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According to Buddhism, if exists, what is the meaning of life, and if different, what is the purpose of life? And where does this meaning and purpose come from?

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I think that, in the zen soto tradition, the answer would be the famous word of Dogen Zenji: "あるがまま" (read: arugamama) which kind of translate as "things are so".

Zen encourage a radical acceptation of "things as they are", and it is believed that through this radical acceptance of "things as they are", right here, right now, a deeper and non-intellectual understanding of life can be reached, one that words can't describe.

Therefore such question can not be answered. The Buddha himself simply remained silent when such metaphysical questions were addressed to him.

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    This is a good answer from the Theravada tradition as well, I think. – yuttadhammo Oct 2 '14 at 14:08
  • Marking this as answer as it seems to be the first and most appropriate. From all the generous answers below, to be happy and to cease suffering appears to be more of challenges than the purpose or meaning itself, which may be undefined. Thank you all. – Jake Oct 2 '14 at 16:47
  • I think that the ceasing of suffering isn't even a challenge. Because a challenge implies a Goal, and a goal implies meaning, purpose or desire, thus suffering. But in Zen terms, the process of ceasing of suffering is something you do or something you don't. – eric Jan 8 '15 at 19:45
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First, I think it's important to realize that Buddhism doesn't place special significance on this life, in the sense that it is simply part of a constant stream of never-ending lives. So, many of our Western preconceptions about purpose and meaning do not apply. The Buddha joined many other religious teachers in denouncing conventional purpose and meaning in the world and worldly existence:

171. Come! Behold this world, which is like a decorated royal chariot. Here fools flounder, but the wise have no attachment to it.

286. “Here shall I live during the rains, here in winter and summer” – thus thinks the fool. He does not realize the danger (that death might intervene).

287. As a great flood carries away a sleeping village, so death seizes and carries away the man with a clinging mind, doting on his children and cattle.

-- Dhp. (Buddharakkhita, trans.)

The only possible purpose would be to effect a lasting change to this cyclical existence; in Buddhism this means breaking the chain of causation and freeing oneself from the endless cycle of birth and death:

153. Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking in the builder of this house (of life). Repeated birth is indeed suffering!

154. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.

-- Ibid

I don't see this as being a valid answer to "what is the purpose/meaning of life", though. Buddhism, being inherently atheistic focuses more on the nature of things than their meaning or purpose. Meaning and purpose must be assigned by an external force, either human or divine. Both such assignations are considered conventional constructs according to Buddhism. Even the four noble truths are called paññatti - designations or conventions.

This idea is quite clear throughout the Buddha's teaching, which is mostly concerned with describing the nature and interactions between realities rather than ascribing a particular purpose or meaning to them. Even the so-called goal of Buddhism is simply the most reasonable/logical choice - given that all beings seek happiness, they should therefore rationally seek out freedom from suffering.

So, here's how I would answer your questions:

What is the meaning of life and where does it come from?

Meaning, according to Buddhism, must come from an external source and is artificial and relative. The only true meaning of life is, as was answered already, life.

What is the purpose of life and where does it come from?

Purpose as well must come from an external source, though there is an argument to be made from logic and reason that a being wishing for happiness should take as their purpose the attainment of freedom from suffering.

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For sentient beings, the meaning of life is to be happy. Without happiness, nothing else matters, right? And when you are happy, you don't need anything else. So, for a sentient being, there is no meaning or purpose higher than being happy.

In one of the teachings I received, there is this concept of Five Levels of Happiness:

  1. Happiness of having your natural needs satisfied (food, sex, survival)
  2. Happiness of possessing things (money etc.)
  3. Happiness of success or achievement
  4. Happiness of helping society: teaching, healing.
  5. Happiness of Enlightenment

On each level, there is always desire for more. No matter how happy they are, sentient beings always want more happiness. In this sense we can say that the sentient beings are hardwired to want to attain Enlightenment.

