There is a well-known koan that asks, “Why did Bodhidarma come from the West?” Bodhidarma was the person credited for brining Buddhism to China from India. He is considered the first patriarch of Chinese Buddhism, even though he was a red-bearded barbarian, as some historical texts fondly refer to him. (It’s likely he was not Indian though, but possibly Central Asian, from Afghanistan perhaps.)
The question, why did Bodhidarma come (to China) from the West (India), is really asking why do we practice Buddhism, why do we meditate. The context is that in Zen Buddhism, since we are already enlightened, already whole, already perfect, why do we need to meditate and practice Buddhism? What is there to gain? Taking that a step further, we are all going to die one day, so what does it matter what we do now? Why do we need to work, or go to school, or accomplish anything if it really doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things.
Ultimately, these are all the same question, and truthfully there is only one question that really matters to us. That is, what is the meaning (or purpose) of it all?
Since Buddhism is a philosophy of action, according to Gudo Nishijima Roshi, it is meant to be practiced. Even though Buddhism has a robust intellectual foundation and a large volume of literature that exemplifies its intelligentsia, this is a philosophy and religion that is best understood through action. Like the reality that it strives to understand, the crux is in the doing, not the intellectualizing, and certainly not in the talking. Would then the answer to what’s the meaning of it all lie in action? That’s not to say we couldn’t or shouldn’t have this discussion, but the way to address the issue is through the framework of action.
Taking a step back, the fact that Buddhism brings up the question of why we need to do anything has caused it to be misrepresented as being nihilistic. Nothing is further from the truth. Asking a question so that we could have a dialogue does not equate to advocating or even agreeing with its implication. Buddhism is not a philosophy that professes to have all the answers. What it does is offer a (Middle) way to understand this wondrous and mysterious and utterly fantastic reality that we all share. Buddhism asks questions and it is up to us to come up with the answers, provided we cast away our attachment to beliefs and maintain an open mind.
Back to the question at hand: why do we do anything? If we look closely, this is really the same question as asking who we are. Because who we are is what we do. The key is in the doing, of course, because in acting comes the manifesting, the being. Why does Erik Anderson work at a psychiatric ward? Because he is a psychiatrist. Why does Nina Snow teach yoga? Because she is a yoga instructor. Why does Dave Cuomo cook for the sangha on Saturdays? Because he is the tenzo. Why did Bodhidarma come to China from the West? Because he was a barbarian and he was a Buddhist.
Why do we do anything? Why do we practice Buddhism? We each have our own answers to these questions and they don’t involve words, because it’s more important to practice than to understand.