Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates used to walk through the streets and marketplaces of Athens, teaching his students. He would say to them, “You must understand yourself! You must understand yourself! You must understand yourself.” Then one day a student said, “Sir, you always say we must understand ourselves. But do you understand yourself?”
“No, I don’t know myself,” Socrates replied. “But I understand this ‘don’t know.’” This is very interesting teaching. Buddhist practice points at the same experience, because most human beings pass through their lives without the slightest sense of what they are.
We understand many things about this world, but we don’t understand ourselves. So why do human beings come into this world? Why do we live in this world? For love? For money? For respect or fame? Do you live for your wife, husband, or children? Why do you live in this world? If someone asked you these question, you might very well answer, “I live for my children. I live to earn enough money for them, or maybe just to have a good life.” Most people think like this. They live only for their family, for some fleeting social respectability, perhaps to enjoy art or to get some powerful position. Everyone wants to have a good situation for themselves. If you look at this world very closely, it is easy to see that most people eat and sleep and live merely for their own personal happiness. Yet these things are not the real purpose of human beings’ life. They are just temporary means for living in the world. If human beings cannot find who they are, how can they ever be truly happy?
From the Comapss of Zen