By Venerable Mahinda
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.