I grew up living a purpose-driven life. In high school, I worked hard to get good grades and took part in the right extracurriculars to get into college. In college, I did internships and raised my GPA, so that I’d look good to the job recruiters that visited campus. At the same time, I was serving in the US Marine Corps Reserve doing everything I could to be promoted to the next rank.
It seemed to be working. It seemed like I was fulfilling my purpose. And then the financial crash of 2008 happened. Soon after the crash, I learned that my internships didn’t count as “real-world experience” at the companies to which I applied. And while my military service was enough to gain me an interview, none of the skills I learned in the Marine Corps—marksmanship, land navigation, physical training, and so on—transferred to the civilian world. So I couldn’t find a job. And for a long time I felt like a failure.
But bad times don’t last forever, and I was eventually able to find work. That job led to a slightly better one, and I slowly found a new purpose in life. I was going to be successful in business. I was going to make money, wear nice clothes, and have a fancy apartment. That’s what everyone around me was doing, so I decided to follow the crowd.
And I was good at it. I could solve problems. I could meet deadlines. I was willing to put in longer hours than my coworkers. So I had business success, which led to monetary success, which led to me getting the clothes, the apartment, and the life I thought I wanted.
But my accomplishments came with an asterisk, because achieving my goals didn’t make me happy. Quite the opposite. I became angsty and neurotic. Each time I bought a new business suit, I noticed that there were nicer ones just outside of my price range. Each time I went to a party and told people where I lived, there was always someone who lived somewhere nicer.
I succeeded in fulfilling my purpose, but I still felt like a failure.
Later in life, I discovered Buddhism and I was introduced to the idea of purposeless purpose. That is, I learned the importance of doing things without any expectation of reward or recognition. The best explanation of this way of living can be found in Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s book The Center Within:
A biologist might claim that a flower blooms to attract insects which then spread the pollen. But the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does—there is no intention. Water flows effortlessly. It cannot help but flow—that is the way it is. Effortless effort, purposeless purpose, this is the real way of life.(47)
When I began living a life of purposeless purpose, I felt like a weight was removed from my shoulders. I still do all of the typical things that are required to survive in society. I have a job, I pay bills, I take out the trash when the garbage can is full. But I no longer look to those things to define me.
I have a job. But my job is not me. I have a home. But my home is not me. These things are tools that help me live my life in the same way that a honeybee helps a flower to live. But the honeybee doesn’t give purpose to the flower.
And the daily activities of my life don’t give me purpose. That is to say, they aren’t stepping stones toward some other goal. They are complete in and of themselves. I wash the dishes just to wash the dishes. I make my bed just to make my bed. I have no purpose. Thus, I have no problems.
That said, living a life of purposeless purpose is hard. Our brains are always looking for a mountain to climb or a challenge to overcome—at least mine is. So out of compassion the Buddha gave us small goals to set our sights on when we need something in which to dig our teeth.
These can be found in the bodhisattva vows, which state:
1. Sentient beings are numberless, I’ll save them;
2. Delusions are endless, I’ll see through them;
3. The teachings are infinite, I’ll learn them;
4. The Buddha way is difficult, I’ll walk the path.
What’s beautiful about these vows is that they’re impossible. If sentient beings are numberless, there’s no way that I can save them all. If the teachings are infinite, there’s no way that I can learn them all. Thus, there’s no way I can become attached to the idea of achieving goals or receiving rewards for my efforts.
All I can do is try. And keep trying in every moment. Until my time on this Earth is ended.
Namu Amida Butsu.
Kubose, Gyomay M. 1986. The Center Within. Union City, CA: Heian International.
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