Henry Shukman: What is the Meaning of Life?

IMG_20191217_152022Excellence Reporter: Henry, what is the meaning of life?

Henry Shukman: I’m not too sure about the meaning of life so I’ll start with the purpose.

“What is the purpose of life?” a student once asked a master.

The master replied: “Play.”

The student was disappointed. “I’ve come all this way to study with you, to find out about life, and that’s all you can come up with? Play?”

The master shrugged. “That’s how it is. Play.”

If the purpose of life is play, who cares about the meaning?

A student asked Rinzai (Linchi) what purpose old master Bodhidharma had had when he brought Zen from India to China.

Rinzai answered: “If he had had a purpose he couldn’t have saved even himself, let alone others.”

 Another student asked master Seigen: “What is the meaning of Buddhism (perhaps much as the same as the meaning of life)?”

Seigen answered, “What is the price of rice in Luling?”


Yes: that’s the great master’s answer: the meaning of life is “what’s the price of rice in the nearby town?”

What might it be, to be free of purpose, free of meaning, free? Heart abundantly open to all, abundantly fulfilled, in this very moment, with need of neither purpose nor meaning. To ask: “what does it mean” is like asking a chick why it came out of the egg, or the eagle why it soars, or the bell why it booms across the valley. The vicar might say it’s to call people to church. But the bell makes its deep sonorous sound because that is its nature.

Clouds, mountains, rivers, trees, cities, people and all creatures: what if we give up trying to throw any net of meaning over them? What if we ourselves break free of the net of meaning, of the tether of purpose? What would this moment right now, right here, be like then?


~Henry Shukman leads Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is an associate master of Sanbo Zen of Kamakura, Japan. He continues his Zen training under Yamada Ryo’un Roshi, and recently wrote the book One Blade of Grass: Finding the Old Road of the Heart (Counterpoint).


Copyright © 2019 Excellence Reporter

Categories: Zen

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.