Now, in order to attain Enlightenment, we have to pass so-called Three Gates (basically, clearly see and thus accept three facts):

  1. That life at large is never without suffering. Trouble is part of the way the world operates.
  2. That nothing is stable, every combination, good or bad, is temporary.
  3. That in the absolute sense, life at large has no single meaning. Or we could say it has an infinite number of meanings, which is the same as to say it has none.

As you can see from #3, the concept of "meaning" exists only in the relative sense, from a perspective of a sentient being. And like I said above, sentient beings want to be happy, that's their meaning.

According to Buddha, the highest and the most stable happiness is Bodhi -- the state of having transcended ignorance, the basis of happiness/unhappiness juxtaposition, which (basis) includes the illusion of ego and the notion of Enlightenment. And what happens when you transcend ignorance and illusions? You see things as they are, in all their infinitely multi-faceted suchness!

But sentient beings seeking happiness get confused about what's bad / what's good and do all kinds of things that get them further and further away from happiness. Only when we awaken to things as they are ("attain Bodhi"), our quest for happiness is over, the meaning of life is actualized.

This realization is the source of compassion: when we understand that numberless sentient beings suffer because they are so confused, we naturally want to save them. Hence the vow of Bodhisattvas:

Sentient beings are numberless -- we vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible -- we vow to end them
The dharmas are boundless -- we vow to master them
The Buddha's way is incomparable -- we vow to attain it.

P.S. also see my answer to the follow-up question.

  • Can I read more about the so-called "Three Gates": are they describes in a specific sutta or elsewhere, do they have a specific name (in another language)? If I Google for "Three Gates" I find many other uses of those words (i.e. other sets of 3 gates, but not those 3 gates). – ChrisW Oct 2 '14 at 13:25
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    Three Gates are a part of the commentary tradition around Three Marks Of Existence in context of Vipassana meditation. – Andrei Volkov Oct 2 '14 at 17:19
  • Is this view specific to a certain branch of Buddhism? – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 9:19
  • roughly, Vajrayana – Andrei Volkov Oct 3 '14 at 12:21
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I guess the classic answer is as follows.

  • Life exists, and suffering exists (death, poverty, illness, etc.) -- that's observable
  • Suffering has a cause, there's a Way to end suffering, and that Way (which leads to the end of suffering) is Buddhist practice

Life may not have a "meaning" as such, but it is experienced.

Sooner or later that experience might inevitable seem unpleasant.

Buddhism lets you to separate yourself from, not become to subject to, that suffering.

Sorry if it sounds negative.

There are versions of Buddhist cosmology which teach that there's a heaven, you can go to heaven ... but that's temporary, everything is temporary (a.k.a. "samsara"), that even heaven is unsatisfactory (e.g. because it's temporary), and Buddhism gives you the means to escape from that endless cycle.


There's also a strongly compassionate side to Buddhism. The meaning/purpose of life is to alleviate suffering, and not only your own suffering but of "all sentient beings" or something like that.


According to Buddhism, if exists, what is the meaning of life, and if different, what is the purpose of life?

The goal or ambition (is that the same as "purpose"?) is therefore to become more 'enlightened':

  • Don't cause more suffering (for yourself, or for others)
  • Help (yourself and others) to become immune to, not subject to, suffering

And where does this meaning and purpose come from?

Well, the world (including life and suffering) has no discernible beginning: a beginning point is not evident.

However you don't need to know too much about the past. The parable of the arrow suggests there are various questions which aren't skillful/useful to ask, and that the Buddha himself asked the right question: i.e. "what is the cause of suffering and how can I end suffering?" It's the right question because it's like asking, "How can we remove that arrow without killing the patient?" Relatively speaking, in that situation, other questions aren't important.

Perhaps you're asking, 'Why would we want to "end suffering"? Why is "ending suffering" the goal or purpose of life?'

I'm not sure that Buddhism answers that.

