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Religion Library: Buddhism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Julia Hardy

Just as suffering arises from the cycle of dependent origination, salvation can arise from understanding the causes of suffering, or, to put it another way, from eliminating the ignorance that has prevented recognition of the causes. Instead of living a cycle that leads to the rebirth of an identity as an alcoholic, you could develop the identity of an AA member. Or you could become a teetotaler. Or it could be that something else will become the focus of your identity, be it family, a profession, or a skill. Or you might realize that any identity is impermanent, an illusion. There are many ways you could overcome your ignorance and avoid that endless cycle of death and rebirth.

It is not necessary to interpret this cycle in terms of past lives. All humans experience cycles through which their identities are formed. For example, one may go to school and start a profession; one could fall in love and get married; or one might have children and become parents. Any cycle of this kind creates a sense of personal identity, and any negative cycle can be broken. Where problems arise, according to Buddhism, is when one begins to think of these characteristics of one's life as permanent and unchanging, as the whole of one's identity.

What is the purpose of life in Buddhism? There is no single answer to that question. If life is samsara, then the purpose is to escape from it. For some, life's purpose may be to recognize the true nature of existence and become enlightened, or to burn off karma in order to avoid future rebirths. For others, the purpose of life might be to accumulate merit so that one can be born to a better life next time, or perhaps someday to become a bodhisattva. For still others, the purpose of life is simply to follow the eightfold path.

In Chan (Japanese, Zen), the purpose of life is simply to live. All life is sacred; everything partakes of the nature of the Buddha, so one need only realize this to find meaning in one's life, and enlightenment.

Study Questions:
1.      How does the Wheel of Life and Death illustration the formulation of Dependent Origination?
2.     Provide an example (other than alcoholism) of how the idea of dependent origination can be understood in Western thought.
3.     What does Buddhism contribute to the meaning of life?