PS Wasu | Sep 04, 2008
Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Its purpose? What am I doing here? These and similar questions have baffled man since ages. Trying to find the answers, you run in circles, come to a dead-end or get lost in a maze. You visit gurus. After imbibing their speculative theories you yourself become a guru. The search continues. But the meaning remains ever elusive. You ask the meaning of life only because life runs through you. So your being alive itself is the meaning. Anything else is speculation, a mere contrivance and a shadow of the real thing. To the extent that the meaning of life becomes more important than living it, you miss it. The more you seek the answer, the more you get away from it.
THE PEAK EXPERIENCE
There is a story about a mountain that when you scale its peak, you’ll meet an old man who has the answers to all the questions. As you begin climbing, you look forward to meeting the old man as much as you want to make it to the top. Finally, reaching the summit is a great feeling. Time comes to a standstill as you drink in the view. Your heart expands. You are alive as never before. In that wonderful state, all questions disappear. The old man grins. You grin too. But no questions are asked. Because the meaning of life has already been glimpsed.
THE GREAT FLOW
Lucy was greatly bothered about the meaning of life. She approached a wise man for guidance. The wise man took her to a stream and filled a pitcher with stream water.
Wise man: (Pointing to the stream) What is that?
Lucy: A stream.
Wise man: (Pointing to the pitcher) What is this?
Lucy: A pitcherful of stream water.
Wise man: Why don’t you call it a stream?
Lucy: The water doesn’t flow in the pitcher. So it’s not a stream.
Wise man: How can it be a stream?
Lucy: When you let go of it.
As Lucy made the gesture of letting go, she understood what the wise man was driving at. Life is like a flowing stream and the meaning of life is only a pitcherful of water.
THE PERSIAN RUG
In somerset Maugham‚Äôs Of Human Bondage (1915), Cronshaw gifts an intricately woven Persian rug to Philip Carey, telling him that it might answer his question about the meaning of life. Philip can’t make out anything initially. Later the message of the Persian rug dawns upon him.
Just as the weaver makes patterns for the joy of doing so, a man too can look at his life as a pattern. There is as little need as use for a particular kind of pattern. It’s the uniqueness of the pattern that counts. Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, and his thoughts, a man creates a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful. Philip is thrilled by this new way of looking at things.
To quote from the book: “His (Philip’s) life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be nonetheless beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.”
JUST PLAY IT
A new monk in a monastery had just finished his breakfast. Finding the master alone, he approached him and asked: “What is the meaning of life?” The master said: “Have you had breakfast?” “Yes,” the monk replied. “Then go and wash your bowl,” said the master.
When a ball comes your way, you play it. Life is also a ball game. It’s about doing what needs to be done here and now. When you finish your breakfast, you wash your bowl. The bowl washed, there’s another ball to be played.
The unknowability of the next moment is intrinsic to the nature of life. You never know what is going to come your way. If you knew that, it would be no fun playing.
THE SILVER PLATTER
Speculating about the miracles that people look forward to all their lives, Henry Miller says in Tropic of Cancer (1934): “What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly, and without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit.
“That, I believe would be more miraculous than anything which man has looked forward to. It would be miraculous because it would be undreamed of…
“Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders.”
It would be a mistake to look at the hopelessness of Miller as despair. For him, hopelessness is a positive factor. It consists of, to borrow from Ana√Øs Nin, “a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium.” His hopelessness is about savouring life as it unfolds instead of waiting for something to come your way on a silver platter. It is about abandoning the dream of a magical future and waking up to the magic of this moment.
Jason had heard that there was a place called Buddha Nagar where everyone was enlightened. He set out looking for this mythical town. After years of wandering, he came to a river. Across the river was Buddha Nagar.
Jason got onto a boat. The cool breeze felt so good. A wave of joy swept through him. At last, he had made it to Buddha Nagar. He congratulated himself on the success of his mission. His patience, his struggles had borne fruit. As he looked around with a sense of satisfaction, his eyes fastened onto a corpse floating away. He looked carefully. Why, it was his own corpse. In a single moment, all his achievements, his virtues, his spirituality, even his making it to Buddha Nagar were gone forever. What a loss!
In deep sorrow, Jason started crying, first slowly and then uncontrollably. Then through his tears, he looked at the corpse a second time only to find that his sorrow and sense of loss too had floated away. An all-enveloping peace descended on him. He was liberated from joy and sorrow. So, when you can see your own corpse, when you can see your judgments floating away, every place is Buddha Nagar. Then you come alive for the first time.
Gautam Buddha is said to have been the greatest chatterbox of all times. For forty-nine years, he went from place to place and gave thousands of discourses. And yet there were moments when he was dumbstruck. He just wouldn’t open his mouth. This happened every time he was asked metaphysical questions‚Äîabout God, about the unknown, about the purpose of life. Buddha maintained that life was too short to bother about these questions. The closest he ever came to answering these was when he said, “When a poisoned arrow pierces your flesh, you don’t bother about where it has come from. You take it out and dress the wound.”
If you lived in Buddha’s time and were tired of his continuous chatter, you only had to ask him the meaning of life and the chatter would come to a stop.
ALL SAID AND DONE
Life is an imponderable puzzle, the mother of all koans. All other koans have, in fact, been derived from this one. Anything that can be stated about life can be contradicted‚Äîincluding this statement. So if you think you understand the meaning of life, you don’t.
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