Free will and Buddhism

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Free will and Buddhism

Postby jackson » Thu Dec 27, 2012 12:19 pm

Greetings everyone,
I'm wondering if the Buddha ever took a position on whether there is free will or not, and I'd also be interested to hear any monks or nuns opinions about it as well.
Thanks for your time and happy holidays, :anjali:
Jackson
"The heart of the path is quite easy. There’s no need to explain anything at length. Let go of love and hate and let things be. That’s all that I do in my own practice." - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby SDC » Thu Dec 27, 2012 1:48 pm

Evolution of Mind by Venerable Punnaji

Although most of the talk has to do with freewill, he begins to discuss it specifically around 9:25. I would give the whole talk a listen to get the full context.

Hope this helps. :smile:
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby daverupa » Thu Dec 27, 2012 1:54 pm

Teachings on kamma are fundamentally about how there is room for the efficacious application of willpower in an environment of cause and effect. This, fundamentally, is how there can be the training of citta at all.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby Jason » Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:19 pm

jackson wrote:Greetings everyone,
I'm wondering if the Buddha ever took a position on whether there is free will or not, and I'd also be interested to hear any monks or nuns opinions about it as well.
Thanks for your time and happy holidays, :anjali:
Jackson


It's an interesting question, and there are a wide range of opinions on the matter as the Buddha never directly addresses the issue of free will, which is more of a Western concept.

For example, from the conventional point of view, we definitely seem to have at least some level of functional choice via intention (cetana) operating within the broader framework of causality that conditions the choices available to us at any given point in time. As one erudite poster put it some time back:

    Functional choice isn't independent of other causes and conditions — it operates within the same conditioned mind-stream. But it does operate, and it does so in consort with desire and attention, etc. Hence there is no need for Cartesian notions of free will or Upanisadic notions of a permanent, unchanging Self for there to be functional choice. In fact, these non-Buddhist systems are not sustainable precisely because of the interdependence of phenomena: i.e. an unchanging agent cannot engage in actions, etc.

This is somewhat similar to how many teachers approach the issue of free will, particularly from a predominately Sutta-based point of view, such as the Venerable Thanissaro, e.g.,:

    In the course of his Awakening, the Buddha discovered that the experience of the present moment consists of three factors: results from past actions, present actions, and the results of present actions. This means that kamma acts in feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; while present actions shape not only the present but also the future. This constant opening for present input into the causal processes shaping one's life makes free will possible. In fact, will — or intention — forms the essence of action. Furthermore, the quality of the intention determines the quality of the act and of its results. On the mundane level there are three types of intentions: skillful, leading to pleasant results; unskillful, leading to painful results; and mixed, leading to mixed results, all these results being experienced within the realm of space and time. However, the fact that the experience of space and time requires not only the results of past actions but also the input of present actions means that it is possible to unravel the experience of space and time by bringing the mind to a point of equilibrium where it contributes no intentions or actions to the present moment. The intentions that converge at this equilibrium are thus a fourth type of intention — transcendent skillful intentions — which lead to release from the results of mundane intentions, and ultimately to the ending of all action. (Introduction to the Itivuttaka)

    For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. This constant opening for present input into the causal process makes free will possible. This freedom is symbolized in the imagery the Buddhists used to explain the process: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction. ("Karma")

    Although the precise working out of the kammic process is somewhat unpredictable, it is not chaotic. The relationship between kammic causes and their effects is entirely regular: when an action is of the sort that it will be felt in such and such a way, that is how its result will be experienced [§13]. Skillful intentions lead to favorable results, unskillful ones to unfavorable results. Thus, when one participates in the kammic process, one is at the mercy of a pattern that one's actions put into motion, but that is not entirely under one's present control. Despite the power of the mind, one cannot reshape the basic laws of cosmic causality at whim. These laws include the physical laws, within which one's kamma must ripen and work itself out. This is the point of passage [§14], in which the Buddha explains that present pain can be explained not only by past kamma but also by a host of other factors; the list of alternative factors he gives comes straight from the various causes for pain that were recognized in the medical treatises of his time. If we compare this list with his definition of old kamma in [§15], we see that many if not all of the alternative causes are actually the result of past actions. The point here is that old kamma does not override other causal factors operating in the universe — such as those recognized by the physical sciences — but instead finds its expression within them.

    However, the fact that the kammic process relies on input from the present moment means that it is not totally deterministic. Input from the past may place restrictions on what can be done and known in any particular moment, but the allowance for new input from the present provides some room for free will. This allowance also opens the possibility for escape from the cycle of kamma altogether by means of the fourth type of kamma: the development of heightened skillfulness through the pursuit of the seven factors for Awakening and the noble eightfold path — and, by extension, all of the Wings to Awakening [§§16-17].

