Buddhism Chan

The Purpose of Meaning (and the meaning of purpose)

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The purpose of starting this blog was to start conversations about that which I find meaningful. One of the first ones it sparked was with my dear friend A.T, who is supremely kind in his readiness to always play devil’s advocate when I start yammering on about some thing or another. So he asked me, plainly as always: ‘What’s the purpose of always dissecting your inner experiences? Aren’t you simply avoiding dealing with reality by putting yourself outside of it, always an observer?’. Also, my wife and I have been sharing our uncertainty about the future, and wondering about the whole question of trying to do something purposeful.

Such a stereotype

So I thought, it would be good to talk about purpose generally, and the purpose of Buddhist practice specifically, in order to clarify for myself these very important questions, which seem to come up quite often these days. There is a common perception of Buddhist practice that seems to me to be related to the classical hippie stereotypes. The usual thing, which many imagine to be the goal of Buddhist practice, looks something like this:

Stop all desire and passion; learn to be aloof and dispassionate; speak in a gentle singing voice – even if/when faced by hungry tigers; live life never experiencing a single thought of past or future; hence, never plan anything, so be without any ambition; flaccidly stumble through life, accepting all things, never adding anything, like a peaceful, cloud-gazing, starry-eyed decorative plant.

This stereotype has been a real thorn in my butt for a while. It has caused annoying situations, where for example, when I get truly angry about some stupid thing or other, my father thinks it’s funny to say (with a mischievous smile): ‘aren’t you supposed to be calm and accepting?’. So here it is- my attempt at verbalizing my idea of purpose and meaning in life.

The “Why” Aspect

“Here, practitioners, is the Noble Truth of suffering. Birth is suffering. Old age is suffering. Sickness is suffering. Death is suffering. Sorrow, grief, mental anguish, and disturbance are suffering. To be with those you dislike is suffering. To be separated from those you love is suffering. Not having what you long for is suffering. In other words, to grasp the Five Aggregates as though they constitute a self is suffering.”

Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya V, 420.

Firstly, for any outer or inner transformation to take place, one must have an incentive. It could also be an intention, but before we are ready to take responsibility for our life it will be an incentive. The difference is this- an incentive is dictated by the outer conditions of your life, whereas an intention is set by you, as a way to make your actions meaningful. At the outset, my incentive, like any other normative person in these situations, was suffering. Not any kind of extreme suffering, nothing poetic or romantic, but simply my total, absolute discomfort in dealing with changes. It was a long period with many changes, and they were making me confused and anxious.

The greatest incentive

My grandmother, who has been my music teacher for years, spending hours with me every day, passed away. She wasn’t particularly old, we were very close and I was unprepared to take charge of my own practice and development as a musician. A bit later, I failed a big audition for an orchestra which prompted me to reexamine my purpose in playing music. I was also dumped into the military, where I spent three years making sure office dwellers had enough toilet paper. When that was over, I broke up from my first serious girlfriend, and that’s when my comfy cocoon burst at the seams. Nobody was telling me what to do anymore, neither parents nor state, my stable relationship was also gone and my musical direction uncertain. So for the first time, life was telling me to go get my shit together and take responsibility for my very own experience here. However, no one explained the “how”.

The “How” Aspect

“Here, practitioners, is the Noble Truth of the cause of suffering. It is the desire to be born again, delight in being born again, attached to the pleasures found in this and that. There is the craving for sense pleasures, for becoming, and for not becoming any more.”

The reason one turns the light inward and examines the workings of the mind and the foundations of experience, is because at some point we must admit that fundamentally, there will be no contentment until we give up depending on things which are intrinsically unsatisfactory. The incentives in my life for a very long time, as with many, were to achieve fame and high reputation, to have a position that gives me a lot of money, and to have as much pleasure as possible. Sometimes the sheer obsession propelled me, trying to prove some point (what point and to whom, I was never sure of). The reasons for wanting all these is quite benign. We think that by achieving such things we will gain happiness. The fact that this is absolute nonsense is by now completely cliche, so it feels silly to mention it any further.

The three poisons

In a nutshell, Buddhists have over time categorized the basic causes of all suffering as The Three Poisons: “Greed, Hatred and Delusion” or “Attachment, Aversion and Ignorance”. The point is this- the purpose of “dissecting inner experiences”, as A.T. put it, is because if one wants to find a cure, one must first diagnose the disease. Humans are clearly inadequate judges of their own experience, and rationalizing our feelings in all sorts of deluded ways is a skill we all share (ignorance). Here are a couple of examples: ‘I am angry because he called me a schmuck’- …no, I am angry because the conditioned response to being called a schmuck is anger (aversion). The punchline there is that somewhere deep inside, I might sort of feel that the insult is true. ‘I am sad because no one understands me, no one knows what I’m experiencing’- Well… no, that’s just statistically impossible. Statistically speaking, somewhere right now there is at least one person experiencing the same exact thing as you. But we fail to see that self-deprecation is just another way to feel special, and all that’s actually happening there is us treating our self-referential thoughts as the pinnacle of truth (attachment).

