Boundless existence. Can you sense it? Can you think about it? Can you relate to it?
No, no, and no. So says Milton K. Munitz in his provocative book, "Does Life Have a Meaning?" I thoroughly enjoyed this short (114 page) exploration of one of the deepest questions we all struggle to answer.
This was the last book Munitz, a distinguished emeritus professor of philosophy, wrote before he died. It's profoundly philosophical, but there's as much of Munitz, the man, between the covers as Munitz the academic philosopher.
It's obvious that he wrestled with the mystery of existence throughout most of his life. I'd read an earlier book of his on that very subject. I liked "Does Life Has a Meaning?" more, because here Munitz persuasively describes how "existents" like you and me relate to boundless "existence."
Short answer: in no way at all. Boundless existence has nothing to do with the things that exist within it—existents.
The awareness of Boundless Existence consists in dwelling on the basic fact that Boundless Existence is totally without properties, that it is utterly unintelligible, that it lacks any materials or powers of its own, that it does not have any concern or interest of one sort or another, conscious or otherwise, that might affect positively or negatively, or contribute in any way to, the character and achievability of various types of meanings in the lives of human existents.
The consequence for our lives are the consequences of having this awareness of the unique "character" of Boundless Existence—the fact that it has no character or properties of its own! It is this realization that is of great import-ance to us.
That passage may sound intellectual. Actually, what Munitz is gesturing toward is anything but. It's the least intellectual no-thing in existence. Because there's no way you can wrap your mind, your emotions, your senses, or any other faculty around Boundless Existence.
How could you? It's boundless. The closest we can come to it is through an awareness of profound wonder that existence exists. Boundless existence is simply That. There's no What to it—none at all.
To become aware of Boundless Existence calls for entering a different mode of experience. It is not reached by a leap of faith. Nor does it consist in a type of access that affords a special source of knowledge It is simply a wholly unique mode of awareness that reveals a different level of Reality from that which comes from observation and the use of concepts of any sort.
I can't tell whether Munitz' awareness of Boundless Existence is anything like my own. However, I resonate with his words—which point toward a empty wordlessness that is utterly unlike any experience we could have of this world, or any other world.
I've looked into that void and it has terrified me. I called it "non-existence," but I might as well have termed it Boundless Existence. Each is a nothingness that has no contact with the something that I am, and hope to continue to be.
Since it is devoid of all properties, Boundless Existence is another way of interpreting and sanctioning the use of the concept of "Nothing."
In just about every mystical tradition that I'm aware of, that's the final terminus of the spiritual path: Nothing. The ultimate beyond—formless, nameless, boundless, timeless, everything-and-anything-less.
You reach the right hand of God, you embrace Buddha nature, you enjoy the unveiled visage of Allah, you achieve union with divine light and sound. And yet…beyond all that, is That.
Boundless existence. The floor upon which everything else rests, yet never is sensed in any fashion (because then it'd just be another thing). Like Munitz, I often feel that I'm aware of it.
But never when I try to be. It's like a unseen presence that flits away on any attempt at closer inspection. Ah, there! The lightest possible grasp is the only way to feel that you're coming close to getting a grip on it.
There's a lot more to say about this unsayable awareness. I might give it a go in another post or two. For now I'll end with how Munitz answers his question: Does life have a meaning?
No. There isn't a meaning.
At the very beginning of this book, I quoted the remark Wittgenstein makes in his Tractatus that "the solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem."
…The notion of the meaning to life—that it is in some way singular, ultimate, or all-encompassing—is a mirage and wholly gratuitous.
…There are meanings of one sort or another in every life of every human existent.
…The awareness of Boundless Existence as a dimension of Reality ("the world") in which we live, has its own distinctive consequence in making the problem of life vanish.
…The problem vanishes insofar as one has an awareness of the situation of the lives of individual human existents "in" Boundless Existence, and that since Boundless Existence is Nothing, Emptiness, then in this respect life has no meaning either.
But stop! Don't commit suicide! Wait for Munitz' final conclusion. It brings back meaning into life.
Because it's within our power to find meaning wherever and however we choose. In typing a blog post. In drinking a glass of wine. In watching an episode of "Dancing With the Stars." All of which I'm either experiencing at this moment, or just about to.
Boundless Existence, the ultimately ultimate reality, doesn't give a rip. There's no meaning in Boundless Existence because there is nothing at all in Boundless Existence. That's why it's boundless. And existence.
Munitz says, and I agree with him, that our lives are meaningful in whatever fashion we make them. You won't find the meaning of life "in some preassigned cosmic or divine source and authority."
Interactions with other existents—people, places, things, pets, nature, whatever—are what provides meaning for us. We can't interact with Boundless Existence, which has nothing in common with what is commonly called "God."
So it's up to us. Entirely.
Munitz cautions against disengaging from everyday life and withdrawing "into a focused, exclusive, meditative absorption into the wholly featureless character of Boundless Existence."
Rather, he says, we should let an intensified awareness of Boundless Existence (it's "emptiness") serve as the backdrop for our various worldly interactions.
Interestingly, the only quasi-spiritual quotation in his book, so far as I recall, is this quotation from the Zen Patriarch Hui-Neng in a footnote:
"The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness.
If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness.
The emptiness of human nature is also like this."