    The non-linearity of this/that conditionality explains why heightened skillfulness, when focused on the present moment, can succeed in leading to the end of the kamma that has formed the experience of the entire cosmos. All non-linear processes exhibit what is called scale invariance, which means that the behavior of the process on any one scale is similar to its behavior on smaller or larger scales. To understand, say, the large-scale pattern of a particular non-linear process, one need only focus on its behavior on a smaller scale that is easier to observe, and one will see the same pattern at work. In the case of kamma, one need only focus on the process of kamma in the immediate present, in the course of developing heightened skillfulness, and the large-scale issues over the expanses of space and time will become clear as one gains release from them. (Wings to Awakening)

    This view is based on a very simplistic understanding of fabricated reality, seeing causality as linear and totally predictable: X causes Y which causes Z and so on, with no effects turning around to condition their causes, and no possible way of using causality to escape from the causal network. However, one of the many things the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening was that causality is not linear. The experience of the present is shaped both by actions in the present and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape both the present and the future. The results of past and present actions continually interact. Thus there is always room for new input into the system, which gives scope for free will. There is also room for the many feedback loops that make experience so thoroughly complex, and that are so intriguingly described in chaos theory. Reality doesn't resemble a simple line or circle. It's more like the bizarre trajectories of a strange attractor or a Mandelbrot set. ("Samsara Divided by Zero")

And I think this approach to the issue is especially helpful from a pragmatic standpoint when it comes to the practice itself.

On a deeper, more theoretical level, however, one might ask how volition/intention/will/etc. is possible without a self, especially when it's argued that there must be some kind active agency for free will to exist. This, of course, conflicts with the Abhidhammic position, which labels volition (cetana) as one of the 52 mental factors "common to all classes of consciousness," but rejects the existence of any kind of self or independent agency whatsoever.

It seems like a paradox, but only from the Western philosophical idea of 'free will.' Classical Theravada, on the other hand, views free will more or less as an illusion, and instead takes a more casually determined view of volition.

Conventionally speaking, we appear to have functional choice via intention operating within a broader framework of causality that conditions the choices available to us at any given time. However, on a deeper level, intention itself is a product of the aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha). Therefore, being a product or process within one of the aggregates, which themselves are types of processes and not-self (anatta), this type of internal decision maker or will-to-do, if you will, has its own requisite conditions and is also not-self, since whatever is conditioned and subject to change can't be said to have an unchanging essence or being.

In essence, volition itself isn't an illusion, it's simply not the result of an independent agent or self; and it, like everything else in the world, is ultimately the result of causally determined processes. True free will requires an independent agent, and Buddhism effectively rejects such an agency. And while I tend to take a more moderate position myself, Buddhism is entirely compatible with causal determinism.

For example, Dhammanando Bhikkhu once gave me the example of a mosquito biting you on the nose: first you feel annoyed and want to squash it, but then you recall that you're a precept-observing Buddhist and so restrain yourself.

He explained that when this event is described in conventional terms, or according to the Sutta method, it might be said that you had a choice to kill the mosquito or to refrain, and that you chose the latter. But when it's described according to the Abhidhamma method, your abstention from killing wasn't due to choice but to the arising of kusala cetasikas (wholesome mental factors) such as moral shame and fear of wrong-doing (hiri & ottappa), and abstinence (virati), i.e., it was causally determined.

And then there are passages like this from the Dhammasangani (pp. 7-8):

    What on that occasion is volition (cetana)? The volition, purpose, purposefulness, which is born of contact with the appropriate element of representative intellection - that is the volition that there then is.

And the Atthasalini, pp.147-148:

    Volition is that which co-ordinates, that is, it binds closely (abhisandahati) to itself associated states as objects. This is its characteristic; its function is conation. There is no such thing as volition in the four planes of existence without the characteristic of co-ordinating; all volition has it. But the function of conation is only in moral and immoral states; as regards activity in moral and immoral acts, the remaining associated states play only a restricted part. But volition is exceedingly energetic. It makes double effort, double exertion. Hence the Ancients said: 'Volition is like the nature of a landowner, a cultivator who, taking fifty-five strong men, went down to the fields to reap. He was exceedingly energetic and exceedingly strenuous; he doubled his strength, he doubled his effort, and said, "Take your sickles," and so forth, pointed out the portion to be reaped, offered them drink, food, scent, flowers, etc., and took an equal share of the work.' Volition is like the cultivator; the fifty-five moral states which arise as factors of consciousness are like the fifty-five strong men; like the time of doubling strength, doubling effort by the cultivator is the doubled strength, double effort of volition as regards activity in moral and immoral acts. Thus should conation as its function be understood.

