Why should we follow the Buddha? What is its basic purpose?

What is the purpose of existence?

Many people often talk about following the Buddha. But why should we follow the Buddha? What is its basic purpose? This is something that a Buddhist should understand. The significance and purpose of following the Buddha is to attain perfection. If we can understand thoroughly our purpose in following the Buddha and feel confident that it is essential to follow the Buddha’s teaching, then we will tread a true path and learn the essence of Buddhism rather than being side-tracked or practising incorrectly.

What is the purpose of human existence in this world? What is its meaning? We have to begin by observing ourselves to find an answer for this question. This is the only way to grasp the purpose of following the Buddha because Buddhism aims at resolving the problem of human existence. This aim may be common to all higher religions, but Buddhism gives a more complete view to the purpose of life and its meaning.

Veiled in mystery, no one understands what birth and death is.

From the moment we were born to the day of our old age and death, several decades of our life seem to have gone in a split second. Most of us live in ignorance. Where did we come from? Where does death take us to? Nobody can answer these questions. Hence, we can only say that befuddled, we come into being, and befuddled we depart. In confusion we pass our life. More often than not, even our marriage seems a union of accident. Our life career, too, seems often a matter of muddling chance. Seldom is it the result of the execution of a plan carefully designed from the very beginning.

A Western philosopher once drew a very good simile for this existence veiled in mystery. He said, “There is somewhere two steep mountains with a deep and wide gorge between them. The gorge is spanned by a long, narrow bridge. On this bridge humans move forward. Ahead of them, they see a mountain shrouded in dense fog, presenting only a picture of blank confusion. Looking backwards, the scene is no less misty. Down below is an unfathomable abyss. Some people walk only a few paces and then they fall into the abyss. Others have gone even as far as halfway, but to their misfortune, they too, slip and fall. Even those who have drawn near to the mountain on the opposite side, they are still not secure against falling into the bottomless canyon below. Where do they fall, no one knows.” This is an excellent depiction of the precarious nature of human existence.

To follow the Buddha is to gain a clear and thorough understanding of this precarious human existence. Without this understanding, we will be like a ship sailing at random in a vast ocean from this shore towards a distant destination and such reckless sailing is extremely dangerous. Buddhism explains where life comes from, and where death leads to. It shows us what we are supposed to do now, in order to land safely on the other shore of light.

What do we attain by keeping ourselves busy all life long?

For decades we keep ourselves busy doing various things. We are busy from our very childhood until we age and die. But what have we achieved at in the end? This question is worth contemplating. Some people have to be “busy” most of the time although they are doing nothing. They cannot answer when asked what they are busying about. Simply put, they find it impossible not to continue to be busy. Young people probably do not think this way, as they think their future is full of hope and brightness. But once they are middle aged, they will begin to have the same thoughts. I am not asking you not to be active and busy, but we must examine what can we achieve in the end.

As the saying goes:

“Life is like a honey-gathering bee,
After collecting all the honey from myriad flowers,
They age and their labour leaves them with nothing.”

Certainly some people do acquire grand official title, wealth and high social position. But what they have gained is soon all gone. Everything seems to be a farce and an empty joy. We seem to accomplish nothing really. Older people generally have more intimate knowledge of such experiences. One common situation facing them is the raising of children. In their childhood, they always stuck to their parents. But once grown up, all of them will leave home to start their own life. This fact often causes us to become depressed and pessimistic. But this is not the Buddhist view of life.

What is the benefit of persisting in doing good deeds?

All religions advise people to do good deeds and refrain from doing evil. They all promote that “we should strive to perform all good acts.” But what is the benefit of doing good? What is the value of morality? We often say, “Good deeds bring about good rewards, and evil deeds harsh retribution.” This is the Law of Cause and Effect. The Chinese expect kind acts to bring rewards largely to their family. They believe that if the parents do good deeds their descendants will live in abundance. Thus the saying: “House of accumulated good deeds shall be blessed with abundance.” This contradicts reality! Because a kind and good family may have very wicked children. And many a wicked parent gives birth to children both filial and loyal. Our ancient Emperor Yao (who lived more than 2100 years ago) was a kind and magnanimous person. But his son Dan Zhu was notorious for his arrogance. Again, Gu Sou the Blind, father of Emperor Shun, was stupid and evil, while Emperor Shun was renowned for his filial piety. These are just a couple of examples.

Individually speaking, the wicked always find it easier to secure social reputation and power. However, more often than not, the good are down-trodden and have to lick their wounds in solitude. Was Confucius not a man of high moral and great erudition? Yet, he was nearly starved to death when he was travelling around the warring states in China. Neither did his political ideals met with appreciation. On the other hand, the notorious robber Dao Zhi had practically everything his way at the time. Then how can we say that there is a inexorable law governing reward and retribution of good and evil acts? What is the reason for us to perform good deeds? We can only answer these questions by the Law of Three Birth (past, present and future lives) and Cause and Effect.

Hence, “All religions advise people to do good deeds.” In this, their motives are the same, but Buddhism draws a different conclusion. In following the Buddha, we persist in the performance of good deeds. May be our present circumstances are unfavourable and frustrating, but once our good karma (deeds) ripen, they will naturally bear good fruit. If we can perceive the world in this light, then and only then can we consider ourselves to have grasped the spirit of Buddhism.

There is no peace when the mind is not at rest

This restless mind is indeed a source of great suffering. Our mind is at all times craving for satisfaction from external objects: beautiful sights, music, luxurious commodities, profits, fame and power. Why should it be so? Because we seek contentment.

If we live without food and clothing, we will need to obtain money in order to solve the problem of livelihood. But once we have enough food and clothing, we will still be dissatisfied. This time we will seek for food and clothing of better quality. We will want stylish sedans to drive, and a magnificent mansion to live in. When we have all these, we will still remain dissatisfied. The human mind is just like that, forever seeking, never contented. It runs like a galloping horse, no sooner than its rear feet touch the ground, its fore feet are already in the air. Never will its four feet land at the same time.

A discontented mind always feels that the other person has all the advantages. Actually, it is not so. Scholars are discontent because they always seek more knowledge. Even kings who possess unlimited authority are not satisfied and they too have inexpressible sufferings of their own. If we do not find contentment, we will never have peace and happiness. Thus we say, “We have to be content in order to have peace and happiness.” Yet the fact remains that the human mind can never be content. So how can there be peace and happiness? Religions in general try to give people comfort and make them content. Giving comfort may also be considered a common denominator of most religions. Some religions preach salvation through faith and say that salvation will naturally bring contentment and peace of mind. However, they can be seen to treat adults like children That is, they will give “toys” to the children if the latter obey their guidance and refrain from crying. In fact the problem remains unsolved, because a discontent mind cannot be satisfied by external gifts.

Buddhism shows us the significance of birth and death, and what we gain by keeping ourselves busy in our whole life. Buddhism also shows us the benefits of performing good deeds, and how to gain inner peace and satisfaction. We must investigate life from these points of view before we can grasp the core of Buddha-dharma. Only then can we acquire true peace and happiness.