The Purpose and Meaning of Life

Posted by on Apr 26, 2014

The Purpose and Meaning of Life

By Venerable Mahinda

Part I

We have all come to this world with some purpose. Some of us may be aware of this purpose, but many of us are not really aware of our true purpose in this life. Some of us have come to this world to do something, to be of service to a certain group of people. For parents who have one or two children, they spend a good part of their lives looking after those children. That would appear to be their purpose in life. But others have come to this world with a greater sense of purpose, to help more sentient beings. But there are also some who have come to this world with a less worthwhile purpose, such as to take revenge. That is why it is important to really consider: what is our true purpose of coming to this world?

From the Buddhist Perspective, understanding the very basic teachings of the Buddha with regards to karma, rebirth and the Four Noble Truths, plays an important part in understanding the true purpose and meaning of our life.

Karma and rebirth

Firstly, we need to have some understanding about the law of karma, and rebirth. This is not our only lifetime, we have all lived in the past. In the past we have made many promises or aspirations, sometimes you can call them ‘vows’. If we have made these vows or promises with very strong intention, but we were not able to accomplish them in the past, they will follow us from life to life.

However, when we are born in this lifetime, from very young days we are exposed to all kinds of distractions and because of these distractions, we are not able to connect to our past aspirations. We totally lose track of what we really came here for.

But there are some people who deep down in their hearts have some idea as to why they come to this world. And when they meet certain people, or go to a certain place, something may trigger them to remember why.

Sometimes we are unconsciously searching for someone, or something, that we lost in the past.  But due to distraction, we cannot connect with that purpose. Deep down in our hearts, we are looking for something that we cannot find and we become very restless and unhappy.

What do you want in life?

If we ask this question: What do you really want in your life? Any sensible person will say they want happiness. But what is happiness? Most people only understand happiness in terms of the material things that give them pleasure, some kind of thrill or excitement. That is considered happiness.

From childhood, we try various means to get happiness. Ask yourself what gave you happiness when you were five years old? Some toys to play with? But ten years later, by age fifteen those toys have been put aside and you were looking for other things. Then, another ten years on, at twenty five years old – again, you will be looking for something else.

This is how people go on looking and looking for something – Something to give them happiness. But the real happiness is not found in all these material things outside, in the happiness experienced through our senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. There is another kind of happiness which does not depend on material things: peace and blissful contentment in our hearts. This happiness is found through the cultivation of the spiritual path. To Buddhists, the real happiness is the ultimate bliss of Nibbana. Nibbana paramam sukham – ‘Nibbana is the highest bliss’.

As long as we have not reached that ultimate goal, we will always be looking for something. And whenever we get something, we will find that it is unsatisfactory. When we start to realise the unsatisfactory nature of life, our priorities in life will change. Our quest for peace and happiness will direct us onto the path to realise the ultimate goal.

 Part II

We say that the ultimate purpose is to eventually put an end to all suffering, to liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth and death. But before we can reach that highest goal, there are certain worldly duties, certain worldly responsibilities, that we need to fulfill.  So we first need to consider our immediate purpose, what is it that we need to do now?

Those of you who have children, you need to fulfill your duties towards the children. Those who have parents, you also have to fulfill your duties towards them. As you fulfill your worldly duties and responsibilities, if you make the right aspirations, you will find opportunities to cultivate and develop your mind and eventually attain to your highest goal.

We need to have the idea that our immediate goal must eventually lead on to something higher, that there is a final goal. Because as long as we do not have the aspiration for the ultimate goal, we still come back again and again in this cycle of birth and death, not knowing what we really need to be happy.

Finding our purpose in life

There are a few ways that we can realise our purpose in this life. One is through the cultivation of mind, by clearing the mind, little by little of all the things that distract us. When the mind becomes clearer, we will begin to see our true purpose. For some people it may be visual: when their minds are clear, they can see what they have been in the past and they can link up to what they have to do in this lifetime.

Some people know very clearly that they have to do something. Sometimes it is to help a few people, sometimes even to help just one person. In the case of the Buddha, in his last birth, he had so many disciples. And many of his chief disciples, like the Venerables Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda and Kassapa, had all been together for many lifetimes. From life to life they had aspired to be together, to learn, to help one another, and to pave the way for one another’s enlightenment. So for those whose minds are clear and can see their path, all their energies are focused and they will be more contented in what they do.

The other way that we can see our path is if we have the faith and confidence in the Triple Gem. We connect and seek refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. And then we seek the blessings, the guidance and protection to show us the path, to show us our true purpose. Sometimes, when we share merits with the devas and bodhisattvas, these higher beings can also guide us to see our purpose.

How do we end suffering?

For Buddhists, our true purpose in life is to put an end to suffering. When one understands the basic teachings of the Buddha, one sees that as long as there is birth in one form or another, there will be decay, old age, sickness and death and all the accompanying sufferings – such as separation from loved ones, association with people whom we do not like or unpleasant situations, and unfulfilled desires. When we start to see the unsatisfactory conditions of life, then we ask this question: What do we really want in life? Any sensible person will want to put an end to this suffering.

The next question therefore, is how do we put an end to suffering? That answer, lies in the Four Noble Truths: that there is suffering, there is the cause of suffering, there is the end of suffering, and there is the path to end suffering. The way to end suffering lies in what we call the Noble Eightfold Path. Through the cultivation of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Body Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These eight factors serve to purify the mind from the tendencies of greed, hatred and delusion.

So even though you may not know right now what your true purpose in life is, whatever situation you are in, whatever work that you do, you need to try to apply the Noble Eightfold Path in your life. Basically, this means cultivating right thoughts, speech and body actions. As you do this, little by little, your mind will become clearer and clearer, and the tendencies of greed, hatred and delusion will reduce.  Then your path will also become clearer and you will start to see the true meaning and true purpose of your life.


(Edited and revised transcription of a Dhamma talk on The Purpose of Life given by Ven Mahinda in Singapore in 2005.)