    It has directing as manifestation. It arises directing associated states, like the chief disciple, the chief carpenter, etc., who fulfil their own and others' duties... even so, when volition starts work on its object, it sets associated states to do each its own work. For when it puts forth energy, they also put forth energy... It is also evident that it arises by causing associated states to be energetic in such things as recollecting an urgent work and so forth.

Incidentally, I think the Abhidhammic position accords well with what neuroscientist Sam Harris writes about the illusion of free will here, here, and here. And even in the Suttas, there are teachings that evidence elements of casual determinism, lending support to the Abhidhammic position. I find AN 11.2 interesting, for example, in that it seems to show how certain wholesome mental factors (kusala cetasikas) condition certain wholesome qualities and experiences.

In the end, however, I don't feel that I'll ever have a satisfactory understanding of the issue; but I do see how each view can be useful depending upon where one is along the path, and what tools will be the most effective at that stage. Ultimately, the Buddha's approach to life's problems is pragmatic, serving a practical purpose that's subjectively beneficial regardless of their objective validity, and I think that point should always be kept in mind unless one becomes hopelessly lost within the proverbial 'thicket of views.'

Hopefully some of the other, more knowledgeable posters here can give you a more definitive and satisfactory answer, however.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby robertk » Thu Dec 27, 2012 7:03 pm

Very nice analysis Jason
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby reflection » Thu Dec 27, 2012 7:45 pm

Is there free will or not? You can read the suttas and you can listen to 100 monks and nons, which all is great, but won't give you the answer. You have to try to find 'free will' inside of yourself to find the answer. If you look deeply you'll see that decisions and choices are not made by you, but are made by circumstances. As soon as you can get beyond the idea of 'you' having a choice or not, there is no more need to think about the notion of free will.

Of course, it's not easy to do. In fact, you can't do it at all, because doing is in itself caused by willing. That's why one should let go of willing to see it as it is. And the more you see will is non-self, the easier it is to let go. Then there may arise meditation states in which there is no choice at all anymore; and the question is answered. All of this is part of what the Buddha talked about when he taught non-self.
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby alan... » Thu Dec 27, 2012 9:49 pm

check out accesstoinsight, a search of "determinism" brought up a lot of info to explain this idea. determinism is the opposite of free will.
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby Sambojjhanga » Thu Dec 27, 2012 11:32 pm

reflection wrote:Is there free will or not? You can read the suttas and you can listen to 100 monks and nons, which all is great, but won't give you the answer. You have to try to find 'free will' inside of yourself to find the answer. If you look deeply you'll see that decisions and choices are not made by you, but are made by circumstances. As soon as you can get beyond the idea of 'you' having a choice or not, there is no more need to think about the notion of free will.

Of course, it's not easy to do. In fact, you can't do it at all, because doing is in itself caused by willing. That's why one should let go of willing to see it as it is. And the more you see will is non-self, the easier it is to let go. Then there may arise meditation states in which there is no choice at all anymore; and the question is answered. All of this is part of what the Buddha talked about when he taught non-self.


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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby alan... » Fri Dec 28, 2012 3:46 am

there is some sutta where this very issue is discussed, i struggled with the same question until i found it. it is the buddha discussing determinism, kamma and all that but for the life of me i can't remember what it was called! anyway, the buddha said that it's not predetermined so yes we have free will according to the buddha.
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby alan... » Fri Dec 28, 2012 6:13 am

"For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear and complex. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a simple straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction."

-Thanissaro Bhikkhu

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/karma.html

i still can't find that sutta though! last time i saw it it put to bed this issue for me so i just moved on without writing down the name or anything.

also:

"In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on kamma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the notion of kamma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, and makes it possible for a person who has completed the practice to survive and teach it with full authority to others. For more on these points, see the articles, "Karma," "A Refuge in Skillful Action," and "Five Piles of Bricks"; see also the Introduction to The Wings to Awakening, along with the introductions to the sections on Skillfulness and Kamma & the Ending of Kamma in that book."

-Thanissaro Bhikkhu

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.101.than.html
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby reflection » Fri Dec 28, 2012 2:02 pm

Determinism and free will are opposites like forest and desert are opposites. There are also other possibilities: sea, tundra, fields etc. Indeterminism could be caused by plenty of other things than 'free will'. So there being no determinism doesn't really say anything about there being free will or not.
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby jackson » Sun Dec 30, 2012 4:12 pm

Thank you kindly for your replies, especially Jason for his detailed reply, you guys have given me plenty to think about!
:anjali:
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"The heart of the path is quite easy. There’s no need to explain anything at length. Let go of love and hate and let things be. That’s all that I do in my own practice." - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Free will and Buddhism

Postby SamKR » Mon Dec 31, 2012 5:44 am

Jason wrote:...

:goodpost:
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