Wednesday, December 6, 2017

White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life

What's the purpose of life? This question has followed me like a shadow since I was a teenager.  That is to say, I've always wanted to know why I'm here, and if there's some special meaning to my existence. 

In the past, this was the cause of a lot of hand-wringing and sleepless nights because it's one of those questions that doesn't have a definite answer; at least not in a conventional sense.

In college, I attempted to find a solution in existential philosophy. I tore through the works of Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, etc. in an attempt to solve the puzzle of my life's meaning. It was an exciting time during my studies, and I read many fascinating works. But I'd be lying if I said that I found an answer to my question.

In the end, I learned to make peace with not knowing my purpose. This wasn't a perfect solution, but it helped me sleep at night. After all, there were some things in life that my frail, human mind wasn't capable of piecing together. And I felt no shame in admitting that.

Later, I became Buddhist, and I decided that my life's purpose was, to save all sentient beings from suffering. This is a wholesome, noble endeavor. But it's not without problems.

After all, how does one go about saving all sentient beings? And what happens if we fail?  To be clear, I haven't abandoned this goal as the attempt to save all beings is an incumbent part of Mahayana Buddhism. But I no longer think it's proper to call it my life's purpose.  My thinking changed as a result of reading the following koan.

A monk once asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" Shozan answered, "A piece of white cloud does not show any ugliness."

In this dialogue, the monk was wrestling with one of life's big questions. In his frustration, he asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" In other words, he wanted to know if we can ever truly escape duality. Can we live a life without criticism or fear?

Instead of giving a direct answer, Shozan turned the monk's attention to the clouds in the hope that he would learn from their example.

White clouds don't show ugliness because they don't seek validation.  They don't look to others for guidance or ask questions like, "What's the purpose of my life?"

Instead, they focus on existing 100% as a cloud; without fear or reservation. That's all that's required, and that's more than enough. Because a white cloud that lives fully eventually becomes a rain cloud. And it delivers precious water to rivers and trees.

In it's wisdom, the white cloud does not seek the purpose of life. Rather, it lives each moment of life with purpose.

As I pondered this thought, I realized that my search for meaning was rooted in dualistic thinking. I was convinced that there must be, "something more" than normal life, and this conviction caused me a great deal of ugliness/ pain.  Furthermore, my search suggested that my life was lacking in some way.

However, this koan has shown me that I don't need to try and become a good Buddhist, brother, or friend. I simply need to embody those roles fully. I need to focus on living 100%, and being present to the people around me. If I do that, then like the white cloud who eventually delivers rain, I'll give the world what it needs, precisely when it needs it.

I don't need to find the purpose of life. I just need to live.


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White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life