Nicolae Tanase: Lama Willa, what is the meaning of life?
Lama Willa Miller: I think the meaning of life has something to do with leaving the world a better place than when we arrived here. We are the stewards of a beautiful and fragile planet for this and future generations. We have an obligation—out of love and respect for our fellow living creatures—to pass down a cleaner, kinder and healthier planet.
This is not easy. The human species has not been doing a great job so far, especially in the last couple hundred years. We live at such a critical time in history: we are witnessing the stark truth that human habitation on this planet is threatening its survival.
In the face of the earth’s challenging situation, it is easy to fall into to extremes: despair and hopelessness, on the one hand, and false optimism, on the other. Sometimes it feels like these are our only choices. This, or turning away.
In Buddhism, there is something called “the middle way”. The middle way perspective recognizes that the more we fall into extremes, the more wisdom eludes us. With respect to the earth’s challenges, we can find a middle way. We do not have to fall into the extremes of despair or false hope, mindsets that numb or paralyze.
We too can rely on a middle way: a willingness to take in and digest the truth of things while maintaining an attitude of love and joy. This is the path of the “courageous ones”, the bodhisattvas, of this generation. This middle way attitude gives us a basis from which to practice compassionate action on behalf of our planet, without falling apart.
What I am getting to is this. I believe the preservation of outer resources will be more effective walking hand in hand with the cultivation of deep inner resources. In a project to bring light to the world’s toughest problems, our thoughts, feelings and motivations matter.
Systemic change is critical and essential to solves many of the world’s problems, but I don’t believe that outer strategies alone will be enough. To leave this world a better place for the next generation, we must include the heart. What we need is not only a shift in systems, but a shift in consciousness: from carelessness to mindfulness, from an ethic of domination to one of service, from an ethic of competitiveness to one of kindness, from a value of independence to one of inter-dependence.
The Buddha taught that the deep causes of our suffering lie within. I think this is true with respect to the planet’s situation also. Some deep causes of our planet’s malaise can be found in the human psyche, and our ultimate survival or demise depends not only understanding this connection. A commitment to developing and nurturing inner resources of love, compassion, mindfulness and contentment will be essential—in the coming decades– to ensure a better world for our children and grandchildren.
Cultivating love for ecosystems, animals and plants will be important. What we love, we cannot destroy.
Developing wisdom will be important. Wisdom is needed to discern how best to act in the face of crisis.
Finding an inner discipline will be important. When we look within, we discover that the causes of our happiness lie more firmly in our emotional and cognitive health than in material consumption.
Maybe the meaning of life is about transcending even these boundaries of inner and outer. We are no longer in a period of history when the inner journey is solely about our own liberation: it is about taking part in a global shift in consciousness. It is about preparing us to act, with compassion, on behalf of this planet and the beings around us.
My prayer for this world is that we find meaning and purpose in uprooting the deeper causes of our earth’s environmental malaise—the inner causes of aggression, greed and delusion—and train in establishing the deeper causes of peace and sustainable living—compassion, kindness, contentment and wisdom. I believe everyone on this earth is capable of finding the courage to go the distance.
~Lama Willa Miller is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and scholar. She is the founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship and Wonderwell Mountain Refuge, and is Visiting Lecturer in Buddhist Ministry at Harvard Divinity School.
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