The fact that "suffering exists" is observable. The Buddha observed that aging, illness, death, and separation exist, and that people find these to be cause for suffering. Suffering is defined as (or means) "unpleasant". And "sentient beings" are assumed to not want suffering, to be wanting to avoid suffering.

So far as I know, that's:

  • Inherent in the definitions of the words
  • Observable through (everyone's/anyone's) personal experience
  • Axiomatic (assumed rather than proven)
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The meaning of life is life.

Contrary to all conventional wisdom, I'll even go to answer the next question, because the parallelism is so beautiful: the meaning of death is death.

  • I like this answer, even though others have flagged and downvoted it... welcome to Buddhism.SE – yuttadhammo Oct 2 '14 at 14:10
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Since I can't seem to find any explicit Buddhist meaning or purpose of life, I am left to deduce it myself.

There is no purpose of life in the conventional sense of a grand and ultimate calling for human beings. Our immediate purpose in life is assigned by our parents who bring us to this world in the first place. We should ask our parents, "Why did you give birth to me?", then we ask the people around us "What do you want me to do for you?" and finally we are also free to ask ourselves in a third-person pespective "What do I want to do with this life that I have control over". Each living human being have control over at least one life, and the purpose of that life is therefore tailored according to needs of the environment and circumstances.

Meaning of life on the other hand is a different attribute. Meaning is not assigned, but rather created through living the life, or in other words, through steering the life that we have in control. At the end of the game of life, we look back and see for ourselves if the life/lives that we have steered, the deeds we have done, the purposes we have fulfilled; whether they are meaningful or not. Meaning of life cannot be concluded until our game is over.

This, i think is the purpose and meaning of life, and where they come from.

  • In the sense of your Question and your Answer, I think that you are correct: each person gets to see / define meaning and purpose. Maybe your parents had you because they felt it was their purpose to do so. In that case, their answer cannot be yours: you did not create yourself. But in terms of a larger question - what is the purpose of Life - in general, I cannot see how anyone can state that. I think that the Void gave rise to Experience so as to know itself, and that is all that can be said. Would any other answer be acceptable or satisfying to everyone? – user2341 Dec 23 '15 at 14:26
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According to Buddhism, if exists, what is the meaning of life, and if different, what is the purpose of life? And where does this meaning and purpose come from

Be here now.

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In a similar response citing immeasurability when buddha is asked to pick between two alternatives regarding arahant after death: annihilation or eternal freedom from illness. The buddha responds: there is no measure of him who achieved the goal. That by which one could define him, that is not for him. When all phenomena (dhamma) are removed, then all means of description are also removed. What i interprete from this all is that description over description can never end. I am afraid that this question can never get an anwser, because who ever will have the actual anwser, can not describe that anwser.

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As someone said before, meaning of life is life, meaning of death is death.

But, contrary to what everyone else said, I am going to challenge the bit about the absolute purpose of life; the general purpose of all life is to procreate, therefore preserving life, and ultimately die.

In its essence, described as such, life is just fleeting revolt against impermanence comparable to passing storm clouds in the sky. And life's sole purpose is this constant cycle of fruitless denial of impermanence. All organic life stems from this struggle by its nature. Note how even evolution makes us more adaptable to new conditions so we can preserve life continuity better.

It is very similar to the deluded nature of our mind, and the desire of both self-improvement and attachment.

But even in the scenario of humanity achieving a completely non-organic immortal form of life such as synthetic human being with transferable consciousness; it will too, eventually die out along with the death of the universe as it is due to all matter decay and laws of thermodynamics.

Life is just "Rage, rage against the dying of the light". Note that this is not nihilism, because absolute purpose of life isn't the same as relative purpose of life of individuals, and suffering, that definitely exists here and now. As what Andrei Volkov said "(...) for a sentient being, there is no meaning or purpose higher than being happy", and this matters, because suffering matters.

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You have to define the premises clearly.

Obviously, for those of us far from liberation the purpose is to tread our way to enlightenment and for the enlightened to be compassionate and a light for us yet suffering.

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