Friday, September 21, 2012

Buddhism & the Purpose of Life

                You might think that Buddhism is about endless meditation, mysterious reincarnation, and a lot of lotus flowers.

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                Though they all represent aspects of Buddhism, Buddhist teachings are actually about the purpose of life.

                 Did you know that???

                So what is the "purpose of life?"

                Well, first you have to know every human activity has a purpose behind it.

            We study ----------------------------------> in order to get a job.

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          We work -----------------------------------------------------> in order to earn money. 

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   We need money ----------------------------------------------------------> to live.

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       We live --------------------------------------------------------------> ???  

Why do we live? 
                Hmmm... we must have some purpose in living as well!

                Everyone instinctively knows that human life is a very, very special gift. Yet we spend most of our entire lives figuring out just what to do with it. So how then do we justify that life has such a great value? Are all lives worth the same? What about those people who are on life support? Why if we are struggling to survive and completely miserable should we not just give up and commit suicide?

                 To know all these answers, we must first learn what the real purpose is in living.

                 Let's see what famous thinkers, philosophers, and politicians tell us about life.
  • In his On Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche effectively underscored the importance of meaning in life when he wrote that man desires suffering and "even seeks it out, provided that he has been shown a meaning for it, a reason for suffering."

  • French writer Albert Camus said that deep in the human heart is a "wild longing" to know the meaning of life.

  • The renowned American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (CHEEK-sent-mÉ™-HY-ee) has stated that without a profound purpose in life, people cannot obtain true satisfaction, no matter what conveniences and entertainment may surround them.

   Here's a citation from a Pure Land Buddhist perspective:

                Today in countries around the world, people enjoy wealth and comfort unheard of in centuries past. Medical and scientific advances mean that we live longer and have greater ability to change and control our environment to suit our needs. But have these advances brought greater happiness? Modern society is plagued with ills such as violence in its many forms, including tyranny, terrorism, murder, and suicide. Real answers to these problems continue to elude us.
                Our advances may have made us richer, but they have not done anything to ensure our happiness or provide us with a sense of abiding meaningfulness. In fact, modern life often seems only to bring more acute feelings of isolation, loneliness, and emptiness.
                When our purpose is clear only then can we move into action with all our might for the first time.
 (Excerpt from the Introduction of You Were Born for a Reason)

                So it seems everybody agrees that we can't be truly happy until we have attained our real purpose in life. Because without purpose that adds meaning to our lives, we're left feeling desperate and hopelessly lost. 
                 But in the back of your mind you still might be thinking, "You know, not all activities in life have to have purpose..."

                Maybe on a lazy day, you might do something random like let's say lay in a hammock without any particular purpose in your mind...

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                But even laying in a hammock has a purpose behind it... like to rest or to sleep.

                When you live your whole life without knowing its purpose, it's like you're living for the sake of living. Without finding a true purpose, your whole life becomes wasted.

                This is why we feel really empty and anxious deep down all the time... because we don't even know why we're alive year after year.

So what happens to people who don't know the purpose of life?

They are like pilots up in the air 
flying randomly 
not knowing or not caring about their course 
until it's too late 
when they run out of fuel.

Lack of purpose in life is like flying without a place to land!

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                We're born one day, and one day we must die. Likewise a plane that takes off eventually has to come down. Having a course and a destination means choosing the proper route in order to land safely at the airport.

                 But an airplane flying for the sake of flying for as long as it can will just end up running out of fuel. Without notice, the plane will suddenly fall from the sky and plummet into the ground.

                 This means we must find a purpose that delivers us lasting satisfaction and consistent joy in our lives. If we don't, we can't truly enjoy our flight. Life is so full of suffering, because we can't see clearly where the runway is. At any minute, we could crash. And there's no fuel gauge that tells us how much longer we have left to live!

                Too often when talking about life's purpose, we confuse and incorrectly link it with temporary goals. Do any of these sound familiar?
  • Getting a steady, fulfilling job
  • Winning a tennis tournament
  • Having a successful romantic relationship
  • Obtaining a Bachelor's degree
  • Building your own house
  • Getting rich and famous
  • Starting a family
  • Mastering a second language like Spanish
  • Winning the Nobel Peace Prize

                 Yet for as long as we're alive, we chase temporary goals like these, one after another. We think that we will have lasting happiness once the next one is accomplished. But in this life as quickly as these pursuits are gained, they can be lost. And in the end, we must leave it all behind.

                 So managing your career, getting married, and running marathons are all wonderful parts of life, but...

  They are ... how to live.

                       In the short-term, they make us happy and keep us going, but they are not, however, the true purpose of life. This does not mean they are no longer important or not worth pursuing.

                "Decisions about speed and altitude, route alterations based on changes in wind or air pressure, responses to engine trouble -- all these are choices that affect the 'how-to' of flight. What must be known before any of these decisions are made is the destination, since this will determine the direction, or the 'where-to,' of flight." (Reason, p. 16)

                The real purpose of living is to arrive at absolute happiness, the happiness that is everlasting. This is the form of happiness that remains even in the face of death. We must continue to live on even though we may feel great pain so that we can get it for ourselves.

 To attain absolute happiness is... why we live.

                 In the next post, we will learn about the differences between the two types of happiness experienced in life.

(Study Guide pages: You Were Born for a Reason: p. 4-5, 12, 16, 39)

   The book, You Were Born for a Reason, is essential for the study of Pure Land Buddhism. It was written by the current living master of Pure Land Buddhism, Takamori Kentetsu. I highly recommend you buy a copy on to read along with this blog.

   Ideas written on this blog come mostly from that book or Mr. Takamori's lectures. Other titles include Unlocking Tannisho, Something You Forgot Along the Way, Unshakable Spirit, and The Story of Buddha. I also use lectures notes I have taken down from various Buddhist teachers that I've had from around the world. In no way are these "my" ideas. The goal is to teach only what is taught in Buddhism accurately. I will do my best to cite, directly and indirectly, the ideas I've learned.

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