The Buddha sought answers to the questions we all have: Who are we? What are we doing here? Why are things the way they are? They are crazy-making questions that can either haunt or enlighten. One of my favorite lines in the television sitcom, Raymond, is delivered by Robert, Raymond’s TV brother, during an episode focusing on the same big question Raymond’s daughter was asking: “Why did God put us here?” Robert, in mental torment, looks to the sky and says: “You mean God made us smart enough to ask the question, but not smart enough to know the answer?!!”
I say yes, that's exactly the predicament we're in. But I don't think it has anything to do with God or our lack of intelligence. It's because there are no definitive answers. And because we really can't believe there aren't definitive answers "out there", our nature urges us to continuously ask the questions and, ultimately, continue the search for meaning.
In the book, Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs: Gravity, Gods, and Minds, The Chicago Social Brain Network reports, "Our drive to make meaning is irrepressible—when we do not understand the forces that drive our actions, we invent narratives that make these invisible forces feel more predictable and understandable, even if only in hindsight."
And, I believe, we want narratives that provide more than understanding alone. We want narratives that make us feel better about our lives. We cling to the concept that somehow we must have a grander purpose than what is evident in our everyday lives. Again, in Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, they emphasize that our human nature insists that "actions of objects have causes, whereas actions of humans have reasons." This highlights the human need to find meaning in connecting to something beyond our little selves and our average, everyday lives. Yet, I rest in the confidence that Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha taught that the ONLY place for us to search for meaning is in our little selves and our average, everyday lives.
Shakyamuni taught that we should not accept anything on anyone's authority—not even his—but to verify it through our own experience. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone or any group that tells me what the meaning or purpose of my life is, how I should go about fulfilling that purpose, and what I should have "faith" in. As an out-of-the-closet skeptic, the use of the word "faith" itself raises my defenses. I am much more comfortable with the word "confidence". I believe and have confidence in what the Buddha taught because I've directly experienced it.
In the Bright Dawn, Kubose lineage, I learned that it is in my everyday where I will find meaning, if I awake to it—awakening to what is right in front of us; to things as they are. This direct experience of reality can provide us with a transcendent joy; joy that emerges from being in our lives 100%, without looking for something outside of us to provide meaning.
In the documentary, Examined Life by Astra Taylor, Princeton professor Cornel West suggested that we refuse the gratification of finding meaning. I interpreted his remark as an echo of Shakyamuni's teachings. Looking outside of ourselves for answers to why we're here and what the meaning of our lives are, provides a way out, or gratification to the uneasiness of sitting in the questions.
Searching for meaning beyond what your life brings you everyday is like believing the satisfying experience of a jigsaw puzzle is knowing what the picture is. The meaning of the jigsaw puzzle is not in the finished picture or design, but in placing the pieces.
Everyday meaning—meaning found in your own experience—shows up more dependably than new mail in your inbox. Just the fact that you have this life, this "precious human birth" (the first of the "Four Reminders" or the "Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma"), is meaning enough.
Everyday in our precious human lives we have a choice about how to make our day meaningful. Meaning is delivered to us everyday in everything we do, as soon as we wake up to what we're doing. Sometimes that choice may only be to "keep going" when circumstances make us question whether we can keep going. Sometimes it may be to keep starting; starting over and over again to be the person we want to be ... starting again today when the day before ended in a character failure of anger, selfishness, resentment, or disappointing a loved one.
My life has demonstrated to me that the search for meaning beyond what happens to me day-to-day is fickle. The things I think will provide meaning rarely do: the perfect holidays planned for, the job, the raise, the award, the vacation, the day off ... Meaning generally doesn't emerge from those planned-for experiences, but from the little moments of everyday life. Meaning has no fixed, inherent existence—in you or prescribed from a super being, outside of you.
Like all things, it is empty of a fixed, external, inherent existence. Like all things, meaning changes day-to-day because it is subject to the dynamic interplay of causes and conditions, including those of the people and things interacting with you in your life. And, because of that, meaning is given to you by others.
Immense satisfaction—or even meaningful great joy—arises when we are truly being IN our life; fully participating without anticipation, or avoidance, in the life given to us every day, as a part of a continuously-becoming emergent wholeness. To me, this is what, in Shin Buddhism, is the primary spiritual experience of "shinjin", a believing or entrusting heart. The Sanskrit word, "prasanna" expresses it as well. Prasanna roughly means "satisfied", "balanced", "serene", or "gracious". This balance is not founded on blind faith, but has a connotation of clarity—a clarity of mind—a mind that grasps what is, as it is; who we are, as we are. In that moment of grasping completely what is, we have discovered our meaning.
In Zen Shin Talks by Sensei Ogui, he relates a story that says all this much better in way fewer words than I have used here today. One hot summer he was watering the lawn and was approached by a young woman carrying a notepad. She asked, "Are you the Reverend?" He replied that he was and she went on to explain that she was interviewing clergymen about their thoughts on creation verses evolution. She asked Sensei, "What do you think about creation versus evolution?" He answered, "I'm watering the lawn because it's dying." She said, "I know! Answer my question!" But Sensei persisted through her frustration, explaining that he was answering her question and told her to write his answer down on her notepad.
We will find the meaning of life when we give up the search. Echoing the Zen Shin insight, from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche writes in his poem, Free and Easy: A Spontaneous Vajra Song:
"Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping,
Infinite space is there—open, inviting and comfortable.
Make use of this spaciousness, this freedom and natural ease.
Don't search any further.
Don't go into the tangled jungle
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting quietly at home
in front of your own hearth."
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.