The Meaning of Life (HH the Dalai Lama)

Meaning of Life    

The Meaning of Life

Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect

His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Edited and Introduced by Jeffrey Hopkins

(Nov 2000)

Paperback, 164 pages




Introduction by Jeffrey Hopkins

Technical Note

    1. The Buddhist World View

    2. Life Impelled by Ignorance

    3. Levels of the Path

    4. The Value of Altruism

    5. Compassion and Wisdom Combined







 Why are we in this situation? Where are we going?
Do our lives have any meaning? How should we make use of our lives? How
does Buddhism view the position of beings in the world and the ways humans
can make their lives meaningful?

 These questions about the meaning of life are addressed
in a famous Buddhist painting of a wheel with twenty-one parts that outlines
the process of rebirth. The diagram, said to be designed by the Buddha
himself, depicts an inner psychological cosmology that has had great inffuence
throughout Asia. It is much like a map of the world or the periodic table
of chemical elements, but it is a map of an internal process and its external

 In Tibet, this painting is at the doorway of practically
every temple. It vividly describes how we become trapped in a counter-productive
maelstrom of suffering and how this process can be reversed, showing how
Buddhists place themselves in an ever-changing universe of cause and effect.
By illuminating the causes behind our situation of limitation and pain,
the wheel of cyclic existence reveals how, through practicing antidotes
to these causes, we can overcome the painful and limiting situations that
are their Effects. It shows the altruistic purpose that can make life meaningful.
The unsettling description of the steps of entrapment is a call to action,
for it shows how the prison of selÞshness can be turned into a source
of help and happiness for both oneself and others…


First, let me talk to the Buddhist practitioners in the
audience about the proper motivation for listening to lectures on religion.
A good motivation is important. The reason why we are discussing these
matters is certainly not money, fame, or any other aspect of our livelihood
during this life. There are plenty of activities that can bring these.
The main reason why we have come here stems from a long-term concern.

It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not
want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement
about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are
many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also
many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however,
we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary beneÞt but for
long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for
life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years,
but lives and eons.

Money has its uses, but it is limited. Among worldly powers
and possessions, there are, doubtless, good things, but they are limited.
However, from a Buddhist viewpoint, mental development will continue from
life to life, because the nature of mind is such that if certain mental
qualities are developed on a sound basis, they always remain and, not only
that, can increase. In fact, once properly developed, good qualities of
mind eventually increase inÞnitely. Therefore spiritual practice
brings both long-term happiness and more inner strength day by day.

So keep your mind on the topics being discussed; listen
with a pure motivation-without sleep! My main motivation is a sincere feeling
for others, and concern for others’ welfare.

Behavior and View

Meditation is needed in developing mental qualities. The
mind is definitely something that can be transformed, and meditation is
a means to transform it. Meditation is the activity of familiarizing your
mind with something new. Basically, it means getting used to the object
on which you are meditating.

Meditation is of two types-analytical and stabilizing.
First, an object is analyzed, after which the mind is set one-pointedly
on the same object in stabilizing meditation. Within analytical meditation,
there are also two types:

    1. Something, such as impermanence, is taken as the object
    of the mind and is meditated upon;

    2. A mental attitude is cultivated through meditation,
    as in cultivating love, in which case the mind becomes of the nature of
    that mental attitude.

To understand the purpose of meditation, it is helpful to
divide spiritual practices into view and behavior. The main factor is behavior,
for this is what decides both one’s own and others’ happiness in the future.
In order for behavior to be pure and complete, it is necessary to have
a proper view. Behavior must be well-founded in reason, and thus a proper
philosophical view is necessary.

What is the main goal of Buddhist practices concerning
behavior? It is to tame one’s mental continuum-to become nonviolent. In
Buddhism, the vehicles, or modes of practice, are generally divided into
the Great Vehicle and the Hearer Vehicle. The Great Vehicle is primarily
concerned with the altruistic compassion of helping others, and the Hearer
Vehicle is primarily concerned with the nonharming of others. Thus, the
root of all of the Buddhist teaching is compassion. The excellent doctrine
of the Buddha has its root in compassion, and the Buddha who teaches these
doctrines is even said to be born from compassion. The chief quality of
a buddha is great compassion; this attitude of nurturing and helping others
is the reason why it is appropriate to take refuge in a buddha.

The Sangha, or virtuous community, consists of those who,
practicing the doctrine properly, assist others to gain refuge. People
in the Sangha have four special qualities: if someone harms them, they
do not respond with harm; if someone displays anger to them, they do not
react with anger; if someone insults them, they do not answer with insult;
and if someone accuses them, they do not retaliate. This is the behavior
of a monk or nun, the root of which is compassion; thus, the main qualities
of the spiritual community also stem from compassion. In this way, the
three refuges for a Buddhist-Buddha, doctrine, and spiritual community-all
have their root in compassion. All religions are the same in having powerful
systems of good advice with respect to the practice of compassion. The
basic behavior of nonviolence, motivated by compassion, is needed not only
in our daily lives but also nation to nation, throughout the world.


The other technique for developing altruism is called
equalizing and switching self and other. Here, one should investigate which
side is important, oneself or others. Choose. There is no other choice
— only these two. Who is more important, you or others? Others are greater
in number than you, who are just one; others are inÞnite. It is clear
that neither wants suVering and both want happiness, and that both have
every right to achieve happiness and to overcome suVering because both
are sentient beings.

If we ask, “Why do I have the right to be happy?” the
ultimate reason is, “Because I want happiness.” There is no further reason.
We have a natural and valid feeling of I, on the basis of which we want
happiness. This alone is the valid foundation of our right to strive for
happiness; it is a human right, and a right of all sentient beings. Now,
if one has such a right to overcome suVering, then other sentient beings
naturally have the same right. In addition, all sentient beings are basically
endowed with the capacity to overcome suVering. The only diVerence is that
oneself is single, whereas others are in the majority. Hence, the conclusion
is clear; if even a small problem, a small suVering, befalls others, its
range is inÞnite, whereas when something happens to oneself, it is
limited to just one single person. When we view others as sentient beings
too in this way, oneself seems not so important.

Let me describe how this is practiced in meditation. This
is my own practice, and I frequently speak about it to others. Imagine
that in front of you on one side is your old, selÞsh I and that on
the other side is a group of poor, needy people. And you yourself are in
the middle as a neutral person, a third party. Then, judge which is more
important — whether you should join this selÞsh, self-centered,
stupid person or these poor, needy, helpless people. If you have a human
heart, naturally you will be drawn to the side of the needy beings.

This type of reflective contemplation will help in developing
an altruistic attitude; you gradually will realize how bad selÞsh
behavior is. You yourself, up to now, have been behaving this way, but
now you realize how bad you were. Nobody wants to be a bad person; if someone
says, “You are a bad person,” we feel very angry. Why? The main reason
is simply that we do not want to be bad. If we really do not want to be
a bad person, then the means to avoid it is in our own hands. If we train
in the behavior of a good person, we will become good. Nobody else has
the right to put a person in the categories of good or bad; noone has that
kind of power.

The ultimate source of peace in the family, the country,
and the world is altruism — compassion and love. Contemplation of this
fact also helps tremendously to develop altruism. Meditating on these techniques
as much as possible engenders conviction, desire, and determination. When
with such determination you try, try, try, day by day, month by month,
year by year, we can improve ourselves. With altruistic motivation every
action accumulates good virtues — the limitless power of salutary merit.

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