What is the purpose of life?

- through Francois Leclercq

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What is the purpose of life? This question has for centuries baffled philosophers and kept weary souls awake at night. Unlike our animal counterparts, humans are unable to let this present moment be “enough”. We always want one more thing to make it better.

Sometimes that thing can be a new job or fancy clothes. At other times, it's recognition from our peers or a little more money in our bank account. Human beings have an innate need to strive for something more.

And when we ask the question, "What is the purpose of life?" What we're really asking is, "What should I be looking for?" »

That is to say, our search for a purpose is the search for a singular desire which, when realized, will justify all the trials we have known.

In Buddhist circles, a common answer to this question is that life has no purpose. Teachers who operate under this assumption posit that if desire is the source of suffering, then getting rid of all desires – including a desire for purpose – will lead to happiness.

But this thought is reductive and erroneous.

Moreover, it does not correspond to traditional Buddhist teachings. If life has no purpose, why did the Buddha go out into the world and teach the Dharma after achieving enlightenment? If life has no purpose, why do bodhisattvas refuse to enter into parinirvana until all sentient beings are saved from suffering?

In order to answer these questions, we must examine the Trikaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, which states that all sentient beings are manifestations of the Buddha's Dharmakaya (wisdom body).

So when we look at other sentient beings, we are looking at ourselves. Any separation we might see is an illusion.

To put it in less metaphysical terms, in the same way that we might see our father's eyes or our mother's hips when we look in the mirror because we are born of their union, a Buddhist sees aspects of the Buddha in every living being because we are all born from the Dharmakaya. In this way, we look at others and see our own face.

It is accepted beforehand that all living beings work for their own benefit. In a strictly material sense, it is the purpose of life. We work to survive and we work to end our own suffering.

That's why every animal on earth eats when hungry, sleeps when tired, and seeks shelter when caught in a storm. They naturally understand that the purpose of life is to continue living as well and as long as they can.

Buddhists, however, take this understanding one step further. We understand that "I" is not limited to our human body. On the contrary, it also exists in every living being that we see.

Thus, the life purpose of the Buddhist practitioner is not simply to ensure that we live as long and as well as possible. We must also do the same for others.

And it is through acts of service – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, etc. – that we realize the purpose of our life. Because it is through such acts that we honor the Buddha who lives both in other sentient beings and in ourselves.

Doctrinally, the purpose of Buddhist life is found in the bodhisattva vows, which state:

Sentient beings are innumerable; I will save them
The delusions are endless; I will see through them
The teachings are endless; I will learn them
The way of Buddha is difficult; I will walk the path

When we study the bodhisattva vows, we find four focal points to which we can direct our attention whenever we feel confused about how to proceed in life.

When we make a commitment to live in service to others, when we study the wisdom of the Buddha and work to clear delusions from our minds, we end suffering in our own lives. Additionally, we make ourselves more able to see and capitalize on opportunities to end suffering in the lives of others.

This way we never have to ask ourselves, "What is the purpose of life?" We just need to walk the path the Buddha made for us 2 years ago. If we do this, the rest naturally takes care of itself.

Even better, we can see the fruits of our labor in daily life. Every time we look around and see our pets sleeping peacefully, our children having a meal, or our co-workers making progress on a problem we've helped them solve, we know we're living our life's purpose.

This is because we work for the benefit of all living beings, and we witness the success of this work.

In this way, acts of service are more than just a means to an end. They are the path to a satisfying and purposeful life.

Namu Amida Butsu

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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