The Way of Living and the Meaning of Life

AUTHOR:Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

The need to separate the way of living and the meaning of life.

The way of living and the meaning of life may seem to be the most basic things that we should all know about, but to separate the two in practice is not so easy. I personally feel that it is rather important to be able to tell the difference between the two. Nowadays, many people including quite a few Buddhist practitioners think that the way of living and the meaning of life mean one and the same. However, what they have in mind is just the way of living, which less intelligent animals also know, never the purpose and significance of life.

For an animal, to be able to successfully live up to ten or twenty years as a result of the causes and conditions engendered in past life which allow it to live this long means victory already. This after all would be the meaning of life for this animal.

Many people also mix up the two. Among them, there are non- Buddhists and some lay practitioners of Buddhism. Although increasingly more people are becoming interested in learning Buddhism, some of them seek only the benefit of the celestial beings or the human realm in this life. What will happen in the next life or the question of liberation from samsara are not at all their concerns. They burn incense and read sutras only to get a better treatment from this life. On the surface, it may appear that they are practicing Buddhism, but in fact they view Dharma practice only as a way of living. To non-Buddhists, working is their way of living; for some Buddhists, the way of living means going to the temple to render worship to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The so-called Dharma practice does not touch upon the meaning of life whatsoever. To make clear distinction between the way of living and the meaning of life is the most basic step to entering the path of Dharma.

The way of living

The way of living means how one goes about sustaining oneself, essentially how one manages to live. What is the proper way of living for a Dharma practitioner? What did the Buddha say about this?

Should all practitioners give up everything and retreat to the caves to meditate like Milarepa did? It would be great if one can do that, but most laypeople cannot and so the Buddha did not rule this way. In a nutshell, the Buddha only asked all Buddhists to be content with fewer desires, which means differently to the monastics and lay practitioners. How then should lay practitioners interpret this request from the Buddha?

I have seen that someone who owns three or four villas but hardly ever lives in any of them. Very often this person just spends the night on the office sofa. Others own three or four cars but only use one; the rest just lay idle in the garage. This kind of lifestyle does not comply with the Buddha’s request for a life filled with fewer desires. From the standpoint of the world as a whole, over-consumption of either fossil fuels or trees is also a wrong way of living, which does not meet the Buddha’s request either.

In today’s world, one is basically unable to survive without money and the Buddha also deemed reasonable means for living justified. What he requested is that under normal circumstances one should live a simpler and modest life. There is really no need for fancy stuff as long as one stays in a livable condition. But that is not to say that one must eat lousy food, wear old clothes, or live in a run-down place. The Buddha also said that it is not necessary to live too modestly if one can afford a comfortable life with relative ease, thanks to good karma from the past life. To live a simple life, as opposed to a luxurious one, means less energy need be spent on acquiring material wealth and hence more time and attention for really meaningful matters. This is the way the Buddha told us to live.

However, we often bring much suffering upon ourselves for inessential things in life. For example, we kill so many lives and cause great suffering to other beings to get meat, milk and eggs, the three major sources of modern illnesses that are basically inessential food for our survival. We did not know any better before, just following a wrong mode of living and hence resulting in great pain for many sentient beings. This is just one example. Other aspects of our lives can also be reexamined this way.

The Buddha particularly wanted to avoid taking a dualistic stance toward any issues. To lead a poverty-stricken life is an extreme. Most people cannot maintain a contemplative life under such harsh condition except for someone like Milarepa. On the other hand, a life of indulgence may cause all kinds of physical problems. For instance, many doctors suggest that over-consumption of meat could be the cause for heart disease. Therefore, the proper way of living set by the Buddha is one of simplicity and modesty.

Another rule is that one must not live by the ten evil actions such as killing, stealing, cheating and so forth. On the premise of not violating this rule, it is all right to live a rich life, but only very few with extremely good karma do not have to work hard for it. In general, the richer the life is, the higher the toll it would take on one’s well-being. So the Buddha’s suggestion of a simple way of living is actually a better choice for all.

