(12) What is the Significance of Life?

What is the significance of life? This is an important question. After birth, a human being rapidly ages, then dies. Between the processes of birth, ageing, being sick and dying, he is busily working, eating, and grooming… But what is there to achieve? What is the significance of this? These questions are a puzzle. As children, we unconsciously follow the social norms, and often live without thinking about these questions. This is common. But for those who have a more sensitive perception of their situations, those living in unfavourable environments, those experiencing failure in their career, or those who are debilitated by illnesses, may lose some, or all of their hope. Then questions arise, “What is the significance of life? What are we busy indulging in?” Although these questions sometimes come to us, or linger in our mind, we may feel there is no way out. We keep on indulging in working, eating, and grooming.

But what actually is the meaning of our lives?

For some, “Everything is void” is the answer. For them, it is meaningless to engage oneself busily in working, eating, or grooming…. Let me tell you about one of the old popular songs. It was called the “Awareness Song”. The initial part of the song was,

“The sky is nothing,
the earth is nothing,
and human beings are pervasively in between.”

It then continued,

“The husband is nothing,
the wife is nothing,
and when disaster comes, all must part.
The mother is nothing,
the son is nothing,
there is no meeting after death.”

In the last line it says,

“Living is just like the bee collecting nectar,
after the collection of nectar from all the flowers,
and the manufacturing of honey,
the effort eventually becomes void as old age arrives.”

How depressing this song was, how lifeless! “Everything is just nothing”. It suggests that life is meaningless. This is vastly different from the concept of “Everything is empty” in Buddhism.

The “Awareness Song” represents perceptions which are dull, depressing and nihilistic. Buddhism rejects the notion of ultimativity, but recognizes the relative significance of reality and lives. The Buddha discovered the universal truth about life which revealed an ultimate refuge for us all.

Although there are certainly insecurities, sadness, and sorrow in the journey of life, it does not mean that life is meaningless. Although life may be imperfect, there should still be something meaningful that can console us to continue our lives. The old saying in Chinese,

“To achieve virtue,
To achieve distinction,
To achieve glory by writing,”

are the “Three Immortal Acts”. That is, if we have lived and performed these Three Immortal Acts, then the purpose of our lives is fulfilled and this has will be an ever-lasting significance.

Generally, the significance of life for most people can be divided into two groups; (i) the significance is within the present life and world; and (ii) the significance is in the future heaven. Those who belong to the first group can be further divided into three types.

1. Life is for the family – Some people place great emphasis on the continuity of the family. For them, even though the individual may pass away, the fact that the family continues means that there is an ever-lasting significance for their lives. This concept is common to Confucian philosophy in China. People must remember and appreciate their ancestors. The elderly only wish for a few grandchildren. While alive, they propagate their families and look after the grandchildren. For life after death, they look forward to the worship of the descendants. With this view of life, they are able to withstand all the suffering, and lead contented lives. According to this concept, there is a saying in Chinese,

“There are three major offences
against filial piety,
and the gravest offence is
if one does not produce an heir.”

In addition, one’s descendants will reap the fruits of whatever deeds one has done, either good or bad. Thus, there is a another saying in Chinese,

“A family of accumulated good deeds
shall be blessed with abundance.
A family of accumulated evil deeds
shall suffer misfortune.”

2. Life is for the country – Some people focus their attentions on their nation and country. The significance of life is to contribute to the enhancement of national pride or development. Extremely patriotic people think that individuals belong to the nation, and it is only within the context of the nation that an individual’s life has any significance. For these people, the only purpose of life is to implement the country’s goals. This concept stems from the same origin as the concept of the family.

In the past, there were tribes who treated the whole tribe as one unit. If an individual in the tribe came under duress, it was perceived as a risk to the whole tribe, and hence the whole tribe responded to the threat. Under this concept, those who sacrificed themselves for the sake of the whole tribe were elevated to the level of a God. As the tribes have gradually expanded (or assimilated/conquered other tribes) to form countries in these modern times, so the concept of the tribe has been replaced with the concept of a nation. Thus the significance of life based on the prosperity and strength of a nation is quite different to the Confucian ideal emphasizing nurturing and survival activities for only close relatives.

3. Life is for all Mankind – Some people prefer to consider humanity as a whole. The significance of life is on the progress of human society. Only with the progress and civilization of the human race is there a meaning to life. With this aspiration for all human beings, one should strive for the development of all humanity, and work hard for the benefit of the majority.

