TLDR: The day that we lie dying, would we say that we have lived well? In the pursuit of a meaningful life, Buddhist Scholar Sylvia Bay shares insights on cultivating positive relationships, embracing Dhamma growth, and dedicated service to a greater cause.
Everything we value will end
When impermanence is such a central feature of reality, what is the meaning of life? We are born, go through life’s milestones, and at some indeterminate point, we die.
Everything that we “value”, our hopes and dreams, achievements and accolades will end with that.
If we believe in rebirth, we expect the same grind to start all over again. Living seems like a fruitless and endless pursuit. Nonetheless, the fact is we are alive. We can whine about its meaninglessness or we can try and make this one count.
While we are very different in physical and psychological make-up, oddly, our perception about a meaningful life is fundamentally not very different.
Most of us would agree that a life filled with pain, anger, agitation, worries, unfulfilled yearnings and loneliness seems pointless.
The only possible exception to that is if we perceive that our personal happiness is sacrificed at the altar of a higher calling such as for the country, people, god (generically) or ideals (such as democracy, liberty, freedom, justice and so on).
So the measure of life’s meaningfulness has two components: psychological-emotional mental state (happy or sad, pleasure or pain) and mind-made construct of value.
Hence, the regular person will find his life meaningful if he is serving a cause that he deeply believes in and derives powerful positive emotions from it. For me, meaning in life is found in the following three areas: having positive relationships, growing in the Dhamma and in service of Dhamma.
It is hard to be happy if we are in conflict, especially with the people closest to us, such as parents, children, spouse, good friends and so on. Why do relationships go so wrong?
A large part of the problem lies in our attitude. We often approach relationships from a singularly self-centred perspective: my expectations, desires, interests and feelings.
We expect unconditional love, consideration and respect from the people we care about.
We expect that they will be understanding and do the necessary to placate our moods. Yet, we don’t always extend the same courtesy to them. Instead, how we treat them is often dictated by fickle and fleeting feelings.
We are nice and helpful when we feel good and snappy and hurtful when we are upset.
The Buddha’s teaching on managing relationships starts from a very different perspective. In the Sigalovada sutta, Buddha taught that we should have a wholesome attitude in our relationships. We take the initiative to give love, care, consideration, respect, and so on without expecting reciprocity.
We do our duties conscientiously and look after the people around us, to give them peace and comfort.
We are a dutiful and grateful child, a loving and supportive spouse, a wise and caring parent and a loyal and fair friend, because that matters to them. To the wider world, have metta and compassion, graciousness and generosity. And the list goes on.
It may seem daunting, but actually, it is rather straightforward. Just treat others as we wish to be treated. We want to be treated with respect, courtesy, fairness and kindness.
So, do that for another. We don’t want to be at the receiving end of cruel words and actions, slanderous gossip and criticisms, so don’t do that to another.
If we dislike being taken for granted, others will also resent that. If we are mindful of the empathy principle, we should be able to nurture healthy, rewarding and fulfilling relationships, and be a source of joy and comfort for the world.
Growing in the Dhamma
Many of us in lay life are fixated about earning a living and creating financial security. While that is pragmatic because we and our loved ones “must eat”, it should not be our exclusive focus.
Because ultimately, material wealth and worldly success are impermanent. Surely, we don’t want to put all our proverbial eggs in the worldly basket and then have to leave them all behind when death strikes?
We most definitely cannot assume that we will always make it back to a human birth and have another shot at Dhamma cultivation. Therefore, we should not waste this particular existence, especially since the right conditions for practice are already there.
A mistake we often make is to assume that spirituality and the worldly life must necessarily be mutually exclusive. It need not be so.
I would like to highlight two suttas where Buddha had explained that a complete and meaningful life is one that strikes the right balance between worldly success and spiritual fulfillment. They are the Vyagghapajja sutta (also known as Dighajanu) and the Mangala sutta.
In the Vyagghapajja sutta, Buddha taught a lay person, Dighajanu, what he must do to have a satisfying lay life where he could continue to enjoy sensual pleasures, while assuring himself of happy future births. For worldly success and happiness, Buddha advised Dighajanu to strive and excel in his work, to be vigilant in protecting his assets, to live comfortably within his means and to keep good and wholesome friends.
For more sustainable happiness that extends to future lives, Dighajanu must cultivate spiritual faith, uphold morality, be generous and develop wisdom.
For a Buddhist, spiritual faith means being confident that Buddha was indeed enlightened, the Dhamma is effective in restoring mental health and reducing pain and suffering, and the Sangha are the physical embodiment of a practice that delivers unconditioned bliss.
Faith motivates us to lead a virtuous life that is harmless and beneficial to others. We learn to tame greed and anger and gradually overcome ignorance and delusion. Generosity means being able to set aside our desires and preferences for the welfare and benefit of others.
Wisdom means seeing and understanding impermanence of reality for what it is and learning to moderate our cravings so as to be able to experience some joy and peace in daily living.
In the Mangala sutta, Buddha showed how a life is fortunate, complete and worthwhile when it successfully balances the worldly demands with spiritual insights. The successful lay man knows how to keep wise company, and to exploit whatever advantages he had in pursuit of his goals, including tapping on favourable environmental conditions, past merits, worldly knowledge and professional skills.
