Free Will and Theravada Buddhism

Free will versus determinism*
We all have a strong feeling that the way  we think, speak or act in most of the cases is freely chosen by us. For sure, I have deliberately chosen exactly this topic for my essay and not some other one. It is also up to my free will how I’m going to structure it and formulate individual sentences. And so on. The other case is when I’m facing some moral dilemma or some competing desires. For example, looking at the menu in a restaurant and trying to decide on what to order, weighing choices and outcomes in a form of tastes I like or not. These two cases might be a paradigm of the free will situation, and we start finding ourselves in one of these quite early during our lifetime. Child psychology studies tells us that children of age 4 consider free will as being able to do whatever they want. Already around age six they consider free will as being able not to act on desires[1] As we grow, this subjective feeling of personal agency becomes strongly ingrained in our psyche.

But whether we are aware or not, it seems there is a problem with free will. Actually, few of them, but let’s focus on the main one, namely, the problem of the apparent incompatibility of free will with determinism. The basic idea here is that, according to science, everything that happens is causally conditioned by laws of the nature, including ourselves. We are conditioned to behave in the way that we do by our genetic makeup, way of upbringing or later personal history, on one hand, and are also not able to break laws of nature or make miracles. Given any state of the universe and the laws of nature, every subsequent state occurs necessarily, not randomly. If this seemingly reasonable clam is correct, it may happen that instead of having a choice and despite my strong subjective feeling I actually couldn’t have done otherwise. And if I haven’t got anything to freely choose among, I haven’t executed any free will at all, but was simply acting on behalf of the forces I’m conditioned by. Which of these two equally plausible scenarios are true? Am I free to choose or not?

This problem of free will has a very long history in the West and is by no chance considered as one of the most difficult questions in philosophy. As we just saw, it hinges around the idea of causal determinism, the idea that all our mental states and acts, as well as all our actions are effects of some preceding causes. The importance of this problem is far-reaching one, as it has direct implications for the issue of moral responsibility. If I don’t have free will to decide what to do, then I cannot be considered responsible for what I just did. And if there is no moral responsibility, we can ask ourselves what does it mean for our moral and social lives in general?

No doubt, the problem of free will has potentially very deep implications and a number of Western thinkers tried to solve the tension between freedom and determinism. In general, they can be grouped into two camps. The first one, incompatibilists, claim that freedom and determinism are incompatible, one excludes the other, and we have to choose between the two. This group is further segregated into libertarians, those who believe that if determinism is false, this confirms at least some of our actions are completely free and thus far we are morally responsible. But here we come across another problem. If determinism is false and our actions are not causally determined in advance, the only other explanation is they are random or blind. Which again excludes free will from the picture, since it is not quite clear how in that case our purportedly free actions differ from blindly random movements such as reflexes and twitches. Randomness and deliberate choice also do not fit together. And besides libertarians, there are skeptics in this group of incompatibilists. For them freedom is equally inconsistent both with causal indeterminism and causal determinism and therefore freedom is in general not possible.

At the opposite pole of incompatibilists are, unsurprisingly, compatibilists, the line of thinkers best represented by the works of such philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

They saw compatibilism as a way of reconciling ordinary experience of being free with scientific views about the universe and human beings. Compatibilism remains popular among philosophers and scientists today for similar reasons. If compatibilists are right, we can have both freedom and determinism, and need not worry that future science will somehow undermine our ordinary conviction that we are free and responsible agents.[2]

Since proponents of this view claim both free will and determinism are true, the next conclusion for some of them is that because everything is determined in advance, moral responsibility is an illusion. They are sometimes called, following William James’ way of classification, hard determinists.[3] Their opponents are so-called soft determinists, who do not deny laws of causation, but according to them this fact doesn’t have such grave consequences for our freedom of action and moral responsibility. We still act as free, morally responsible agents when, in the absence of some very strong external constraints, our actions are caused by our desires or judgments.

The Buddha’s free will
The whole Buddhist practice, including ethical one, operates under undisputed premise that we are generally capable of choosing our ways of action. And therefore, we should be considered responsible for what we do. This is the basis of the relationship between kamma and vipāka, which is often discussed in the Pāli Canon texts. For example, in the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130),[4] the king of underworld Yama says to the man whose bad deeds brought him into the hell:

“Good man, through negligence you have failed to do good by body, speech, and mind… But this evil action of yours was not done by your mother or your father, or by your brother or your sister, or by your friends and companions, or by your kinsmen and relatives, or by recluses and brahmins, or by gods: this evil action was done by you yourself, and you yourself will experience its result.”

