An excerpt from the new book In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and edited by Rajiv Mehrotra
One great question underlies our experience, whether we think about it consciously or not: What is the purpose of life? I have considered this question and would like to share my thoughts in the hopes that they may be of direct, practical benefit to those who read them.
I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affects this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars, and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but – at the very least – it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves. Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.
For a start, it is possible to divide every kind of happiness and suffering into two main categories: mental and physical. Of the two, it is the mind that exerts the greatest influence on most of us. Unless we are either gravely ill or deprived of basic necessities, our physical condition plays a secondary role in life. If the body is content, we virtually ignore it. The mind, however, registers every event, no matter how small. Hence, we should devote our most serious efforts to bringing about mental peace.
From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.
As long as we live in this world, we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but everyone who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind! Thus, we can strive gradually to become more compassionate; that is, we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.
Our need for love
Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring us the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.
Interdependence, of course, is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life, but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law, or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. In fact, all phenomena – be they from the oceans, the clouds, or the forests that surround us – arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.
It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore, we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.
We have to consider what we human beings really are. We are not like machine-made objects. If we were merely mechanical entities, then machines themselves could alleviate all of our suffering and fulfill our needs. However, since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. Instead, we should consider our origins and nature to discover who we are and what it is we require.
Leaving aside the complex question of the creation and evolution of our universe, we can at least agree that each of us is the product of our own parents. In general, our conception took place not just in the context of sexual desire, but also from our parents’ decision to have a child. Such decisions are founded on responsibility and altruism – the parents’ commitment to care for their child until it is able to take care of itself. Thus, from the very moment of our conception, our parents’ love is directly in our creation. Moreover, we are completely dependent upon the care of our mothers from the earliest stages of our growth. According to some scientists, a pregnant woman’s mental state, be it calm or agitated, has a direct physical effect on her unborn child.
The expression of love is also very important at the time of birth. Since the very first thing we do is suck milk from our mother’s breast, we naturally feel close to her, and she must feel love for us in order to feed us properly; if she feels anger or resentment, her milk may not flow freely. Then there is the critical period of brain development from the time of birth up to at least the age of three or four, during which time loving physical contact is the single most important factor for the normal growth of the child. If the child is not held, hugged, cuddled, or loved, its development will be impaired and its brain will not mature properly.
As children grow older and enter school, their need for support must be met by their teachers. If a teacher not only imparts academic education, but also assumes responsibility for preparing students for life, his or her pupils will feel trust and respect, and what has been taught will leave an indelible impression on their minds. On the other hand, that which is taught by a teacher who does not show true concern for his or her students’ overall well-being will not be retained for long.
Nowadays, many children grow up in unhappy homes. If they do not receive proper affection, in later life they will rarely love their parents and, not infrequently, will find it hard to love others. This is very sad.
In the end, since a child cannot survive without the care of others, love is its most important nourishment. The happiness of childhood, the allaying of the child’s many fears, and the healthy development of its self-confidence all depend directly upon love.
Similarly, if one is sick and being treated at the hospital by a doctor who evinces a warm human feeling, one feels at ease; and the doctor’s desire to give the best possible care is itself curative, irrespective of the degree of his or her technical skill. On the other hand, if one’s doctor lacks human feeling and displays an unfriendly expression, impatience, or casual disregard, one will feel anxious, even if he or she is the most highly qualified doctor and the disease has been correctly diagnosed and the right medication prescribed. Inevitably, patients’ feelings make a difference with respect to the quality and completeness of their recovery.
Even when we engage in ordinary conversation in everyday life, if someone speaks with human feeling, we enjoy listening and respond accordingly; the whole conversation becomes interesting, however unimportant the topic may be. On the other hand, if a person speaks coldly or harshly, we feel uneasy and wish for a quick end to the interaction. From the least to the most important event, the affection and respect of others are vital for our happiness.
Recently I met a group of scientists in America who said that the rate of mental illness in their country was quite high – around 12 percent of the population. It became clear during our discussion that the main cause of depression was not a lack of material necessities, but a deprivation of the affection of others. So, as you can see from everything I have written so far, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, from the day we are born the need for human affection is in our very blood. Even if the affection comes from an animal or someone we would normally consider an enemy, both children and adults will naturally gravitate toward it.
I believe that no one is born free of the need for love. And this demonstrates that, although some modern schools of thought seek to do so, human beings cannot be defined as solely physical. No material object – however beautiful or valuable – can make us feel loved, because our deeper identity and true character lie in the subjective nature of the mind.