He must fulfill his responsibilities and obligations to his loved ones and be a decent, upright man who is respected by society for his generosity and virtues. But even as he juggles worldly demands, he must make time for the Dhamma.
Be conscientious in listening to the teachings. Approach sangha practitioners to clarify his understanding. Incorporate the teaching and practice into his daily life. With correct understanding, he learns to be content with little, to keep his mind pure, and to tame the thinking habit.
When the mental conditions are right and in place, he will gradually gain an intuitive insight into the noble truths, sees the Dhamma and eventually understands the mind’s true nature.
If his understanding of Dhamma is penetrative enough, he will enter the Dhamma stream. His faith in the Triple Gems is now unshakeable and he will not suffer from the identity illusion crisis.
He will live the rest of this life happier, more at peace and more content. While he can still be caught up in the occasional emotional ups and downs, his is a more sedate version from that which plagues the rest of the world.
If he does not realise nibbana in this life, he would be reborn at most seven more times and never lower than a human birth. At whatever distant point when the mental conditions are aligned, he will realise nibbana.
Most of us assume that stream entry is impossible for us, at least not in this lifetime. We offer all kinds of reasons: we are not morally good enough, not smart or wise enough, too ignorant, too busy, too old, too young and so on.
The canonical text is peppered with numerous stories of stream-enterers who were just common people: successful businessmen, frazzled housewives, bored and restless youths, jaded elderly men, and less common ones including a courtesan, some hunters, a king, a general and some ministers.
Some may say that those ancient stream-enterers succeeded because of Buddha’s personal guidance and may even add that without Buddha’s help, entering stream is impossible. This is a dreadfully misguided view. At his deathbed, Buddha told Subhadda, the last ascetic he personally ordained, that as long as there is the eightfold path, there would be people who could realise Dhamma. So who do we believe? Conventional hearsay or Buddha? I choose the latter. Entering the Dhamma stream may not be easy, but not impossible. Buddha may be gone but Dhamma and Sangha are still here and thriving.
Despite our regular innate self-serving instincts, there is a part in us that is drawn towards altruistic service. The idea of volunteering wholly for the benefit of the wider community, without expectations, is oddly pleasing and satisfying.
I am personally drawn towards Dhamma propagation. To me, Dhamma is invaluable because it helps restore mental health and well-being to anyone who understands and incorporates the teaching into their daily life.
Dhamma is timeless: long after we are gone and our bodies grounded into ashes and dusts, Dhamma will continue to bring immeasurable and unconditioned bliss to the faithful practitioners.
It has been over 2500 years since Buddha was gone: yet his work continues to alleviate the mental suffering of countless beings. What service can be more meaningful than that?
For those inspired to serve, consider playing to your strength. Offer your professional skills and technical knowledge in support of Dhamma propagation. While teaching or sharing Dhamma seems an obvious answer, there are actually much more that could be done.
For instance, design webpages for uploading Dhamma knowledge. Contribute to Dhamma publications: write, edit or proofread articles. Manage Buddhist organisations or activities. Provide legal expertise. Handle the accounts. And so on and so forth.
Be a part of the effort to make Dhamma available to other seekers. We are all beneficiaries of Dhamma practitioners and propagators who had come before us.
Because of their proselytising efforts, we know where to go and whom to seek out to learn Dhamma. It is our duty to continue their work of preserving this ancient knowledge and passing it on to future generations.
Dying with no regrets
We do not know if death will come knocking tomorrow. But when it does, what would your last words be and would there be regrets? Spare a moment to reflect on this.
The day that we lie dying, would we say that we have lived well? That we have loved and are loved? That we have learnt much and matured into a wiser, kinder and happier person? And that we are leaving this world a better place than the one we found?
If your answers are an unequivocal yes, the odds are you have found your meaning in life and are at heart, content and at peace.
- Strengthen relationships by adopting a wholesome attitude, giving love and care without expecting anything in return, and aligning with the Buddha’s teachings.
- Achieve a balanced life by integrating worldly success with spiritual growth, drawing inspiration from the Vyagghapajja sutta’s principles.
- Contribute to Dhamma propagation by leveraging professional skills, ensuring the preservation and passing on of ancient knowledge for future generations.
 See Walshe, Maurice. “Sigalaka Sutta: To Sigalaka, Advice to Lay People” D 31 in Thus Have I Hear: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, Translated from the Pali, London: Wisdom Publications, 1987, pp. 460-469.
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Dighajanu” A 8:54(4) in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya: Translated from the Pāli. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012, pp. 1173-1175.
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu, “Blessing” SN 2:4 in The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with its Commentaries, Translated from the Pali, Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2017, pp. 199-200. Traditionally, the Mangala Sutta is taught as “38” types of blessings which are essentially conditions for one’s growth, success and happiness. That is one way to look at it. Another way is to take each stanza as a self-contained advice and collectively, the 11 stanzas would seem to paint a full, complete and meaningful life.
 This means becoming a sotapanna or stream-enterer, which is the first of four stages of sainthood taught in the Pali Canon. See Walshe, “Mahaparinibbana Sutta: The Buddha’s Last Days” D 16, op. cit., pp. 268.