What is Life?

by Rev. Jon Turner.

Frank Sinatra once said, “I believe George Harrison’s hauntingly beautiful song is one of the greatest love songs ever written, and it never even says ‘I Love You’”. The song he was referring to is Something from the album Abbey Road. Sinatra is correct but this song also has another meaning. On one level it is a romantic love song, but on another it is a deeply religious confession. This “something” can be interpreted as a woman, but it can also be interpreted as the spiritual movement within George Harrison’s life. From this religious perspective, he is acknowledging this indescribable “something” that is moving him. This helps to explain why he never sings “I Love You.”

The Beatles broke up shortly after Abbey Road was recorded. This album is now considered by many to be their very best one. Soon after their breakup, George Harrison released his first solo album entitled All Things Must Pass. This too was likely his best. I believe this entire album is a religious one. Each song is an expression of his religious consciousness; often masquerading as a love song.

George Harrison was raised a Catholic but sometime during the mid-1960’s he began to study Eastern religions and began the practice of Hinduism. He “converted” at the very height of his fame. His solo concerts became more like religious services than rock shows. This eroded much of his popularity and ticket sales but this was of no concern to him.  His music had become part of his religious practice.

On the All Things Must Pass album, George Harrison also wrote a song entitled What is Life? Superficially, the lyrics of this song sounds like another love song:

Tell me, what is my life without your love?

Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

But George Harrison was a profoundly spiritual man and I believe that the song What is Life? describes the religious meaning he had experienced within his life.  In other words, his life would have had no meaning if it were not for his practice of Eastern religion. It is the question What is Life? that lead to his awakening. I would like to now discuss the impact that a single question can have on one’s life.

Imagine an infinitely long scroll of paper. On the left hand side, there is numbered list of questions as far as the eye can see. On the right hand side, is a blank line – where we are to fill in the answers. For example, what is the square root of 4? Or who invented the telephone?

I had a philosophy teacher in college who used this illustration as a metaphor for life. She said that we believe that this is the meaning of education and of life. Finding and collecting answers to a supplied list of questions. Sadly, these questions are not of our own making and neither are the answers – both have been defined by others and then supplied to us. She felt that memorizing the answers to these questions does not make a person educated nor does it give meaning to our lives. Instead she wanted us to learn to think on our own. She wanted us to be critical thinkers. She felt that meaning came from coming up with our own questions. This is how one develops meaning; by setting course on a quest; by discovering meaning within ourselves.

Many people also come to Buddhism with such a list of questions – seeking to fill in all those blanks. Why do Buddhists chant? Why do Buddhists bow? These are important questions and a good place to start but they are academic questions. They are good for studying Buddhism as a subject; like anthropology or history. Hopefully, over time, these questions will become more personal. Why do I chant? Why do I bow? The answers to these questions help give meaning to one’s life. However, they are still the questions of others. The only difference is now they are being asked in the first person rather than in the third. This is progress but it still relies on collecting answers. At its core Buddhism is not like this.

What is my life?

This is the single, burning, personal question that compels one to seek the way. This is the essence of Buddhist practice. It is not the many answers but instead the single, personal question that defines Buddhism. It is the question that creates the path for us to follow. One finds meaning through seeking rather than through acquiring fixed answers. One’s life becomes a life of process – a process of openness and discovery.

Fifteen plus years ago, when I began to practice Buddhism, I was a bit unsure of where this was all headed. People don’t just choose their own religion, do they? I worried what people might think. Was I having a mid-life crisis? It was George Harrison who convinced me that I was not. If a Beatle could become a Hindu then surely it must be very easy indeed for a computer programmer to become a Buddhist. And it was. It was just my life.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner