As recently as a month ago, if asked what is the purpose of life, I would have answered that there is no meaning to life, there is no purpose to our lives. Everything just is. What we as Buddhists do is commit to living our lives according to the Five Precepts in recognition that we are all one, helping relieve the suffering of others and offering them joy, thus bringing joy to ourselves.
But recently a friend of mine said to me that he realized that his purpose in life was to relieve the suffering of others and to offer others joy. And the light went on in my head. That is the answer to the existential question. And while I know of nothing in Buddhist teaching that puts it quite that way, in those terms, it is obviously consistent with all the teaching.
You might ask, what difference does it make if we do things things as part of walking the path or know that it’s our purpose to do these things? Ah, the fact that you are walking the path and yet feet the need to ask that question tells the tale. What most of us learn from family, peers, and our culture is that our purpose in life is to achieve, to make money. Whether rich or poor, that is the purpose of life, and if you aren’t able to accomplish that for whatever reason, you have failed and it’s your fault.
One of the things that we as Buddhists struggle with every day are the obstacles to our walking the path caused by the intervention of our ego-mind, our thinking mind, which is the repository and proponent of our learned experience, of our culture’s answer to the question, what is our purpose in life. I have indicated in several blog and advice posts how we can deal with the thinking mind when it arises and presses these thoughts upon us. (See for example my blog post, “Not Engaging Your Thoughts.”)
Now, in addition to acknowledging the thinking-mind and having compassion for it but firmly saying that its thoughts reflect the past and that you are now seeking guidance from your true Buddha nature and know that if you live each moment well the future will take care of itself, all will be well, you can say, “I know that my purpose in life is to help relieve the suffering of others and to offer others joy. ALL ELSE IS EGO.” That is our purpose in life and the source of our joy. It’s as simple as that.
But as with most things we come to realize while walking the path, we must be ever mindful that out ego-mind does not arise and subvert our pure intention with an ego-based one, thus turning our skillful action into an unskillful one.
For example, even though I spent most of my professional life trying with honest intent in some way to make this world a better place and help relieve the suffering of others, all of my efforts have been tainted by my ego-mind, by my thinking mind. Everything I have done, regardless of its good intent and its often good results, has been driven equally strongly by my craving to be accepted, to be admired, to be loved. And so regardless of the venue in which I worked, my desires were unskillful desires because of their at least partially unskillful origination in a lack of equanimity.
This statement neither denigrates what I have done nor myself. It is just an honest aware statement that my samsara was a major factor in what I did and therefore I was not at peace or happy, regardless of what I accomplished. When I first wrote this my ego-mind said, “Aha, see, if it wasn’t for my influence you wouldn’t have done these good things.” But I know that that is not the case. If I had been able to ignore my ego-mind, to observe without the intervention of thought, to just listen to my heart, I am quite sure that I would still have undertaken these tasks because they were the Right thing to do. That is my purpose in life.
The beauty of this answer to the existential question, rather than the one provided by our culture, is that it is something that everyone, regardless of status or line of work, regardless whether rich or poor, can achieve. Everyone has it within themselves to help relieve the suffering of others and offer joy. A person living in abject poverty may not be able to provide food to help his starving family, but he can offer them unconditional love so that they do not suffer psychologically, feeling that love and security.
Beyond the help that this answer to the existential question provides us in walking the path, it’s potential is infinite. There is a Buddhist grace that I recite each day, part of which says, “With the first taste, I promise to offer joy. With the second taste, I promise to help relieve the suffering of others. WIth the third taste, I promise to see others’ joy as my own.” I have written elsewhere in my political blog ( PreservingAmericanGreatness.blogpost.com, “A Grace to Change the World”) that if everyone regardless of their religion spoke and took to heart the words of this grace, the world would be on its way to solving all the intractable problems that we face.
If everyone saw this not just as a goal but as their purpose in life, as the reason for their existence, the difference would be even more profound. Then every scientist, every businessman, every politician, every person regardless of occupation would first ask how is what I’m doing helping others. And if the answer came back that it was in fact harming others, the person would stop, even if it had the potential for making lots of money or otherwise bringing power. Then progress would truly benefit the people, rather than those with power and wealth.
Now, having said all this, I must note that when you reach a certain point in your practice, the existential question itself is irrelevant. Why? Because the question is a product of our thinking mind. It is the thinking mind trying to make sense of things. But when you are able to be present free of the intervention of thought, the existential question does not exist. You are one with all things, experiencing things directly without the intervention of thought. You will know then intuitively by observing yourself directly that that is your purpose in life, but not as the answer to a question. Free of thought, your mind rests undisturbed, all suffering and doubt cease.