Buddhism's View On Free Will?

Discussion in 'Eastern Philosophy' started by Gage, Jul 23, 2013.

  1. Gage Registered Senior Member

    **First Post!** I hope I posted this in the correct spot. So I've posted this question on other sites and never got a definitive answer; Whats a typical Buddhist's view on Free Will? Now some people have told me in the past that there are various types of Buddhism thus their beliefs in the subject vary. But I was reading a article that I googled a while ago, although I guess I cant post links yet, that talked about how the Buddha denied both views and took a middle view? How does that work? I thought we either have free will or we don't. No? :scratchin:
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  3. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    It looks like a great (though difficult) thread topic to me. There's a big scholarly literature on this topic and it's still a major topic of discussion in the academic journals.

    There may not be one. In the Buddha's day the problem of free-will probably didn't exist in the same way that we conceive of it today. For one thing, the ancients didn't exactly share our own contemporary understanding of scientific law, causality or what we think of as scientific determinism.

    But they were getting there.

    The theory of karma was a kind of loose ethical determinism, since it ascribed the conditions of one's present life to actions performed in the past, and argued that actions performed today will help shape one's condition in the future. But it isn't a full-frontal determinism, since while karma determines the conditions of one's life such as one's parents, sex, nationality, family wealth and so on, it doesn't determine the choices on makes within that life.

    The Buddha actually tightened that up quite a bit with his theory of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). In its ethical application, this is essentially the theory of karma as described above. But the Buddha seems to have intended pratitya-samutpada to not only be an ethical principle, but an ontological principle as well. This ontological version is the idea that everything that exists is conditioned and transitory, dependent on prior conditions that brought it about. This is the idea that later Buddhists termed 'emptiness', namely emptiness of what Buddhists later called 'svabhava', whose reality they denied. Svabhava is whatever we imagine to be simply because it's that thing's own inherent and internal nature to be that. We see these kind of arguments being applied repeatedly to the self, leading to the conclusion that there isn't any permanent underlying substance or essence (one's soul or atman) that remains the same, self-identical and unchanged throughout the flux of time.

    Today? I'm not sure that there is any agreed Buddhist consensus on it.

    In the Pali canon, the Buddha is portrayed as arguing against what was termed Niyativada. This is the rather fatalist sort of determinism that argues that whatever pleasure, suffering or neutral feeling a person experiences, is entirely conditioned and determined by previous karmic action. So for the Niyativadins, there's no point in striving to or refraining from doing anything, since everything that is going to happen is going to happen anyway. It's all fated and inevitable.

    In the Devadaha Sutta (and elsewhere in the Pali canon), the Buddha rejects this version of determinism, on the grounds that it ignores the very real effects of effort and striving.

    So the Buddha does seem to take a middle-path on this, as in so much else.

    He retains his theory of dependent origination and even applies it to psychological states. (Especially to psychological states, since mindfulness meditation is all about observing how various kinds of psychological states arise and subside.)

    But he includes our intentions, purposes, choices and motivations among those psychological states, and doesn't deny their causal efficacy. What we choose to do obviously does influence our present and future state, along with the states of others. We can influence other people for the better by having our effects on them, and perhaps the paradigm of that for Buddhism is the Buddha himself, and his teaching.

    Of course, an individual's psychological states, including their motives and choices, are in turn conditioned by previous experience. That's why the Buddha's order started out as a monastic sangha, kind of a spiritual marine corps looking for 'a few good men', those whose previous karma had brought them to that austere but portentuous place of being a sramana. It's why the Jataka tales of the Buddha's countless previous lives place such great influence on the kinds of events, choices and decisions that brought the Buddha to the point of becoming the Buddha. And it's why the later Mahayana emphasized the Bodhisattva path. Becoming a Buddha is conditioned by events in the past, just like everything else. It's the result of a long process, in which an individual's choices and psychological states along the way are central and fundamental, not superfluous and pointless as the fatalists would argue.

