Do all people practicing Buddhism have difficulty answering questions like these:

What gives your life meaning?

What do you like about yourself?

Somebody asked me these questions, and I am having a difficult time answering them. I don't know if it's just me and my circumstances, or if it is my Buddhist practice that keeps me from verbalizing the answer.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunyru Suzuki Roshi says a Buddhist should stay away from excitement which I agree with and try to follow. If I knew I wouldn't wake up tomorrow morning, I don't think I would be particularly upset. Is this a normal feeling Buddhists have or come to after they have been practicing?

  • Edit: added tags to your question to increase discoverability.
    – user2424
    Jul 9, 2015 at 10:08
  • 2
    One of my teachers at the end of a retreat was offering some guidelines, and one of them was "Decline to answer questions that bring up Story." The word Story means the self-involved ego-related things about life, things we tell other people and ourselves to reinforce a self-concept. That said, I think it is still OK for life to have meaning to you, and for you to like things!
    – user2341
    Jul 9, 2015 at 12:36
  • When declining, how should one respond to their question ?
    – pmagunia
    Jul 9, 2015 at 18:55
  • 1
    of course they're difficult to answer; they're meaningless questions.
    – Ryan
    Jul 10, 2015 at 15:49

3 Answers 3


tl;dr: I think it is normal, you just need time to get used to it. It will pass. I think it will be useful for you to investigate, why do you feel the desire to be "normal"? What part of you feels insecure?

I can only offer my anecdotal support - yes, I've felt like this too.

At one point I couldn't even fill out the "About me" section of my social media profile, or a form for a retreat that asked me to describe myself. I mean, what do I put there? I couldn't really define myself by my samsaric interests of the past, and I didn't identify as a Buddhist or some other "ist" either because it's my present vehicle to the truth, it is not me.

Then I began to wonder if my friends will consider me weird. And I also realized it didn't matter much to me what anyone thought.

It took me a while to accept totally that this identity-less person is who I am, and I am fine with it. What helped me was to listen to several interviews of spiritually awakening people on batgap.com - after hearing several hundred interviews I had the confidence that this is quite okay. I was not very different from the people being interviewed in my mind state and experiences, and they all seemed pretty together in their external identities after a few years of being lost, so I felt okay.

These days if someone asks me who I am, I don't have the deer in the headlights look - instead I try to imagine what the person wants to hear, and reveal that aspect of my externally visible identity, even though internally I have none.

And yes, being okay with dying is pretty normal at this stage of acceptance.

  • Wow that gives me a lot of consolation. I'm so glad you shared your experience. Thank you.
    – pmagunia
    Jul 9, 2015 at 4:55
  • Glad it helped. You're welcome.
    – Buddho
    Jul 9, 2015 at 5:35
  • Thank you for this great answer Buddho. Btw I sent you an email.
    – user2424
    Jul 9, 2015 at 9:51

There is a subtle danger here that I think a lot of people fall into - namely identifying with non-identity (says the guy with the username Nemo...heh). I think one of the more glaring examples of this sort of thing are the people who refuse to capitalize the letter "I" when talking about themselves. They make a big show of being beyond the confines of ego. They can't wait to tell you just how humble they are and how their existence and personal identity is of petty importance.

This a whole lot of rubbish, really. Buddhism doesn't seek out to wipe away all traces of your personality. It doesn't try to dash your dreams or eradicate the joys you find in life. What it does try to do is keep your from being dominated by them. If you've ever had the pleasure of meeting someone who has been practicing for awhile, one thing you'll notice is that they aren't stick-in-the-mud types, holier-than-thou, disconnected, or aloof. If anything, they are a bigger, bolder, and braver version of who they were before they began practicing. They are more themselves, not less.

Personally, I think anyone who says they have no fear of death is blowing smoke too. I know people who are deeply enlightened who fear social gatherings, public speaking, and flying! If you practice, you might not be faced with the same kind of existential dread of your own demise as someone else might be, but let's be honest here. It's a journey into what poet Francois Rabelais called a "great perhaps". There's always some trepidation in journeying into the unknown.

A little Zen story to summarize:

In ancient days an old woman made offering to a hermit over a period of twenty years, and one day she sent her sixteen-year-old niece to take food to the hermit, telling her to make advances to him and to see what he would do. So the girl lay her head on the hermits lap and said, How is this?

The hermit said, The withered tree is rooted in an ancient rock in bitter cold during winter months; there is no warmth, no life.

The girl reported this to her aunt, and the old woman said, That vulgarian! How outrageous! To think that I have made offerings to him for twenty years!

So she drove the hermit away and burnt down his cottage.

  • In the version of that story which I had read, the complaint isn't that the monk didn't respond with passion, the complaint is that he didn't respond with "loving-kindness": No Loving-Kindness
    – ChrisW
    Jul 9, 2015 at 14:32
  • They aren't mutually exclusive. ;-)
    – user698
    Jul 9, 2015 at 15:25
  • Incidentally, I'm fairly certain the bit about compassion was added later as people tried to intellectualize the content into something more "Buddhist" sounding. The koan originally appears in Entangling Vines and does not include anything about loving kindness. postimg.org/image/677lkrtw7
    – user698
    Jul 9, 2015 at 18:07

The teachers on the retreat I went on a year ago spoke about Character, Story and Texture. These are three important concepts for navigating an awakening life.

Character is the person in the role of you at the time. You are free to do whatever you wish with this actor. It is put on, so you can change it. I actually have about 10 personality facets which respond to life and act at various times, although mostly it is "just doing". People always wonder how this is progress, to have more facets and not just one. One is a trap. An inflexible one is a trap. A defined one is a trap. So, just get on with it, don't chain yourself to a self-image.

Story is what we tell ourselves and others to reinforce the safety of knowing what we are. Story is to be avoided, by not telling it to others, and not allowing the tape to run in your mind. We do not know what we are, and it is none of our business. In this way, as you said, it does not matter if "we" live or die. Good call.

Texture is the experience of living. Whatever is. It is irrefutable and unarguable, because it is what is happening. It needs no justification. If you are drinking bad coffee, the texture of your experience is bad. If you are having good sex, the texture of your experience is good. As one of the teachers said, "Why would we want Texture to flatline?" Why indeed? Texture is truth. Personally, I think you can learn a lot from excitement. The old Zen saying is: "Anyone can hold a sleeping baby!"

So, when people ask you questions about yourself, you should... haw haw, you thought I was going to answer, didn't you? This response will self-destruct in 5 seconds. (Cue Mission Impossible theme music) aaand... Cut! [This message was brought to you by Heiligtum, R'Tah and Gina]

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