A Handy Guide to the Meaning of Life

For some lucky people, existential dread is no problem. Either they have religion to give their life a sense of meaning, or they find satisfaction in some pursuit, maybe hedonism or creative expression or trying to take over the world. Or they just never think about it.

For the rest of us though, oh the existential dread. The curse of modern life is having to find your own meaning. Unlike in simpler times when there were prophets and seers and such to explain the mystery of it all, there are now no signs pointing the way, and most educational systems don’t touch the topic.

Luckily, countless clever people have thought about this question and offered detailed answers, and we get to pick which one(s) we like best! So here is a by no means exhaustive overview of takes on the meaning of life, in a vague order of sorts. Each one comes with a recommended text for further reading and a totem Pokémon. You’re welcome.

Note: The section on Dice living was amended on 13/3/16. The article originally asserted incorrectly that the author was a psychologist and that the novel was based on, rather than inspired by, real life dice experimentation.

1. Nihilism


Nihilism says that life has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or value. You – actually the entire species – are insignificant and unspecial. Morality is an arbitrary human construct.

Various responses to these facts are acceptable and reasonable, including: despair, depression, starting a network of secret underground fighting clubs, and delighting in amoral anarchy.

Bleak. Would not recommend.

Further reading: Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
Totem Pokémon: Gloom


2. Existentialism


An incredibly complex and diverse field of philosophical discourse, but in a nutshell, nihilism without the helplessness. Yes, life is intrinsically meaningless, but a person can create values and meaning for themself. Your existence precedes everything, including your essence (i.e. character, goals etc.). Therefore, you get to direct these things. Take responsibility, live passionately and authentically, and forge a path for yourself.

Further reading: Jean-Paul Satre – L’existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”)
Totem Pokémon: Eevee, for its ability to evolve in many different directions



3. Absurdism



Philosophically, the Absurd is the tension between humankind’s deep need for meaning in the universe, and the universe’s insistent apparent lack of meaning. Absurdism is existentialism for those who can’t shake the little cynical voice that keeps pointing out that, whatever purpose you choose for yourself, the universe is still inscrutable and probably meaningless and ahhhh!

One can try to escape the Absurd by committing suicide – but this is not particularly fruitful – or by pretending they know the meaning of life (or don’t need one) – but this is dishonest, so-called ‘philosophical suicide’. The only possible response therefore is to embrace the Absurd. Sure, choose some purpose for yourself, but never forget that there’s nothing intrinsically meaningful about it. Revel in the confusing apparent pointlessness of life and you may just find some freedom.

Further reading: Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Totem Pokémon: Magikarp, for futilely just splashing away and never expecting anything more


4. Bokononism


The Bokononist ritual of Boko-maru, the mingling of souls.

“All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Why get all hung up on truth? Self-deception is fine if it leads you to be brave, kind and happy. Screw those 20th century virtues of honesty and authenticity.

Bokononism is a religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut that teaches that all religions (including Bokononism) are nothing but lies. It further asserts that people are arranged into invisible teams which work blindly towards some divine goal. You will never find out for sure who is in your team or what your goal is. Happiness is more important than truth. Everything that happens was always meant to happen. Also, it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same, and the only sacred thing is mankind (not even god).

See also: Pragmatism.

Further reading: Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
Totem Pokémon: Ditto, for its willingness to shift shape into anything useful


5. Humanism


Start with a base of uncaring-empty-cosmos Nihilism, mix in the lovey human-centric values of Bokononism, and replace the fake religion with a healthy dose of science and rationality. Voila, humanism!

Humanism holds that we arose by unguided evolution, and knowledge comes from experimentation and rational analysis. Values can be determined from intelligent inquiry into human needs and experience. Let’s all lead ethical lives, work for the greater good of the species and help everyone reach their potential. Let’s even look after animals as much as possible. The meaning of life question may just disappear when one is fully engaged in a free, fruitful and altruistic existence.

See also: Utilitarianism

Further reading: American Humanist Association – Humanist Manifesto III
Totem Pokémon: Chansey


6. Dice Living


“Why did children seem to be so often spontaneous, joy-filled and concentrated while adults seemed controlled, anxiety-filled and diffused? It was the Goddam sense of having a self.”

