Nicolae Tanase: Ken, what is the meaning of life?
Ken McLeod: Meaning in life is contingent upon the context in which we live our lives. A meaningful act in one context may not have any meaning in another. This was the dilemma the Native-American Crow warriors faced when they had to give up their nomadic life and move to reservations. The actions that defined a warrior — horse-stealing, war, planting a coup stick, making an opposing tribe recognize the boundary of one’s range — no longer had meaning. It was not that the warriors in the tribe had failed. The actions and their lives had lost any sense of meaning or significance.
In 1974, my teacher Kalu Rinpoche recorded an interview for a national radio show on CBC in Canada. The interviewer’s first question was, “What is the meaning of life?” I had no idea how to translate this question into Tibetan and I quickly found myself in such a mess that I asked if we could start the interview again. This time I translated the question literally and Rinpoche replied, “Life is the time between birth and death.”
After the taping session I continued to ponder how to translate that question into Tibetan. I could ask, as I had in the interview, the meaning of the word “life”. I could ask what is the purpose of life. I could ask what is the benefit of life, or something along those lines. But all these different formulations did not really touch the question “What is the meaning of life?” as we ordinarily understand it in English.
Some months later, I had the opportunity to pose the problem to a Tibetan scholar who knew English well. He paused for a few minutes and then said, “Interesting. I don’t know how you ask that question in Tibetan. I’m not sure that you can.”
The whole affair made a deep impression on me. I found it fascinating, and I grew curious about the nature of questions that can be posed in one language, but cannot be posed in another. What sort of questions are these? What is really being asked? What does the question say about each culture?
Now, for me, as much from my spiritual training as from my investigations into the nature of language, I cannot find an answer to this question. Life is just life, just as a rock is a rock, the wind is the wind, and human nature, with all its wonder and perversity, is human nature. Things are just what they are.
When we look for the meaning of life, we are, I think, saying that we are not content with our lives, with ourselves, with how things are. The question marks the beginning of a search. Perhaps that search becomes a journey. But it seems to me that the end the journey is not a conceptual understanding of the meaning of life. It is simply a return to life, knowing it for what it is and at peace, deeply at peace, in that knowing.
~Ken McLeod is the founder of Unfettered Mind, a place for those whose path lies outside established institutions and traditions. Trained in the Kagyu and Shangpa traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, he taught in Los Angeles. Teacher, translator, writer, and business consultant, he is the author of several books including Reflections on Silver River and A Trackless Path. He currently lives in Sonoma County, California, where he writes, hikes and explores the mysteries of clay.
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