The Meaning of Life

The following is an outtake from my forthcoming book Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen. The book is a series of letters written to my dead friend Marky, who I had known since high school. I never told him about Zen and now I want to.

Dear Marky,

One of your friends told me a story about something that happened maybe a week or two before you died. Things were getting pretty bad by then and you were very sick. Apparently you kept coming in and out of consciousness. Whenever you were awake, you kept saying, “What is the answer?”

The friend who told me this story knew someone who was some kind of a psychic. He thought the psychic might be able to help you. So he brought the psychic to you and she, the psychic, listened to your question. When you asked the psychic what the answer was, she said, “It’s 42. The answer has always been 42!”

You and I were both fans of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in that book a super computer computes the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. The answer it comes up with is 42. I guess that answer must have worked for you on some level because your friend said you settled down when you heard that.

But is there an answer? I mean other than 42?

I understand the point of view that says the most obvious explanation for life, the universe, and everything is that it’s all just random and meaningless. That follows completely logically from the materialistic view. We are steeped in that view as contemporary Western people. It is the view that made the most coherent and consistent sense to me for about the first thirty-some years of my life, even while I was doing all that Buddhist stuff. 

The materialistic view is that matter is the bottom line, everything we experience is based on the existence of matter. The reason we have any conscious experience, then, is because material substances in our bodies do things that register in our brains as conscious experience. 

Conscious experience is a kind of trick matter plays in order to make living beings function efficiently, so that they’ll get food, do whatever else it is they’re supposed to do, and have sex in order to make replicas of themselves to take over the job once they die. Even saying that matter is playing a trick is too much. Matter doesn’t know what it’s doing. It just happens.

 If we take that point of view, the most obvious, and most sensible conclusion is that there is no meaning to anything, no purpose for anything, no salvation, no nothing. 

This isn’t at all emotionally pleasing. And so, the materialists say, we want to and reject that reality in favor of more pleasing alternative explanations based in superstition and wishful thinking. The reason for religion, then, is as a coping mechanism, to deal with how brutally pointless everything actually is when we’re honest about it. 

One of our favorite illusions, say materialists, is to imagine that consciousness is the bottom line, that everything we experience is based on consciousness, is based on the mind. Then we can imagine the existence of God and of the soul, which are pure consciousness and completely unlike gross matter. This consciousness, we tell ourselves, animates matter, it makes it move around and do stuff. But it gets bewildered by the senses and starts identifying itself with matter, leading to the materialistic view. If only we understood that consciousness, not matter, was the root of everything, then we’d be free from sense appetites and could dwell in endless bliss. This point of view is what philosophers call idealism.

Personally, I always had deep difficulties with the idealistic point of view, which is the point of view most religions take. But, unlike you, I think, Marky, I was very attracted to the idea that there was a meaning of life. Religions offer meaning, whereas materialistic philosophies deny it. I found the religious viewpoint appealing because it seemed to give people who accepted it a sense of purpose. It seemed to make them happier than I was. And because it was so appealing I wanted to know if it could possibly be true.

That’s why I looked into religions. I wanted to believe in their idealistic worldview because the materialistic view seemed so bleak and hopeless. Even though I thought the materialistic view was probably true, it was also ugly and depressing. It offered no comfort. It offered no possibility of salvation, to use the Christian terminology.

I figured that religion was probably all nonsense and superstition. But there was a part of me that was willing to say that there was a possibility it wasn’t. I couldn’t believe in the kind of Christianity preached by televangelists and by the preachers I encountered in churches in Wadsworth, Ohio. But maybe, I thought, one of the other religions out there in the big wide world had it right.

Yet every religion I looked into deeply disappointed me. They were clearly based on flawed reasoning and wishful thinking, just as I suspected they might be. Both Eastern and Western religions seemed to be the same when it came to that. They just had different fantasies. 

Then I came across Buddhism. 

The Buddhists say that it may be a mistake to think the material world is absolute reality, that the material world exists first and because of its existence, consciousness arises. In that sense Buddhism is like other religions. 

But they deviate from the normal religious point of view by saying that it may also be a mistake to think consciousness is absolute reality, that consciousness exists first and because of its existence, the material world arises.

In fact, the Buddhists say, we might not ever be able to understand what’s really going on here, at least not intellectually.

Gudo Nishijima used to say, “There is matter and there is meaning.” To him, what he called “meaning” was as obvious as matter. 

Let me see if I can put any of this into words that might make sense to you. Let’s start off with an easy one.

The only entity in the entire universe who knows what you are is you. And no one can tell you what you are. 

