The Meaning of Meaning

Words have meaning.  They point to external referents — things that exist outside themselves in the real world:  agents, actions, and objects.  It is their ”about-ness,” their correspondence to something lying beyond a system of signs, that allows them to mean something.

Actions can have meaning, too. We can ask ”What did you mean by that?”  Human actions have underlying motives. There is something beyond the action itself, an intention that lies behind the action.  We can look at actions and infer, or inquire into, the purpose that generated it.

Does the universe have meaning?  The universe includes everything — it cannot point to or refer to something that lies outside itself — it cannot signify anything.  The universe is also not a purposeful agent — it doesn’t possess intentionality.

I once heard Wolf Singer, the Director of the Max Plank Institute for Brain Research, explore this topic at a Mind and Life Conference hosted by H.H. The Dalai Lama.  He suggested that if there was a larger purpose to the universe, our brains hadn’t evolved in a way that would allow us to discern it.  He gave the example of a single neuron hanging out near a synapse.  If we could personify that neuron, we might ask it what role it played in the generation of thought and creativity.  The neuron might reply, ”I don’t know anything about that.  I just hang out here, and every once in a while I get real excited, and then I let go!”  It’s the same with us.  We just hang out here, earn a living, and take care of our families.  If there’s some larger purpose, who knows?

In any case, Zen doesn’t posit any purpose for the universe.  It (we) just always is (was)/(will be), in constant transformation.  Its ”meaning” (in this case ”meaning” is a meaningless term) is its existence.

Science fiction writers have had fun playing with this type of meaning. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of pan-dimensional beings create a supercomputer called Deep Thought to answer the question of the meaning of everything.  After computing for over seven million years, the computer spits out the answer: ”Forty-two.”  The pan-dimensional beings then realize that while they now have the answer, they didn’t really understand the question. On to building a new and bigger supercomputer!

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, humans exist so they can evolve to the point where they can invent the humble beer can opener.  As it turns out, the ”beer can opener” is really a replacement part for a stranded alien spaceship.  Our existence is meaningful for the aliens. For ourselves, not so much.

One way to give life meaning is to believe in some superordinate external meaning-giving source.  If one believes in a God, one can believe that the God imbues the universe and our lives with purpose.  After all, God lies outside the universe giving it something to refer to, and he possesses intentionality. That’s two kinds of meaning in one!  If one doesn’t believe in God, however, one is out of luck.

Existentialists believe that while the universe has no purpose, we can imbue our own lives with purpose.  Meaning is something human beings create.  As authors of our own existence, we ourselves can endow our lives with meaning.  In Existentialism, meaning isn’t there to be found — it’s up to us to create it.  This is both liberating and burdensome at the same time.  Liberating, because we are not bound to accept meaning from an external authority.  Burdensome, because if we fail to define a purpose, our lives are left meaningless.

In Zen, we take on a meaning and try it on for size.  We are here to live our lives wisely and compassionately for the sake of all beings.

We have our Four Vows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do

Bon no mu jin sei gan dan

Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku

Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo


I vow to liberate all beings, without number

I vow to uproot endless blind passions

I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure

I vow to attain the way of the Buddha

We can spend our entire lives exploring what these vows mean — they exist as both intention and koan — but both the intentions — liberation, uprooting, penetration, and attainment — and the emerging understanding we derive from wrestling with their outlandish impossibility —  gives our lives meaning, direction, and purpose.

This is the (no) meaning of Zen.


2 Replies to “The Meaning of Meaning”

  1. Greetings! I am a Philosophy major at Kutztown University in PA, and I stumbled across your site tonight while trying to research for a paper that I procrastinated on, which I chose to write on my own beliefs which I have been calling “Existential Buddhism.” Imagine my joy upon discovering a site dedicated to this very same idea, and other people who share my ideas! I just wanted to take a moment to say that I greatly enjoy your writings here, and that you have a new fan!

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