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Cheer Up: Life is Meaningless!

I once said to Zen Master Seung Sahn, "Sonsa-nim, life has no meaning!" He replied to me, "Yeah! Life has no meaning, but no meaning is BIG meaning and you must find this point." It took many years for me to understand this teaching. - Wonji Dharma (my teacher)

The only true meaning in life we can work with is: what do we do with each moment we have before us?

Buddhism is about understanding our true self and helping all others. When we help others we’re personifying our true nature. It’s not as if we have to wait around for some enlightenment experience to take hold before we can be of any use to anyone else. One doesn’t have to come before the other— they simply coexist and they both point to each other. 

By clearly understanding who and what we really are, our appropriate situation, relationship and function becomes crystal clear. We can clearly see what’s going on and our relationship to what’s going on. And it’s at this point that the correct and most appropriate thing to do arises spontaneously and effortlessly. 

Understanding who we truly are doesn’t mean getting further enmeshed in the story of who we are, nor does it mean developing a more rigid sense of self. It’s really about understanding all of those aspects of our small, limited sense of self in order that we can transcend them and not be limited by their narrow scope. In Zen we are connecting to our true nature not by adding lots of ideas and concepts, but rather through a process of letting go and stripping away. 

We have the capacity to understand who we are in the greatest sense—we can see beyond our like/dislike mind and no longer be caught up in our preferences and opinions. When we’re no longer beholden to every passing whim and desire we’re free to help others as needed, when needed, and in the most helpful way needed. 

Chasing after every fleeting desire never works in the long term. The more we try to appease all of our desires, the more desires we’ll be stuck with, and we'll have to answer to them. It’s like drinking salt water to quench your thirst—it feels satisfying while you’re drinking, but the second you stop the thirst gets even greater.

We get caught up in the idea of happiness as having our needs met and satisfying as many of our sense pleasures as we possibly can, but this isn't true happiness. The truest and most enduring form of happiness comes from seeing ourselves and this world clearly, and being of help wherever and however help is needed.

The best definition of the Bodhisattva Way I've ever heard is: “How can I help you right now?”

"Human life has no meaning, no reason and no choice, but we have our practice to help us understand our true self. Then, we can change no meaning to Great Meaning, which means Great Love. We can change no reason to Great Reason, which means Great Compassion. Finally we can change no choice to Great Choice, which means Great Vow and Bodhisattva Way." - Zen Master Seung Sahn

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Double Edged Sword

Saying "life is meaningless" is of course a doubled edged sword. As soon as it is stated as an assertion it becomes false just like the statement "all things are empty." Also saying "life is meaningless" is wide open to false interpretation that takes the statement literally and therefore nhilistically. One of the most important ideas of Buddha Dharma is "paramartha" which means the primary meaning of life and is the conjunction of "parama" (highest, chief or primary) and "artha" (meaning, purpose, reason). Seung Sahn's use of "BIG meaning" is very suitable as a translation of paramartha. So hopefully people won't take the phrase "meaningless" as meaning that there is no primary meaning. As you say, we are usually looking for meaning in all the wrong places, because we are looking in external objectification (things, technology) or internal subjectification (whims, desires). The search for meaning is a good thing because it is the deep but cloudy remembrance that there is a primary meaning in the first place, i.e., the original face. As we discover that meaning is not to be found in "external" things or "internal" ideas, desires, and feelings, then our search becomes clearer and the primary meaning can be revealed.

Looking beyond the title...


Thank you for taking the time to express your opinion about the title of this blog. An effective title should generate interest without giving away the entire content of the piece that follows.

It sounds like you understand that the point I'm making here is more nuanced and optimistic than what a literal interpretation of the title alone might suggest. I also trust that anyone who takes the time to read beyond the title which arrive at a similar understanding.


Ven. Lawrence Do'an Grecco

I appreciate the humour

I appreciate the humour present in so many Buddhist teachings.

I think it's very effective to go off into an absurd notion and then come back to examine things as they really are.

But now, humour aside, I'm just wondering if its possible that a person could live an entirely meaningless life? I mean everyone touches someone, don't they? And everyone has moments of recognition of what's not working or being caught up. Or am I making a broad assumption?

When I think of making each moment count I become overwhelmed. The best, I think I can do, is string as many moments as I can, like pearls on a string.

What sums it up for me, I think is 'And in the end, you love you take, is equal to the love you make''-Paul McCartney

no meaning = great meaning

It is not possible or even preferable to lead a meaningless life, and no one is suggesting that here.

The point is that if we don't attach to our ideas and concepts about every aspect of our experience, we are open to a more vast and intimate experience of life - and this allows a greater and more accurate meaning to arise. 

We tend to get stuck on our particular skewed version of reality based on our perceptions, our biases, and our histories. Therefore whatever we encounter gets tainted and the meaning we take from things is not always based on things as they are--instead its based on our ideas of how things are. 

By learning to work with our minds and develop a clarity that comes with always keeping a "don't-know mind", we can transcend our limited sense of meaning and therefore experience GREAT meaning.

Oh... But it can be so HARD

I read the title and immediately thought of the final scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

You cheered me up. Thanks.


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