Life is a fountain

This is David Schmidtz on The Meanings of Life

In Philosophical Explanations, Nozick says the question of life’s meaning is so important to us and leaves us feeling so vulnerable that,

we camouflage our vulnerability with jokes about seeking for the meaning or purpose of life: A person travels for many days to the Himalayas to seek the word of an Indian holy man meditating in an isolated cave. Tired from his journey, but eager and expectant that his quest is about to reach fulfillment, he asks the sage, “What is the meaning of life?” After a long pause, the sage opens his eyes and says, “Life is a fountain.” “What do you mean life is a fountain?” barks the questioner. “I have just traveled thousands of miles to hear your words, and all you have to tell me is that? That’s ridiculous.” The sage then looks up from the floor of the cave and says, “You mean it’s not a fountain?”

In a variant of the story, he replies, “So it’s not a fountain.” The sage feels none of the angst that led the seeker to the cave. So, who’s missing something: sage or seeker? The story suggests a contrast of attitudes. I’ll call them Existentialist and Zen, meaning only to gesture at the traditions these names evoke. The Existentialist attitude is that life’s meaning, or lack thereof, is of momentous import. We seek meaning. If we don’t get it, we choose between stoicism and despair. The Zen attitude is that meaning isn’t something to be sought. Meaning comes to us, or not. If it comes, we accept it. If not, we accept that too. To some degree, we choose how much meaning we need. Perhaps the sage achieves peace by learning not to need meaning. Perhaps that’s what we’re meant to learn from the sage’s seemingly meaningless remark that life is a fountain.

The Existentialist insight, in part, is that meaning is something we give to life. We do not find meaning so much as throw ourselves at it. The Zen insight, in part, is that worrying about meaning may itself make life less meaningful than it might have been. Part of the virtue of the Zen attitude lies in learning to not need to be busy: learning there is joy and meaning and peace in simply being mindful, not needing to change or be changed. Let the moment mean what it will.