This is completely opposite to the fatalistic view of some of the Buddha’s contemporaries, for example, of Ājīvikas like Makkhali Gosāla, who according to the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60) claimed that all beings are “defiled without cause or condition… molded by destiny, circumstance, and nature”.[5] It is also opposite of the Buddhists who nowadays are positing the notion of ‘collective kamma’, but which doesn’t have any support in the scriptures.  Compared to this, the Buddhist way of interpreting the world we live in is far closer to the Western understanding, with its deterministic, strictly causal view of natural processes. And again, if everything that happens depends on causes and conditions, that process doesn’t leave much space for a really independent, free agent. Thus, the sense we have that something depends on our free will seems rather illusory. That’s why it seems odd that in the whole Pali Canon the Buddha hadn’t even mentioned a problem of free will.

Without cognising free will as a philosophical problem, [the Buddha] takes it for granted that the innate character of each being leaves him the freedom to decide about the actions that determine his future.[6]

This was the case not only with the Buddha, but also with the subsequent Buddhist thinkers. The question of freedom of will and any elaborate discussion about it remained non-existent for the remaining of two and a half millennia of the history of Buddhism. Until the 1970s, when Buddhist scholars and philosophers both from West and the East started to change this situation.[7]

There might be several possible reasons for that noticeable silence. The first one is that free will as a topic was anyway non-existent in the debates among various traditions of the Buddha’s time. The notion of free will is generally an invention of the Western thought, but was later also widely discussed within Islamic thought, closely related to the belief in predestination (al-qadr). Historians of philosophy often point out to Augustine of Hippo (354-430) as the first one to start thinking on the issue of free will along the lines quite akin to the way we do it today. Certainly, his contemplation was inevitably framed by a Judaeo-Christian tradition of thinking about God and the world he created. Therefore, the fact that he contemplated free will at all looks rather strange, knowing his belief in the absolute sovereignty of God and the corollary doctrine of divine omnicausality. However, trying to explain the problem of evil existing in the world created by omnipotent, benevolent and loving God, Augustine introduced free will to, so to say, get the God of the hook and responsibility for the violent, unjustifiable evil acts transfers to humans.[8]

The second reason for lacking such thinking in Buddhism may be contained in the Buddha’s Teachings itself. Its most characteristic part is a non-self doctrine (anattā), claiming that contrary to our subjective feeling, there is no  permanent, stable core of being in us that we can call a self or soul.  A human being is, in essence, just a cluster of conditioned and conditioning processes governed by the process of cause and effect. So, if there is no fixed, persistent actor, goes the reasoning, how there can be any deliberate decisions made by it?

“The glaring problem in the core of Buddhist understanding is that the agent/self is a psychological fiction—indeed, the central illusion responsible for all our suffering. How could the agent/self have free will, if there is no agent/self? How can the things ‘I’ do be up to ‘me’ if ‘my’ sense of ‘myself’ is an illusion? “[9]

Finally, one line of thinking, trying to explain why the Buddha remained silent on the question of free will, claims that it belongs to the group of metaphysical questions the Buddha was adamantly refusing to answer, being interested only in soteriology or whatever it is that promotes awakening. As a support for this opinion we only need to remind ourselves of the outcome of the famous dialogue between the Buddha and Mālunkyāputta, who stubbornly insisted on getting Teacher’s comments on his ten “speculative views”.[10]

The Law of causality vs. our intentions
Additionally, the whole Buddhist explanation of the processes that make this world, including ourselves, move from one state to another has its foundation in the law of causality, together with his special case related to living beings called the chain of dependent origination (paticca samuppāda). Our physical and mental states are not created or willed out of nothing, but have their clear causes produced by some previous causes and so on ad infinitum. In its brief form given in the Bahudhātuka Sutta (MN 115), the Buddha formulates this interdependence in the following way:

When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.[11]

This is actually a condensed form of the full formula which was given in the same sutta, connecting twelve links and explaining arising of suffering or the Second Noble Truth:

That is, with ignorance as condition, formations [come to be]; with formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, mentality-materiality; with mentality-materiality as condition, the sixfold base; with the sixfold base as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, [64] being; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.[12]

Finally, in the next paragraph of the sutta the Buddha explains the Third Noble Truth, that it is also possible to reverse the whole sequence and concludes by saying “such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering”. We see that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination has two parts. The first part lays down the causal conditions of suffering, among which many represent deeply ingrained habits that govern the lives of most of us (ignorance, formations, craving, clinging etc.). But the second part teaches us that we can use knowledge of these conditions as a basis of a training program to change our habits and thus reduce and finally eliminate suffering. This is the key element of the Buddha’s practical teaching: deep knowledge of human nature that is put to practical use. Dependent

origination formula is central to explaining both saṃsāra (the endless cycle of being reborn) and liberation from it and unmistakably points out towards the existence of free will.[13]

