Nicolae Tanase: Abbot Sona, what is the meaning of life?
Ajahn Sona: What is the meaning of life? I’m glad you asked. That question assumes there is a meaning. It is the beginning of a meaningful life. The question is asked sometimes from sheer desperation, and is frequently recalled by people who felt, who really felt, the unrelenting dissatisfaction of the meaningless view of life as the beginning of their journey.
“View” is a good translation for the Pali word “Ditthi”. The Noble eightfold path begins with “right view”. According to the Buddha all people have a view. They may not be conscious of it, but they do. Those who claim to believe that nothing can be known, in fact have that as their view.
The benefits of the meaningful life cannot be experienced unless one is sincerely committed to the notion of meaning. What is “meaning”? It comes down to cause and effect in the moral dimension. Without causality, there is chaos, randomness, and inevitably at the emotional level a kind of dizziness. Imagine being in gravity-less space. All directions are the same, there is no up or down, and since our body and mind have evolved with gravity, we feel disoriented and quite probably nauseated.
Jean Paul Sartre wrote a novel with the title “Nausea”. It was about this very experience of a young man encountering or perhaps “realizing” a view of life as utterly absurd. The common absolutes of his previous life have come under scrutiny and have fallen away suddenly, and sickeningly. This is not an uncommon experience in modern life, but strangely, not as common as was once assumed to be inevitable.
The side effects of a world view which holds scientific method and technological application as the highest or even absolute value are a falling away of the moral intuition.
At the time of the Buddha certain philosophers held purely annihilationist/materialist views. They were allowed to express such opinions apparently. They said that there were no consequences whatsoever to good and evil actions. One could slaughter beings at random on one side of the Ganges River and on the other do acts of generosity and kindness and there would be no inevitable consequences from either act.
Aside from certainty that volitional actions have no intrinsic consequence there is another more common view that one simply can’t be sure about the matter. That is, a sceptical inquiry is going on continuously without a commitment to a conclusion. This is also psychologically uncomfortable and is in fact continuous doubt as a relentless unresolved tension. One stands hesitating at a crossroads, perhaps dying there, unable to move or to choose.
The meaningful life is accompanied by a sense of well-being. Choices are being made with commitment to their consequences. And roads are being taken without absolute knowledge of their end, but with reasoned conviction dominating paralyzed scepticism.
In the realm of science, and some forms of knowledge pursuit, there is one very human element missing…that of time. In reality a human has a lifespan and certain questions must be answered in a timely fashion. In a restaurant one may be slow to order, but order one must. The scientific project does not have a time constraint and that distinguishes it from the human existential project. If one confuses these two methods one will be emotionally frustrated. The recognition of this distinction is mandatory for movement towards meaning in the human dimension.
Faith, or reasoned conviction, must be present and balanced with wise investigation to prevent both pure scepticism, which is endlessly unsatisfactory, and naïve faith, which is possibly wrong and dangerous.
~Venerable Bhikkhu Sona (Ajahn Sona) is a first wave Western Theravada ordained practitioner. After several years of practicing as a lay hermit, he took full monastic ordination at the first Theravada monastery in the United States in 1989. He trained as well in the Thai Forest Tradition and combines both Sri Lankan and Thai scholastic and meditative practice traditions with modern western sensibilities. His pre-monastic education is in philosophy, humanities, and specifically classical Western music. These have been an aid in understanding the Western psyche and trying to establish paradigm bridges between East and West. The monasteries which he has established in Canada are affiliated with a worldwide network of Western Thai Forest tradition monasteries. At the juncture of contemplative Buddhism he also is deeply interested in the ecological movements in this environmentally critical time, both at the practical and philosophical level. The monastery which he has developed over 20 years reflects a response to the psychological demands on the individual and is at the cutting edge of best practices in environmental fields. He has participated in the green monasticism movement which is a collaboration with Catholic monasticism.
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