However, to place the significance of life on the family, or nation, or the human race is not one that people like to do willingly. We try to hang on to something because of the fear that our body and mind will degenerate one day. But can we assure that these are the real meanings of life? If the significance of life is on the family, for those who do not have any offspring, does it mean that it is meaningless to live? If the significance of life is on the country, from the perspective of history, there were so many highly prosperous countries and civilizations, but where are they now? They have long vanished and are only regarded as anthropological evidences now! Then, what about living for the advancement of mankind? Human activities rely on the existence of the earth. Although it may still be a very long time to go, it is inevitable that the earth will degenerate one day. What is significance of life when the earth ceases to support the human activities? It seems these three significances of life adopted by most people will eventually become void. Their ideas cannot get away from the ideology mentioned in the Awareness Song.

The concept of “a future in the heaven” has been used by most worldly religions, especially religion with God in the Western countries to explain the significance of life. In these religions, the world where we humans now live, is just a illusion. Human beings that live in this world, believe in the God, love the God, and abide by His instructions in order to go to the Heaven in the future. Some religions say, the end of the world is coming, and those who have no faith in the God will be trapped in the hell of eternal suffering; whereas those who believe in the God will get into the heaven and enjoy the eternal bliss. So it would seem, all the faith, morality and good actions people do is motivated by their desire to prepare for their entry into the heaven. But this heaven is something for the future. It is impossible to go to heaven while still living as a human being. Therefore, the concept of a heaven is only a belief. In reality, heaven cannot be proven to exist. It seems rather vague to use the existence of something that cannot be proven as one’s purpose for living!

As mentioned earlier, Buddhism denies that there is any permanent and absolute significance of life, and described life as unsatisfactory (s. dukkha) and void (s. sunyata). However, Buddha acknowledged that there is a relative significance of life, and it is through this relative and conditioned nature of life that we can achieve and realize the universal truth. According to the discourses of the Buddha, our lives, and the world, are nothing but phenomena that rise and fall. It is a process of forming and degenerating. There is nothing that is not subject to change or impermanence. Impermanence indicates that there is no eternal bliss, because even a joyous state will eventually cease and become suffering. Because there is suffering, there will be no ultimate and complete freedom. Hence, the Buddha taught about non-self (‘self’ implies the existence). The Brahmin of the Buddha’s era considered life and the world by conceptualizing that there was a metaphysical entity who has the nature of “permanence”, “happiness” and “self”. This concept was completely refuted by the Buddha and He described it as delusion. The Buddha observed the reality and taught the truth of “impermanence”, “suffering” and “non-self”. From these truths of life, i.e. impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, how can we establish the significance of our lives?

According to the Buddha, life and the world, and existence, are “Dependent Originated”. Dependent origination means that all phenomena and all existence, do not arise due to the instruction of a God, or nature, or fate, or spontaneity, but to the Law of Dependent Origination. Under the interplay of the main, auxiliary, and the various complicated conditions and reasons, we exist now as we are. Everything exists due to causes and conditions. From the perspective of the causes and conditions, existence is referred to as the effect. Therefore, life and the world are the product of a stream of extremely complicated causes and effects, and they are strictly abide by the Law of Cause and Effect.

The existence of human beings is therefore entirely dependent-originated. Dependent origination has a concomitant reciprocating relationship externally, and a past-to-future continuous relationship internally. For example, we have a reciprocating relationship and mutually-affected action and reaction relationship simultaneously with other human beings, other sentient beings, and nature, which includes the earth, water, fire and wind (air). One type of existence, constitutes one type of activity that has at the same time, different effects on oneself as well as to the others, resulting in different karmic relationships. For instance, in one country, the political, economic, educational or foreign policy, will definitely affect other countries in some ways, although the greatest effect will be on the country itself. This is the same for a social organization, or a family. All actions will affect other social organizations or families; but the greatest effect is on the particular social organization or family itself. As for the individual, his speech and behavior will affect the others, but at the same time these actions will also affect the individual and his future. Even for those ideas within his mind that are not expressed, they will also affect him physiologically and mentally. The dependent-originated world and life is actually the network of our relationship with one and another. One could be motivated or being motivated. In the Sutras, this is described as “the illusory network” or “the pervasive network”. Understanding this infinite, reciprocating, and continuous relationship can help us comprehend our life and everything in the world.

From the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism explains that the body and mind activity of an individual, be it good or evil, will not only affect the individual internally, creating potentially habitual tendencies (karma), but also influence others externally. When our body and mind disintegrate and death comes, our habitual tendencies (the karma), with our desire to be reborn and attachment to life as the conditions, propagates into a new composition of body and mind. This is the beginning of a new life. From continuous causes and conditions and their effects, impermanence and non-self, there is an infinite flow of life which continues from one to another. (This is different from the teachings of other religions that there is a permanent soul.) This is like a country, where there is a continuous disintegration of dynasties followed by the formation of new dynasties.

