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What is the meaning of life?

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

In today's Western culture, it's fairly common to raise the question 'what is the meaning of life?' The reason for raising this question is that something (life) has become puzzling to some extent, to the point that one wonders what it actually means. The sceptic (or nihilist) would suggest that in fact it means nothing. More positive replies are possible, from traditional values like 'happiness' or 'love' or 'justice,' to more vague and poetic ones, like 'being fully human' (whatever this might mean, if anything).

But before deciding on the answer, it might be helpful to reflect on the situation in which the question is raised. Asking about the meaning of life necessarily presupposes that one does not recognize any inherent or necessary meaning that life must have by definition. This entails that the meaning of life is to some extent recognized as contingent. Or more deeply, that life itself is recognized as contingent, unnecessary, ungrounded, something that is given, it is here, and yet might not have been, and we do not know why it is here rather than not having happened at all.

However, even contingency by itself does not give the whole picture about the background conditions for raising the question on the meaning of life. Many things are contingent (the weather, economy, lotteries, blog posts) and yet there is no particular concern about them. It might make a difference if today is sunny or cloudy, but either way there is no particular issue of meaning that surrounds this condition. Asking for the meaning of life entails that one not only recognizes the contingency of life, but that this contingency is also felt unpleasantly. There is a discomfort, an uneasiness about the contingency of life, so much so that one might wonder: what is the meaning of this?

Where is this discomfort coming from?

It comes from the fact that the contingency of life is not the contingency of the weather, it is the contingency of my own existence. Life is not experienced in a detached third-person perspective, but as my most precious possession. Its contingency is my contingency. And this contingency is apparent in the fundamental characteristics of all life-forms: aging, sickness, death, and separation.

It might be argued that the question about the meaning of life is likely to become more relevant in circumstances in which there is no available view, belief, or practice that can easily counter the sense of contingency that accompanies the circumstances of life. This is perhaps one of the reasons why this question emerges more urgently in today's secularized culture, than in previous periods in which more traditional solutions (metaphysical or religious) retained a stronger grip. But in general, at any time in which the contingency of my life is allowed to shine, the question is likely to arise.

In fact, the discourses of the Buddha witness that this sort of interrogation was perfectly normal twenty-five centuries ago, in a decidedly non-secular context. In an important and 'penetrative' discourse (AN 6.63), it becomes explicit that the teaching on the 'four noble truths' (SN 56.11) starts with an acknowledgment of the problem of meaning. The 'suffering' (dukkha) that must be understood is the essential uncertainty of identity (birth), which is plagued by aging, sickness, death, separation, grief, scorn, and yet still object of appropriation (upādāna).

The Buddha explains that this sort of existential suffering (a discomfort that doesn't concern just this or that particular event, but the overall condition in which life unfolds) has two possible results: one is confusion and bewilderment (today, we would say 'nihilism'), the other is the 'noble search.' Search for what? For a way of putting an end to suffering, which in the discourses means to put an end to 'Thirst, Appropriation, & Co.'

But it is here that the discourses also show an interesting twist. When searching for a solution, the ordinary uninstructed worldling (puthujjana) might simply end up reviewing the available answers and tools provided by ordinary life ('happiness,' 'love,' 'justice,' even perhaps 'becoming fully human'). But none of this will do. Not because they are problematic in themselves (they might all play a role in life and be appreciated in their domain), but because none of them falls outside of that broader condition of uncertainty that the question of meaning keeps in sight. Being subject to death and separation one ends up seeking other things that are also subject to death and separation, which is clearly not going to work.

The Buddha offers another strategy. Instead of tackling uncertainty directly, by trying to mystifying it, or escaping from it, he suggests to tackle appropriation towards life. Uncertainty is painful because of the gesture of holding on to what will inevitably change, pretending of stopping this from happening, while in fact the process does not even notice that we are so afraid of it. By letting go that gesture, uncertainty also ceases to be dreadful. It can in fact reveal its freeing power. What is uncertain cannot be bound, cannot be chained, it is essentially free.

This entails that, from the point of view of the discourses, raising the question about the meaning of life does constitute an indispensable starting point to embark on the noble search. But this search does not reach a final solution that establishes once and for all what the meaning of life is. It rather allows the question itself to lose its cogency, because its fundamental presupposition (the problem of contingency) is no longer worrisome. In other words, asking the question about the meaning of life is helpful not for finding a definite answer, but rather to expose a certain predicament, and then becoming able to step outside of it, so that the problem itself can dissolve.

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