    Buddhism can be kind of paradoxical, since in Buddhism there isn't any interior self that's making all the choices. Buddhist spiritual pschology is imagined more as an extended temporal process, and all that exists inside us (if only for an instant) are dependently originated psychological states and decision processes, determined by past events and states, and determinative of future states and actions. The difference between this view and fatalism seems to be the Buddha's insistence that these psychological states, the motivations, feelings, ideas, choices and decision processes are the farthest thing from being irrelevant. They are the center and the focus of the whole Buddhist enterprise, even if they in turn have been shaped by previous events and experiences.
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  5. Buddha12 Valued Senior Member

    While the question of free will does not figure as prominently
    in Buddhist writings as it does in western theology, philosophy,
    and psychology, it is a topic that was addressed in the earliest Buddhist
    writings. According to these accounts, for pragmatic and ethical
    reasons, the Buddha rejected both determinism and indeterminism as
    understood at that time. Rather than asking the metaphysical question
    of whether already humans have free will, Buddhist tradition takes a
    more pragmatic approach, exploring ways in which we can acquire
    greater freedom to make wise choices that are truly conducive to our
    own and others’ genuine well-being.

    One key to achieving such freedom is the cultivation of attentional skills so that one can deliberately
    focus one’s attention with continuity and clarity on one’s chosen
    object. A second theme is the cultivation of insight into the manner in
    which our own attitudes shape experience, allowing for the possibility
    of altering not only the way we experience events in the present, but
    also how we are influenced by our memories of the past. Finally, the
    Great Perfection school of Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the realization
    of the deepest dimension of consciousness — pristine awareness
    — which transcends the nexus of causality. This is regarded as the
    ultimate source of freedom and the ultimate nature of human identity.

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  7. spidergoat Liddle' Dick Tater Valued Senior Member

    Buddha would say don't worry your mind about it, it's not important.
  8. Gage Registered Senior Member

    I'm starting to see that. That was the article I had read online!

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    What does he mean by this on Page 228 " There is freedom in the present moment to view the world in accordance with different conceptual frameworks, and this is where free will may enter into our experience. By shifting our way of framing appearances and making sense of them within our cognitive framework, we alter the very nature of the world as it arises from moment to moment relative to our way of viewing it. For example, a natural calamity may be viewed either as an unmitigated adversity, or it may be seen as an opportunity to cultivate deeper compassion. The categories of ‘adversity’ and ‘felicity’ are ones we superimpose on experience; they are not absolutely thrust on us from outside." Is he saying we have free will on how we view a event/situation?

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  9. Stoniphi obscurely fossiliferous Valued Senior Member

    As an actual Buddhist, I must agree with Spidey.

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    The rest is making something very simple very complicated.

    When the need for a decision arises, decide.

    In the case of being in the midst of a 'natural calamity', you take the necessary steps to preserve yourself then assist others as best you can.

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    All else is mere distraction from the task at hand.
  10. wellwisher Banned Banned

    I agree with this. Free will is a developed skill and implies the ability to freely choose between alternatives. Willpower is different from free will. Willpower allows choices, even if they bother us. Free will is more relaxed and carefree. With free will compulsions, habits and phobia become optional allowing wiser choices. Willpower often retains compulsions, habits and phobia but deals with it.

    As an example, say we had an apple and orange on the table and you love apples but hate oranges. With willpower, you can still eat the yucky orange even if you hate it. But will power alone does not change how you feel about oranges. Free will is not about feelings, but has a similar calmness for both the apple or the orange, allowing a wiser choice for any circumstance. This takes practice.

    If you had a phobia, that fear makes many choices for you. You lack will power if you succumb to the choices made by the fear. If you have will power, you might confront your fears, but may still feel some fear even when confronting. Free will is calm like Buddha. This state takes work and practice to understand the nature of the fear, and how to work to neutralize it, so the circumstances do not funnel you, but rather you can now row in any direction in the calm water.
  11. Gage Registered Senior Member

    After reading this over and over again and I still cant make the distinction between freewill and "willpower" without making some contradiction.
    Hmmm. I'm not a Buddhist. I guess I need to read about it all more.
  12. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    I don't know who wrote that or precisely what he meant by it.

    But most Buddhists agree that the world (including ourselves) can be thought of, understood and responded to in different ways. Some of those ways are more apt than others to generate distress and suffering. Buddhist practice is intended, in some large part, to facilitate changes that makes the generation of suffering less likely. Each of us can only perform those kind of inner changes for ourselves. So clearly Buddhism believes that the necessary kind of freedom exists. Perhaps not for everyone at this moment, at this stage in their development, but potentially.

    I'm not sure that the Buddha ever addressed our modern free-will/determinism question. What he did address was what we might call the free-will/fatalism issue. The Buddha argued against the idea that no effort is necessary (or even possible) because everything that's going to happen is already fated to inevitably happen. The Buddha insisted that our own efforts and decisions and choices are basic to the whole thing. His whole path focuses on the choices we make and the actions we take.

