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In the search for meaning and purpose of life, it seems that Buddhism is silent on this issue that many modern people are concerned with. The way to reconcile seems to be "accept things as it is".

However, I personally know people who have trouble living without a "meaning of life". They ask themselves questions like "Why do I need to do this? Why can't I do that instead?". They are not nonconformist, but just does not see the point of doing anything at all. These thoughts can actually lead some of them to become suicidal as a form of release.

What does Buddhism teach about how lack of meaning of life can make someone so negative, and the method, procedures and way of thinking that can help people to "accept things as it is"?

Notes to my personal understanding to help with better quality answers.

  • "Meaning of Life" and "Purpose of Life" are not necessarily the one and same thing.
  • Not finding the meaning/purpose does not mean it doesn't exist

Clarification: I am not blaming Buddhism for "lack of meaning/purpose of life", although some of those troubled people claim to be Buddhists themselves. Instead, I am exploring the real Buddhist way of managing this anxiety. In other beliefs and religion, the meaning is prescribed and the troubled people find peace in that. But my views are similar to the Buddhist view, so I hope to find a way to cope without resorting to those religions or "artificial comfort".

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As I answered in the other question, meaning and purpose are artificial assignations from external sources. It is impossible for anything to have more meaning than is intrinsic in its nature; therefore, the meaning of something is its nature, and the purpose is subjective and relative.

As to how this makes one feel, it almost sounds as though you are blaming Buddhism for what is really just the nature of reality. That would be akin to blaming climate change researchers for exposing the dismal truth of climate change. Which is better - to live in denial of reality or to be forewarned and actually able to act logically and rationally in accordance with that reality?

It is true that some truth often seems to cause depression in people, even leading them to suicide. In reality, though, it is not the truth that leads to depression or suicide, it is delusion and ignorance in the face of what is feared and abhorred. Just like any other unwelcome phenomenon, the truth of suffering is met with horror by those who do not understand it. This is the case whether it is explicitly related to them in advance or whether they find out by themselves when they get old, sick, die, etc.

Truth itself leads to freedom; truly realizing that the meaning of life is nothing more than life, that there is no set purpose in life, and that the only logical path for one seeking happiness is to become free from suffering, leads only to peace and contentment. Depression and suicide, on the other hand, are caused by a desire for meaning and purpose fuelled by delusion.

As to acceptance, this is not exactly what I understand to be the prescribed "goal" in Buddhism; rather than acceptance, the goal is understanding (specifically of the four noble truths) and subsequent rejection* of rebirth (and thus life).

Through not seeing the Four Noble Truths,
Long was the weary path from birth to birth.
When these are known, removed is rebirth's cause,
The root of sorrow plucked; then ends rebirth.

-- DN 16 (Vajira, trans)

This rejection does indeed lead to a sort of apathy towards what is therefore seen as meaningless; such apathy is a necessary bi-product of the understanding of meaninglessness. Depression and suicidal ideation are, as stated, not - they come, rather, from the inability to accept the truth, which is in turn born of desire and craving, which is in turn born of the ignorant belief in purpose / meaning.


* On the use of the word "rejection" in regards to rebirth and life:

But if this [knowledge] sees Nibbāna, the state of peace, as peaceful, it rejects the occurrence of all formations and enters only into Nibbāna.

-- Vism. XXI.64 (Nyanamoli, Trans)

and

“Bhikkhus, just as even a trifling amount of feces is foul smelling, so too I do not praise even a trifling amount of existence, even for a mere finger snap.”

