Buddhist statue meditating in the grass about ikigai

Relationship between Ikigai and Buddhism

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Throughout life, you may find yourself contemplating the ultimate purpose of our existence. It’s a question that has been explored for centuries by different cultures, religions, and philosophical traditions. Does living a virtuous life and finding happiness constitute life’s ultimate goal? Or is it the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe’s ultimate reality?

As we look both inwardly and outwardly, we realize that civilizations have spent an immeasurable amount of time seeking answers to such fundamental questions. “Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is our existence a mere happenstance, or is there a grand plan in place?”

These enigmas can only be resolved through an examination of life itself, the afterlife, or perhaps both. And even in today’s world, this topic continues to be an important area of contemplation.

For many of us, the Japanese concept of ikigai holds a sense of spiritual significance when it comes to the purpose or meaning of your existence. It’s fascinating to see how this Japanese idea is often interpreted through a religious lens, particularly by Western standards.

While it’s possible for ikigai to possess a spiritual dimension, especially if it aligns with one’s religious convictions or spiritual outlook, there’s no mention of it in any religious text, whether Eastern or Western.

It’s worth noting, however, that Buddhism could be a spiritual path that has influenced the concept of ikigai. As we continue on our own journeys to find ikigai, we must be grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas and understand their origins.

Buddhist statue reflecting on ikigai
Image by Hiroshi Tsubono

Buddhism and Ikigai

Throughout Japan, Buddhism has been accepted and exists comfortably within Japan. It is therefore reasonable to consider Buddhism as an additional source of influence for the concept of ikigai.

In Buddhism, the present moment is emphasized, and attention is directed towards the life that one is presently living. Through mindfulness and personal awareness of one’s true nature, inner peace, purpose, and enlightenment, commonly referred to as nirvana, can be attained. Those who achieve enlightenment are believed to be filled with compassion for all living things, recognizing that each has its own unique purpose.

Our individual purpose is linked to our innate desire to contribute to a meaningful way of living for all of us. In other words, the actions and efforts we put forth today will greatly impact how we live our ikigai. This idea has its roots in the belief that existence is a cycle of transformation from life to death to rebirth, in which one’s actions determine whether or not one escapes the cycle altogether. It is the concept of Karma.

This is not limited to good intentions; both positive and negative characteristics, when repeated, become habits. Over time, we may discover that our path was significantly created for reasons that we can attribute to our own actions. This highlights why Buddhists attach great importance to being mindful of every action they take, as it is also an effective way to construct one’s own journey.

Being Mindful

Each effort we take towards living our ikigai shapes us into individuals who live with purpose.

By practicing mindfulness, we can become more aware of what we are doing, where we are, and what surrounds us. This increased awareness helps us to appreciate the small things in life and recognize that change is always possible, as nothing is fixed or permanent. This understanding allows us to feel grateful for the present state, whether it is positive, negative, or neutral.

Buddhists fundamentally pursue such harmony, often to the point of detachment, and strive for indifference to personal influences or feelings. This applies to both positive desires, such as one’s goal to achieve nirvana or wishing someone a good fortune, and more mischievous thoughts of self-ambitions, as such sensations may lead to what is known as the ultimate causes of suffering: greed and desire, ignorance and delusion, and hatred and destruction. In and of itself, this pursuit of harmony is a way of living, ikigai.

Meditating woman whose ikigai is Buddhism
Image by Motoki Tonn

Buddhism can be your ikigai

In his 1999 letter from Japan titled “Ikigai in Older Japanese People,” Noriyuki Nakanishi from the Department of Public Health at Osaka University Medical School discussed the connection between ikigai and spiritual beings. He suggested that the desires associated with ikigai are not merely the desires for biological satisfaction or the desires of humans as social creatures, but rather the individual desires of humans as spiritual beings.

One’s spiritual devotion can serve as a form of ikigai since it adds significance and value to their life. While ikigai is not explicitly mentioned in Buddhist texts, it is promoted through the teachings. There are no strict rules or guidelines regarding religion and ikigai. One can belong to a specific religion or have no religion at all.

The key factor that distinguishes ikigai from being solely religious is whether religion is central to one’s purpose. Regardless of their goals, if an individual strives to live a meaningful life, then they have ikigai.

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