Purpose, Meaning & Significance in our Lives: A Buddhist Perspective

The Archbishop Theophilus, of Holy Memory, said, when he came
to die: ” You are a happy man, Abbot Arsenius, for you have always
kept this hour before your eyes.”

The Wisdom of the Desert
Thomas Merton

In recent years, I don’t suppose a day as gone by without me thinking about death in some way. Not that I compare myself with the Abbot Arsenius, but the reality of death, the shadow that it casts, has certainly made a constant presence in my later life. In youth, my perceptual framework held no thought of death, and my vision only stretched forward into time, with the promise of an ever enlarging tomorrow. But now, largely as a consequence of the ageing process, I think about death regularly and become drawn back to an ever enlarging past. The memories that surface ( some habitual, others startlingly new ) take me to a strange realm, a place of ‘ other-ness ‘ that I can hardy comprehend at times. Feelings of warmth, pride, longing and gratitude are often present to arouse within me a state of attentiveness and attachment; but then slowly these memories start to fade and slip beyond my consciousness, as if forgotten. At other times negative memories reach out for attention; memories laden with guilt, shame, embarrassment and regret that sadden and challenge me, especially the comfortable perspective that I have on myself. But these too fade away, transitory and ephemeral, just like my life….

The probing, challenging, questioning of my youth, persistent in its force to find correct, solid answers to life, has now softened and given way to the reality of not knowing. The life that I have pursued, that has engaged me intensely in study and reflection, has only ever revealed the very depths of my ignorance. So in these, my later years, I have finally come to embrace, with a full and open heart, this unknowing reality. In the presence of my growing maturity ( nourished by a spiritual faith ) I aim to greet, with a strengthened resolve, the acceptance of my past and closing of my days….

In the search for purpose, meaning and significance in life we may be led to the final conclusion, in our post-modernist age, that our very existence is devoid of these ‘markers’; that all existence is in fact just a product of pure chance, total and utter randomness. Many scientists now subscribe to this modern paradigm of thought, this reductionist model of the universe. The trouble is its cold, harsh views can have an alienating effect upon us, imprisoning us in a tyranny of meaninglessness. In previous times, precedence was given to teleology ( interpretation in terms of purpose ) and this provided a context in which life could be viewed, a framework that allowed the notion of an external creator, a God, to enter into the equation. But this has presented many with too much of a challenge. How, as so many ask, can there be a God, a supreme creator of life, when so much suffering, so much pain is evident in the world? This dilemma, this much repeated, bewildering paradox is the one that we all face in our individual and collective lives, so how do we proceed, how do we resolve this issue?
The Buddha’s position is obviously of relevance here for he neither supported the notion of an absolute, all creative God, nor condemned it. He just recognized the spectre of human suffering and thought that people’s energies should be focused and concentrated on alleviating this, rather than speculating on the metaphysical issue about whether a supreme creator exists or not.
The Buddha was essentially a pragmatist, a healer who recognized the effect that anguish, distress, grief and pain could have in life. His awakening, his liberation from selfhood, opened up his heart to these negative conditions of human existence, as he came to recognize that it was only through engaging with spiritual understanding and practice that relief from their influences could be sought.

The Buddha acknowledged the existence of our three markers: purpose, meaning and significance because, through the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, he had come to the supreme realization that all life was precious, all life was interconnected. And within this very context of insight our markers find full expression, with, or without, the presence of a God.