Maybe the real issue is not finding meaning in the world but finding our true selves. Inspired by the author’s real life experiments with dice-based decision-making, this philosophy argues that we are not a single cohesive self, but rather complex multi-faceted creatures. Within all of us lurks a poet, a murderer, a lover and a lunatic, and they demand expression. However, as we go through life a single aspect of our personality tends to seize power and come to dominate and repress all the other selves, leaving us incomplete and stifled.

The solution is to live by the Dice. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, think of the first six things that come to mind – however socially unacceptable, weird or even immoral they might be – then roll a die to determine which option you take. Sure, living like this for very long will take you down a chaotic rabbit-hole of increasingly illegal and immoral ridiculousness. But maybe a dash of that is just what you need.

Further reading: Luke Rhinehart – The Dice Man
Totem Pokémon: Dotrio, for its triple-headed identity crisis


7. Theravada Buddhism


Buddhism also holds that the sense of being a single self is an illusion. Buddhism also likes lists: the 3 marks of existence, 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold path, 7 hindrances, 5 precepts, and on and on. All these are tools to an end though, and needn’t carry any religious or supernatural beliefs.

One of Buddha’s great insights was figuring out the hedonic treadmill. Long before psychologists started demonstrating it empirically, Buddha realised that nothing brings lasting happiness. The human psyche is set up to acclimatise to circumstances, whatever they may be, so it’s extremely difficult not to start taking things for granted and have them become the new normal. Not only that, but lots of unpleasant things inevitably happen in everyone’s life: injury, sickness, loss, aging. So Buddha says: jump off the silly treadmill. By following the Eightfold path, one can ostensibly achieve a “blowing out” of desire, see reality for what it really is, and find a deep bliss in mere existence.

Further reading: Walpola Rahula – What the Buddha Taught
Totem Pokémon: Snorlax. It sleeps the carefree slumber of a liberated mind


8. Zen Buddhism


By its very nature, Zen is extremely difficult to write about. Evolving as a later school of Buddhism after Theravada, Zen posits that language (and by extension conscious thought, which works via language) misconstrues reality. Language breaks reality into a linear sequence of symbolic representations of things (words), but each word is an imperfect simplification of that which it seeks to capture. “Table” comes nowhere near capturing the complexity or specifics of any given table. Furthermore, reality is not a linear sequence, but rather happens all at once constantly. For these reasons, we can’t understand reality or life by thinking about them. Trying to find the meaning to life with thought is therefore impossible. Zen instead prescribes a series of “riddles” designed to break the grip of the conscious mind, freeing the individual to experience sheer reality  as it is. In this state of pure experience lies liberation and truth, the closest we can get to meaning.

Further reading: Alan Watts – The Way of Zen
Totem Pokémon: Shellder. As a bivalve mollusc it presumably lacks a central nervous system, and therefore can’t commit the error of trying to understand reality by thinking about it


And that’s it!

All book hyperlinks go not to Amazon but to Betterworldbooks.com. Better World Books is an astounding social enterprise that has donated over 17 million books to people in need. They fund literacy programmes in the developing world, provide literacy grants, recycle books and carbon offset all their shipping and operations. So if you ever again buy a physical book online, make them your first port of call.

Thanks to my brother for sharing his brain’s startlingly detailed knowledge of Pokémon. He writes award winning Harry Potter fan fiction if that’s your cup of tea.

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The Barang’s Guide to Cambodian Buddhism

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh you’ll  surely be struck by the monks wandering around in bright orange robes and the intricate colourful pagodas. Glorious Buddhism! However, beneath these overt displays of the religion, what’s not immediately clear is that this is not your standard version of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The world of the Khmer people is one that’s teeming with the spirits of the dead.

Like many South-East Asian countries, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism it didn’t signal a complete abandonment of earlier beliefs such as ancestor reverence and Hinduism. Rather, all these things were synthesised into a complex and sometimes ill-defined tapestry of folklore, spirituality and superstition. After discussions with a number of Khmer adults and children, I’ve compiled this quick guide to get you oriented.

1.   Much like in The Sixth Sense, there are ghosts all around us. While adults generally can’t see them, cats and dogs can. Babies can too, but for most people the ability atrophies during childhood. A few shaman-types who retain this ability can provide a link to the world of the dead.

2.   When you die you will turn into a ghost. In fact, so will every animal. Strangely also like in the Sixth Sense, <SPOILERS> initially you will not realise that you are dead. As a ghost, you will not have one of your index fingers, which presumably you don’t tend to notice right away.

