Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Meaning Of Life

From the biological perspective the purpose of life is to acquire the necessities for continued existence, to reproduce and to survive. But what about the purpose of life from the religious point of view? If life has a single and specific purpose, as some religions and philosophies claim, then one would expect everybody, sooner or later, to naturally gravitate towards it, discover it and then strive to achieve it. In actual fact, we see that the various religions posit quite different and sometimes contradictory purposes of life. We also notice that many people manage to get through life alright without ever asking or thinking about whether or not life has a meaning. Others take one path, then another, according to circumstance, embrace each one, and manage to get through. We see yet others who claim that what they believe has ‘given their life meaning’ but later we here they have abandoned it for something else. This suggests very strongly that beyond the biological, life does not have any innate purpose or meaning.
From the Buddhist point of view, this is a good thing - it means that we have the freedom and the possibility to give our life the meaning that we want. If we decide to make the accumulation of wealth or power the purpose of our life, then it will become so. If we decide to make the pursuit of pleasure, dedication to our family or the contemplation of the divine the purpose of our life, then it will become so. Whenever one of his disciples attained enlightenment and became an arahat, the Buddha would always say that he or she had `done what had to be done' (S.III,68). From this we can deduce that for the Buddha, the meaning, the purpose and the fulfillment of life is to attain the joy and freedom of enlightenment.


Ken and Visakha said...

"The darkly-felt split between what is and what ought to be."
S. Kierkegaard

“I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him,” Dr. Martin Luther King

Ben said...

Actually, I find Buddha's comment quite puzzling. If enlightenment is something which has to be done, we are not talking about an inner motivation, but an external one, a law or an order. Thus, there is either 'somebody' who says that we should pursuit for enlightenment or a moral imperative.

As there is no god this leaves us with the moral imperative, but at least in the Hinayana I don't see such a moral imperative for enlightenment. In contrast to Mahayana and Vajrayana there is no Bodhisattva-ideal; the noble being which seeks for enlightenment for the sake of all other beings. (Don't get me wrong, this is not meant as a judgement.)

So, why has enlightenment to be attained? Why should that be everyone's goal? I think a lot of people would be satisfied to spent some time with god or whoever, although that is not a state a buddhist would consider to be desirable.

Patr said...

Enlightenment is not everyone's goal, only the Ultimate goal for everyone!

The Arhat ideal is to pursue that objective, while the Bodhisattva is to help others along the path as well.

The Arhat & Bodhisattva paths are identical in the beginning and only diverges once a certain attainment is reached. One cannot help others without having realised the 'way' itself.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ben,
When the Buddha says ‘what has to be done’ I don’t think he meant ‘You MUST do it, OR ELSE! You have no choice!’ I think he meant it in the sense of ‘When your in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower is a must’ i.e. any intelligent person wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see it’. There is a moral imperative to attain enlightenment in that the enlightened person is able to be a beacon and a guide to others. The Buddha said he was enlightened ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world’. And along with this moral imperative is what might be called the ‘pain imperative’ i.e. the freedom from suffering that enlightenment imparts, a very strong motivator. And of course, should someone wish to ‘spend some time with god or whatever’ they are perfectly entitled to do that. An intelligent person will aim higher.

Ben said...

Thanks for the answers. The example sounds plausible to me.

Perhaps I was not so aware of the moral imperative in the Theravada tradition because, the ones I know who practice this form of Buddhism emphasize more the importance of enlightenment for oneself and leave the part with the happiness from others more or less out. Probably they do that to dissociate themselves from the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal... or not.

Walter said...

"she had `done what had to be done' "
I understand it thus: When one became a monk the objective was to attain enlightenment. So, when the monk has attained enlightenment, he had done what had to be done.