THE SACREDNESS OF LIFE
Life, in all its manifest forms, is sacred. Nothing is excluded, nothing is ignored, simply because everything has a role to play in the context of a wider, interactive, network of existence. Even with all the attendant pain and disappointment, life is still sacred and miraculous so shouldn’t we be grateful and appreciative for this gift? Shouldn’t we cherish this life, in all its rich diversity, that has brought us here? Shouldn’t we marvel at the creative wonder that spins and whirls through the universe and touches everything? Something deep inside of us bears witness to all this, beyond the intellectual probing, beyond the naming categories of thought – even beyond the doubts, uncertainties and fears that come to preoccupy us so much of the time.
In special moments, in precious spaces, we may be brought into an awareness that touches all this, that opens up for us a challenge, an invitation to participate skilfully and meaningfully in this bigger perspective, leaving behind, out of view, our own narrow, self interests. Our collective lives have huge potential for good and this is what we should develop in order to maximize the greatest benefits that we can, for ourselves, for everybody. The Bodhisattva Ideal embraces fully, the belief that all life is of enormous significance, sacred and sacrosanct, so shouldn’t our duty always be to honour this ideal ?

AVATAMSAKA SUTRA
The doctrine of interpenetration, as outlined by the Buddha, in one of the most profound teachings in the Buddhist canon. At its core lies the recognition that all phenomena is interconnected. Nothing in the known cosmos is seen to be separated or isolated. Everything in existence is seen to form part of an integrated, homogenous whole; including you, me and the micro – organisms that flourish in the remotest regions of the world. All of us are an intricate part of one amazing, dynamic web of life and importantly, what effects one part will ultimately, in some way, inevitably effect another. The Buddha called this Paticca Samuppada ( Conditioned Co – Production, or Conditioned Origination ) and it is only recently that modern science has started to support this theory with empirical research. In one scientific study ( The Aspect Experiment 1982 ) researchers demonstrated how two, quite separate quantum particles; that once had been joined together, were in some strange, and not fully understood way, still connected. For when one particle was altered by the research team, the other particle correspondingly followed, despite the great distance that separated them.

We are all part of a much larger, mysterious, creative dynamic and we must never forget this. All our feelings of separation, that surface in our lives at times of distress and anxiety, are grounded in fear, and it is this very fear that is grounded in misunderstanding.None of us are really separated, none of us are really isolated and lost, because we are all, ultimately, part of a larger spiritual unity – a universal sangha of sentient beings….

” Nothing in this world is single,
All things by a law divine,
In one anothers being mingle,
Why not I with thine? ”

Shelley

It is within the context of recognizing the sanctity and interconnectedness of life that our trilogy of purpose, meaning and significance find their fullest expression. There is no need to venture outside of this to receive some form of divine validation because the context here provides all the validation we need to get on with our lives. If there is a creator God supporting and sustaining my existence then I am supremely grateful, but alternatively, if there is not a God, then I’m still supremely grateful because I still have a life and the Buddhist path to follow….

CONCLUSION

I suspect that Abbot Arsenius ( in the opening quote of this article ) had spent many intense moments reflecting upon the transitory and fragile nature of human existence and how one should spend one’s time, lead one’s life, in the face of an inevitable death. This, in the eyes of Archbishop Theophilus, made the Abbot a ” happy man “ which begs the question: Are we happy, are we living life fully and completely now, knowing that we face an inevitable death? Every, single day can present us with a new beginning, a new opportunity to learn and grow, provided we pay attention. Hidden deep within us, often forgotten, is a potential to change and go forward into a new way of being that can transform our lives for the better. We must make the most of every precious moment that we can, live our lives like we have never done before, throw ourselves into them, in order to make the end a fulfillment. All this, however, should take place within the larger community context of shared meaning and purpose.
The world we live in, with all its conflicts and divisions, tensions and fears, is precariously balanced in a fragile state of unprecedented vulnerability and hostility. The differences that separate and divide us now must be resolved to bring us all into a new state of consensus. We must come together, as a matter of urgency, to work out ways to collectively go forward into a new world, a safer, better world. We must share our hearts and minds, our aspirations and visions for a future that recognizes and acknowledges the collective well-being of every sentient creature. This must be our priority, this must be our overriding imperative in the Twenty First Century. We must engage fully with it now, working daily, in a consistent manner, to bring it into existence before it is too late and our feelings of separation and alienation destroys us all…..

JOURNEY WELL – JOURNEY TOGETHER