Did we separate the way of living and the meaning of life before learning the Dharma? I think not. At that time, most of us considered eating well and having fun the meaning of life, but the Buddha told us that those are just the way of living.

Is burning fuel the purpose of a car’s existence? No. Its purpose is to transport. Burning fuel is just a way to sustain itself. Only with fuel can it have enough power to fulfill its purpose. Likewise, food, clothing and housing are what we need to maintain our existence. As for the meaning of life, there is a big difference in understanding between those who have learned the Dharma and those who have not.

Now that we have learned the teachings of the Buddha, we should do our best to follow his advices as much as we can, if not one hundred percent. We would be Buddhas ourselves if we can comply one hundred percent! And the first step is to begin with distinguishing the meaning of life and the way of living. From now on, having good food, pretty clothes and a fabulous place to live in no longer denote what life is about. Material wealth and other worldly things are only necessary for us to maintain a living. However, most of those who have not learned the Dharma do not think the same. Even in philosophy, the meaning of life and the way of living cannot be clearly separated. Surely, the Buddha is the only one who truly knows the meaning of life.

A wealthy man once told me that he could make a few million bucks from just one deal, but to him it only meant that more numbers were added to his bankbook. One only needs so much to live. He could never use up all his money in this lifetime. I think what he said makes a lot of sense. Such is the reality. Naturally, if he were to use the money for charity or something meaningful, it would be a different matter entirely. If not, just accumulating great wealth should not be deemed the meaning of life.

The meaning of life

There are many different views on this, but ultimately the meaning of life is to get oneself prepared for the liberation from cyclic existence. In China today, people in the large cities have bought all kinds of insurance for health, old age and what not, which in certain time frame and to some extent can serve their purposes, but none for afterlife. When disaster hits and life is in danger, people discover all of a sudden that no insurance can guaranty them a save passage in afterlife. If it can be ascertained that there is no life after death, we need not care what would happen afterward; normal insurance will suffice. But so far no scientist or philosopher can completely refute the idea of cyclic existence or disprove next life. Rather, the evidence of a cycle of death and rebirth is becoming increasingly more abundant, which is based not on any assumption but facts available in everyday life. We cannot evade reality and the reality is that next life does exist. Under the circumstances, we have no excuse not to prepare for its coming.

From now on, we should direct our thoughts and actions toward the ultimate liberation. Through contemplation of impermanence and the woes of samsara, we can begin to cultivate renunciation and gradually move forward on the path to liberation. This is the meaning of life for us Buddhists. The path to liberation, once taken wholeheartedly, can fundamentally resolve the issue of cyclic death and rebirth. Moreover, taking the path of Mahayana can not only help oneself but also all other sentient beings to liberation from samsara over time. Therefore, we ought to be forward-looking and strive to set higher goals. Otherwise, we may fail this life miserably perhaps not in material terms but in essence, like so many others who have died with great sorrow and anger because they did not know to distinguish the way of living and the meaning of life when still alive. Failing to realize what this life really means is a huge loss as opposed to losing out in some worldly competitions, which is actually insignificant by comparison. Whether we get another chance to amend this later on is hard to say. So now is the time to make that distinction particularly in our actions.

Three years ago, I asked everyone in the class to write me a note telling me how and what each one would arrange for daily practice. Now I would like to know what, if any, progress you have made in these three years. In other words, have you learned anything concrete from your practice? The Buddhist logic holds that regardless of what phenomenon, if it does not move in as short a time as one-ten-thousandth of a second, it will not move in the subsequent one-ten-thousandth of a second either even until the final one-ten-thousandth. If no progress has been made in all these time, I am afraid that none ever will, even in another six, nine or twelve years!

I gave many teachings in the past few years, but none from the Vajrayana tradition. It is not for a lack of ability to teach on my part but to avoid confusing you with the more profound teachings at this point of your learning process without additional benefit. In your current condition, those teachings would not help you find the right path or gain a real taste of the Dharma. So I decided to cut off all the complex details and gave you instead the concrete and practicable instructions for actual practice. However, did you practice accordingly? What have you learned if you did?

