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Buddhists/life is meaningless



I have a serious question about life. It seems to me that the activities we are doing everyday in life is meaningless to me. why are we having to go to study hard, working so hard and live so hard in life, if there is a certain thing for life which is Death. all activity in life seem meaningless to me?
But on the other hand what make feel good for being alive are the taste of my morning coffee or the sound of beautiful song which remind me the beauty of being alive.

Hope you understand my problem. and pls help me to solve it.

ANSWER: Hello Socheat,
  I am sorry for the delay in answering you.  I fully understand this question and the impact it has on your life.  I approached my teachers with this question decades ago.  This may be somewhat hard to understand so please take your time with this. I had asked Masao Abe Sensei this question and he looked at me and said, “From what standpoint do you ask this question?”  This did not make a lot of sense to me.  He said, “You stand apart from life and death to judge what life is.  It is like standing on a mountain and looking at the valley and saying; that is a valley.  When you go down into the valley you look up and say; that is a mountain.  Really?  What is the mountain and what is the valley?”  I thought about this for years.  In reality the mountain defines the valley, there is no valley without the mountain. In reality the valley defines the mountain for there can be no valley without the mountain defining it.  One is the other, they cannot be without each other simultaneously being.  So it is the same with life and death.  There are not individual lives that just pop into being and then die.  We see our life as something individual that we came into being out of nowhere and will go into nothingness one day.  From what standpoint do we judge that?  When do we actually come into being?  By this I mean, when did you, as a person, come into being?  When were you first aware that you were alive?  This brings about the Zen question; were you there at your birth?  The sense of self comes later not at birth.  You, the baby, was alive before you, the personality, came into being.  At one point you realized yourself as an individual and then you began to develop.  This self consciousness is after the birth of the baby, it is something that identifies itself as the person but is not really the person.  When we look at any individual life we can say it’s meaningless; that it is just born and dies for no reason but what we see as individual life is an illusion.  What we call our life is not our life, it is just the life that we identify with.  Life is a continual process of living and dying, life is constantly coming into being and constantly going away, as the mountain becomes the valley and the valley becomes the mountain, one creates the other.
  When you hold your cup of coffee who is it that holds the cup?  Who is it that experiences this things and judges them?  Who stands apart from life to say, this is my life?  If you cut off your arm is part of your life gone?  If the body is the self then you should be diminished but you are not when you lose a limb.  That self identity with the limb is gone.  We say I lost my arm but what is the source of that thought?  At which point do we lose ourselves? There is a famous Buddhist story that goes like this: a man comes to study with a Buddha and is having a difficult time understanding his ideas.  The Buddha welcomes him but does not face his questions rather he asks him about his journey to meet him.  The Buddha asks ‘how did you get here’ and the man replies ‘ on a chariot’, the Buddha then says ‘I’m sorry but I don’t know what a chariot is, can you describe it to me?’ The fellow proceeds to tell him how a chariot is constructed and its layout from axel, wheels, buckboard, shroud to harness and horses.  The Buddha takes this in and says ‘ so all of these things together make a chariot?  When is it no longer a chariot?  When you take away the wheels is it no longer a chariot or the buckboard or the axel?  At what point does it become or not become a chariot?  This is a conglomeration of things you call a chariot but what really is the chariot?’  The man is puzzled by this and ponders it but the Buddha says ‘who are you?  Your thoughts, desires, senses, memories?  Remove what and you are no longer you?  When do you become you or not you by this composite of aggregates?’  Now this plunges the man into a deep inquiry of who the self really is.
At what point do you say I have a life?  At what point don’t you have a life?  If you are in a dreamless sleep are YOU alive or is it just the body?  All of this has to do with self identification.  Like the man with the chariot we take a series of ideas and call it our self but it is really just the manifestation of all nature.  Our suffering comes with this self-identity. From the Zen perspective if we can overcome the personal viewpoint to gain a universal viewpoint then our suffering is alleviated.  We become all of nature and nature as expressed as an individual.  We identify with all life and not just the personal life.  This is what is meant by unborn and undying in Buddhism.  It is the completion of life and death as one.

When you hear a beautiful song it is played by an instrument.  The coming and going of the instrument does not diminish the song. The instrument only expresses the song.  We are the expression of life/nature but it is not bound to us.  To realize yourself as nature frees you from the bonds of the particular instrument and opens you up to all expressions of nature.