They might be very enlightened. Maybe thousands of people think they’re the greatest thing ever. They still do not know what you are.

Or they might be super scientific. They might be a physics whiz who can follow equations just like if they were reading a comic book. They might have perfect grounding in all of the methods and reasoning of science. They still do not know the real experience of you being you.

Science is, after all, the deep study of sensory experience. It measures sensory experiences, compares them to other sensory experiences that have been had by other human beings. It correlates the sensory experiences of many humans and says that if many humans report more-or-less the same sensory experience, that sensory experience must therefore be real. But it does all of this in one slice of reality, the realm of sensory experience. 

Materialism is, at its basis, the philosophy of sensory experience.

But, if you ask me, both materialism and idealism are iffy. I get why more people seem to side with materialism these days. Yet when I look at it closely, it falls apart just like idealism does. I cannot accept the idea that my real experience in this world is just a trick played by material forces to get me to reproduce.

So maybe materialism and idealism are both inadequate ways of understanding what’s real.

In my own case — as in a lot of cases among those who call themselves Buddhists — looking into this question of who I really am involved sitting still and staring at a blank wall for a long time. A few minutes here and there won’t do it, I’m afraid. Nor will it do to just use sitting as a means to ponder and ruminate. You have to commit to just sitting for its own sake. At least I had to.

Eventually all that sitting and staring without any entertainment or deep thoughts to distract me wore me down enough that I could start to dimly see something that was not apparent before I did that process. 

And I’ll let you in on one of the answers that I came across through this process. Here it is. It’s not 42. It’s that, eventually you have to resign yourself to the fact that not only don’t you know the answer, but that you will never know the answer. You have to accept that what you are is incompatible with knowing what you are. You can never step outside of you and look at it as an object.

But that’s not the end of the story. Because there are some things you can know.

The fact that you’ll never know the answer doesn’t mean there is no answer. There is an answer. It’s just that the answer is far bigger than our feeble human brains can grasp. We can’t parse it out. We can’t cut it up into the kind of chunks you need to cut things up into in order to make sense of them intellectually. The bigger questions can’t be dealt with it that way. Little ones can. Big ones can’t.

This is what makes the answer I’m talking about totally different from science. The scientific method is great. I really mean that. I am a huge fan of science. But the scientific method doesn’t operate in this area because science requires taking things apart and considering the parts separately, looking at them objectively, from outside. And the thing about the meaning of existence is that it cannot be removed from existence itself and considered separately.

The answer to what the universe is, is the universe itself. Its meaning is bound up with its very existence. And you can look at it right now if you want. 

There are moments when you can see it all, though. There are moments when you can come face to face with the ultimate meaning of everything. You recognize it, even if you can’t understand it. You recognize it because you are not separate from it. You are part of it. You are recognizing yourself. But it’s not the self you thought you were. 

And, being part of the great meaning of everything, you are also the entirety of it. There is nothing that separates you from the ultimate meaning of everything. There is nothing between you and the ultimate meaning of everything. There can’t be.

But you can’t stay there. It’s funny. The source of everything is you. Kobun Chino, my first teacher’s teacher, said, “From that place you have come, actually, and whatever you do is returning to that spot.”

I know, right! Another one of those stupid Zen contradictions. But it happens to be true.

Even though you can’t ever catch the answer, you can approach the answer. It’s a little like approaching a bird or a lizard or some small animal. If you can learn to be very, very quiet and assure the bird that you’re not going to eat it, that you just want to look at it, then sometimes a small bird will let you come close. But you have to train for this. You also have to be sincere. A little bird can tell if you’re just pretending to not want to catch it but you really do want to catch it. 

That’s how it is with this. You have to sincerely not want to catch it. You have to sincerely not want to eat it up or keep it in a cage. You have to sincerely not want to make it into part of your persona, something you can brag to everyone that you now possess. Only then are you allowed to get close.

This is why I sit and stare at walls. I’m practicing for when that little bird lands in front of me. Metaphorically, I mean.

The really funny thing, though, is that when you finally do come face to face with it, you recognize that it’s something you knew all along. It’s been right there with you the whole time. It never went away. It was never hidden. It was never the least bit obscure. It was up in your face the entire time. Yet somehow you had failed to recognize it.

Kobun Chino said that it’s like something ancient says to you, “Why don’t you know me? Living so many years with me, why can’t you call my real name?” That’s a really great description, I think.

You always knew the answer. You just had to get quiet enough, and honest enough, to admit that was the answer.

See ya later, skater!





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