Nicolae Tanase: Gen Nyema, what is the meaning of life?
Gen Kelsang Nyema: My teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, opens his book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, with this thought-provoking paragraph: “…we have immense freedom to accomplish almost anything we want. We can become a powerful politician, a successful businessman or woman, or a great scientist or artist. We can travel the world or even go to the moon, or we can settle for a simple family life. With so much freedom, we need to ask ourself what is the most meaningful way to use our life? What will make us truly happy? What will benefit others the most? And when this life is over, what will help us then?”
I wasn’t raised a Buddhist, or, as I like to joke with my students, I wasn’t born wearing the robes of an ordained Buddhist nun. But after years of my own exploration into this question of “What is the meaning of life?,” I found that I ultimately agreed with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s answer — the same as Buddha’s answer: The best thing we can do with our human life, as well as the most beneficial thing we can do for others, is to attain enlightenment.
What is enlightenment? Students ask me this frequently, and there are many ways to summarize the answer to this biggest of all questions, but the simplest way to explain it is that enlightenment is a state of mind that is a transcendent and permanent happiness. Not the ordinary happiness that comes from ordinary enjoyments, but a profound inner peace and bliss that is irreversible.
Enlightenment is also the culmination of our compassion, because if we can solve our own problems permanently and experience our own pure nature, we can help everyone else to do the same. Technology hasn’t solved humanity’s problems. Politics definitely isn’t solving them. Advancing technology, progressive policies, caring charities, creative endeavors — these are all wonderful, but as long as people remain with negative states of mind, sooner or later they will undo the progress we have made and fall back into conflict and pain. But if they deeply change their minds — if they let go of turbulent states of mind like anger and attachment, while perfecting states of mind like compassion and wisdom — then they can find true happiness. We can’t help others to do this if we still suffer from negativity ourselves; therefore, our own attainment of enlightenment is the first step towards guiding all other beings to real happiness.
But I want to conclude by mentioning that enlightenment is so much more than just a really, really peaceful mind or a really, really compassionate wish. This rather superficial interpretation of enlightenment ultimately doesn’t do it justice. Enlightenment is so much more than that; it’s becoming a completely different type of being, one we can barely even imagine. In Sanskrit, there is the term “Tathagata,” or “one gone beyond,” and there is also “Sugata,” or “one gone to bliss.” Even the word “Buddha” translates to “Awakened One.” How beautiful! How much bigger enlightenment is than anything we ordinarily dream of attaining!
There is no more intriguing, magical, practical, exciting, blissful, paradigm-shifting, or compassionate adventure than the journey towards enlightenment. It is because of enlightenment that I wear Buddhist robes and have oriented my life around Buddha’s teachings. And whether I accomplish my goal of enlightenment in this life or not, I know that the very pursuit of the mind of enlightenment will be a life well-spent.
~Gen Kelsang Nyema, Resident Teacher at Kadampa Meditation Center Washington, DC.
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