The Purpose of Life

It seems that some people liked my recent post “Are We Enlightened Yet?”, especially the Dalai Lama quote which I have seen re-posted several places. In that post, I questioned why anyone would want to claim that they have attained enlightenment, and previously, I have stated why I am suspicious of such claims (presumptuousness, egotism, etc). The Dalai Lama said that ultimately it doesn’t make any difference if we become enlightened or not because if we are striving to be of benefit to others then we are already fulfilling our life’s true purpose.

This presumes that there is a purpose or meaning to life. Joseph Campbell once said, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.” However, meaning is not a meaning by itself alone; rather it is a meaning only of some expression that serves as a sign or symbol for some thought or fact. Meaning is often subjective, and that is why Campbell added, “The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.”

Some persons may want to ascribe no meaning to life, seeing existence as something that just “is.” Others believe that meaning can be ascribed but have differing opinions as to what that meaning may be. Therefore, not everyone will accept the idea that the purpose of life is to be of benefit to others.

Almost all religions and spiritual philosophies do see meaning and purpose in our existence. Again, there are differences of opinion, and yet, in one way or another, they all embrace the idea of altruism or service to others. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is the prime point, and in fact, it is considered more important than enlightenment itself.

To understand, we need to look at the Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva. Following the passage I quoted the other day, the Dalai Lama went on to say,

These are also the kinds of sentiments that resonate in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, where the bodhisattva practitioner makes prayers that even the smallest elements of earth, such as atoms, should be of service to others. This kind of sentiment is summarized in Shantideva’s verse, which reads, ‘As long as space endures, for as long as beings remain, may I remain also, to dispel the miseries of the world’.”

Symbolically, bodhisattvas forgo entry into “final enlightenment” in order to remain in the world serving others.  Not only is this the bodhisattva’s individual aspiration, but also the aspiration that he or she wishes for all beings to cherish.  To the bodhisattva, nirvana is a world of people helping people.

It is said that bodhisattvas invariably make the Four Vows, but if he or she does not fulfill the first vow to save all beings, then the fourth vow to attain enlightenment can never be achieved. Realistically, it is impossible to save all beings, so in the absence of any caveat, we can choose to take it literally or understand it as allegory. Either way, the same meaning is expressed, which is the idea that enlightenment is not the real goal of Buddhist practice, and not the purpose of life.

Neither is it the meaning of life to end suffering, for as long as there is life, suffering will be a part of it. Without suffering, there could be no freedom from suffering on any level.

This is the message of Mahayana Buddhism, which views enlightenment for the sake of enlightenment as fundamentally selfish. Ron Epstein, of the Philosophy Department San Francisco State University, explains:

The goal of the [early Buddhist] practitioner is that of ending attachment to self and, thereby, becoming an Arhat, who undergoes no further rebirth. Although those on the path of the Arhat help others, often extensively, that help ends with the entering of nirvana  because the Arhat is not reborn. The Mahayana practitioner does not treat Arhatship as an ultimate goal, and is on the Path of the Bodhisattva, which leads to becoming a Buddha.

The point here is not about which ideal is better, for ultimately terms such as Arhat, Bodhisattva or Buddha are only signs or referents that serve to bring attention to different modes of approach, or different aspects of the same path.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at the motivation behind the Buddha’s decision to teach his dharma. It was not because he felt the world needed another philosophy, or because he wanted fame, or because he was lonely and he wanted to gather up a group of followers. He realized that the purpose of his life was to be of benefit to others by showing them a way that suffering could be transcended.

With this motivation, which we call bodhicitta, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea, it becomes something real and attainable. When we touch others with our compassion, we touch enlightenment.  As Epstein says, the Path of the Bodhisattva leads to becoming a Buddha, and yet this path is only a guide, a symbol. In this sense, then, we could say that altruism is the path to enlightenment, or even that it is enlightenment, that compassion is enlightenment. When we practice loving-kindness, when we have the kind of empathy for other beings that motivates us to engage in compassionate acts, we are becoming Buddhas.

The meaning of life is the meaning we bring to it and the highest meaning we can bring is that the purpose our lives is to be of benefit to others.

Of course, there is also the notion that we are already enlightened, already Buddhas. But that will have to wait for another post.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.