Related to the liberation part of that formula, throughout the Pāli Canon it is stressed that human beings are capable of reflecting on their experience, understanding it, forming intentions and finally executing these intentions in their own life. The key element here is mastery of the mind. Therefore, whoever excels in these skills could rightfully say about oneself: “I think what I want to think and do not think what I do not want to think; I intend what I want to intend and do not intend what I do not want to intend; thus I have attained to mental mastery over the ways of thought.”[14] Here we are coming very close to Harry Frankfurt’s meta-volitional free will model,[15] which provides an account of free will in terms of the capacity to form second-order volitions about one’s first-order desires. The possibility of reversing the round of dependent origination is based right on developing this kind of volition (cetanā), as a counterbalance to our attachments and urges. This possibility of intervention illustrates the Buddha’s intention that the formula of dependent origination is not to be read as a tightly closed causal circle, without any entry point where we could interfere and change its direction. Should we intended so, the Buddha advises us, we can find this point at the place where links of feeling and craving come together and by our mental effort, our intention, break the causal connection between them. I can be said that the whole program of Buddhist practice, the Noble Eightfold Path, has exactly that goal: elimination of craving (taṇhā) in that very place, as explained, for example, in the Loka Sutta (SN 12:44):

In dependence on the mind and mental phenomena, mind-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving. But with the fading away without remainder and cessation of that same craving comes cessation of clinging… cessation of existence… cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.[16]

The formula of dependent origination, although a succession of its elements arising one from the other, leaves us space (or as Daniel Dennett would call it “elbow room”) at certain junctions for including other factors, like our intentions (saṇkhāra element) based on understanding where the whole process leads to. This kind of mental freedom from our conditioning is the key goal of Buddhist meditation, and we could say all the practice. As Repetti formulates it:

For Buddhists, mental freedom involves a relationship between mental states and “meta-mental” states (mental attitudes toward mental states): simplifying greatly, one has mental freedom if one is able to control one’s mental states, and to the extent one has mental freedom when choosing, one has free will.

Related to this the simile the Buddha gives in The Simile of the Six Animals (SN 35:247) might be helpful for understanding mind’s working. An individual has within him various forces or tendencies and he will be compelled to act according to which one is strongest. What the Buddha doesn’t say explicitly, but the simile can be used to imply it is that if a positive tendency is the strongest or if two weak positive ones combine, they can counteract a strong negative one.

In that respect, we could say that the Buddha was a soft compatibilist, comparable to some Western philosophers who say, in essence, that we are free if we do what we want to do, and we aren’t when being pushed around by habits and emotions we are not aware of. It is important to notice that this position doesn’t deny determinism, but instead seeing it as an absolute, inevitable process, takes it conditionally and opens the space for our willful decisions which can change it. This means the Buddha had recognized causal nature of the mental events occurring in our mind, but had also discovered it is something that can’t be skillfully amended if sufficient wisdom and effort are invested. After that discovery, tells us the Pali Canon, the rest of his life was dedicated to elaborating on it and instructing human and divine beings on how to wisely apply this insight within their own life and for their own benefit.

The will of no-self
Finally, let us get back to something we already mentioned above, the Buddhist teaching of anattā or no-self, the idea that people, subjects, or agents are not permanently existing entities. It is important to see what are the implications of this claim regarding free will. The answer prima facie might seem quite obvious: If I do not exist, then practically nothing is up to “me”, but to outside conditions. And if there is no autonomous self, that has quite straightforward moral implications: I’m not responsible for my actions. But these statements are in direct contradiction to what we intimately feel about ourselves and others, but also to our whole social and legal practice of reward and punishment. So, is the initial claim wrong or are we missing something in our line of conclusions?

We could start with a refinement of a starting claim: the fact that what we considered our core, self, ego or our mind is not some definitely fixed entity, but a series of events, doesn’t necessarily mean a self doesn’t exist. It only doesn’t exist in a way we usually suppose it does, led by the impression we form once our memories got merged into one big collage. Yes, it doesn’t exist as something unchanging, permanent, but it does exist as a series of mental states building atop and interacting with each other, as an ever-changing stream of thoughts and mindsets, ever flowing on, never resting. Therefore, we can call it ‘the empirical self, i.e. the self as we experience it. Something similar to a river. And, at first sight paradoxically, exactly because of that changeable nature of the mind, free will is possible to be manifested by changing existing patterns of behavior. If the self is permanent and unchangeable, the possibility of free will would be lost, since it would be non-effective. Existing patterns of behavior wouldn’t be changeable, being rigidly and once for all determined by our past.

