Nicolae Tanase: Rev. Elbert, what is the meaning of life?
Rev. Meian Elbert: The meaning of life – I don’t know. Perhaps what we are really trying to ask is, What is the purpose of life? Again, if we try to answer this in universal terms (the Purpose of Life) it’s hard to come up with an answer. What is it all for? I don’t know. Maybe we need to refine it further: What is the purpose of my life? This is a question we can perhaps do something with. It may be more limited than the universal questions but it might be more useful.
Of course different people will have different answers to this question. For many Buddhists in the Mahayana tradition the Bodhisattva Vows encapsulate our purpose:
However innumerable beings may be, I vow to save them all;
However inexhaustible the passions may be, I vow to transform them all;
However limitless the Dharma may be, I vow to comprehend it completely;
However infinite the Buddha’s Truth is, I vow to realise it.
This is our aspiration and our purpose; it is not something we literally expect ourselves to fulfill completely. We cannot possibly save all beings, but we can do our best to help where we can, to live for the benefit of all beings, including ourselves as part of that; not to see others as separate from ourselves, but to see us all as part of the one great body, and to treat all the many parts of that body (people, animals, plants, things) with kindness and respect.
We can do our best to transform our passions, our greed, fear, anger and ignorance, into compassion, love and wisdom. This means looking at what our mind is doing, seeing where we have some agenda based on our false idea of a separate “me” that is important and needs to be cherished, protected and given what it wants, often at the expense of others, and relinquishing our selfcentredness.
We can do our best to understand the Dharma, not just by reading about it or listening to Dharma talks but by putting it into practice, i.e. by practicing meditation and keeping to the Buddhist Precepts as best we can.
We can aspire to realise the infinite Truth that the Buddha realised, knowing that it is far greater than we can understand with our little brain. We can turn our hearts towards Truth and do our best to live in harmony with it, even though we may feel we don’t yet know it for ourselves; something in us does know, and we can entrust ourselves to it.
Alternatively to all this, we can simply try to live with kindness and respect for all beings, including ourselves, and that will help both us and our world more than we can know.
~Rev. Meian Elbert is a priest of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, a Western monastic order for both men and women in the Soto Zen tradition. She is a disciple of the late Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, one of the first Western female Zen Masters. Rev. Elbert was ordained by Rev. Kennett in 1977 at Shasta Abbey, a monastery of the Order in Northern California, and received Dharma Transmission from her in 1979 In 1989 she was named a Master by Rev. Kennett. Since 2010 she has served as the Abbess of Shasta Abbey.
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