The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Three Great Aims in Life and How to Practice Them

by Koitsu Yokoyama
September 30, 2015
Wed, 09/30/2015 - 10:00 -- Koitsu Yokoyama

Excerpt from An Intelligent Life by Koitsu Yokoyama.


I have proposed that we lead a life with a great aim founded on altruistic will. What do I mean by “aim?” An aim is the grand goal that we keep in our sights as we work slowly toward it, without being distracted. When climbing a mountain, for example, we aim for the top and keep our eyes on it as we proceed up the trail. If we lose sight of the peak, we may veer off the main trail, get side-tracked, and become lost or even lose our lives. Likewise, as we make our way through this life, a great aim serves to keep us on track. Without a great aim, we may end up side-tracked, mired in a life of illusion.

But what is the great aim of life? You may think that since everyone is different, each must have different goals in life. This is answer is all right, but it must refer to aims other than the great aim. Usually these types of aims turn out to be nothing but a stop along the way. Great aims are those aims that all beings share in. So what are they? There are three:

  1. To learn about oneself.
  2. To resolve the matter of life and death.
  3. To save others.

These three aims are outlined in the famous introductory Zen text, Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. Ten Ox-Herding Pictures is a text that symbolically depicts the mental attitudes that arise through the practice of Zen as a narrative in ten stages using the characters of an ox and an ox-herder. I shall explain this in a simple way. One day the herder found that one of the bulls had run away from the pen. The herder, Hotei, starts his journey in search of the bull (stage one: “searching for the bull”). After searching for many days, he finds the footprints of the bull (stage two: “seeing the footprints”). Joyfully and courageously following the footprints, he sees the bull at a distance (stage three: “seeing the bull”). Then, coming closer, he catches the bull with the rope he carries (stage four: “catching the bull”). He then tames the wild bull and calms it (stage five: “calming the bull”). Sitting on the back of the calm bull, the herder returns home (stage six: “returning home on the bull”). Once home, he puts the bull in the cattle shed, and sits alone with a peaceful heart (stage seven: “forgetting the bull/the man alone”). The next drawing is the famous subject matter of many ink drawings called “the empty circle,” which is indeed the picture of a simple circle (stage eight: “man and bull both forgotten”). This picture symbolizes the state of mind of someone who has attained insight into emptiness, the true reality of himself and all existence. A person thus enlightened has lost his or her ego and is now able to live absolutely naturally (stage nine: “returning to the source”). The next image is of a smiling Hotei entering the marketplace, which represents finally being able to live effectively in the world to save those who are suffering (stage ten: “returning to the marketplace”).

These ten pictures help us to understand the three great aims of human life. First, the runaway bull symbolizes our true self. The herder, realizing that he has lost it, sets out in search for it. In other words, he begins looking for his true self. This stage corresponds to the first great aim in human life: learning about oneself. The herder finds the bull, catches it, and henceforth lives his life keeping it close at hand. His mental attitude progresses until he forgets the bull and quietly rests alone. Even if someone told him that he had late-stage cancer, he would remain unperturbed and completely at rest. This is the second great aim in human life, to resolve the matter of life and death. Even so, a lingering attachment to the self yet remains in him. The final shred of ego consciousness is wiped away as he experiences the enlightenment, which we call “the enlightenment that was there all along.” This moment is represented pictorially as an empty circle. Finally, as Hotei the herder returns to town, he realizes the final great aim of saving others.

In this way, Ten Ox-Herding Pictures superbly and symbolically illustrates the three great aims of life: inquiring into oneself, resolving the problem of life and death, and saving others. Although people differ in terms of beliefs, habits, and thought, these three aims are common to all of humankind.


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