Life is dependent originated. For all the good and evil deeds we do, their results will be experienced in this life, or in our new lives in the future. The Law of Cause and Effect is the axiom. The combinations of mind and body of this life will disintegrate and die. All our actions, the good and evil deeds, will determine our future. The karma of sentient beings is continuous, be it good or evil, has a positive or negative significance which will influence our conditions in the future. Therefore, death is part of the process of life; it is not a sudden disappearance. Every act has its result, life after life, we continue to create new karma. When we experience temporary suffering or downfall, we should not feel disappointed. It will be only a temporary phenomena. Our future may still be bright. The avoidance of suffering and the attainment of happiness can only be achieved by avoiding evil and doing good according to the Law of Cause and Effect. It cannot be achieved by pure luck nor by the help of any God.

To be able to lead a human life is actually the result of the good karma. The good or evil deeds of this life will determine the higher or lower realms of our future life. The Buddha kept telling us that “It is precious to be born as human”. However, many Buddhists sometimes misunderstand the teaching of the Buddha. They only brood over the suffering of human beings, and do not appreciate that it is precious to be born as a human being!

According to the Sutra, humans have three supreme characteristics. These characteristics are not only better than animals, ghosts and beings in the hells, but they are also better than the Devas in the heavenly realms. What are these characteristics? They are morality, knowledge and steadfast determination. In the human world, we know about suffering and are able to help those who suffer. But morality, knowledge and human determination is sometimes not completely satisfactory. It has its side effects’ sometimes including a tendency for humans to self-destruct. But through these three qualities, human beings are able to develop a sophisticated culture. This is a fact that cannot be denied.

During the evolution of mankind, we have come to realize that there is dissatisfaction and incompleteness in life. This prompts us to pursue perfection and completion. Human beings can avoid evil deeds, perform good deeds and accumulate merits. We can upgrade ourselves. According to Buddhism, humans are the only beings that can renounce the world and aspire to the mind of Bodhi (Bodhicitta). Only human beings can transcend relativity and have the possibility to experience the absolute state (which corresponds to the initial state of enlightenment). How precious human life is! We should understand the value of, “It is precious to be born as human”. Then the significance of life can be well understood. We should appreciate and utilize our lives, and do our best not to waste it.

Let us talk about the significance of life from the perspective of absolutes. Human beings are able to practice meritorious deeds and upgrade themselves. But actually this may not be perfect. It does not carry an eternal significance because any wisdom or merit will disintegrate in time. We can only say that as humans, we are still experiencing ups and downs in the cycle of transmigration. But we are able to realize our weaknesses. From these unsatisfactoriness, the ambition and the urge to attain perfection and completion arise. The worry is, if our wish for perfection is unrealistic, we may be led to believe in the imaginative eternal world of heaven by the followers of a divinity.

According to Buddhism, the reality of life is dependent originated. The only way to transcend the state of relativity and experience the state of absoluteness, is to understand, grasp and experience the nature of dependent-origination. Dependent-origination is a phenomenon of impermanence and non-self. Life is also impermanent (not everlasting), and non-self (not self-exists). Everything exists according to the Law of Dependent-Origination. From the perspective of the Law of Cause and Effect, why do we have to live life after life without a halt? The reason is, sentient beings including human beings cling and become attached to their own self, and they conduct all sorts of activity with this self-attachment. These activities generate karma, resulting in the individual’s repertoire of cause and effect. This leads to their continuous existence in the cycle of life and death. Conversely, if these self-attachments can be eradicated, the conditions to live will not arise. Then, we will be free from the cycle of live and death and attain the state of:

“Free from the phenomena of birth and extinction,
Immersed in the bliss (s. sukha) of Nirvana.”

Why do we have self-attachment? Self-attachment (it is the cause of selfishness in human beings) arises from our ignorance. We are being deluded and confused by worldly phenomena and unable to recognize the truth of dependent-origination of all phenomena, i.e. not knowing things as they truly are. From this phenomena of birth and extinction, Buddha shows us the eternal nature of dependent origination through various profound skilful means. With reference to the worldly phenomena, this Law of Dependent Origination is beyond time and space, beyond relativity and beyond birth and extinction. The Law of Dependent Origination is always as such. It is because of the defilement of self-clinging and self-attachment that human beings are deluded. With our morality, wisdom, and determination, and the guidance of the Buddha, we may develop our practice and transcend the mundane state of human beings. Then we may realise and experience the ultimate absolute from the dependent originated worldly conditions. If we can attain this blissful state, we will find that although life is still life, every present state of life is eternal, and every moment is a moment of liberation. There may be some difference between the teaching of Sravakayana and Mahayana, but the core principles are the same.

Life is meaningful. Not only should we discover its worthiness, we should also realize its ultimate significance. With this human life, we can progress to the attainment of Buddhahood. How precious our lives are!

(Translated by Mok Chung, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rony. (18-10-96)

1. Ultimativity here refers to an ultimate beginning, end, or permanent state.