Animals live to eat. What do you live for?

3 mins read
Published on Jan 10, 2024

TLDR: Reflect on existence: What truly moves you? What do you live for? Venerable Jian Xin shares her journey from tears to clarity on the path.

A Zen Master’s question that changed Everything

It happened more than twenty years ago. However, the memory is still so vivid that it seems like it happened yesterday. It was more than ten years after I became a Buddhist and I had met with some spiritual setbacks. 

At that point, I was feeling quite disillusioned with my spiritual life, so I took leave from work and attended a seven-day Zen Retreat. The many rounds of sitting and walking meditation greatly calmed my mind.

Soon, it was time for my interview with the Zen Master. I stepped into the room and sat down in front of him. Immediately, I felt enveloped by an immense sense of peace. He looked at me and asked, “Do you have any questions?”

I looked at him and shared what had been bothering me for quite some time: “Zen Master, I have been feeling quite lost. In fact, I have been feeling quite disillusioned with my spiritual life.”

He paused for a few seconds and asked me a question that still seems to ring in my ears today: “Animals live to eat. What do you live for?”

Tears immediately welled up in my eyes. Something deep within me was moved. Tears then began to roll profusely down my cheeks. 

I could not stop them. They were tears of suffering, tears of joy; tears of suppression, tears of freedom; tears of Samsara and yet, tears of awakening.

From confusion to clarity

“What do I live for?” This question had been bugging me since I was very young. Finally, I found the answer to my life purpose through the first Buddhist book I read when I was fifteen. 

Through the years, all my major life decisions were centred around my life purpose decisions regarding my studies, my career, and my relationships.

However, there were a few times when I was misaligned. I am deeply thankful that I would encounter teachers and episodes, like the above-mentioned Zen interview, which would reconnect me with my life purpose.

I remember a Buddhist parable that I read when I was doing my Philosophy studies at university. This parable was quoted by Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. 

In this piece of writing A Confession”, he quoted this parable that to him, genuinely revealed human reality. He wrote, “And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.”

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From honey drops to realisation

This “Parable Sutra” was related by the Buddha to a king named “Brilliance”. Long ago, a man was travelling through the wilderness and was chased by a wild elephant. He fled and came to an empty well.

Dangling into the well was the root of a tree, and he quickly climbed down the root. At the bottom of the well was a poisonous serpent. Two rats, white and black in colour, gnawed at the tree root above him. 

A hive in the tree root contained the honey of bees, five drops of which fell into his mouth.

The wilderness symbolises the path of ignorance. The person fleeing is a metaphor for the ordinary man, while the elephant represents impermanence. The well is a metaphor for the shore of Samsara (Cycle of birth, death and rebirth)

The tree root represents life and the two rats gnawing at the root symbolize day and night. The serpent symbolises death and the dripping honey is a metaphor for the five sense desires (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch).

So here we are, wandering in the wilderness of ignorance, fleeing from the elephant of impermanence, clinging to the root of life, knowing that the serpent of death is inevitably awaiting us. 

The rats of day and night are gnawing at our lives. The drops of honey are they still sweet to you?

Reflecting on Purpose: What Moves You?

Have you thought of your existence and what truly gives you meaning? Personally, aligning with my purpose in life eventually led me to renounce and become a Buddhist nun. 

I cannot think of a better way to live my life meaningfully. 

Back to the episode I mentioned at the beginning – what was it that I reconnected with, deep within me, that brought tears to my eyes? 

The tears were about the suffering of sentient beings in Samsara and also about the bliss of awakening.

Yes, at that moment, I was deeply reconnected with this precious jewel Bodhicitta, the mind that strives towards Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is what I am living for.

Animals live to eat. What do you live for?


Wise Steps:

  1. Learn from misalignments, allowing them to guide you back to your life purpose.
  2. Reflect on symbolic parables, like the man in the well, to gain a clearer perspective on life.
  3. Consider renouncing distractions to live a more purposeful and meaningful life.
Venerable Jian Xin , an NUS alum with a Master's in Buddhist Studies from the University of London, embraced the Bodhisattva path at 15. Former counsellor turned monastic, she guides others with wisdom and compassion towards the path of awakening.

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