The genius of the Buddha, or the genius of reality, is that the only way to truly, permanently get us off of chasing pleasure is to offer a pleasure that’s more complete, that’s unconditional. You can try to break somebody’s habit with justification, with logic, with delayed gratification. It works for awhile; it’s a temporizing measure. But eventually we just loop back, or find other ways of reinventing our pursuit. The Buddha is saying, “Why am I afraid of pleasure? I’m not. I’m going to take that risk; I’ll turn toward something which is unconditionally fulfilling.”
In Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he gives an analogy for taming the mind by comparing it to how to take care of unruly cows. You could trap them in a pen and try to discipline them, but this will only cause them to fight and want to break loose. Or you can give them an infinitely wide field. Giving them that infinitely large field requires a tremendous degree of trust. You don’t know its boundaries. You’re emerging into a reality that is uncharted, unpredictable, and will be like that forever. It is a radical shift in the paradigm of space and time; it’s an abandonment of all reference points.
The pleasure that is not connected to sense pleasure and unwholesome states is discovered, step by step, challenge by challenge, as we turn inward toward our selflessness, our impermanence. The pleasure born out of seclusion simply means the pleasure that you find at that instant when you have come back to yourself, when you have stopped reaching, stopped looking—when you’ve left behind your desires. Notice what happens at that instant when you’re willing to come back to the simple experience of your breath.
For the Buddha, that sense of happiness became the gauge of his practice. It’s not a bad thing to remember. It’s something which is available to us, in a microscopic way, within every moment of zazen. It’s a choice of two happinesses, if you will: the happiness of conditionality, of the fantasy, or the happiness of letting go into something unprecedented. You, sitting underneath a rose-apple tree, utterly at ease.
I recently saw The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, and at the very end of the play one of the characters, who is dying, says, “My life has happened without me.” From the Buddhist perspective, there is an ambiguity in that statement: is that a complaint, or is that an exultation? Your life is being lived without you, and in some ways we’re much happier when we aren’t messing around in the picture.