Do I Exist or Not?

The complete negation of everything — is that Buddhism? No, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, “Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don’t exist, but they don’t not exist either.”

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
1 March 2001
No-self, Sakyong Mipham, Self, Shambhala Sun, Lion's Roar, Buddhism


The complete negation of everything — is that Buddhism? No, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don’t exist, but they don’t not exist either.

On the Buddhist path, we look at our own experience. For example, people are always talking about their age. We feel we are supposed to accomplish certain things by a certain age. We want to feel we are living fully, and even though we may be very sane and stable, we have doubts about whether or not we are living up to our own expectations. This causes anxiety, edginess. Why?

When we examine our expectations, we see how many concepts we have about our life. We have gathered a set of beliefs and opinions about ourselves and we’ve made them solid. We’ve created a self-image that we feel is real.

We are all trying to find meaning in life, some kind of personal satisfaction. We yearn to discover the basic fabric of our experience. “Is this genuine love? “Is this going the way I’ve heard it should?” We wonder what it is that we’re supposed to experience. When a good situation changes and we are no longer happy, we get a glimpse at how hard we try to hold the concepts together. We look back and realize, “That was not a genuine experience: I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing.” We may feel we were fooled by the appearance of things.

From the Buddhist point of view, we are always trying to find something that is inherently real, real by nature, in our environment and in our mind. One of the basic questions in Buddhism is what is the difference between the true nature of things and the way they appear to us?

The Buddha discovered that the genuine, true thing we keep looking for isn’t there at all. The whole world only appears to be real, and what appears to be the most real is ourselves. This goes beyond the level of ego-we are talking about existence itself. We feel that we exist. We feel that our thoughts, our dreams and hopes, are real.

So if the Buddha tells us that’s not so, do we decide nonexistence must be real? Some kind of voidness, the complete negation of everything-is that Buddhism? Well, Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don’t exist, but they don’t not exist either.

The Buddha discovered the truth because he overcame his obscurations, his ignorance. It is basic ignorance that keeps us from seeing the existence/nonexistence of things. What if we were to sit down and try to find exactly where the “me” abides? Is it in the brain, is it in the heart? We would have a hard time pinning it down exactly. On one level, of course we are here. But on another level, are we as solid as we’ve always believed ourselves to be?

So “Who am I and what is my world?” might be the next question. Understanding this is a journey that takes a while. We need to try to understand existence before we can understand nonexistence. Things are not real the way we think they should be. Life will not turn out the way we think it should. We have built our house over an underground stream. Essentially, we have been operating with a misunderstanding about reality. And first we have to let that go.

If we learn to let go of our expectations about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. This notion can be very subtle. One way everyone experiences this is through disappointment. We really want to have a good time, but somehow it doesn’t work out that way. Not trying to conceptualize that something is going to happen in a satisfactory way, or that something is real-this is what I’m talking about.

It may sound ridiculous for me to say that things are not real. But if you think about it, you know that the world is constantly changing-even though it appears to be solid. We age and die. Nevertheless, we all want to leave our legacy.

If we learn to let go of our expectations and concepts about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. On the Buddhist path, the purpose of meditation is to develop a stable mind in order to observe what is going on. When we meditate, we observe how our thoughts and emotions come and go.

Sometimes emotions feel overpowering. Desire, hatred, pride, jealousy-what are they really? They are torments of the mind. If someone injures us, we feel mad. We believe that we are an entity that exists and that that entity has been insulted. Therefore we feel justified in being angry because we feel our sense of self is being challenged. The anger torments us; it stirs up our mind. When we’re caught up in this process we are not at ease. The path of meditation means working toward stabilizing the mind so that we are not so susceptible to these states of affliction. These states of mind are not natural; in its natural state, the mind is at ease, not tormented.

When painful emotions come up, we ask ourselves, “Why me?” We want to blame someone or something for our situation. Well, if we wait for someone else to get rid of our negative feelings, we will be waiting a long time. Buddhism is about taking responsibility. No one told us to see ourselves as solid entities. We came up with that on our own. The point here is not to blame ourselves, but we could look to our own mind as the source of the confusion.

The Buddhist path teaches that the Buddha was not the only human being who could realize the truth about reality. We can do it ourselves, but we have to accept the responsibility. The Buddhist teachings are not some heavy, oppressive, liturgical thing, but more like sane advice from a friend.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Sakyong Mipham is the leader of Shambhala, a global community of meditation practitioners committed to realizing the inherent goodness in humanity. He is author of several books, including The Shambhala Principle. His website is