What would it be like if nothing mattered? I don’t mean that there is no ordinary meaning in human life. Baseball is still baseball, and it is enjoyable to watch (if you ever felt that in the first place). But ultimately it has no meaning, beyond the enjoyment of players and spectators. After the heat death of the universe—or before that, if there are no humans remaining anywhere—baseball will have no meaning. There is no Platonic Baseball Hall of Fame, no Cooperstown lingering as a phantasm in the void if the sport becomes something only historical that no one plays anymore. (I plan to be dead by then.) That’s what I mean by “to matter.”
If this kind of relative meaning can exist without ultimate meaning, what is the meaning of “ultimate meaning”? If you cannot cash in your ultimate meaning today, for face value, what good is it? On the other hand, if you can cash in your meaning today, it must be relative meaning. How else do you establish its value? The contract lawyers of the universe have got you there. You have a coupon, a receipt, a promise, a piece of paper. That and $3 will get you from Alewife to Fenway Park on the “T.” But why would you want to go to heaven—maybe!—if you can go to Fenway Park today, for sure? OK, the beer is outrageously expensive at Fenway Park, but at least you can drink it today. There’s even a ballgame to watch while you drink it.
Not only will the future always be in the future, the meaning of the future will always be in the future, too.
But we want the meaning of the future to be negotiable in the present—hence “the sacred.” We want the “fact” that the future means something in an ultimate sense to change the meaning of this very moment. We want it, in fact, to provide the meaning for this moment, even though it (the future) doesn’t exist right now. These time things are tricky!
The implication of this is that we can’t locate meaning in the current time without reference to meaning in some future time, or in the eternal, whatever that means. It is “outside of time & space,” as is sometimes said. This seems to me just a fancy way of saying “not now.” There is a theory that we construct time and space as we go, that is, time & space are, as Gotama would say, “conditioned,” as opposed to the some popular notions of nibbāna as something eternal, “beyond space and time,” even though he clearly rejects the eternal.1 But Gotama was experiencing nibbāna, “the unconditioned,” while he lived, right in front of others. He was there, not beyond space and time. (There are, of course, elaborate Buddhist philosophical systems including three different emanations of the Buddha, only one of which could be seen, and so on; but these come off as mere convoluted ideas to justify various metaphysical views, which Gotama rejected.)
I am being facetious about things that some people hold very dearly and seriously; but I wish to make a point. Can you have your eternal future cake and eat it too? I don’t think so. In the flow of experience, we are always eating here and now; we are free—or not—here and now. We need to be able to see the fear of death clearly, so we can let it go & get on with living—here—now. The reason to contemplate death, as my teacher Anālayo reminds us, is because the only time we can live is here and now. And if we can master that skill of living, then eternity is optional. It is seen for what it is: just another very human idea.
The only meaning that matters is the one we are creating here & now. We’re either creating dukkha, stress & suffering, or not. We’re either reinforcing the habit of creating that dukkha, or we’re not. (There are subtle degrees in both cases, but they all tend one way or the other.) This is the meaning of Gotama’s teaching on dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda). The irony—& the glory—is that the only way to affect the meaning of future moments is the way we create meaning in present ones. This is a simple way of showing why we need training (study & meditation practice) to balance in the flux of experience—balance that frees us from both ideas of eternal ultimate meanings & the numb despair of meaninglessness.
So rather than ultimate meaning or no meaning we have this experience, here & now. This is why it is said that nibbāna and saṃsāra are the same. With training, you can look nihilism in the face & say “There is this sense, this idea of nihilism; see how it arises & passes.”
1 Kaccānagotta Sutta, Saṃyutta Nikāya ii.16-17