A true life is a life in which we abandon our private desires and live for the public good. This is a truth taught by all major religious leaders past and present, East and West, whether it be Jesus, Buddha, or the Prophet Mohammed. It is a truth that is so widely known that, sadly, it seems to have been devalued. The passage of time or changes in the world cannot diminish the value of this truth. This is because the essence of human life never changes, even in the midst of rapid change all around the world.
The teacher with whom we have the closest relationship is our heart. Our heart is more precious to us than our closest friends and even more precious than our parents. So, as we live our lives, we need periodically to ask our hearts, “Am I living a good life now?” Anyone can hear his heart speaking to him. If he comes to the realization that his heart is his master, he “polishes” his heart and maintains a close relationship with his heart throughout his life. If a person hears the sound of his heart tearfully sobbing, then he needs to stop immediately whatever he is doing. Anything that makes the heart suffer will ruin him.
Anything that makes the heart sad will eventually make the person fall into sadness. For a person to polish his heart to the point that it becomes as clear as crystal, he absolutely must spend time in direct conversation with his heart in an environment where he is away from the world and alone with his heart. It will be a time of intense loneliness, but the moment that we become close to our hearts is the time of prayer and meditation. It is a time when we can take ownership over our hearts. When we isolate ourselves from the noise around us and allow our thoughts to settle, we can see into the deepest parts of our hearts. It will take a lot of time and effort to go all the way down to where the heart has settled. It will not happen in a day. Just as love is not for our own sake, so happiness and peace are not for ourselves. Just as love can never exist without a partner, happiness and peace cannot exist without a partner.
All these can exist only in the context of a relationship with a partner. Nothing can be accomplished if we love alone. We cannot be happy alone or speak of peace alone. Since a partner is what enables us to have happiness and peace, the partner is more important than we are. Think about a mother carrying a baby on her back, sitting at an entrance to the subway, selling homemade snacks to the people passing by. To be at that spot in time for the morning rush hour, she will have spent the whole night preparing the snacks and put her fussing child on her back to come to the station. People passing by might say, “Oh, you could get along well if only you didn’t have that child to care for,” but it is for the sake of the child that the mother lives her life. The child on her back is the mother’s lifeline. Today people can expect to live about eighty years. Eighty years of joy, anger, sorrow, happiness, and all the other emotions mixed together may seem like a long time. But if we take away the private time that a person spends sleeping, working, and eating, and then the time we spend talking, laughing, and having fun with family members and friends, attending weddings and funerals, and time spent lying sick in bed, only about seven years will remain.
A person may live eighty years but only spend about seven years living for the public good. Life is like a rubber band. The same seven years, given to two different people, can either be spent as seven years or as seventy. Time, by itself, is empty. We need to put things in it. The same is true about a person’s life. Everyone wants to live his life with a comfortable place to sleep and good things to eat. Eating and sleeping, however, are simply ways of letting time slip by. In the moment that a person has lived out his life and his body is laid to rest in the ground, all wealth and glory become nothing more than a bubble and disappear at once. Only the seven years that he lived for the public good will remain and be remembered by posterity. Those seven years are the trace that is left in the world of a life that lasted eighty years. We do not come into this world, or depart from it, of our own accord. We have no ability to make choices with regard to our fate.
We are born, though we did not choose to be born. We live, though we did not choose to live. We die, though we do not choose to die. We have no authority over these aspects of our lives, so how can we boast that we are somehow better than others? We cannot be born by our own wish, possess things that will forever be our own, or avoid death. So any boasting on our part would only be pathetic. Even if we rise to a position higher than others, the honor is only temporary. Even if we gather more possessions than others, we must leave them all behind at the gates of death. Money, honor, and knowledge all flow away from us in time, and all disappear with the passing years. No matter how noble and great a person might be, his is nothing more than a pitiable life that will end the moment he loses hold of his lifeline. Human beings have always struggled to understand who we are and why we must live. We must realize that, just as we were not born of our own accord, so also we are not meant to live our lives for our own sakes. So the answer to the question of how we should live our lives is simple. We were born of love, so we must live by traveling the path of love.
Our lives were created by receiving the boundless love of our parents, so we must live our entire lives repaying that love. In the course of our lives, this is the only value we can choose on our own. The success or failure of our lives depends on how much love we are able to pack into those eighty years that are given to us. At some point, everyone will shed his physical body like old clothing and die. In Korean, “to return” is a common expression for dying. To return means to go back to where we came from, that is, to go back to our fundamental roots. Everything in the universe moves in cycles. The white snow that collects on the mountains will melt and flow down the slopes, first forming streams and then a river, and eventually go into the ocean. The water that flows into the ocean will absorb the heat of the sun’s rays, become water vapor, go back up into the sky, and prepare to become either snowflakes or drops of rain.
To return to our original place in this way is what we call death. Then, where do we human beings return to when we die? Body and heart come together to bring about human life, and death is the act of shedding the body. So we go to the place from which the heart came. We cannot talk about life without also talking about death. We must accurately understand what death is, even if we do so only to understand the purpose of life. The type of life that has true value can be understood only by the person who finds himself in a difficult situation when death appears imminent and he cries out to Heaven in desperation, pleading to be allowed to live even just one more day. If our days are as precious as this, how should we live them? What are the things we must accomplish before we cross over the boundary line of death? The most important is not to commit sin and live a life that is without shadows. There is much religious and philosophical debate over what constitutes sin, but what is clear is that we should not engage in acts that give pause to our conscience. When we do things that give us a guilty conscience, it always leaves a shadow in our heart. The next most important thing is to resolve to do significantly more work than others have done.
All of our lives are limited, whether that limit is sixty years, seventy years, or some other time period. Depending on how we use that time, we can live a life that is two or three times more abundant than others. If you cut your time into segments and then live each segment in a meaningful way, your life will be truly precious. Live your life with an attitude of devotion and diligence, telling yourself, for example, that you will plant two or three trees in the time it takes others to plant one.
Do not live for yourself. You must live not for yourself but for others; not for your family but for your neighbors; not for your own country but for the world. All sin in the world comes about when the individual is put first. Individual desires and ambitions harm a person’s neighbors and ruin the society at large. Everything in the world will eventually pass. The parents we love, the husband or wife we love, and the children we love will all pass away. All that remains with us at the end of our lives is death. When a person dies, only his legacy remains.
Please consider for a moment what you can do to show that you lived a life of value. The possessions and social position you have accumulated during your life will pass away from you. Once you cross the river of death, such things will have no meaning. Because we were born in love and lived our lives in love, love is also the only thing that remains with us when we are in our graves. We receive our lives in love, live by sharing love, and return into the midst of love. It is important that we live our lives in a way that we can leave a legacy of love behind us.