3.   After seven days you will try to visit your family at home, and this is when the horrible truth will hit you. At this point, several different things can happen:

  • If you were a very good person in life you will be taken to Heaven, where Buddha lives. This essentially means achieving the traditional Buddhist aim of breaking free from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
  • If you were an evil person in life you will be taken to Hell. Tortures include having to climb a tree covered in needles and being hung upside-down in a vat of boiling water. The duration of your stay in Hell and your specific punishment will depend on your sins. For example, if you said bad things a lot in life you will have your mouth stretched open to the point of agonising pain.
  • If you were really evil in life you will turn into a special giant ghost covered in blood that wanders the land in solitude. This is a particularly terrible and feared spirit, and may be taller than a house.
  • If you were neither particularly good nor particularly evil you will stay in between, lingering in the world for an unknown time.

Regardless of which of these fates awaits you, if you didn’t make it to Heaven then sooner or later you will be reborn as a human or some other animal and go through the cycle again.

4.   Ok, so that’s the destiny awaiting you in the afterlife. There are also several other ghosts and spirits swirling in the world:

  • Every piece of land that somebody owns has a guardian angel to protect it from bad spirits. These angels live in the colourfully painted concrete ghost houses you see on stilts outside many abodes and buildings. Offerings here keep the angel benevolent and motivated in its job.
  • Every house that gets built also gains a guardian spirit that lives in the house and protects it as a second line of defence, should the angel prove insufficient.
  • Very large old trees in forests are often inhabited by a tree spirit. If you are travelling in an unknown place and want to rest beneath such a tree or even pee there, it’s important to ask the spirit’s permission first. If you neglect to do this the spirit could make you sick or incite snakes/insects to come after you. If the tree is cut down the spirit will leave and look for a new tree, like any good hermit crab of the sea.
  • The ghosts of humans who drown in rivers are doomed to linger there and watch over the river. They can never leave and be reborn until another ghost takes their place. So be careful around rivers, or one of the drowned ghosts just may try to swap places with you.
  • If a mother dies during childbirth she will become a particularly chilling ghost. For the 7 days before she realises she’s dead, she will climb to the top of a tree and sing a wailing song of lamentation for her lost child.
  • The ghosts of children, however, have a happier fate. They are a playful lot and have the right to come and go where they please – even guardian angels and house spirits will not turn them away. Many households hang small red clothes and candy on their fences to make sure they are provided for. Now, remember how babies can see the spirit world? Well for this reason the children ghosts like to play with them. Sometimes though, they can accidentally scare the baby or exhaust it from playing for too long, and cause it to start crying. In this case it’s often just a matter of the Khmer mother telling the children ghosts “Ok, that’s enough for today” and they will leave, soon restoring the baby’s happiness.
  • A Chinese belief, which has spread to some of the cities in Cambodia, is that the children ghosts often pick a shop to live in. They alert the shop owner to their presence in a dream. If the shop owner then keeps them happy by buying occasional presents like candy and toys, the ghosts will induce lots of customers to come into the shop, often without quite knowing why they’ve come in. If the child ghosts are neglected though, business will be bad.

5.   People make offerings of rice at pagodas so that ghosts of family members will have something to eat. People pray for ghosts in order to accelerate their rebirth. People also offer small balls of rice for the baby and children ghosts.

6.   If you lied a lot during your life then your ghost will have a tiny mouth. This is why thin rice noodles are also brought to the pagoda – so the ghosts with tiny mouths can have something to eat.

7.   An important belief held by Cambodians in the countryside is that the living and the dead must never cohabit, lest ill events occur. For example, if the ghost of a deceased husband were to remain in the family house and was unable to move on from his living wife, he could accidentally cause her to become sick. There’s also the darker possibility of a ghost intentionally causing harm to its family, either because of some unresolved resentment, or become it wants to be united with their ghosts. This is one of the reasons the guardian house spirit and angel are so important: to keep out dead relatives. The family will go to the pagoda to make offerings to their ancestors, not do it in the home.

8.   Finally, one belief practised by Cambodians from the countryside is that it’s essential to protect the house from spirits during child birth. The midwife will draw an X on the door and hang something sharp there like a knife or pair of scissors, and all windows must be sealed. This gives the best protection from spirits for the mother and infant.

This is obviously a huge simplification of the immensely complex and varied Khmer belief system, but it’s not a bad starting point. If there are any important elements I’ve omitted or misrepresented, please let me know and I shall make amendments. See you around the streets!