Is Buddhism goal-oriented?

Posted by on Aug 20, 2012 in Buddhism, Uncategorized | No Comments

Got a friend coming round to watch Donnie Darko tomorrow (he’s never seen it and I am a fan and keen to share its awesomeness) so I’m posting this slightly earlier than normal.

My post for this week is about action, strategy, effectiveness and being goal-oriented.

Often people have the idea of Buddhism as being about chilling, letting go, going with the flow, non-action and not being particularly goal-oriented. That’s certainly one side of the story, but as with many Buddhist ideas, there is another side.

There’s a famous (among Buddhists anyway) story about a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow. The paramedics are called and arrive quickly on the scene, ancient-Indian blue lights a-flashing. They jump to action, and are just about to remove the arrow.

“Wait!” shouts the afflicted man. “Before you remove it, I’d be extremely interested to know what kind of arrow it is. Who made it? How long is the shaft? How many feathers does it have? What kind of person shot it?” (Etc, etc, – you get the picture).

The Buddha is the one telling this story. He asks the people he’s telling the story to, whether they think this man is nuts.

They all nod.

He says, well, asking loads of questions about reality, suffering, the nature of enlightenment, whether we are reborn and how that whole karma thing works is a bit like a man with an arrow in his eye discussing the arrow instead of getting it removed.

The first thing you want to focus on is getting out of suffering. After that you might want to become a Buddhologist or a philosopher. Until then, pull the frikkin arrow out!

He then says, if you want to pull the arrow out, live the holy life (Buddha style).

Fundamentally speaking, then, the Buddhist path is a path of action. It’s a path designed to achieve something (an end to unnecessary suffering by living in alignment with how things are). It’s goal-oriented and it’s about getting from A to B as quickly as possible.

This story has always particularly appealed to me. I’m a philosophical type of guy, and I spent my early adulthood consumed with trying to work out the point of life. Some people think this is amusing, but to me it was a burning question. I mean how can you possibly choose a way to live out your life if you don’t know what the point of it is?

I tried really hard to work it out. I ended up more confused than when I started. I don’t regret trying though.

I still don’t know what the point of life is – I’m inclined to think that there isn’t one, but a significant minority disagrees. I often feel like a goldfish in a bowl on a sideboard in Rotherham trying to work out what China smells like. I have absolutely no frame of reference. I’m not sure I even have a nose.

And yet, we must act, or choose not to. When I heard the story about the arrow, it gave me a framework that made some sense to me. It gave me a path.

I may have taken things to an extreme compared with most, but I know I’m not the only one who’s had these thoughts. If you’re struggling with this question of what to do with your life, or trying to pull some meaning out of an apparently meaningless universe, the Buddhist path might be worth a punt. At the very least, I’d say it’s a good starting point. If you don’t know what to do, do something and take it from there.

*Note: I was reminded of this story this week because a few days ago a man did actually get a metal rod through his skull. It fell 5 storeys, went through the top of his skull and out through his face. It was stuck in there for hours. He went to hospital, the surgeons removed it, and he survived, without any particular deficiencies (he can still see, hear, talk, walk, etc).


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