As there are quite a few of you in the class, it is understandable that you may progress at different pace. Still, if most of you only know the dharma theoretically rather than practicing it in daily life, the teaching will not be as meaningful. Asking you to write me a note can also serve as a kind of reminder that perhaps it really is time to take one’s practice seriously in view of the fact that no progress has been made after a long period of time.

The purpose for practicing the Dharma is not to gain health and wealth or be trouble-free in life but to attain liberation. In order to reach that final goal, all defilements must be eradicated first. Although it is somewhat impractical aiming to accomplish that in three to five years, one can still check if defilements have been reduced or at least have tended downward over time. This is what we should be concerned with, not what it would be like in the realm of the Buddha or the great bodhisattvas. There is simply not enough time for us to explore and argue all the points presented in, say, Ornament of Clear Realization or Madhyamaka. In other words, we cannot hope to reach the same height as Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti by way of discussion only.

For example, when I studied Ornament of Clear Realization, the first subject was on bodhicitta. It became very complicated as almost every word could be interpreted variably from different perspectives, which confounded me to no end. Questions like how many categories of bodhicitta there are, what relative or absolute bodhicitta means and the like were discussed over and over again. A viewpoint usually had people both for and against it. As a result, much time was spent on either defending one’s own or refuting other’s position. It is really a shame that I have yet aroused bodhicitta after all these years and so many arguments. Whereas some of my classmate who rarely engaged in this kind of discussion, only focused on the actual practice of bodhicitta, have by now successfully engendered bodhicitta.

Lay practitioners like you should be even more careful not to repeat the kind of mistake I made as you have limited free time to begin with. If all your time was spent on learning different teachings while little on actual practice, you would not be able to retain any in the end, just like someone who has to throw up due to over-eating and indigestion. It is all so pointless!

In the last few years, most of the teachings I gave were relatively short on theory and logic, except for a few easily confusing questions laypeople had that required further explanations. The emphasis was primarily on the way of actual practice. But did you do as taught? By the way, if you ask me the same question, my answer would probably be no as well. We cannot continue like this. From now on, everyone must take up one’s own practice seriously. This is the most important.

In theory, we all know the difference between the way of living and the meaning of life. However, in practice, we often behave like the uninitiated making wealth accumulation the meaning of life. We ought to know better now to separate the two and be less attached to material wealth than before. The word ‘money’ can mean a lot of things in addition to its traditional definition; in fact, it can be used to denote all worldly possessions.

I have met many successful businesspeople who are running large corporations. They told me their goal is to have the means to help the needed or to spread the Dharma. If that was true, perhaps it would not be necessary to give up the pursuit of wealth, but the attachment to wealth must be checked.

Many lay practitioners often told me that they pray for the Buddha’s or the bodhisattvas’ blessing to help them succeed in their jobs or business so that they can afford to offer more money to the Three Jewels. This is good motivation, but in fact we need not offer money to the Three Jewels. Real Buddhas and bodhisattvas would not care for us to have more money. Rather, they would very much like us to have developed renunciation and bodhicitta. As long as we can manage to live a reasonably decent life, they wish we should concentrate on the practice of Dharma and do our best to take control of our own cyclic existence. This is really what we should be doing now.

In Training Anthology, Shantideva expounded a viewpoint based on teachings from the scriptures. If a bodhisattva, undertaking to practice alone at a quiet place, immerses himself or herself completely in the bliss of meditation and cannot be bothered to deliver other beings from samsara, it is deemed a bodhisattva has fallen from grace. Therefore, once having aroused bodhicitta, one should still get involved in certain activities, only with different purpose.

Take the example of a moth. Do you know why, whenever a moth sees fire, it must fly directly into the flame even knowing that it will surely be burned to death? Does the moth intentionally want to kill itself? No, it simply loves the fire.

This phenomenon is neither by God’s will nor causeless. Butterflies, moth’s close relatives, are not so sensitive to fire. Perhaps from the standpoint of modern biology or the practice of medicine, it can be explained by a certain substance that moth has that is particularly sensitive to fire. Nowadays, everything can be explained by science anyway. But it is not the most important reason.

