In Buddhism, the purpose of life is to end suffering. The Buddha taught that humans suffer because we continually strive after things that do not give lasting happiness.
"Survey after survey has shown that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a happiness suppressant." --MSNBC news article1
"One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering. It is just ill and the ceasing of ill that I proclaim." --The Buddha2
In Buddhism, the primary purpose of life is to end suffering. The Buddha taught that humans suffer because we continually strive after things that do not give lasting happiness. We desperately try to hold on to things - friends, health, material things - that do not last, and this causes sorrow.
The Buddha did not deny that there are things in life that give joy, but pointed out that none of them last and our attachment to them only causes more suffering. His teachings were focused entirely on this problem and its solution.
Buddhism teaches the importance of recognizing the impermanence of all things and freeing oneself from attachment to them. This will lessen suffering and eventually end the cycle of rebirth. These teachings are expressed most concisely in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which together form the foundation of belief for all branches of Buddhism.
Monasticism as Path to Enlightenment
In view of both the importance and the difficulty of accomplishing the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha and early Buddhists advocated the monastic life as the surest way to enlightenment. This remains the perspective today in what is known as Theravada Buddhism, which predominates in Southeast Asia.
In Theravada Buddhism, there is certainly room for the laity to participate in Buddhism, but it is generally thought that they must be reborn as a monk or nun before they can attain enlightenment. Thus the purpose of life for the Buddhist laity is to gain merit (good karma) by supporting the monks and doing other good deeds, in the hopes that the next life would be one favorable to gaining enlightenment.
Paths to Enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism
Within a few centuries of the Buddha's death, a new perspective on the path to enlightenment began to develop. This movement called itself Mahayana, "The Greater Vehicle," because it opened the way to enlightenment to more people. According to Mahayana Buddhism, even those with families and secular careers could attain enlightenment and end the cycle of rebirth - they need not hope for rebirth as monks or nuns in the next life. Mahayana also provided faster routes to enlightenment than Theravada, making it possible to attain the goal in a single lifetime.
As it spread from India into the north and across Asia, Mahayana Buddhism divided into several schools, each with a different view on the path to enlightenment. But the common theme in all forms of Mahayana Buddhism continues to be that just about anyone can achieve the goal in this life, and there are shortcuts to the austere monastic life prescribed by the Theravadans.
Among the largest of the Mahayana schools still thriving today are Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhism. The first two originated in China before becoming influential in Japan, and Nichiren originated in Japan. Zen/Ch'an means "Meditation" and teaches that enlightenment can be achieved by meditation leading to a great moment of insight. Pure Land is the most devotional branch of Buddhism, and holds that one need only call upon the name of Amitbha Buddha in faith to be reborn in the paradisiacal "Pure Land," in which one enjoys a pleasant paradise and attains enlightenment easily.
Nichiren Buddhism centers on the Lotus Sutra, a Mahayana scripture. Nichiren (a 13th-century Japanese teacher) taught that if one simply recites "Homage to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law" (Namu myoho renge kyo) in faith, all one's spiritual and worldly wishes will be fulfilled.2
Paths to Enlightenment in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism
Vajrayana is an esoteric form of Buddhism that may have begun as early as the 2nd or 4th century CE in India and Sri Lanka, but is now most dominant in Tibet. Vajrayana Buddhism emphasizes that all apparent opposites are in fact one, and enlightenment lies in fully recognizing this fact through contemplation, yoga, and other ritual means. The path to enlightenment is walked with the assistance of a personal deity, who is assigned by a guru. Special postures, mantras and icons are believed to help the practitioner identify with this deity and attain enlightenment.3