Great. Now “what”?

“Here, practitioners, is the Noble Truth of ending suffering. It is the fading away and ending of craving without any trace. It is giving up, letting go of, being free from, and doing away with craving.”

That is the purpose of self examination as I see it. But what if I allow myself to ask, ‘What is the purpose of Buddhist practice?’ Or worse, ‘What is the meaning of life?’. That is actually a highly interesting moment. This is the point where incentives start metamorphosing into intentions.

Shi Guifeng Zongmi, a Chan master who lived 780-841 C.E, divided the intentions set behind Buddhist practice into five kinds, a list which I often find useful:

Guifeng Zongmi
  • “Outsider Chan”- ‘To hold deviant views and practice because of joyfully anticipating rebirth in heaven, being weary of the present world’
  • “Common-Person Chan”- ‘To correctly have confidence in the law of cause and effect and likewise practice because of joyfully anticipating rebirth in heaven, being weary of the present world’
  • “Inferior Vehicle Chan”- ‘To awaken to the incomplete truth of emptiness of self and then practice”
  • “Great Vehicle Chan”- ‘To awaken to the true principle of dual emptiness of both self and phenomena and then practice’
  • “Highest Vehicle Chan”- ‘Having all-at-once awakened to the realization that one’s own mind is from the outset pure, that the poisons have never existed, that this very mind is Buddha and that Buddha and Mind are ultimately without difference’

The trouble with lists is that they are linear. In my personal experience, my perception shifts from one incentive to another, from one intention to another sometimes on a daily basis and sometimes even moment-to-moment. Some days I wake up edgy and tired, and the best I can do is to drag myself to sit “meditating” in confusion for ten minutes. Other days I feel inspired and feel totally doubtless and joyful, and can spend an hour in meditative absorption working on the deepest existential questions of my being. Most days are somewhere in between. With music practice, it’s EXACTLY the same. The chief point is this- always go and practice; bad practice, good practice- just practice.

The Meaning of Purpose

“Here, practitioners, is the Noble Truth of the Path that leads to the end of suffering. It is the Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

We all know intrinsically, that we need meaning, or purpose, in order to be happy. The point where we take control is not, as common wisdom dictates, when we go and do something, since we cannot be certain of the fruits of our actions. Maybe the result will be what we want, maybe it won’t. The point where we can really influence the quality of our experience is when we set our intentions, as opposed to being dragged around by incentives. For example, I still have ambitions about being the best musician I can be. But it’s no longer for fame or money, obsession or trying to prove anything, but because I want to share what I find most touching and beautiful with the people around me. Over time, I am learning to care for my audience more and more.

‘Perfect, it’s completely imperfect’

The more I examine purpose and meaning, the more I feel that it must be related to our connections with others. If we think about why it is that we would continue to get up, day after day, and endure the endless hardships and discomforts of life, inevitably it has to be related to the people and beings we care for. Our interdependent nature dictates that we must be a part of the giant chain of events which we call life. Whether we get dragged around by it or find a way to be in harmony with it depends completely on the way we set our intentions, since we can’t control the outcomes of our actions.

“Enlightenment”, is an abstract concept that I sometimes dangle like a carrot in front of me. I don’t know what it is and what it looks like, but I know that my best intention is to care for my own happiness and the happiness of those around me. And I care for this happiness passionately. Nothing aloof, nothing “Stereotype-Western-Buddhist” about it. The great Chan iconoclast, Master ZhaoZhou seems to agree:


A monk asked ZhaoZhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west’?”
ZhaoZhou said, “Even if you did not bring up this ‘meaning’ thing, you
would not fare much better.”
The monk said, “What is ‘the origin of all things’?”
ZhaoZhou said, “Four eyes looking at one another. There is no subject
other than that.”

May we learn to always ask, in all situations: ‘What is my best intention?’
P.S. If anyone has a story to share, a conversation to start, a question to ask or something to teach me, get in touch or leave a comment. I’d like to feature other people’s stuff and some conversations with others on here. Sarva Mangalam.

I have been practicing Buddhadharma since around 2008. Starting out in a Theravada context and learning from inspiring teachers, I then practiced Zen in both Korean and Vietnamese traditions, Vajrayana (Kagyu) Buddhism and now study and practice and in the lineage of Chan Buddhism (Linji Lineage of HsuYun), in which I am a Novice Priest and Junior Dharma Teacher. My highest aspiration and greatest inspiration is the actual pursuit of happiness – that means my own happiness coupled – inextricably – with that of all others.

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