Brother Phap Hai: What is the Meaning of Life?

Brother Phap Hai 1After more than two decades as a monk, I have begun to recognize that a shaved head and a brown monastic robe is an invitation for people to come up and ask all kinds of things: I’m used to people approaching me at airports, on the street or in hospital corridors with wide and varied questions, and I think it is wonderful. It is certainly never boring!

Buddhists love questions. In fact, the vast majority of the Buddha’s recorded teachings were inspired by somebody asking him a sincere question.

In late 2012, I was invited to offer retreats throughout western Montana. One afternoon during that trip, I was asked to teach a class on Buddhism at the University of Montana, and as we were walking through the campus on the way to the classroom, I was spotted by a young guy who was walking on the other side of the street. He darted across the street, came right up to me  and asked, “So, what’s the meaning of life then?”

In fact, that young guy was asking that question for many of us; it’s a question that we all hold deep in our hearts: What does this all mean? Is there any meaning at all or is it all for nothing? As I reflected on the young guy’s question, I realized that from the Buddhist perspective, although the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, is something that we all share, it might be more beneficial to consider reframing it since it seems to me that there’s a very subtle assumption underlying the question: the idea that there’s a preordained ultimate purpose or an ultimate design out there somewhere.

This is the idea that many of us have been raised with: that there is a plan all laid out that we somehow need to fit into. This can be a helpful construct for us to orient ourselves and to relax into the moment. But there also might be another way to view it.

Perhaps by asking, “What is the meaning of life?”, we’re asking the wrong question and this framing can prevent us from going one step further. From the Buddhist perspective, another way to ask this question might be to reframe it as: How can I bring more meaning into my life? How can I live each and every moment deeply and beautifully?

How do I live a meaningful life? In the Buddhist view, we take as the purpose of our life the intention to be most useful or most beneficial to self and others. The very intention to live deeply and to be of benefit to self and others is how we create and manifest meaning in our life — not from someone, something or somewhere else outside of our own mind.

The Buddha’s teaching is deeply practical and always brings us right back into the core of our experience. It doesn’t lead us into the realm of ideas and speculation but brings us back again and again to what’s real and true right now. This step, this breath, this warm cup of tea in my two hands — these are all miracles of life. Can we give ourselves permission to be fully present for these gifts? If we do, then we begin to experience that the qualities that we are searching for are not very far away at all. They are available right in the palm of our hand.


~Brother Phap Hai is a senior monastic disciple of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who was ordained in 1997 and formally authorized as a teacher by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in January 2003. Brother Phap Hai has the ability to offer a charming blend of ancient wisdom, Dharma scholarship, and contemporary applications, sharing deep teachings in a warm, accessible and humorous manner. Originally from Australia, he is an active meditation teacher who leads retreats, days of mindfulness, workshops and talks throughout the United States, Canada Europe, Australia, South America and Asia.

His first book, Nothing To It: Ten Ways to Be at Home with Yourself is available through Parallax Press.

Copyright © 2018 Excellence Reporter

Categories: Buddhism

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