An Examination of Free Will and Buddhism

Who Is It That Wills?

In Chinese culture, dragons represent freedom, clarity and creativity. Pongpol Boonyen / Getty Images

The term "free will" signifies the belief that rational people have the capacity to make their own life choices. That may not sound terribly controversial, but, in fact, the nature of free will, how it is exercised, and whether it exists at all, have been argued about fiercely in western philosophy and religion for centuries. And applied to Buddhism, "free will" has an additional hurdle -- if there's no self, who is it that wills?

We're not going to reach any final conclusions in a brief essay, but let's explore the topic a bit.

Free Will and Its Detractors

Crudely boiling down centuries of philosophical theses: Free will means that humans are inherently capable of deliberating and making choices that are not determined by outside influences. Philosophers who support the idea of free will disagree over exactly how it works but generally agree that because of free will, humans have some degree of control over our own lives.

Other philosophers have proposed we are not as free as we think we are, however. The philosophical view of determinism says that all events are somehow determined by factors outside human will. The factors may be laws of nature, or God, or destiny, or something else. See "Free Will" and "Free Will Versus Determinism" for more discussion of free will (or not) in western philosophy.

There have also some philosophers, including some of ancient India, who proposed neither free will nor determinism, but rather that events are mostly random and not necessarily caused by anything, a perspective that might be called indeterminism.

All of this put together tells us that regarding free will, opinions vary. However, it's a huge component of western philosophy and religion,

No Determinism, No Indeterminism, No Self

The question is, where does Buddhism stand on the question of free will? And the short answer is, it doesn't, exactly.

But neither does it propose that we have nothing to say about the course of our lives.

In an article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (18, No. 3–4, 2011), Author and Buddhist practitioner B. Alan Wallace said that the Buddha rejected both the indeterministic and deterministic theories of his day. Our lives are deeply conditioned by cause and effect, or karma, refuting indeterminism. And we are personally responsible for our lives and actions, refuting determinism.

But the Buddha also rejected the idea that there is an independent, autonomous self either apart from or within the skandhas. "Thus," Wallace wrote, "the sense that each of us is an autonomous, non-physical subject who exercises ultimate control over the body and mind without being influenced by prior physical or psychological conditions is an illusion." That pretty much refutes the western notion of free will.

The western "free will" perspective is that we humans have free, rational minds with which to make decisions. The Buddha taught that most of us are not free at all but are being perpetually jerked around -- by attractions and aversions; by our conditioned, conceptual thinking; and most of all by karma. But through the practice of the Eightfold Path we may be freed of our backward thinking and be liberated from karmic effects.

But this doesn't settle the basic question -- if there is no self, who is it that wills? Who is it that is personally responsible? This is not easily answered and may be the sort of doubt that requires enlightenment itself to clarify. Wallace's answer is that although we may be empty of an autonomous self, we function in the phenomenal world as autonomous beings. And as long as that is so, we are responsible for what we do.

Read More: "Sunyata (Empintess), the Perfection of Wisdom"

Karma and Determinism

The Buddha also rejected a purely deterministic view in his teaching on karma. Most of the Buddha's contemporaries taught that karma operates in a simple straight line. Your life now is the result of what you did in the past; what you do now will determine your life in the future. The problem with this view is that it leads to a degree of fatalism -- there's nothing you can do about your life now.

But the Buddha taught that effects of past karma can be mitigated by present action; in other words, one is not fated to suffer X because one did X in the past. Your actions now can change the course of karma and impact your life now. The Theravadin monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote,

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. ["Karma", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 8 March 2011]

In short, Buddhism doesn't align with western philosophy for a neat, side-by-side comparison. As long as we are lost in a fog of illusion, our "will" isn't as free as we think it is, and our lives will be caught in karmic effects and our own unskillful acts. But, the Buddha said, we are capable of living in greater clarity and happiness through our own efforts.