What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

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(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Thinking big

This is the fifth in a series of articles on overcoming discouragement.

It can be hard to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with discouragement and despondency, and to identify with our pure potential or Buddha nature; and this can be where enlightened beings come in very handy!

So you can try this if you like – maybe just do it and worry about how or if it works later.

Get help

Buddha kindWe ask for help from enlightened beings, and then believe we’re receiving it. (Helping us is the main part of their job description.) Seeking help has worked for generation after generation of greatly realized Yogis and masters, as well as beginners, and so it is highly likely to work for us. The scriptures describe the most seemingly desperate lost causes (I’m betting far worse than you), who went on to attain high spiritual realizations by relying upon blessings – Lam Chung (the “stupidest man alive” at the time) and Angulimala (the “angriest man alive”, who made a necklace out of a thousand severed thumbs from his murder victims). Asking for help also helped  Kisigotami (who was overwhelmed by grief when she lost her newborn child) and Gampopa (who lost his beloved wife), both of whom went on to become powerful, happy practitioners. And this is just the tip of the iceberg — countless people past and present have gained peace and mental freedom this way.

Meditating backwards

I like to meditate backwards – starting with where I intend to end up, ie, enlightened, and then sort of working my way back to the beginning. I start my day by tapping into an infinite source of power, confidence, freedom, bliss, and love. The following is an example of the kind of thing I do.

Start off well

I start with a few minutes just sitting, feeling happy, and if necessary doing some relaxing and breathing meditation, ending up with a feeling of peace at my heart. In Great Treasury of Merit (see pages 46-47 for more detail), my teacher explains:

“At the very beginning we should make sure that our mind is calm, peaceful, and free from conceptual distractions.”

He explains that we begin a meditation by examining our mind to see if it is peaceful or not, and if it is not we can breathe out our impure minds (and energy winds) in the form of dark smoke and breathe in blessings in the form of pure light until:

“our mind is completely pacified of all conceptual distractions and has become pure, happy, and single-pointed.”

This is the mind to meditate with, not an agitated, uptight mind.

Interestingly enough, at the beginning of that section Geshe Kelsang says:

Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions.

Even just turning into the mind (without doing breathing meditation) helps us experience its essentially peaceful nature because we are not following the distractions. Turning to the sky instead of the clouds, as it were.

I like tuning into a peaceful mind in other ways, for example as explained in this article I wrote for a friend.

Buddha nature

This peace, however slight or relative, is part of my Buddha nature–an indication of the limitless peace I am capable of, my enlightened potential. As such, I can already recognize it as part of Buddha’s own enlightened mind, the same nature, and in this way tap straight into blessings. I can identify with it by thinking, “This is me, and I’m only mistaken appearances away from being a Buddha.” Nothing exists from its own side, everything is like a dream, so I dissolve all unpleasant thoughts and their objects, including the sense of a limited self, including the past and the future, away into emptiness. Why not? I don’t have to hold onto this stuff, it is not even there.

Meditate with everyone around ~ living beings and Buddhas

Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas never meditate alone. Even when they’re in a remote cave in the middle of nowhere developing the perfect single-pointed concentration of tranquil abiding, they imagine being surrounded by all living beings. Your family, friends, pet parrot, etc, can be sitting closest to you, but there is nobody left out. We can forget about ourselves for a while by feeling close to others out of love (start where you’re at) – this already dissipates the laziness and stuck feeling caused by over-preoccupation with ourselves.

Tara reflecting on usThen I think that Buddha is in front of me. He is not over there somewhere, but arising from my own pure mind mixed with Buddha’s blessings, and surrounded by any number of enlightened beings. (Actually, Buddhas are everywhere, so we can visualize them wherever we want to. We can visualize whichever holy being we feel closest to already, including in other traditions.) I feel close to them out of faith wishing to be like them — with a mind like a universal sun radiating love through all beings and a piercing wisdom that penetrates all objects of knowledge, for example. I feel their blessings flowing into me and mixing with my mind – if you like, you can imagine the blessings in the form of blissful lights. (If you happened to attend the Kadampa Brazilian Festival in 2010, you might remember that beautiful visualization Geshe Kelsang taught on receiving the four empowerments from Je Tsongkhapa – it works for me.) Whatever works.

Meditate in a pure space

I like to think that because we’re all in the presence of enlightened beings, we’re naturally in their Pure Land – a vast, expansive, empty, exquisitely beautiful space full of everything we could ever wish for and totally free from even the name “suffering”. This is in keeping with the two verses in Kadampa Buddhist preparatory prayers, “May the whole ground become completely pure…” and “May all of space be filled with offerings …”

I haven’t even started my meditation yet! Yet already my mind is lighter, more optimistic, and more blessed. And it doesn’t have to take all that long, maybe a few minutes, depending on how much time I have or how much I’m enjoying myself already.

Now, in this “safe” space, where I already have a glimpse of exits and hope, I check where I’m currently stuck, in a tight corner seeing no way out, with deluded tendencies that are taking me nowhere. (See the meditation on aspiration here.) I am specific about areas in my life where I want to become unstuck, asking myself things like, “What is the point of carrying on like this? Where is it actually going to get me? Do I really want to still be like this in 5 years’, 10 years’ time? Do I want to die like this?! Go into my next life with this hanging over me?! Do I not actually want a final glorious freedom from this attachment, this aversion, this pain?”

And I think, “I am not limited or fixed – other possibilities exist.” So we can identify our own faults, being as specific and practical as possible, eg, feeling useless, angry, helplessly attached, prideful, or stuck, but not identify with them. They are not objective facts, just thoughts or labels. We don’t need to go with them — we don’t believe everything we think, as the saying goes.

kid heroTantric thinking

Imagine, just imagine, that you are where you’d like to be right now – fearless, unstuck, enjoying everything and everyone, not full of the need of attachment but complete in yourself, kind, loving, blissful, free. If you know about Tantric practice, dissolve everything into bliss and emptiness and generate yourself anew as your personal Deity in your Pure Land, with everyone around you as pure. Suspend any disbelief, do some method acting – if Daniel Day Lewis can be Lincoln or  your neighbor’s kid believe she is Wonder Woman, you can be a Buddha or Bodhisattva! And enjoy it. Unlike ever becoming Wonder Woman, generating ourselves as a Buddha actually has its basis in truth, for we are never separated from our potential to be a Bodhisattva and a Buddha. It is so-called “correct imagination”. It is reality.

Tantric thinking can be done by anyone. We possess great imaginations, and indeed our whole world lacks existence from its own side and arises from imagination; so we can harness this creativity now for the good, change our dream, while we still have the opportunity to control the direction of our life.

(If you are up for it and have received Tantric empowerments, read the ten benefits of relying upon Buddha Vajrayogini in Guide to Dakini Land to see what you are REALLY capable of and how quickly you can change.)

One major cause of the laziness of discouragement is “There’s nobody who has made it, I can’t see any examples, so how am I supposed to make it?!” We project our own lack of progress onto others. When we lift our sights in the way described, we naturally become more confident that there are people with these results all around us – everything is a reflection of our minds. People are no more inherently limited or suffering than we are. Look for faults and we’ll find them. Look for loveability and potential and we’ll find that. This applies to us and everyone around us.

If I’m doing prayers and I’m on my own, I confess that I might do them once I’ve done all this – then they’re really very powerful and simply an expression of what is going on. Of course, they are normally used as preliminaries to meditation, and I can do that too.

To get out of the long-playing loop of negative, myopic thinking, I think we need this kind of alternate perspective.

More later. Meanwhile, your feedback on how you overcome discouragement is most welcome and helpful.