-- AN 1.328 (Bodhi, Trans)

  • -1 for "rejection of rebirth (and thus life)". Perhaps you could rephrase this to use something more positive than "rejection" (of life), e.g. "letting go". – Andrei Volkov Oct 2 '14 at 21:27
  • @AndreiVolkov, Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but my reading of the "rejection of rebirth (and thus life)" is that it addresses more directly the problem that the suicidal person imagines they are solving. Dying doesn't end birth and death; rather, it perpetuates it. If you want to really solve the problem, you need to cut at the root, ignorance. This is a far more radical action than suicide. – Dan Bryant Oct 3 '14 at 0:04
  • @AndreiVolkov I don't understand the problem... the Buddha clearly rejected further rebirth, and since rebirth is a requisite of future life, he therefore rejected life as well. – yuttadhammo Oct 3 '14 at 1:59
  • This answer is a little difficult for me to comprehend. Do you have a slightly more elaborated explanation on "rejection of rebirth (and thus life)"? Like what does it mean to reject? To refuse to reborn? Or to reject the idea of rebirth? – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 7:21
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    I wonder if it would be possible to soften the message, to use a less ... a less violent word than "reject" (the etymology of "reject" includes "throw"); maybe "discard" or "drop" or something like that. And "rejecting life" sounds like it could be pretty negative: I wonder, is it life itself that's being rejected, or is it "life's illusions", "life's disappointments", "life's preconceptions" ... specifically life's suffering, life's angst, etc. – ChrisW Oct 4 '14 at 21:50
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First of all, "there is no single absolute meaning" does not equate with "nothing matters at all". Despite the absence of absolute meaning, suffering is still bad, and no suffering is still good. Here is your relative purpose: solve your own suffering, and help others solve theirs. Is this not the greatest, most beautiful challenge?

How to accept things as they are? By clearly seeing. Clearly seeing what?

  • That when we don't accept things as they are (that is, when we cling to illusions that mismatch the way things are) -- then the acts we perform are based on a wrong foundation, and therefore lead to wrong results! Hereby is suffering.
  • That when we do accept things as they are -- then we can deal with them properly! Hereby is cessation of suffering.

Now, to accept does not mean to give up. Enlightenment is not powerlessness, it is the state of power, spontaneity, joy, wisdom, and compassion. You stop maintaining yourself in maimed and injured condition, and learn to dance like no one is watching. And once you've learned it yourself, you pay it forward and teach the others.

Absence of single absolute goal means you are free to do anything you want! Is this what depresses your friends, freedom? We are free to create. Within the constraints of the framework that provides the building blocks to play with, we can create stuff. True, there is no final purpose to creation -- like having your thing win some kind of Universal Competition, or having it sold at some kind of Cosmic Auction for the Real Money -- so what, you can still create just for the fun of it!

Is this not enough? Suffering, cessation of suffering, compassion, dancing, creation -- or would you rather prefer some single "meaning" that would force everyone to go one way?

  • Is this not enough? -- My experience is that some people do not enjoy freedom because they don't know if what they do is right, and they fear bad consequences, especially in far future that they cannot see or comprehend. If they have some guideline, like a purpose, then they can adjust their actions; or if they have someone else to be responsible for their actions, they feel more secure. In other words, trade freedom for certainty. – Jake Oct 3 '14 at 7:12
  • in Buddhism, amount of suffering an activity leads to serves as such guideline for assessing the activity. (Not just your own suffering though, but suffering of others as well) – Andrei Volkov Oct 3 '14 at 12:31
  • It will be trivial if suffering can be foreseen, but most of the time, this is not the case, thus the fear. Maybe I am answering my question already, that fear is the root cause and the solution is to manage fear/risk. But I still would like to hear from Buddha's point of view. – Jake Oct 4 '14 at 8:01
  • Yes, fear of free fall - essentially, fear of potential suffering. Hence grasping and clinging to security / stability / ability to forecast with 100% certainty. Mind is very fond of its plastic models of reality and starts panicking when it loses its ground. The corollary of this: we can't exercise our freedom while we are held back by the fear of suffering. We must fully accept inherent possibility, almost inevitability, of suffering, only then we can dance without fear. – Andrei Volkov Oct 4 '14 at 13:37
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Most schools of buddhism advise to live a balanced way of life.

It never says there is no meaning or purpose in life. Indeed it remains silent for this matter but encourage to accept things as they are which means also of course accepting to live! Don't run away from life, look deeply at it, accept it, and love it.

Which means also means to accept yourself and others as they are, assume your responsability toward them, treat them with compassion and treat your body and mind correctly.

