Mae La Noi, Thailand 29 Nov 11
Odometer 72,131 m 116,084 km

Siddhartha Gautama is not a name that rolls off the tip of too many tongues, but if you’re a Buddhist, he’s
the man. Though believed to have lived in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent some 2500 years ago, his teachings are still studied and revered by hundreds of millions of people the world over, mostly in Southeast Asia and especially in Thailand.

Early biographies of Gautama’s life and death, not unlike those of Jesus Christ and the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, paint various pictures of his youth and eventual deification. The details are sketchy, often massaged to suit the specific purposes of the many sects that avow his leadership, but the basic story has remained the same throughout the centuries. Sound familiar?

Regardless of which specific version of history you choose to accept, Gautama, known reverently as
the Buddha to his followers, appears to have worked, studied, deprived himself of worldly things, and above all, meditated until he at last achieved enlightenment. This, he described, was a profound understanding of ultimate truth, and obtaining it freed him from the endless cycle of rebirth to which he believed all mortals are otherwise subject.
Whether it’s suffering on earth through perpetual reincarnation, as Buddhists believe, or “bearing the cross,” as Christians present it, most of the world’s religions consider our short time here as little more than a waylay--and a rather bleak one at that. By finally getting it right, the Buddha no longer had to come back again and again to suffer along with the rest of us. He freed himself from repetitive toil. He figured it out.

Opportunely, each religion offers a step-by-step guide for how to get out of here. Each offers a simple choice, if not methodology, for escaping the treadmill and enjoying a more hospitable future. And, let's be honest, who wouldn’t want to do that?

It depends on how you frame the question.

Well, it depends on how you frame the question, as pointed out by my Indonesian friend and travel companion, Ming. Since we roved together across Bolivia, he’s become an ordained Buddhist monk, here in Thailand. During several late night conversations by my camp outside his monastery, he explained the seriousness of his spiritual quest. He started out wanting to know, as perhaps we all do, what is the meaning of life? But soon he realized that that was the wrong question to ask, and if you’re asking the wrong question--none of the answers will matter.
So, let’s get back to a simplified version of the Buddha’s premise: that life on earth is not worth living because there’s too much suffering involved. The sooner we can reach enlightenment and escape the cycle of reincarnation, he deduced, the better off we’ll be. Similarly, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all offer us some form of bliss in a heaven--provided we profess our belief and generally behave ourselves in this life--and eternal damnation in a hell if we don’t. It’s either/or. Achieve nirvana or endure torture. There’s no middle ground.
If the road to enlightenment was easy, we'd all be there by now.
But logic dictates that if the premise is false, the conclusion cannot be true. This is a bit of a twist on Ming’s very reasonable assertion that unless we ask the right question, our conclusions will at best be irrelevant and at most, flat wrong. But God is in the details, so let’s take a closer look at my implication.

If we regard our earthly existence as nothing more than something to suffer through, then indeed, we all could use a brighter future. A purpose. Anything better than
this would be welcome relief. But if instead we view our life as a miraculous gift--made even more precious by its finite nature--then there’s no need for additional reward: this life is enough.

At some point in most peoples' lives--often in the face of tragedy--they ask a number of fundamental questions. Why am I here? From whom do I seek guidance? Which version of history should I believe? Is there an absolute truth independent of my perceptions? Does any of it matter?

From atheists to the most devout, too often we expect perfect answers to our imperfect questions. It’s a paradox that’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche. We use faith to establish our own set of facts. Our conclusions become self-fulfilling. Blessed order rises out of chaos. And our quest for meaning is sated.

But for me, when you peel away all of the spiritual, religious and philosophical layers of our complex machinations, only one question remains relevant: With or without an afterlife, when we’re lying on our earthly deathbed, will we have any significant regrets about how we spent our time here? Will we wish we had spent more time at work--accumulating more money and stuff--or playing with our kids, sharing a hug, trying something new, volunteering, or planting a tree?

How I’ll answer
this question is the simple truth I live by. And simplicity has served me well.
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What's the meaning of life? I wouldn't know, since my enlightenment appears to be a ways off. But with each mile I travel, each smiling face I encounter, each vista I behold or new creature I discover, I get a little closer to figuring it out.

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