What is the meaning and purpose of life?
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Q: Why do I still feel lost and discontented, even though I have a stable job and considerable wealth? What is the meaning and purpose of our human life? – Lost
A: Understanding the preciousness of our human life is one of the first steps on the path to enlightenment. If we don’t appreciate our life, we won’t use it in a valuable way. We won’t see its purpose. We waste our time. But when we really can see the fortune that we have, we feel enthusiastic about our life and particularly want to practise the Dharma and make our life meaningful by cultivating a kind heart.
All of that follows upon first understanding our great fortune. This is an important meditation for us nowadays, because like you, there are so many people who are dissatisfied, and feel lost in their lives, even though they may be financially secure and have stable jobs. People realise that although wealth and physical comforts do bring us some degree of happiness, these do not cease all our problems or bring us any lasting joy. This is because whatever tangible goods we obtain break down at some point, or they go out of fashion, so we have to get something new. For example, what is really high-tech one day is obsolete the next day. So, all these things that we think we are going to get to make us happy are not bringing the contentment we thought they would. Hence we feel lost.
From a Buddhist perspective, our present situation, or our life is what we call samsara or cyclic existence. That means we get born again and again and again. Under the influence of ignorance, and mental afflictions such as confusion, attachment and anger, and all the actions motivated by these afflictions result in karma. Being under the influence of ignorance, mental afflictions and karma doesn’t give us a lot of freedom in our lives. For instance, we do not have the freedom to not get sick, to not age and to not die. Simply by being born we are subject to ageing, sickness and death. Given that we separate from our body, our friends and relatives, our wealth and social status at the time of death, what is the meaning and purpose of our life? Are we going to spend our life obsessing about things that we cannot take with us when we die?
“The Buddha said the root of our problems is that we are taking birth under the influence of afflictions and karma and that these mental afflictions exist in our own heart and mind. Simply by being born, we have to face all the different problems that life brings, not just problems related to the body but also family and relationship problems.”
For instance, we put a lot of energy into a relationship and it doesn’t last. Or we work very hard for our company and our work goes unacknowledged. We don’t go looking for these difficulties, which happen quite regularly, they are just part of existing in cyclic existence.
An alternative to getting born again and again in cyclic existence under the influence of afflictions and karma is to free ourselves from mental afflictions and to stop creating the kind of karma that produces rebirth in cyclic existence. So attaining liberation or Nirvana is one way to make our life really meaningful and purposeful. To have some idea of the quality of Nirvana, imagine a scenario that no matter what people said to you, did to you, or what situation you are in, you never got angry or jealous. You are completely peaceful and genuinely content and satisfied.
People generally want more and better. We don’t really have true satisfaction and contentment in our hearts these days. We are always looking around and saying, ”Someone else has more than I do. Someone else has better than I do, I want… I want… I want…” and so we are craving and clinging all the time. These mental states are very painful because even if we get what we want, we are still unsatisfied. We bought something from the mall, and after two days of joy and excitement at our new found buy, we are back where we started. This sort of perpetual dissatisfaction we face in life has a lot of wear and tear. In contrast, liberation or Nirvana is a state which is free from that. No matter what we have, who we are with, our mind is peaceful, content, satisfied and appreciative.
Rather than the liberation for oneself, or our own peaceful state of Nirvana, another aim from the Buddhist viewpoint, is the full awakening or enlightenment of the Buddha. A Buddha is someone who has eliminated the afflictions, ignorance, karma as well as the subtle imprints, self-centred thoughts and any kind of defilements that exist on the mindstream. The Buddha has completely eradicated them in such a way that they can never return. In addition, a Buddha has developed all good qualities completely and fully. We have the seeds of many good qualities or what we call the Buddha-nature or Buddha potential. But our good qualities are rather small now. As we practise the path to full awakening, our good qualities start to grow. We become able, for example, to have equal care and concern for all living beings without being attached to some and having aversion to others. We become able to wish every single living being well, no matter how they treat us. That is called love. We become able to wish every living being to be free of suffering, no matter how they treat us. That is called compassion.