  • All is good, but the question is how to accept? – Jake Oct 2 '14 at 11:30
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this question makes a valid point. the key issue is how to explain to people that there is another option available. it is very easy to read about buddhism and find that it justifies a feeling that there is simply no point in doing anything. that existence is without meaning. this can indeed lead to feeling of total futility. i would also add that telling a depressed person to accept things as they are is really not a good idea. when you are feeling that awful, your perception is skewed. from the perspective of a depressed person you are being asked to accept that life is futile, cruel, painful etc etc. it's no different to telling someone to suck it up, deal with it or grow a pair. such an attitude could indeed lead to suicide if that person were to experience it again again. it is first necessary to carefully and considerately define things as they are, (in an ultimate sense) then to demonstrate the practical steps towards genuine non-resentful acceptance. acceptance and grudging acceptance are not the same.

  • Welcome to Buddhism.SE - this reads more like a comment than an answer... can you try clarifying what exactly is your answer to the question? Otherwise I can convert this to a comment if you like. – yuttadhammo Oct 2 '14 at 14:13
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It's not so much that Buddhism says 'Life has no meaning' but more that the question 'What is the meaning of life' must be re-examined and reformulated before being answered. The question presupposes that meaning is something that exists as a property of life itself, but according to Buddhism, concepts such as meaning don't exist in things themselves, but are created by the mind with reality as its basis.

In other words, Buddhism answers the question 'What is the meaning of life' by saying 'Meaning is created in the mind'. Life doesn't come with a meaning and purpose already stamped on them, but is something that individuals create and can decide for themselves.

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by learning to look deeply at life with a cleared mind which means practicing meditation.

  • Is there a specific train of thought that one should use? Like I mentioned, those people I know spent a lot of time reading and meditating but still fail to accept it. I thought there must be a logical flow thoughts to arrive at acceptance. – Jake Oct 2 '14 at 12:01
  • I can speak only from my japanese zen practice, but precisely they should rather detach from any train of thought, that's at least the process in zazen. Their negative attitude toward life sounds more like nihilism than buddhism and result from a negative train of thought more than anything else. – BlackSwing Oct 2 '14 at 12:08
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As someone mentioned, those people you refer to are taking a passive nihilist stance, which is essentially that everything is meaningless. I rather prefer the aggressive nihlist stance, which can be summed up with a quote from the TV series, Angel: "If nothing we do matter, all that matters is what we do." Essentially, we create our own purpose and meaning in life (within the context of the 10 precepts).

To answer your questions within the context off (Zen) Buddhism, stop trying to use logic; that's a delusion. Reading on methods to accept life with do nothing but fill your head with more perceptions that will need to be wiped away. Simply sit, breath, and count. Focus on nothing more than the breathing and counting. Let any thoughts slip away like water. The goal is to unite with your breathing, to comprehend that each breathe is whole and complete as it is, with nothing more that needs to be added and nothing that needs to be taken away.

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Ultimately there is no extra meaning in life other than what things are but when it is appropriate we can make use of conceptual reality to make up our own meaning in life. Ultimate truth gives us a clean slate so to speak and we can make use of conceptual truth to make up our own meaning on that slate as long as it's in line with the eightfold path or right livelihood. Of course, conceptual truth is not our enemy, it can be put to great use inside the path.

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I find that in most cases, these sorts of questions cannot be solved in the context in which they were raised (like the famous quote by Einstein, I think it was). To get an answer, you need to change your context, which means to practice for now in the faith that there is an answer, and it will come. Your faith is what you bring to the game: your "ante". Without that, you cannot get anywhere. But like any game, you do not know the outcome in advance (the answer you are seeking), so you have to play to find out. The basis of Buddhism is taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. You begin with only that.

So, press on and the answers will come. No one can do that for you (or your friends who question the meaning and purpose of life). You begin any form of education knowing that you do not already know the fullness of it, or where it will lead. Could I tell you "the meaning and purpose of Calculus" either? Yet people still go to school. Trust that the millions of seekers who came before you did actually find. Enjoy the journey. This is what my Guru teaches about beginning a spiritual path. It has worked for me and others that I know.

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