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."
I think for meaning in life we need -- at least to some extent -- to look to our own individual nature, especially to our talents and skills. The happiest people seem to be those who most live true to themselves.
Posted by: Paul Sunstone | April 09, 2007 at 11:32 PM
An excellent essay. One of your best.
Posted by: tao | April 09, 2007 at 11:41 PM
I think the most challenging meaning of life I ever came across was from The Dalai Lama, which is to alleviate the suffering of all sentient life. For me it was a direct confrontation with the self-obsession prevalent in my religious dabblings, in fact in all spheres of my life.
Posted by: Helen | April 10, 2007 at 03:15 AM
Nice blog today. I agree utterly with you. The void where true freedom lies is indeed pretty unnerving, since it is so radically different than our normal way of seeing the world.
But even a very little experience of it shows that it is where we should be headed. To alleviate suffering, as Helen desribes it, is really just another way of saying we should dwell in boundless existence.
Posted by: Bryan | April 10, 2007 at 05:36 AM
Eventually man comes to the point where he asks: "What do I live for?" In other words, one does not find any pleasure in this life anymore, or he only sees very little. One starts asking about pleasure, as well as about the meaning of life. It is because the meaning of life is to feel that one's egoistic desire is filled. However, if there is nothing to fill it with, then what does one live for?
Posted by: Mikhail | April 10, 2007 at 05:52 AM
If you say Boundless existence is nothing or is has not boundary then you are describing it. This makes it thinkable but it's not. The same if we say it has no description. And whatever other comment about it result false, even this. We can't make any statement about it because statements are at same time true and false. Even this and even and even and even... and so on, a infinite loop.
Conclusively the Boundless existence is in the opposites' synthesis domain. And our mind can and can't grab it.
Posted by: Willy | April 10, 2007 at 06:30 AM
To assume that meaning exists for humankind would be highly anthropocentric and wrong. What philosopher said this is beyond me, but our existence precedes our essence; our essence does not precede our existence.
Posted by: Ashwin | April 10, 2007 at 06:47 AM
Willy, I don't agree that saying "I don't know anything about Boundless Existence" means that I'm saying something about Boundless Existence.
I'm speaking about myself, not Boundless Existence. Just as saying "It's a mystery" doesn't make it less of a mystery.
Munitz never says that it is possible to gain knowledge of Boundless Existence. However, it is possible to say just that.
I'll admit that calling something Mystery sort of characterizes it. However, it's a negative characterization--an absence of qualities, and an accurate description of a state of knowledge.
Posted by: Brian | April 10, 2007 at 11:40 AM
Dear Brian et al.,
What is the score? Ego: 1; Truth: zero?
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | April 10, 2007 at 12:23 PM
Robert, I don't know the score. Who is the scorekeeper? What are the rules of the game? (And who makes them?)Is the goal to score high or low? So many questions. So few answers.
Posted by: Brian | April 10, 2007 at 01:39 PM
*To alleviate suffering, as Helen desribes it, is really just another way of saying we should dwell in boundless existence.*
I'm afraid I didn't really mean this at all. Unfortunately, I have a tendancy to write first and contemplate later.
What was really floating around my head at the time, albeit unformed, was that the nature of existence is immaterial when one considers that today 30,000 children will die due to poverty-related causes.
If coming to grips with the nature of reality/existence lends towards DOING something about things like world poverty, then it's great, let us get to grips with it. But as there are so many people from all walks of life/religions who don't get to grips with it are nonetheless trying to sort out world poverty, then who has the right view?
Posted by: Helen | April 11, 2007 at 02:35 AM
In "Boundless Existence" there isn't anyone to do anything about rampant poverty or prosperity. They are not things objectively separate from the perceiver. They just ARE as appearances in awareness...necessary-complimentary sides of the same coin like birth/death. When we are caught up in self-identity, as self-identified actors in the play, then it APPEARS we act volitionaly and can individually choose to do something to change suffering, but this is illusory. Everything goes on of its own accord whether seemingly good, bad or in between. Still, we find ourselves playing our roles..the role of a poor person or the role of trying to solve rampant poverty. This is as it is. When the unidentified boundless state is recognised a certain peace ensues that brings an ease and acceptance of what is-must be, and into the actions of our lives.
Posted by: Tucson Bob | April 11, 2007 at 11:06 AM
I have been vacuuming boundless existence all day, packing it into paper sacks and sorting the books from the scrap paper.
Some of the boundless existence is broken, some just doesn't fit anymore. I filled a leaf bag with old dry and wrinkle shirts.
I did all this today after getting a new crown for my boundless existence. It sits a little high now, but I'll get used to it. It is not the boundless existence I was born with.
This is the boundless existence I was born with...
Posted by: Edward | April 11, 2007 at 04:02 PM