The true nature of Human Existence (Part 2)

The unfathomable desolation of the lonely traveler: What does the story mean?

Continued from yesterday, read previous part HERE.

What is a human being? Humanity’s true plight, which Sakyamuni made clear in this story from the Parable Sutra, dramatically shows why people need to listen to Buddhism. Unless this is understood, Buddhist truth can make no headway. That’s how important this teaching is.

The Traveler

The traveler is each one of us. Just as travelers don't stay in one place, so we are all on a constant journey through time, traveling from yesterday to today and from today to tomorrow. On the road, travelers encounter both fine weather and storms of wind and rain or snow. Sometimes the path winds up, sometimes down. Life is the same. Things don't always go our way. We experience sadness and pain, and sometimes we hit rock bottom.

Life is definitely like a journey. But a traveler knows his destination, where he is headed. Do we know our life's destination? Living without a purpose is like living in order to die. People who merely wait to die live lives of unremitting suffering. Sakyamuni compared us to travelers in order to teach the importance of learning life's purpose, so that with heartfelt joy we can each declare “I'm glad I was born human!”


The traveler walked alone across a vast plain. Moreover, the story is set on an autumn evening when a chill wind blew, in order to emphasize the essential loneliness of life.

Why is life lonely? Sakyamuni explained it this way: “Alone we are born, alone we die.

Alone we go, alone we come.” People are born alone, and in the same way they die alone. From beginning to end, life is a lonely journey. There may be companions in the flesh, but the soul has no companion. No matter how many people surround us, we are lonely because no one understands our innermost heart. Not even parent and child, husband and wife, or bosom friends can comprehend every bit of one another's feelings.

When we look deeply into ourselves, we find things that we dare not put into words. If we did, others would look on us with surprise and distaste, repelled by our thoughts. When we say we can tell someone anything, we mean we can speak freely of the thoughts that can be put into words. If we could share all our worries and suffering with someone else, and be completely understood, how wonderful that would be! But realistically speaking, such a thing is impossible.

Even husbands and wives who have sworn eternal love experience all sorts of discord. Often, the more they talk things over, the more apparent it becomes that the differences in their sensibilities and values are irreconcilable. “Letting it all hang out” will only end in a quarrel, and so to preserve harmony in the home they have to respect each other's differences and work out a compromise. Doing so takes considerable energy, and when one no longer has the strength to make concessions to the other, the marriage breaks down.

No matter how peacefully two people may live together on the surface, ultimately no one can see into the deepest recesses of another person's mind. Buddhism teaches the existence of a heart or mind that is like a secret repository, unknowable even to oneself. We are driven by loneliness to take action, yet nothing we do can ease our pain. Life is indeed filled with unfathomable loneliness.

The Bones

The traveler in the story is startled to come upon bones scattered along the path. These bones represent other people's deaths. The traveler's reaction to the discovery of bleached bones signifies the shock we all experience when we see or hear of the deaths of other people. Some people turn away when they see a hearse, or shudder at the mention of death, or get a headache when they see a funeral. We have an instinctive, animal fear of death.

Not a day goes by without news on television or in the newspaper of people dying from traffic accidents, disasters, terrorism, or murder. Like the traveler in the story, we stand alone in a vast field strewn with the bones of others.

To be continued tomorrow...

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #02 | 2011, The true nature of Human Existence (Part 2)

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