Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Table of Contents

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. Actually, it doesn’t sit very well with Christianity either. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Our will is never entirely free.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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