To Be or Not to Be

“To be or not to be – that is the question” is, of course, one of Shakespeare most famous lines. Hamlet is contemplation suicide, and this phrase, according to Schopenhauer “is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it.”

However, this assumes that there is existence and non-existence, being and non-being. Within the Buddhist tradition, there are divergent opinions on the subject of being and non-being. Nagarjuna rejected both the notions that ‘being is and nothing is not’ and ‘nothing exists.’ In considering this matter, he set up a formula of four possibilities, each one of which he rejected: something is, it is not, it both is and is not, and it neither is nor is not.

What Nagarjuna was really refuting were modes of thought, opinions, views, statements, and so on. As an antidote to the disease of clinging to either being or non-being, he took a middle path between the two. He taught that the tendency to cling to concepts and views was the root of suffering. His Middle Way is to see things as they truly are and to understand that nothing in the world actually exists absolutely, just as nothing perishes completely.

Here is an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, in which he discusses this ‘question’ of to be or not to be:

Descartes said: “I think therefore I am.” He was caught in a notion of existence, clinging to it to overcome the fear of non-existence. Because he did not look deeply enough, he was fearful of being nothing especially when he was confronted with the death of someone, or with his own death. If we are caught in the notion of being we will also be caught in the notion of non-being. From the perspective of life span, we think we start to exist at the point of time we call birth; and we think we continue to exist until the point of time we call death, after which we think we cease to exist. Thus the notions of birth and death form the basis of the notions of being and non-being. Both of these notions have their roots in the fundamental notion of life span. The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be”, is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going. Where do we come from and where do we go to? Those are philosophical questions. But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.


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