Successful Retirement and The Meaning of Life IV – Classical Eastern Thought

August 20, 2012

This is one of several posts on The Meaning of Life.

My last post looked at some of the classical Western philosophical/religious responses to the question: what is the meaning of life? This post looks at some of the classical Eastern philosophical/religious responses.

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It originated around the Indus Valley near the River Indus in modern day Pakistan. Hinduism has many subsets of belief and doctrine and there is no single founder or teacher.

Hindus believe in a supreme eternal deity called Brahman who created and is present in all things but who also transcends all things. But they also believe in and worship other deities (there are potentially thousands of these) who represent different aspects or manifestations of Brahman. Hindus usually chose a deity that is significant to them for reasons of family tradition, occupation or geography or some combination thereof.

Note that since the universe is divine, and we are part of the universe, we share in that divinity.

Hindus believe there is a cycle of life, death and rebirth of the soul which is governed by karma. Karma can be either good or bad. Being disciplined and doing what is right (being honest, exercising self-control, being pure, exercising compassion and fortitude, giving proper devotion to the deities, living in harmony with the earth and the universe and the like) results in good karma. Behaving in negative ways results in bad karma.

After we die our soul is reborn in another being. If we developed good karma in our previous existence we are born into a higher station in life. If we developed bad karma we may come back in a lower station or even as an animal. The goal is to live our lives in a way that enables us to progress to the point at which we are freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Being disciplined in our behaviors ultimately frees us from the ignorance and passions that restrain our progress.

While Hinduism is frequently referred to as a religion, a more accurate description might be: a way of life.


Confucius was a civil service administrator and teacher who lived in the fifth century B.C. in China. He espoused the cultivation of virtue, propriety, warm-heartedness and respect for one’s elders, ancestors and civil authorities. He taught that this type of behavior would be consistent with the natural order of the universe.

Confucius maintained that the appropriate behaviors could be learned and then honed through practice. The goal was to have them so engrained into one’s being that their application in one’s daily existence became effortless, a second nature, spontaneous and harmonious with the natural order.


Lao zi, who lived in China about the same time as Confucius, also believed that we should aspire to effortlessness in our actions. But in his view, all of the social conventions, values and rituals we develop in the normal course of our existence retard us from being able to achieve this effortlessness. In order to achieve effortlessness we need strip away our cultivated behavior and return to our natural state.

His views were documented on the Daodejing or the book of the Way. The Way here is the fundamental way things are: in life, the universe, everything. The book is short: 81 chapters most of which have only one or two paragraphs. An example:

When gold and jade fill your hall,
you will not be able to keep them safe.
To be proud with honor and wealth
is to cause one’s own downfall.
Withdraw as soon as your work is done.
Such is heaven’s way.

Another example:

When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty,
there arises the recognition of ugliness.
When they all know the good as good,
there arises the recognition of bad.

Lao zi argues that things and the language we use get in the way of understanding the Way and we need to get beyond these so we can live our lives in a fashion that is consistent with the Way of life and of the universe. Daoists read the Daodejing and reflect on its passages to help them achieve this.


Buddhism originated in India about 500 B.C. with the prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was known to his followers as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Buddha taught that there is an eternal, endless universe of Absolute Being, of which we are temporary incarnations. As such, we are subject to delusions and temptations, pain and trouble, illness and death. But by studying to find wisdom, living to accomplish good, and concentrating on achieving control over mind and body, we can escape from the dominance of the physical world, and we can transmit a good inheritance of karma to our later incarnations.

Buddha taught that a succession of reincarnated beings, each improving its common inheritance of karma, can eventually rise to an existence entirely free of this world: the state of nirvana. Buddha himself is said to have achieved nirvana at his death – that is, permanent enlightenment in a state free from the cycle of rebirth.

Themes emerging from this history of thought regarding the meaning of life include: a relationship with and even perhaps a participation in a divinity or divine order; seeing pain and suffering as a natural result of our imperfect nature; doing good and avoiding bad behavior for its own sake and to build up a “bank” of good karma to help us advance through stages of our existence; achieving a state in which our actions become effortless through study and practice, or conversely, by shedding our cultured behavior to return to a more natural state; broadly, that we can improve our lives through our behaviors, attitudes and reflections and perhaps even enter into a heavenly state.

Next up I’ll look at more modern philosophical thinking on the meaning of life.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2012 R.K. Price