The Purpose of Life


           “The purpose of life is to be happy.”        The Dalai Lama


Many years ago, I was rather deeply engaged in drama and reactivity in the face of a family member’s struggle with addiction. My wise and more experienced mentor remarked in passing “You have to protect your own serenity at all costs.” I was shocked. Really? That’s an option for me in the face of a beloved one’s extreme of suffering? That I would first protect my own serenity?


It is, I have come to see, the heart of our spiritual practice: finding and resting in the serenity that is an alive and vibrant love, compassion and equanimity in the face of any of life’s storms. Our conditioning tends to focus our attention on the particular events and behaviors that arise and touch on our senses as pleasant or unpleasant. We identify with and proliferate about these objects. The Buddha, however, invites us to cultivate a capacity to let go of identification with those superficial objects and to rest our awareness and subsequent choices in the loving and compassionate goodness that is our deeper ground. We are invited into a practice that helps us to discover and rest in this indestructible wholeness and happiness: our fundamental birthright.

So right here. Right here – this is the place to look: when we find ourselves off balance, disquieted, overwhelmed, incoherent- whatever language we use for our momentary identifications, struggles and stumbles.  Right here is the good news arising: not a failure and not the end of the story but the portal which we must learn to navigate. We are invited to explore, to learn from our mistakes and to discover what is needed for us to let go – even a little bit more – of struggle. We explore not just for ourselves but for the collective: how do we, together, all of us, find our way?

David Whyte has a wonderful poem About this, “The Faces at Braga,” written during a journey to temples in southeast Asia.  He was fascinated by the fearsome faces he found guarding the entrances to the most holy sites. The faces, he learned, are there to challenge those who enter to “step through:” out of mundane and superficial perceptions, stories and behaviors into the sacred space that lies beyond. While he speaks very personally and also of a “creator” and thus in different language from Buddhist teaching, I think that his poem speaks of the task before us just now. He invites us to not be distracted by the world’s collective confusions and the superficial drama that inspires only fear and hatred, hesitation and division. He encourages us to not be distracted by our own mind states of insecurity and doubt.

The Faces at Braga

In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight
the old shrine room waits in silence

While above the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding, “Will you step through?”

And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.

We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,

see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the hand held light.

Such love in solid wood!
Taken from the hillsides and carved in silence
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.

Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers

we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
then slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.

Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through age
and their mouths curve through delight of the carver’s hand.

If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.

If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,

we would smile, too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.

When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.

And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.

If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers

feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.

Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
every day, would gather all our flaws in celebration

to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hands.

“…to bring the deep grain of love to the surface…(from) the very core…we would smile, too and not need faces immobilized by fear and the weight of things undone.”

The purpose of life is to be happy.

The Buddha in the Metta sutta, speaks similarly:

“This is what is done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace… 

Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease….
Let none through anger or ill will
Wish harm upon another.

… So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill will.

It is no easy task, perhaps especially in these challenging times. We fight our own failings and, perhaps, the apparent failings of others.

We begin where we can.  First, we must notice and then pass the guardians at the gate and not be overcome with our own or others’ fears and mental confusions. The fierce faces are meant to keep out of the inner sanctuary those whose intentions, minds and hearts are not yet prepared. “Will you step through?” life asks. Will we learn to allow “…the deep grain of love to…surface.”

We answer first with an intention. We then look to see what feels do-able. We consider our energies, understandings and resources.  At any given moment, perhaps that means that we step out of lofty expectations, shame or self-criticism to bring love and care to our own physical and mental bodies, ” Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child.”

“Don’t think you have a ten-wheeler truck when you have a wheelbarrow.”  Ajahn Chah  

From this reservoir of our own goodness and happiness, we look further to see our own capacities and what is ours to do. When my mother was in her last years, struggling with poor physical health and dementia, there was overwhelming and impossible need.  There were histories of profound wounds and confusions. Early on in those last years, I made the resolution to only offer what I could offer with an open heart. This included not only her but my relations with other family members as well. It was a good decision, one that had to be made and re-made many many times.  As we cared for ourselves and one another, though, regardless of what we were or were not able to accomplish externally, all of us came to know and be profoundly nourished by how deeply we were able to forgive and to renew a nesting in love.  The suffering of those years proved to be a portal to a deeper knowing: “Will you step through?”

So how are we to be in the current state of the world or the beliefs and actions of our political leaders who may appear at times to be so profoundly confused?  How do we navigate the state of our own families and relationships and minds?  We begin with an intention: “The purpose of life is to be happy.”  And then we look and investigate and experiment. We forgive ourselves our confusions and mistakes. What works? What wakes us up?  What takes us into discontent and burden and hatred versus what lightens us up and enables us to speak and act with love and wisdom and clarity? It is a different journey for each of us, but we can be guided by the Buddha’s discovery that unconditional love        ” … is the sublime abiding.”  We are invited to practice, to release those negative mind states and behaviors that hold us back from love and compassion, that keep us down and do no more than create mental turmoil and clutter.

It is not a one-time thing. We practice. And practice again. And again. We are invited to discover for ourselves in every moment what it is that wakes us up, opens our minds and hearts, and allows us entry into sacred space.

“If your everyday practice is to open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that – then that will take you as far as you can go. And you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.”     Pema Chodron   


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