The Sacred Desire to Exist

Out of the primordial desire to exist, everything comes into being. This sacred force, says Anam Thubten, is different from clinging, which is the source of our suffering.

Anam Thubten
1 July 2024
Photo by Lukypig / Alamy Stock Photo.

When people have an existential crisis or when they do deep reflection, they begin to ask questions that normal people don’t ask, such as, “Why am I here? Why is there a universe in the first place? Why does everything exist?”

Most of the time, we don’t understand why we are here or why we came into being in the first place or why all of the events that have occurred in our lives since we were born have happened. There is always this unknown and great mystery that seems to be the foundation of our existence.

Of course, sometimes we can use our thinking mind to analyze and try to figure out why something happened, why we are here, and what is going to happen tomorrow. We can understand the causes and conditions to a certain extent, yet there is always the great mystery. We can call this unknown, this great mystery, karma.

So far there isn’t any exit strategy. So we might as well enjoy this world to the best of our ability.

We can say everything is our own karma. Yet we can never understand karma. That’s why many of the ancient Eastern philosophers said, “Don’t analyze karma because we can never fully understand it.”

The idea of karma is that we will never completely understand the mystery of our existence. Sometimes we hope there is a clear explanation for everything and there will be a remedy, a solution for all our problems, especially the big problem, which is our mortality. Of course, our desire is to live a long life or maybe even live forever. Living forever is completely impossible, and still many people have this desire now and then. The point is that we are here, and there is nothing we can do about it. It is too late to change our minds. Welcome to this planet. We are completely here, and so far there isn’t any exit strategy. So we might as well enjoy this world to the best of our ability.

It seems like there is some kind of cosmic desire that wants to exist. Not desire as an instinctual desire, but desire as a force, an almost eternal force. As the ancient wise men and women said, the universe has no beginning and no end. This is an amazing theory: that the universe has no beginning and no end and that there is an eternal force, this eternal desire that wants to exist. Out of that eternal desire, everything comes into being—everything from the smallest to the most infinite reality, including the speck of dust on a cushion. Throughout the universe, they all come into being through this eternal desire. The eternal desire in itself is sacred. It is not impure. It is not simple. We all come into being through that force. So from that point of view, we are born out of sacredness. Not out of original sin but out of original sacredness.

There is nothing wrong with having the desire to exist. When we look around, we see that everything has this desire to exist. Trees, flowers, mountains all have it. We can see that desire to exist in ourselves. Sometimes it is very rational, and sometimes it is very irrational. When we are sick, we want to live a long time. Not for selfish reasons. We want to live to be around our loved ones. We want to help them, and such a desire is rational and heroic. Sometimes our desire to live and to exist is just pure instinct. There is no logic behind it. In the end, we just have to leave everything up to this great mystery we should call karma. That is good news, isn’t it? Remember, the great ancient masters said, “Don’t analyze your karma.” You don’t have to figure everything out. You can leave everything up to the great mystery, the great unknown.

Buddha said that the root of all human suffering is craving. He talked about three types of craving: craving for existence, craving for sensual pleasure, and craving for nonexistence. This way of shedding light on the very root of human suffering is the least abstract and least conceptual. Everybody can relate to the idea of craving. We can really understand this notion with our minds, our bodies, and our bones. The Buddha said that all human suffering comes into being through these three cravings.

This is why we meditate. When our minds and bodies are completely serene, we feel that we are standing on the ground somewhere inside ourselves where there is no more craving and no more fear. This is the natural state of our being.

The first one is craving for existence. Craving is more than just instinctual desire. Remember that all of our instincts, all of our desires, are fine in themselves. The universe’s desire to exist is just fine in itself. Embrace it; honor it without having any guilt about it. The desire is natural. But craving is something different. Craving is sometimes unnatural. Your desire to exist is natural. It is uncontrived. What is natural is usually healthy. You know there is a healthy state of mind, and then there is an unhealthy state of mind. There is a healthy instinct and an unhealthy instinct. Your desire to exist is totally healthy because it is natural. You are born with it.

Craving seems to be unhealthy. It is more like a neurotic level of desire. It’s almost like a neurotic obsession to exist, and that craving is usually accompanied by lots of fear and insecurity. It is a fear of death, and it sometimes comes with violence. There is violence in fighting against reality, impermanence, and change.

Perhaps you have heard that many Zen masters claim they have transcended life and death. Can you really transcend death? It depends on how we understand what it means to transcend death. From one perspective, we cannot transcend death; we are all going to die. On the other hand, we can transcend death. At the moment we are able to cut through and let go of our craving for existence, we have transcended death. Then there is no more fear of death. Then there is total acceptance.

Out of craving, this kind of neurotic obsession with our own existence, many other forms of craving come into being. Craving for security, success, power, affection, recognition, certainty, wealth, and so forth. Craving for comfort, craving for favorable circumstances. We see that clearly much of our suffering comes into being from these cravings. Actually if you look into your consciousness right now, maybe you will find suffering. Do you find suffering? This is a powerful inquiry. This is the most powerful form of self-inquiry, the most powerful form of self-reflection. This is why Buddha said, “One must inquire in order to understand the root of suffering.” He never said transcend suffering. He said realize suffering and cut through to the root of it. This is such a wise statement.

Desire is natural to us, but craving is neurotic. Craving is a form of desire that becomes neurotic. It is desire that has lost its original quality, its natural quality. Recognize your suffering as well as its root and then learn to let go of it. Sometimes you will find a place inside yourself where there is no more craving, where it is already free. This is why we meditate. When our minds and bodies are completely serene, we feel that we are standing on the ground somewhere inside ourselves where there is no more craving and no more fear. This is the natural state of our being. The natural state of our being is already free from craving.

It is beautiful that we exist. Have you ever had a moment when you were simply enjoying that you exist? A moment when you were so serene, and you simply enjoyed being alive? You enjoyed that you were breathing, that you could smell, that you could feel and taste? In moments like this, we feel so much joy. We enjoy the fact that we are simply alive in that very moment, that we exist right now.


Reproduced from Embracing Each Moment: A Guide to the Awakened Life, by Anam Thubten, with permission of Shambhala Publications.

Anam Thubten

Anam Thubten

Anam Thubten grew up in Tibet and at an early age began to practice in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder and spiritual advisor of Dharmata Foundation, and the author of The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem.