I was pondering over this question of free will. And then I happen to be in the toilet shitting (sorry to use such a crude example), could my body stop shitting, I feel that I have no control or free will over this process. Let us assuming we do not know Buddhism in the first place, in our life before Buddhism do we have free will or are we in control of our lives? Could we stop the body from being hungry, or feelings from being sad and only wish for happy feelings all the time. Could we control our live in having sense pleasure all the time and free will have them not going away. Could we stop ourselves from not being angry at all?
In a nutshell, do we have free will or control in the first place even before we learn Buddhism.
You might appreciate this from the atthakatta (ancient commentary) to the Satipatthana sutta:
Within there is no doer of the act of defecation or urination. Only by the diffusion of the process of oscillation born of mental activity defecation and urination occur, just as in a matured boil, by the bursting of the boil, pus and blood come out without any kind of wishing to come out and just as from an overfull water-pot water comes out without any desire for coming out, so too, the faeces and urine accumulated in the abdomen and the bladder are pressed out by the force of the process of oscillation. Certainly this faeces-and- urine coming out thus is neither that bhikkhu’s own nor another’s. It is just bodily excretion. When from a water-vessel or calabash a person throws out the old water, the water thrown out is neither his nor other’s. It simply forms parts of a process of cleansing. In the form of reflection proceeding in this way clear comprehension of non- delusion should be understood.”
I guess innumerable beings have attained deep insight into anatta, even up to arahatship, while defecating. To me this is what right effort really is. (no scatological implications meant!)
It was while standing before the urinal that I had a series of similar thoughts. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, the idea of control, especially in relation to practise. I’ve been trying to learn more about the conditions because it seems as if one can arrange conditions, if “arrange” is the right word, more readily. I mean I was drinking liquids, which was why I had to urinate, but the ideas which arose at that moment regarding how this process was like a template for things, these were conditioned by what I had been reading and thinking about previoiusly. I’ve re-read this section a couple of times, for example.
Due to wrong view, lobha and avijja- that all of us have accumulated over countless aeons- we look for control. The fact of uncontrollabilty is unobvious and hidden and goes against habitual ways of seeing the world.
Right practice is tied up with right pariyatti, so any practice should be in accord with the fundamental understanding of anatta- and its characteristic, uncontrollabilty.
Of course uncontrollability has no relation to randomness, as all elements arise and fall away due to conditions. So all actions fit in with these fundamental truths- but because we usually see only the shadows of the realities it is easy to posit (unknowingly) something or someone who has control.
The only way out is to study consider and see directly the Budda’s Dhamma.It is very good to reflect on these things in our daily actions, as you are doing.
Someone wrote to me who feels that no control is a dangerous idea.
They want to stress control and volitional intention which is what they believe that Buddha really taught and they feel uncontrollabilty to be a pernicious belief leading to apathy.
“I have a choice whether to get angry in the present moment.” the writer said.
“Yes, the processes of cittas during anger are new kamma. However, they are also conditioned. The Patthana, the last and most important book of the Abhidhamma, goes into enormous detail about the 24 paccaya (conditions). Some of which are past and some present. But even the present ones do not simply arise out of nothing. Nor do they arise because “I” want them to. The processes of mind are happening at enormous speed and there is no “person” who can do anything to stop them or change them. Even the cittas that are arising at this moment are conditioned by previous cittas as well as well as by other conditions that are present at the same time. This is not the place to go into details but it is well worth studying the Patthana. It gives us a glimpse of the profundity of the path and the wisdom of the Buddha.”
They further wrote that “we are not just helpless automata acting out our old kamma – that is absurd. I hope the above helps overcome the despair that comes from the belief that we are a slave to our conditioning.”
I said “This sounds like the debates that western Philosophy used to have (and still does) about Free-will versus Determinism. The Buddha’s analysis of the world is neither, it is the middle path. Thus the statement about “we being helpless automata acting out our old kamma” misses the point. There is no “we” to be anything. And kamma is not the only condition. Hearing the teachings of Buddhism – especially the deep teachings on anatta, are a condition for understanding. This understanding leads to energy: energy to hear more, and energy to carry on with the study and practice of vipassana. It leads to the type of determination that will gladly keep developing understanding moment after moment, life after life, aeon after aeon, no matter how long it takes. And if understanding grows then there will be detachment from the idea of self and of control. Then there is no more despair about the path – because “I” have been taken out of the equation. Then, as the Visudhimagga says,
‘there is a path but no one on the path.”
This round of births and deaths is beginningless. However, it is not random in any sense. Because of conditions birth occurs in one plane and because of different conditions birth occurs in another plane. Panna (wisdom) is a conditioned phenomena and it is itself conditioned. What are the conditions for panna to develop : hearing the Dhamma, considering it, applying it and also accumulations of merit from the infinite past (pubekata punnata). Why are we so interested in Dhamma? Why isn’t the leader of the Taliban interested; surely he makes effort, surely he has the intention to do what is best? Why do some people hear Dhamma but find it unappealing while others can’t get enough even after hearing it just once? Why are some initially not interested and then later they get interested and surpass in understanding those who studied much longer? It is clear that there must be reasons for all this; and the Dhamma explains it all.
You wrote, “that’s where I get stuck…if all dhammas except nibbana are conditioned (i’m going on saddha with this, of course), then thinking one can develop anything seems like an exercise in micchaditthi….”
Good point. I think it depends on the thinking. If we have the idea of “I can do it”, then we are likely to be caught in self view. Or we think we can manufacture sati by effort or good intention – self. But there can be wisdom – not us- that sees the danger in samasara and thus there is naturally effort that arises with that understanding. It is subtle: often we slip into self view; either towards the freewill end of the continuum or towrds the fatalistic end that thinks nothing can be done.
Can the path be developed? or do we just leave it up to (for lack of a better f-word) “fate”? “”
Fate implies a preordained outcome. In that case whether we did this that or the other nothing would make a thread of difference. We could go out and kill and pillage and nothing would have any effect and we would all get enlightened or not get enlightened depending on our “fate”. This is not what the Buddha taught. He explained in detail many different conditions. It is true that some are past conditions but there are also present ones thus it is not fatalism. Both the idea of fatalism and the idea of freewill are bound up in self view – a self who can control and a self who can’t. The Dhamma is the middle way and is neither. When we hear a teacher say “develop it” this can be a condition for either wrong effort or right effort. It depends on the understanding of the listener.
There is no fixed determination and everything is possible and can happen – but only by the correct conditions. It is wisdom, understanding – panna – a conditioned , mental phenomena that has the function of seeing rightly and it comes with detachment. It is not a self. Intention, cetana, arises all the time but it too is not a self, it is conditioned. Where did our wish and intention to learn about Dhamma come from? It was because of hearing Dhamma and so wisdom is conditioned by this and the intention to hear more strengthens, the intention cannot grow from nothing. Some people hear Dhamma and it means nothing to them. Why? Different tendencies, also conditioned.
All types of kusala; giving, sila, samatha can be successfully developed with sakkya ditthi (self view) still intact – all types except vipassana. Thus it is only when we want to understand the path of insight that such ideas as ‘freewill’ hinder.
The Buddha taught about the five khandhas , the elements, the ayatanas, so that we could begin to see what really exists. And what exists is evanescent, conditioned phenomenena, no person. But thinking about it can’t break up the idea of self and control; it is only by direct insight that takes any of these dhammas as an object that the (mis)perception of a whole, a person is erased. It seems like ‘we’ can control and do as we wish, but this is an illusion that is at the heart of the self view; as the different elements are resolved the ‘whole’ is found to be concept and instead there is a complex concantenation of conditioned dhammas with no controller or overlord, anywhere.
Resolution into the component parts is an antidote to the wrong idea of a self that exists and is somehow directing this conglomerate of namas and rupas. It is like a butcher; when he takes the whole cow he thinks ‘this is a cow’. But by the time he has skinned, chopped, cut, boned, diced, sliced and minced the carcass that idea of “cow” is gone.
When we think of intention and choice and being able to control, this is thinking and it is not understanding the nature of cetana, intention, as a momentary phenomena -it cannot last even for a split second, nor can any feelings or consciousness.
We have much ignorance about dhammas, they have to be known directly. But if we overestimate the role of intention the knowing is likely to be tied up with craving – and then the links of the Paticcasamuppada are strenghtened. I believe the knowing and investigation should be with detachment otherwise self slips in and distorts. Effort is often “self effort”, but right effort is not obtrusive, it is associated with seeing rather than doing, it can feel almost effortless.
In the Bhikkhuni-samyutta Mara approaches the Bhikkhuni Sela:
“Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation, and terror in the bhikkhuni Sela, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:
“By whom has this puppet been created? Where is the maker of the puppet? Where has the puppet arisen? Where does the puppet cease?” Then it occurred to the bhikkhuni Sela: “Now who is this…? This is Mara the Evil One… desiring to make me fall away from concentration.” Then the bhikkhuni Sela, having understood, “This is Mara the Evil One,” replied to him in verses:
“This puppet is not made by itself, Nor is this misery made by another. It has come to be dependent on a cause, When the cause dissolves then it will cease.”endquote
Things do indeed happen “without permission or without being intended or invoked”. When I first started to see that this is really the way things are it scared me, and I wanted to turn away and try to believe that it was otherwise. But, you know, this is what dukkha really is. We can’t stop seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, knowing, thinking; these dhammas are not ours and they arise by conditions. They oppress by continually arising and ceasing.
The amazing thing is that the more we look into this, and the more obvious dukkha thus becomes, the happier we become. And paradoxically the more we see that there is no control the more freedom we have. The more we see that right effort is a conditioned phenomena the more vigor there is – because we are not wasting energy trying to have what can’t yet be had.
One of the descriptions of the khandas given in the Patisambhidhimagga is that they are alien, not us. What discerment discerns is the utter anattaness of all dhammas. If we have the idea of me doing something to get somewhere this is being caught in the whirl of view. But dhammas arise because of conditions, there is not even a hint of self who could make them arise. Now you are studying Dhamma and there is right effort arising together with right concentration that supports right view that can understand this. This is at the theoretical level but these factors can develop to much higher degrees. Usually people want high levels of concentration because this feels different from normal life – it is calmer- and so one perceives progress. But the progress of vipassana is about wearing away wrong view – and any concentration that arises with vipassana is always associated with right insight.
You perhaps find it a little worrying that there is no self who can decide to do this or that to make sure he is going in the right direction. But seeing this leads to detachment from the idea of self and that is the beginning of insight. I think you don’t feel concerend that, for instance, there is seeing whenever the eyes are open – no one can stop it occuring. But all dhammas , all realities are the same: they arise by conditions and cease when those conditions are not present. Understanding must comprehend whatever dhammas – whether kusala or akusala or vipaka or kiriya – arise as being essentially the same; that is they are anatta, dukkha and anicca. Then one doesn’t turn away from whatever arises and there is right effort that assists investigation.
assume you would think that one’s ‘not turning away’ from anything based on greater understanding would also be something that happens non-volitionally based on conditions? So then really, it is all on automatic, and there is nothing to do to influence it for better or worse?
Dear Rob. E.,
This is a great question; it needs the whole of the Patthana to explain it so I just give some hints. Your comment about determinism/freewill to Jon is the question that haunts all aspects of philosophy and always will. Even the Christians used to argue it; cf. the debates betwen Erasmus and Luther that Dan pointed out to me.
To some extent I think trying to go onto automatic or something because one knows that theoretically there is no-self is like talking about letting go: only words.
As you know the crucial factor in the eight fold path is samma-ditthi, right view; and as you also know this is understanding that comprehends the real nature of dhammas that arise at the 6doors. This type of insight depends most crucially on hearing correct Dhamma from the Buddha or his disciples and reflecting in a correct and profound way on it. There are other factors listed such as discussion on subtle points which are said to assist insight. Now these factors all depend to some degree on conditions that arise now, however they are also conditioned partly by conditions from the past. Even hearing deep Dhamma is to some extent a matter of vipaka conditioned by kamma a past factor. How fast and how deep one understands what one hears is largely conditioned by pubbekata punnata (merit done in the past). If one has studied Dhamma for some time there should be growing appreciation that hearing and considering it leads to more understanding and detachment: This then conditions effort to hear more, consider more and ‘let go’ more and these are new conditions arising in the present, but built on past ones. Nevertheless, it doesn’t always work that way; why does one person go so fast, so far and another doesn’t. Venerable Sunnakhata (sp?) was the Buddha’s attendant before Ananda. He listened to Dhamma and attained Jhana, I think even to the degree of having special powers of hearing. But he eventually left the Buddha, spoke badly of the Dhamma, and followed ascetics who used to live a life of severe ascetism, copying dogs (dog-duty ascetics). Why, when he had all this going for him? The commentary says that this man had lived 500 consecutive past lives as a ascetic and had these tendencies. Even the Buddha’s teaching couldn’t overcome them. And so we see how dependent past factors are in conditioning behaviour. Of course Sunnakhata made choices, he had volitional control over what he did but what he couldn’t see was that ditthi (wrong view)and lobha were underlying all his choices; such a hard delusion to see through.
In fact no one can stop volition because it is a conditioned dhamma. But when volition, along with other dhammas, is properly understood (a long process) there is detachment from taking volition for self. Sometimes because the results from this profound path are not quickly apparent one might lose confidence and look for something faster. However, I think other ways are dependent on conditions too. And if those conditions should be interrupted one might find that while they thought they were getting to the disease they were really only applying a palliative to the symptoms.
I do believe this rather radical way of seeing into the anattaness of all dhammas gradually gives a type of detachment that isn’t shaken by anything. One doesn’t expect any dhamma to give satisfaction because they are inherently unstable and every change, whether for better or worse, simply confirms this – at the micro and macro level. There has to be study directly of dhammas for any real insight – but, and I think this is what Jon is showing, this type of study is only real if it is done without desire. It goes against our natural instincts but the type of effort needed is something more profound than mere trying or watching. I think people with a zen background like you and Ken O get this point fairly readily.
While you are reading there may be a great deal of effort arising along with samadhi- concentration – that help any understanding that is arising.(and if my writing is too obtuse then effort and samadhi may still arise but ….) These factors are conditioned by past paccaya (conditions), some of them very recent, and some I am sure from long ago when there was the development of wisdom in other lives. However , those past conditions aren’t enough by themselves to invoke more insight and so other factors , especially hearing Dhamma, from the present are needed.
Also it is not that being in quiet places isn’t helpful. In fact it can be very useful to be secluded and alone where there is time to devote oneself to contemplation. But this is a minor factor and not comparable to the main one of hearing Dhamma because without that ones ‘contemplation’ will be distorted by view. There are other factors helpful to wisdom also. Here is something from the Satipatthana sutta commentary: “Six things lead to the arising of this enlightenment factor(wisdom): Inquiring about the aggregates and so forth; the purification of the basis (namely, the cleaning of the body, clothes and so forth); imparting evenness to the (five spiritual) controlling faculties; avoiding the ignorant; associating with the wise; reflecting on the profound difference of the hard-to-perceive processes of the aggregates, modes (or elements), sense-bases and so forth; and the inclining (sloping, bending) towards the development of the enlightenment factor of the investigation of mental objects.
Inquiring about the aggregates and so forth means: seeking the meaning of the aggregates, the modes (or elements), sense-bases, controlling faculties, powers, enlightenment factors, way factors, absorption factors, the meditation for quietude, and the meditation for insight by asking for explanation of knotty points regarding these things in the Five Nikayas with the commentaries from teachers of the Dhamma.
Purification of the basis is the cleaning of the personal basis: the body, and of the impersonal basis: clothes and dwelling place. The flame of a lamp is unclear when its wick, oil and container are dirty; the wick splutters, flickers; but the flame of a lamp that has a clean wick, oil and container is clear and the wick does not spit; it burns smoothly. So it is with knowledge. Knowing that arises out of the mind and mental qualities which are in dirty external and internal surroundings is apt to be impure, too, but the knowledge that arises under clean conditions is apt to be pure. In this way cleanliness leads to the growth of this enlightenment factor which comprises knowledge.
Personal cleanliness is impaired by the excessive length of hair of the head, nails, hair of the body, by the excess of humours, and by the dirt of perspiration; cleanliness of impersonal or external things is impaired when robes are worn out, dirty and smelly, and when the house where one lives is dirty, soiled and untidy. So personal cleanliness should be secured by shaving, hair-cutting, nail-paring, the use of pectoral emetics and of purgatives which make the body light, and by shampooing, bathing and doing other necessary things, at the proper time. In similar way external cleanliness should be brought about by darning, washing and dyeing one’s robes, and by smearing the floor of one’s house with clay and the like to smoothen and clean it, and by doing other necessary things to keep the house clean and tidy. “endquote
Dear everyone, I have a question:
Does Buddha (& Arahats) have Free Will? Apparently yes, because they are no more conditioned, their actions must be free (i.e. they have free will ?)
Was there really a Buddha self existing? Was the Buddha in form (rupa) or apart from it? Was he in feeling or apart from it? In sankhara or apart from it? In consciousness or apart from it? Really there was no Buddha in the deepest sense but there were the five khandhas. The khandhas are conditioned phenomena. With the arising of penetrating wisdom no new kamma is being created and so no new conditions are made for future rebirth. The very long chain of successive becomings ceases forever.
Even talking conventionally did the Buddha have freewill? Any intention he had was always conditioned by rightview, by wisdom. He could never decide “OK , tonight I’ll have a break from compassion and insight and go out with the boys” No conditions for that sort of thinking.
When we think of wholes we do not see the nature of dhammas. It is by breaking down the wholes that insight grows. :
“When they are seen (the khandhas) after resolving them by means of knowledge into elements, they disintergrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhammas)occurring due to conditions and void. In this way the characteristic of not-self becomes more clear” Pm (visuddhimagga xxi n.4)
It takes time to do this, along time. First it is known as theory but it can be known directly too: “First it has to be seen by inference acording to the texts. Afterwards it gradually becomes to be known by personal experience when the knowledge of development gets stronger” Pm Vis. xx n.20)
“It is not-self on account of the insusceptibility to the exercise of power,. It is not self for four reasons, that is, in the sense of voidness, of having no owner-master, of having no overlord, and of opposing self” (see vis. note 3 xxi)
This phenomenality and egolessness of existence has been beautifully expressed in two verses of the Visuddhimagga:
No doer of the deeds is found,
No one who ever reaps their fruits.
Empty phenomena roll on.
This only is the correct view.
No god nor Brahma can be called
The maker of this wheel of life:
Empty phenomena roll on,
Dependent on conditions all.
In hearing that Buddhism teaches that everything is determined by conditions, someone might come to the conclusion that Buddhism teaches some sort of fatalism, or that man has no free will, or that will is not free. Now, with regard to the two questions:
(1) “Has man a free will?” and
(2) “Is will free?” the Buddhist will say that both these questions are to be rejected for being wrongly put, and therefore unanswerable.
The first question “Has man a free will?” is to be rejected for the reason that, beside these ever-changing mental and physical phenomena, in the absolute sense no such thing or entity can be found that we could call “man,” so that “man” as such is merely a name without any reality.
The second question “Is will free?” is to be rejected for the reason that “will” is only a momentary mental phenomenon, just like feeling, consciousness, etc., and thus does not yet exist before it arises, and that therefore of a non-existent thing — of a thing which is not — one could, properly speaking, not ask whether it is free or unfree. The only admissible question would be:
“Is the arising of will independent of conditions, or is it conditioned?”
But the same question would equally apply also to all the other mental phenomena, as well as to all the physical phenomena, in other words, to everything and every occurrence whatever. And the answer would be: Be it “will”, or “feeling”, or any other mental or physical phenomenon, the arising of anything whatsoever depends on conditions; and without these conditions, nothing can ever arise or enter into existence.
According to Buddhism, everything mental and physical happens in accordance with laws and conditions; and if it were otherwise, chaos and blind chance would reign. But such a thing is impossible and contradicts all laws of thinking.
I googled ‘free will definition’ and reproduce two definitions below (not very rigourous I realise):
“…freedom of self-determination and action independent of external conditions”
“…the partial freedom of the agent, in acts of conscious choice, from the determining compulsion of heredity, environment and circumstance.”
I don’t think the Buddha taught these things.
I gather from these two definitions, an admittedly limited sample, that free will is rather an ambiguous term. So no, if these definitions are even close to representative of what the concept of free will is, I think there is no such thing.
For balance, some web definitions of determinism, another term being used in this discussion (same non-rigourous method):
“…every event in the universe is caused and controlled by natural law.”
“…human action is not free but the inevitable result of antecedent conditions and…the human being, in acts of apparent choice, is the mechanical expression of his heredity and his past environment.”
I don’t think the Buddha taught these things.
Both concepts seem to depend on the existence of an agent who acts, either with freedom or without. The Buddha taught that there is no agent. The only thing that exists apart from conditioned dhammas would be, I think, nibbaana. The impermanence of dhammas precludes any possibility of control. The reality called thinking allows for ideas like free-will and determinism and control and “I will do”.
I’ve been thinking along these lines: Is decision making (the topic of this thread supposedly) the same as making a choice? Is decision making the same as volition? Is volition the same thing as intention? Is intention the same thing as kamma? Is this the same intention of which we should try to have Right Intention? If these things fit together sort of like I’ve suggested by my questions then might it be acceptable to say that the question of what makes a decision is (perhaps) the same thing as asking what makes kamma?
If you mean by making a choice to imply an agent or choice-maker I think then that the act is only a conceptual and imaginary one. The functions of various cetasikas (cetanaa, viriya, chanda) arising and falling away seem prone to being misconstrued by us as being proof of agency or choice by an agent. I think volition and kamma are related; the multiplicity of conditions and conditioned dhammas is much more than just kamma condition. We know that cetanaa (intention) is action and acts performed accumulate, for good or ill I think.
Free Will, Free Won’t, or Neither? A refinement of Libet’s work on the conscious control of spontaneous
In a famous paper published in 1983, Libet et al. showed that the recordable cerebral activity (readiness-potential) that precedes a freely voluntary motor act occurs at least several hundred milliseconds before the reported time of conscious intention to act. The actual movement occurs 200-250 msec after the reported time of intention to act. The data are pretty spooky when you think about it. They say that your brain (“it”) has started working on a action well before “you” think you are initiating it! This article has sparked a continuing debate on whether we actually have free will. Libet has suggested that the ~200-250 msec period between awareness of intention and the actual action was sufficient to permit a “veto” of the action if it was judged inappropriate. In this interpretation, we might be said to be “free won’t” rather than “free will”.
Lau et al. have now done a more nuanced version of LIbet’s experiments. In a previous paper they showed that, when participants were required to estimate the onset of their intentions using Libet’s procedure, the activity in the presupplementary motor area (pre-SMA) was enhanced ~228 msec before motor execution. In their most recent work they show that when participants were required to estimate the onset of their motor executions (instead of their intentions), the activity in the cingulate motor area was enhanced. This latter condition, judged to be more natural and have less task-demanding instructions. The perceived onset of intention could be as late as ~120 msec before the motor execution . “Together, these findings raise the question of whether the conscious control of spontaneous action can be done within a much shorter time window than we had expected, or whether, as suggested by Wegner (The illusion of conscious will Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), our impression of conscious control is simply illusory.”