I know this is very confusing but I hope this has helped you. Take care,

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks so much expert Joe.
You make me gain some insight of what is called self. Based your explanation it seem to me, if I have no wrong understanding, that our life is not belonged to what I call myself as "T" or "me". But on the other hand it is the manifestation of nature. and self-identity is of suffering. It is true the most people suffer from trying to protect or improve their identity.
Your previous reply to me that there exist the Self to experience.can you explain for me more about that Self. Based on this, How one should live according to ZEN?

Hello Cheat,
 It is not that suffering comes from trying to protect or improve our identity but that the identity itself is wrong.  It’s like watching a movie and confusing yourself for the actor.  You think that the things that happen to the actor affect you but in reality it is confusing your identity with the actor.  So from the Buddhist standpoint of ‘life is suffering’ and ‘there is a cause for the suffering’, the suffering is due to not knowing our true identity or source.  This confused identity is explained by the Zen teacher, D.T. Suzuki, with the analogy of a wave on the ocean as symbolic of man’s sense of self.  A wave arises on the ocean and looks down and sees the ocean all around.  It says, “I am know that I am because I am not the ocean nor am I all the other individual waves, I exist separate from them”.  It has separated itself from the ocean to know itself as an individual wave.  This separation actually creates the ‘self’, it is both an act and a fact of this separation.  Now it makes all its judgments as a separated self.  In this act it is also separated from itself, it knows that it is but not who it really is.  Now it tries to go outward to find itself but it cannot. We try to find outward answers by fulfilling our pleasures and desires but they never satisfy us.  So trying to protect or improve the identity does not give us meaning.  When we, the wave, seek inward it is also problematic, why, because the act of going inward is still the act of separating from the ocean to be able to go inward.  This is the idea of going inward from meditation; it is also a problem.  So this wave is alienated from itself, it’s surroundings and the ocean.  But the fact of the matter is, who is the wave fundamentally?  Is it the individual wave?  No, there’s really no such thing.  So who is looking for this awakening?  The fact is that the wave is really just a manifestation of the ocean, it never was separated in reality but only knew itself as separated.  It has to stop the ego process, the act of separating, in the hope that the ocean can rise up to see itself as both the wave and the ocean.  It is one hundred percent wave and one hundred percent ocean, not at any point ever separated.  The wave seeking the ocean/enlightenment/nirvana is the ocean seeking the wave.  When the breakthrough/enlightenment occurs it is not new or just starting but a realization of what always really was.  This is a non-dual duality.  Both itself as wave and ocean.  Pure non-dualism or oneness would have just been the ocean with a wave never arising.  We rise out of nature and now see ourselves as separate from it but in fact we are nature in search of itself.
Understanding that this is the fundamental problem of human consciousness leaves us with no illusions.  If we really grasp that our basic way we see reality is wrong then we will not fool ourselves.  We will realize that it is not a matter of protecting or enhancing our identities but realizing that we must overcome this identity.  

Our minds cannot grasp this true reality because it is our minds that separate us from it. Lao Tse said, “ The way that can be named is not the eternal way” for this reason. It cannot be understood in dualistic terms, it can only be realized.  There are many types of Zen practice but I fear that most people use them to protect or enhance their self and this continues the problem.  What the practice should be doing is to try to stop the process of the mind from its dualistic thought.  The historical Buddha himself went through the search and realized the inward and outward approaches are wrong.  Today many seek inward discarding the lesson of the Buddha over this.  To live according to Zen is just to imitate Zen.  If you have a desire and you just suppress it then you are not solving it.  The desire still lives in you. It’s like finding a snake in your room and then suppressing it.  It will always try to escape. If you ignore it you will get bitten and if you trap it you will always fear its escape.  Thoughts and desires are like this.  You must remove the root of them so they no longer threaten you. They will arise like clouds across an empty sky, coming and going and causing no problem. So to live according to a Zen rule is not to overcome them but to contain them.  If you truly realize that your everyday consciousness if false then you will give it no power.  From here you will seek to see in a way that you never have before.

When you look at any religion and what people adhere to with rules it rarely really works.  There are all kinds of abuses these people do, monks, priests or any other title.  Why?  Because they did not extinguish the fire of these problems, they merely contained them.  If you are good due to fear of punishment then you are a liar.  You are not really good you are just imitating a good person.  If you are good because you realize the oneness of all people and want to spread compassion you are truly good; it is not in your nature at all to do bad.  You are not doing it because you are told to, you are doing it because it is your nature.  I realize that most need to follow some type of rules to get them on the path but we must be careful not to confuse the path with where it leads.

I hope this helps you. Take care,


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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