Further, this stream of mental conditions is not linear and can go in different directions, skillful and unskillful ones, due to various external and internal conditions. Buddhist practice is concerned with developing a greater degree of guidance and predictability, by wise restraint and clear understanding of how this whole process operates. Once we really see how feeling leads to craving, when ignorance and attachment are present, we can start to develop wisdom and non-attachment and weaken the weakest link in the chain of dependent origination. At the same time, these acts of will are just one more condition influencing where to our mind is directed: towards more or less self-induced stress and suffering. How strongly these volitions will influence the whole process, compared to many other mental factors, depends again on the level of our understanding. Because of this constant interactions, we could say that the will is not totally free, nor is it completely determined, but it represents a part of the general flaw of conditions. It does not stand outside the stream of conditioned events and then intervene to alter them. It is part of the stream and thus both conditioned and conditioning.

On the whole, it can be said that the position of Theravada Buddhism on the issue of free will is in the middle between seeing  the individual’s actions as completely, rigidly determined and seeing them as totally and unconditionally free. As stated earlier, this is a form of compatibilism, which suppose various degrees of freedom of action, commensurate to the degree of an awareness we possess, since it always offers a choice to us not to be completely determined by our past conditioning. Thus, we are not a kind of robots directed by our past, but have a great responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions. How we use this possibility is completely up to us and this is both a curse and blessing of we humans. Or, as Sartre would formulate this constant interplay of conditioning and conditioned, “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.”

* I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Ven. Dhammika for his thoughtful comments on this paper.
[1]     Kushnir, T., Gopnik, A ., Chemyak, N., Seiver, E., and Wellman, H.M. (2015): “Developing intuitions about free will between ages four and six”. Cognition, 138, pp. 79–101.
[2]     Kane (2005), p. 12
[3]     James (1912).
[4]     Bodhi (1995), p. 1030.
[5]     Bodhi (1995), p. 513.
[6]     Schumann (1973), p. 53.
[7]     In his series of four articles published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Riccardo Repetti gave a detailed review of various positions taken in the debate on how Buddha’s teachings relates to the problem of free will. See Repetti (2010, 2012a, 2012b, 2014).
[8]      Jesus in the gospels suggests divine determinism, although is not specific on the matter. The Epistles of the New Testament clearly state that it is all up to god, and thus all the early Protestant reformers – Luther, Calvin, Knox, etc. were all hard determinists
[9]     Repetti (2017), p. XX.
[10]   Cūḷamālunkya Sutta, MN 63. Boddhi (1995), p. 533 ff.
[11]   Boddhi (1995), p. 927.
[12]   Ibid.
[13]   Repetti (2017), p. 15.
[14]   Vassakāra Sutta, AN 4:35 (Bodhi, 2012, p. 424).
[15]   Frankfurt (1971).
[16]   Bodhi (2000)

Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995): The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000): The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012): The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Caruso, Greegg (2020): “Buddhism, Free Will and Punishment”, Zygon, vol. 55, no. 2, pp. 474-496.
Dennett, D.C. (1984): Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books.
Frankfurt, H. (1971): “Freedom of the will and the concept of the person”. Journal of Philosophy, 68(1), pp. 5–20.
Goodman, Charles (2009): Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harvey, Peter (2007): “‘Freedom of the Will’ in the Light of Theravāda Buddhist Teachings”,  Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 14, pp. 35-98.
James, William (1912): “The Dilemma of Determinism” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Javanaud, Katie (2018): “Reformulating the Buddhist Free Will Problem”, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 46, pp. 773-803.
Kane, Robert (2005): A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Repetti, Riccardo (2010): “Earlier Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 17, pp. 279-310.
Repetti, Riccardo (2012a): “Buddhist Reductionism and Free Will: Paleo-compatibilism”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 19, pp. 33-95.
Repetti, Riccardo (2012b): “Buddhist Hard Determinism: No Self, No Free Will, No Responsibility”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 19, pp. 130-197.
Repetti, Riccardo (2014): “Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Beyond”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 21, pp. 279-352.
Repetti, Riccardo (Ed., 2017): Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will – Agentless Agency. London: Routledge.
Schumann, H. W. (1973): Buddhism: An Outline of its Teachings and Schools. London: Rider.

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