Nicolae Tanase: Ven. Tenzin, what is the meaning of life?
Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi: As a Buddhist teacher, I will often be approached by students who say, “I just have one quick question – it will only take about five minutes,” and I respond, “ ‘What is the meaning of life,’ right?” to much laughter.
It’s almost a cliché, because there really is no one “right” answer to this question!
Psychologists talk about two domains of happiness. Hedonic happiness describes the happiness that comes from sensory pleasures; happiness that is a result of our experience of things, places, and connection with other people. Aristotle spoke about eudaimonia, a Greek word which is sometimes translated as “genuine well-being” or “human flourishing.”
One simple way of explaining the difference between these two domains is that hedonic happiness comes from what we get from the world, and eudaimonia, or genuine well-being, comes much more from what we can give to the world. This includes feeling that our life is meaningful through contributing to the happiness and welfare of others, and making a contribution to the world by utilizing one’s own unique talents and passions. So instead of “What is the meaning of life?” a more appropriate question might be, “How can I make my life meaningful?” And of course, there are as many unique answers to this question as there are human beings!
The field of positive psychology, which has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, identifies many components of happiness and flourishing. Some of these are social connection, cooperation and reconciliation, gratitude, kindness, compassion, optimism, and “flow.” When I began studying positive psychology, I was struck by how much this list converged with the qualities that we try to develop through Buddhist practice.
Buddhism also posits the spiritual path leading to even more transcendent goals based on these same two aspirations: being of service to others, and fulfilling one’s own potential. In the Sanskrit tradition of Buddhism, it is said that all beings can become fully enlightened Buddhas, thereby fulfilling not only their own aspirations but those of others. Buddhahood is the development of the highest potential possible for a human being, with all the qualities of love, compassion, wisdom, and ability, and the purpose for attaining this goal is to be able to benefit beings by leading them, too, to that same goal.
Buddhist practitioners would consider the attainment of this goal the way of making life most meaningful. However, I think for all of us it is useful to look at the root of true happiness and well-being, fulfilling one’s own potential by developing personal qualities, and then using those qualities to benefit others. Many religious traditions and positive psychology both agree that this is the way to make one’s own life most meaningful, which is the key to personal happiness as well.
~Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi is a Buddhist nun, activist and popular Buddhist retreat leader and teacher. She loves bridging the worlds of Buddhist thought, current affairs, and the latest research in the field of positive psychology. As well as being passionate about her spiritual practice she also cares deeply about prison reform, animal rights, equal rights for all and bringing an end to human trafficking and other modern forms of slavery. Ven. Tenzin is the resident teacher at Vajrapani Institute in California.
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