Buddhism and Free Will

The notion of “Free Will” is an interesting subject in Buddhism. The interest in the subject came to me after reading Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, especially after reading this passage:

He [Paul Atreides] found himself, instead, thinking that he had come a long way from his boyhood day in Caladan Castle. Where had he put his foot on the path that led to his journey across a crowded square on a planet so far from Caladan? Had he really put his foot on a path? He could not say he had acted at any point in his life for one specific reason.

This led me to ponder my own life. I live far away from home in Ireland, and in younger more heady days I spent time in Vietnam and other odd places. Looking back, everything has unfolded in a steady progression, but at what point did it begin? At what point did certain conditions meet that led me on the path to Buddhism? I once wrote about how the TV show Kung-fu had ignited interest in Buddhism when I was 16, but why me, and why that day? If someone else saw that same episode, why did they not respond to it the same way? What causes and conditions led me to be home watching that particular channel on that particular day?

Buddhism does not see this as random chance, nor as destiny in the usual sense. Instead, we carried along by a powerful current of our own past actions (from both this life and past lives), external conditions, and other miscellaneous causes. Why do you speak the language you do? Did you choose it? Why do you prefer some foods and not others? Did you choose that either? Why do you vote one way, and not another? Even your choice in religion, even your act of forsaking the religion of your childhood, were these free acts, or did other causes and conditions compel us to make them?

Another quote in the same book comes to mind:

It occurred to Paul then that all creatures must carry some kind of destiny stamped out by purposes of varying strengths, by the fixation of training and disposition. From the moment the Jihad had chosen him, he’d felt himself hemmed in by the forces of a multitude. Their fixed purposes demanded and controlled his course. Any delusions of Free Will he harbored now must be merely the prisoner rattling his cage. His curse lay in the fact that he saw the cage. He saw it!

And that’s what I too have felt at times. Much of my beliefs, thoughts, preferences, dislikes and so on are the product of external forces that hemmed me in from birth, guiding me along pre-determined paths, molding me into what I am today. I remember a childhood friend who had a very abusive father. His father used to really hit his son and daughter (my friend’s younger sister) very hard when he was angry, so I realized years later, that my friend often wanted me to stay overnight as protection. Years later when I caught up with him again briefly, he was a very dark and depressed person, and after that I never heard from him again. My parents never did such a thing, but his circumstances were different. He couldn’t choose his parents or family. That’s what he was born into, and those terrible events shaped his life from there on out.

So, while Buddhism does not believe in destiny, in the sense of life’s events already written out, it does teach that one’s free will is very limited, and colored by one’s experiences and past encounters. This is where the practice of mindfulness becomes so crucial. I am reminded of yet another quote from Dune, this time from the 1984 movie, where Thufir Hawat tells Paul that the first step in avoiding a trap is to be aware of its existence.

You and I, friends, are trapped by our environment, past experiences, the training we’ve received since birth, and all the past karma we’ve committed in past lives. Only when we learn to observe our own mind, roll back the beliefs we have like peeling back an onion, layer by layer, can we expose the truth: that they’re all illusory. You cannot rid yourself of who you are, but you don’t have to be ruled by it either. Once we know the nature of our own mind though, we can yet avoid the trap laid out for us, and take a different direction. Only when we can see now, can we make the critical change on the road ahead.

Sorry, but I have to throw in one last quote from the book worth ending this post with:

“Burial, indeed,” the ghola said, “You run from death. You strain at the next instant, refuse to live here and now. Augury! What a crutch for an Emperor!”

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

5 thoughts on “Buddhism and Free Will

  1. Freewill versus determinism has been debated for many years by many people. I debated it myself for a long before I determined that both fully exist. It is not one or the other, and I think the debate is a bigger issue for those that subscribe to beliefs in Christianity, for (and this is being big time simplistic) if things are not determined, than God is not all knowing, God cannot see the future, for if He could, things would be determined, and if things were determined, than our salvation (or lack thereof) is beyond our control. However if we have freewill, accepting God (Christian God) into our lives is an act of choice, and we are held to account.

    This is a big problem that has never been resolved for those subscribing to Christianity.

  2. The pickle that all religions encounter when trying to decide philosophically where there is or is not free will is dispatched handily by both Albert Einsten and The Buddha. The Buddha just refused to comment philosophically on it and Einstein is quoted: “We can’t solve problems (or the question) by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

    Contemporary neuroscience shows that when given the “free will” to choose from a number of possibilities, that the choice is made long before (many seconds) there is awareness of it.

  3. We are born with talents and drawbacks, inclinations as well as aversions. If we are allowed to pursue our path there should be reasonable happiness as we are allowed to do so. If it is thwarted then there will be issues.

    I am an artist but my father was an engineer, and I was berated and abused to the point of not pursuing what I was good at. What filled this void was a friend heavily involved in drugs. The year was 1966.

    After a lifetime spent wrongly I’ve come to understand much, but understanding is not being fulfilled. Looking back I see how I got here, but I could also see how things might have been different, either better or worse, i don’t know, but different. Conditions then were overpowering but my karma has allowed me an understanding. I’m tired and I pursue art, but I don’t have the youth to really excel.

    As an example, if a person is a dancer, but is kept from dance by having their feet broken, they will not dance but limp and despair. After a lifetime, they will come to understand their life in retrospect. This understanding, as valuable as it is, is small recompense for what might have been.

    To break the dancer’s feet may be sadistic, but it is not sadism as it is not the intention of the abuser, but it is meant for their own good. I disagree that the good of another may be so correctly discerned by an observer. With my children I try to facilitate their talents and communicate, though I’m sure they’ll realize issues with me as they age. There is nothing in this life that is perfect, save death, from which nothing may be added or taken. I have no desire to be perfect just yet.

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