All phenomena are the effects of causes of which there are two kinds, proximate cause and distant cause. Distant cause is the one committed long time ago while proximate cause is formed at the present. In the case of the moth, all the explanations we make from the standpoint of physical matter are considered proximate causes. The distant cause is that the moth in its last life was a being much attached to form, one of the five aggregates, who cared strongly about its own look. With this kind of attachment, one will likely be reborn as a moth. The cause of the moth’s desperate tendency to fly into the flame is actually greed or desire.

We are all ordinary people; all must be reborn. No one can stop this, not even the Buddha. If the Buddha were able to end death and rebirth, we would all be out of samsara by now. Unfortunately, that is not the case! No ordinary people can choose what to be in the next life or not to be reborn. If we were to come back to samsara willingly, no one would choose to be animal, let alone hungry ghost or go to the hell realm. Yet, there are innumerable sentient beings in the hell realm, all because of the stubborn desire for samsara.

To those who know little about the Dharma, it is quite complicated to explain the path to liberation. Where is liberation? How to get there? One can always find a way to go to any place on earth from a map, but the path to liberation seems not so straightforward. It would be much easier if one follows the Buddha’s teachings, however. Imagine that all the people on the street are moving forward, but one of them suddenly turns around and starts walking back. On the road of samsara, most sentient beings are moving toward the realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals, whereas Dharma practitioners are heading back to the natural, pure state.

Isn’t it kind of fashionable now to talk about ‘going back to the nature’? But the ‘nature’ that worldly people go back to is not the real thing. The true meaning of going back to the natural state is to give up all desires for samsara and take the path leading to ultimate liberation. So the first thing we should do now is to generate renunciation. From now on, the meaning of life for us should never be merely having money, children, family and so forth.

Some people may not think of samsara as suffering because they themselves have not been through too many miseries so far. The seemingly happy life they are having now already makes them feel on top of the world. Any talk of Pure Land or liberation is basically useless stuff for them. But they are wrong. As they are ignorant of the nature of cyclic existence, there is no way they could know that the good life hardly ever lasts long. Without delving into the details here, one should be able to see clearly the nature of cyclic existence through contemplation of impermanence and especially the woes of samsara as specified in the ordinary preliminaries. It is plainly obvious if the same ignorant way of living is continued, what lies ahead in the future could be very dreadful indeed. So we must turn around.

In order to attain liberation, we need to forsake material wealth, fame and those fulfillments associated with secular life. However, it does not mean that all must be abandoned as even the Buddha needed to beg for alms every day. To the eyes of the ordinary people, the Buddha manifested as someone who also needed food, clothes and other necessities to live. So for us it is even more unlikely that we can completely give up worldly life. But in addition to managing everyday life, we also need to have unshakable determination to take the path to liberation. On this basis, even one single recitation of mantra can begin to turn us around. The more steps we take on the path, the closer we are to liberation. Conversely, to live life the way we used to will take us further away from it.

All these are easily said than done. Since generating renunciation is easier than arousing bodhiccita, we should begin with the former. This is also the Buddha’s way, for fear of discouraging people to continue if they run into trouble doing the most difficult thing first. Thus, having generated renunciation, we then go on to develop bodhiccita and lastly to practice emptiness. Having sufficiently comprehended Madhyamaka of the exoteric school, we can advance to the profound practice of Great Perfection. Such are the most reliable steps for the path.

Although this teaching should be for the beginners, I feel that most people still need to hear. On renunciation and bodhicitta, you can all say a thing or two and pass exams. But can you pass in actions? I don’t think I can pass. If you cannot either, let us all work hard on it.

I gave teachings on renunciation and bodhicitta a few years ago, on emptiness last year. This year the subject is back to the very basics again. You may wonder why, but I think this is necessary. You should take this opportunity to check in terms of real action if you have completed the foundational practice satisfactorily. That is, whether you have made any progress toward the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta, or been positively influenced by the Dharma in any significant way. To be able to satisfy the requirement of foundational practice is the very basic achievement of any practitioner.