    But I'm not sure that commits him to the belief that our choices, intentions and actions are totally uncaused, totally independent from and unrelated to everything that went before. The Buddha certainly seems to have included human beings' inner states, choices and actions within the broader scope of dependent origination.
  13. Gage Registered Senior Member

  14. Lakon Valued Senior Member


    1) Nothing uniquely buddhist about any of that though.

    2) What is the task at hand ?
  15. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    Bhddhism and Hinduism both accept Law of Karma, though with different interpretation. Karma ie deed has to done of one's freewill and reap the consequences. Slaves do not have free will at all.
  16. Stoniphi obscurely fossiliferous Valued Senior Member

    While I do not believe in "karma" par se, I act as though I do because it pleases me.

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    For me, at this moment, it is responding to you.

    Now that moment is in the past and I am going to the next task to be at hand which is clicking "post", then "shut down" then brushing my teeth.
  17. Lakon Valued Senior Member

    Ahh .. but again, what's uniquely buddhist about even that ?
  18. Lakon Valued Senior Member

    Buddhism doesn't exite me, though I'll allow, there are some profound koans found here and there. This is one of my most favourite, though again, Plato has something quite similar ..

    57. The Gates of Paradise

    A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
    "Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
    "I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
    "You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
    Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
    As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
    At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
    "Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
  19. Great Old One Registered Member

    How could there be place for a concept such as free will in the absence of self?

    I have wondered if the concepts of Karma and reincarnation did not refer to acceptance of no self yet realization that existence and life will continue to evolve and move on beyond death. The idea of 'rebirth' referring to 'you'...is quite baffling juxtaposed to acceptance of no self.

    Abandoning the self, the idea of being selfish and inflicting gratuitous pain is baseless and something like 'The Golden Rule' is perhaps a 'moral' recommendation because peace (lack of stress) is violated in any action of violence or what might conventionally be deemed, 'evil'...so long as that act is done with purpose, effort, and any sense of care towards the result.

    Something which has always confused me with this line of thinking is whether it is a good idea to go out of your way to promote happiness and ideas such as 'good' because those as well are also fleeting and pursuit demands stress. You might say being good is 'being selfless' and truly altruistic but that is undeniably paired with the horrific realization one could do evil for 'no reason and stress free'. Indeed we have aberrant examples of such people.

    Is the 'good Buddhist' a 'good person' or a stone? If it is not a 'stone' then it isn't clear that a 'good Buddhist' might not be disembodied evil just as well.
  20. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Buddhist philosophy tends to conceive of reality in terms of constantly changing processes, rather than in terms of substances whose essence remains unchanged through time. In other words, they don't think of personal identity in terms of some substantial entity (me) whose essence remains unchanged through time (continuing to be me at each instant) and merely possesses different qualities at different times. Instead, they think of personal identity as a chain of causation extending through time, where events at time A condition events at time B which condition events at time C, and so on. There's nothing in that view that exists from moment to moment, except causation.

    Among those causally conditioned events, we find psychological events, including perception, feelings, decisions and motivations. In fact, much of Buddhist meditation is concerned with observing how these kind of mental states arise and subside in response to events. That allows the Buddhist, whose causal conditioning includes hearing the Buddhist dhamma and performing the meditation, to intervene in and eventually to consciously guide these events. Speaking more technically, there really isn't any 'Buddhist' (in the sense of a soul) in there that's performing these things. It's just that the psychological process moves in that direction.

    The Buddhists would say that there isn't any soul that transmigrates, any more than there's a soul that persists in us from moment to moment. What they have traditionally believed passes from this life to the next is the same thing that connects the moments of this life together into a personal identity: the chain of causation.

    The second, more ethical, part of your post is good too. I'll return to that soon in another post.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2013
  21. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    That's in roundabout the view of Classical Theravada, and maybe Mahayana, but not of all Buddhism. It's a view that is rather difficult to support with the Pali Canon ...
  22. Great Old One Registered Member

    Thanks for the information and your reply. Once the chain of causation itself is seen a fleeting and illusory, what is left? If it isn't everything I wouldn't know what to pick.

    Now, bringing focus to causality requires effort and departure from peace. Where is a cause without a perspective to make it known?
  23. Great Old One Registered Member

    Do you find one better or worse than others? Just curious. I don't know much about the history of Buddhism but after talking with a few people fine many of the concepts seem quite obvious and interesting.

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