Excellence Reporter: Narayan, what is the meaning of life?
Narayan Helen Liebenson: A friend once had an awakening experience and went to a master to ask whether this experience meant he was now enlightened. The master asked my friend: “do you have complete confidence in the indestructible nature of your heart?” This is such a lovely and essential question, especially now, in our increasingly fragile world. In the fact of the possible extinction of our species, the question is ever more poignant.
The meaning of life is to know the heart free from its torments. We are here to awaken out of the trance of self preoccupation. We are learning to release attachment to forms (limited and conditioned) and thus let go into the formless (measureless and unconditioned.) Out of emptiness or formlessness, we learn to love ever more completely, leaving no one and no thing out. The authentic expression of formlessness and non-preoccupation is unconditional love.
The reason we are alive is to release and transform greed, hatred, and delusion into generosity, love, and wisdom. We find great meaning in our efforts to alleviate suffering within ourselves and in one another. Our efforts lead to wise view and a path to liberation.
One of the great mysteries of this life is not ever knowing what the future will bring. In this very next moment, conditions can arise or pass away. What a remarkable and wondrous situation! But how are we to find meaning when this moment is the only dependable one? What are we to live for, if not for something in the future? If there is no future, what then? We are here now, alive right now. How are we living in this moment? How do we thrive and live with creativity and curiosity, extending compassion to all beings everywhere? Do we have the courage to love when we know all will be lost?
Along with asking what the meaning of life is, we ask how to live and how to die. The answer is that we must really live, rather than having a pseudo life spent lost in mental concoctions. If we are awake and aware, each moment has meaning, and the sacred is always beckoning.
We are learning how to let life flow through us instead of trying to consume what passes by. We surrender instead of struggle with how things are, practicing non-grasping instead of clinging. We aspire to live – and die – with dignity and grace, and most of all, without fear or regrets.
Ultimately, if we live in this way, the question of the meaning of life no longer concerns us. Doubts about life’s meaning dissolve, and we develop an unshakable faith that the meaning of life is in the living of it.
As Master Sheng-yen’s death grew near, he wrote: “Although this universe may someday perish, my vows are eternal.” Because he was dedicated to exploring the dharma, what he meant by his “vows” was living a life dedicated to wisdom and compassion. Just so, our vows, our dedication to the dharma, is our meaning. And in living accordingly, we know an unquenchable joy.
~Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she has been teaching since it opened its doors in 1985. She is also one of the guiding teachers at IMS (the Insight Meditation Society) in Barre, Massachusetts. Narayan is the author of a small book entitled “Life as Meditation” as well as a new book entitled “The Magnanimous Heart; Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation”, published January 2019. Her training includes over 35 years in the Theravada tradition as well as ten years in the Chan tradition with the late Master Sheng-yen. She finds it a joy and a privilege to share the Buddha’s teachings with all who are interested.
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