, but they have a point. They also, like all of us, necessarily, have limited direct experience in meditation.

The sexual peccadilloes and other indiscretions of several of the early representatives of various schools of meditation practice, in its transmission from the East to the West, have been similarly analyzed, and a theory of multiple maturation levels has emerged. This holds that one might be highly developed on a spiritual level, but not on a societal or emotional level, when it comes to temptations of the flesh, for example. Another explanation may be seen in the cultural differences from the country of origin to the West. A person who is just another guru on the block back home, becomes an instant celebrity in America, with hordes of young admirers panting after him, throwing themselves at his feet and jumping into his bed. What's an avatar to do with that?

The notion that spiritual enlightenment somehow would not necessarily include the slightest wisdom, on the level of practical interaction with others, seems as absurd as the presumption that such insight is all-inclusive—good for what ails you on every level. It is helpful to remember that, while we in Buddhism may regard Shakyamuni's awakening to represent the absolute acme of health and sanity, Buddha himself insisted that his truth also embraces aging, sickness and death, as unavoidable attributes of complete health.

The apparent conflict between having substantial practice-experience in meditation, and the recurrence of all-too-human frailties, is addressed in the Buddhist Repentance chanted as part of the weekly and daily services in most Zen training centers, as in our translation:
All my past and harmful karma
born from beginningless greed hate and delusion
through body speech and mind
I now fully avow
The first line implies that whatever confusion and resultant behavior we experience, it does not necessarily originate in the neat, linear way that we may imagine it to, all nicely contained in the present and the immediate. In fact, the doctrine of rebirth boldly suggests that the true source of our difficulties may indeed arise from deeds committed in past lives! This is not to be regarded as a cop-out, or a reason to give up, but simply a frank admission that life is not as simple as we might like to believe. S(uper) H(igh) I(ntensity) T(raining) happens to people for reasons that may not be apparent, or even, ultimately, discoverable. Ergo, something we must have done in past lives is the catchall.

Harmful is used here rather than the more ubiquitous evil, as the "evil" aspect of this karmic consciousness, and the karmic consequences it faces, is simply that it harms our ability to transcend our view of what is wrong with us, and therefore leads to ever more entanglement. Like striking a tar-baby, we expend a great deal of energy in inefficient, ineffective, or wrong effort, which only makes things worse. But in Buddhism, karma is not regarded as evil, in any irredeemable sense; nor is it the workings of the Evil One.

The second line indicates something even more universal, sometimes translated as greed, anger, and infatuation or folly, sometimes referred to as the three poisons. This blanket statement stems from the rather cosmic philosophical notion in Buddhism—smacking of a kind of profound, cognitive dissonance—that existence itself indicates a form of greed. That we want so badly to exist, that our desire itself creates this universe, not the other way around. Or perhaps it is a two-way street. Life imitating desire, desire emulating life.

In some teachings, it is suggested (circularly) that if the desire to exist did not already exist before birth, that we would never have been born in the first place. If this desire is entirely extinguished in this lifetime (and I for one am working on it, or rather it is working on me), then we will not be reborn, ever again; we "will never again know rebirth in the cycle of creation of suffering for ourselves or for others," according to the Loving Kindness Sutra (Metta Sutta). There is an implied escape clause hidden in that last line of the teaching, that while we may never know rebirth in the cycle of suffering (Samsara), there may be a form of rebirth that does not result in the creation of suffering for ourselves or for others—for example as a Bodhisattva.

If, however, we are reborn into this same cycle of creation of suffering, then it would indicate that we still harbor at least some desire, however vestigial, to exist. If we come out on the neutral side—where we frankly don't really care much either way—then the issue would appear to be moot. And frankly, how could one have a preference for being reborn, or not? —notwithstanding the messiness of the proposition. Rebirth may occur whether we desire it or not.

If we throw up our hands in the face of all this confusion, and commit to the Bodhisattva Vow to help all others before ourselves, then it is said that endless rebirth opens up before us. Because how long is it going to take? How many of them are there, after all? This issue becomes even more moot (if there are degrees of mootness) in light of the Supreme Vehicle view that there are no beings, actually, needing to be saved. So go figure. Buddha admonished that we are to fully understand dukkha. Good luck with that.

Nonetheless, it may be helpful to just accept that greed, hate and delusion are beginningless, and therefore endless. And that they come from somewhere, but that we do not need to take it personally. It just comes with the territory, in an existence that is itself of the nature of dukkha (poorly translated as "suffering"): imperfect, insubstantial, and impermanent.

The third line gets back, more directly, to the issue under discussion. That while our karma finds its birth in universal greed, hate and delusion, it—and the three poisons—come through this body, speech (mouth), and mind. In other words, this mess comes not only with the territory, but is intrinsic to this very being. This is not your "created in the image of God" optimistic vision of the human being, but more in line with the Chinese "stinking skin sack" variety of incarnated self. So once again, it is not exactly totally our fault. If our desire to exist brings about our existence, it does not follow that we designed the nature and form of that existence. (Nor, incidentally, does it follow that some Intelligent Designer did.) When we begin to look at it, our incarnate existence, for what it is—sans rose-colored glasses or Vaseline lenses—we probably do not want to take too much credit for it. Nor does it seem seemly to foist the blame off on some higher being. It is just as it is, warts and all.

But, once again, it is a relief to realize that most of our desires, most of our conflicts, including those with others whom we supposedly love, revere, and respect (or at least do not hate), do not come out of the blue. We are not simply making up things to be disgruntled about. The desires—for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll—all come from this body-mouth-and-mind.

Sex represents one extreme of the pleasure principle, the pleasure-seeking missile that is the human body—or for that matter, the body of any other mammal, or of any sentient being. Now, getting down on the level of the earthworm, the notion of pleasure may seem a reach. But it is difficult to argue that they, earthworms, enjoy drowning in the rain, or cooking to a crisp on the sidewalk in the sun (trying to escape from drowning). One being's pleasure is another being's survival. The flip side of pleasure-seeking is, of course, pain-avoidance. Again: built-in, basic survival stuff. Not our choice, really. We are just along for the ride on this roller-coaster. It gets a bit gnarly in some extreme cases, where what is identified as sadism and/or masochism sets in. At this extreme, pain becomes perceived pleasure, demonstrating the resolution of opposites (J. mokurai) in a perverse, or inverted, way.

Drugs represent the intoxication that can come from too much of anything. Certain folks with imbalances in their ions get high on water, the ultimate drug. Hyper-ventilating brings about a momentary high. Holding the breath long enough triggers another kind of frisson, from the other end of the spectrum. Sensory overload, sensory deprivation. All tweaking and titillating this body-mind. From shamanic practices to hitting the wall in extreme sports, the body is already a drug factory. Master Dogen reminds us that when "taking the tonsure" (shaving the head) we are already intoxicated. The senses and their objects are inherently an intoxicating brew.

Rock-and-roll represents those peculiarly human highs that come from social interaction and perceptions-conceptions of pleasures (and associated pains). Such as status, wealth, power, control, and other myths and fantasies that are reinforced culturally, and by the passing surge of feeling truly alive, "living large," that they can engender. As well as the avoidance of the fear and loathing associated with the lack of these particularly ephemeral and diaphanous forms of narcotics and stimulants.

In other words, it's all addiction. And withdrawal from any or all of it is going to have to hurt some. Zen meditation is a form of withdrawal. But it does not prevent recurrence.