Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Earlier Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Earlier Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism

Article excerpt

Did the Buddha Teach Free Will?

Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. (6) The title of Federman's article raises the question, "What Kind of Free Will Did the Buddha Teach?" This question suggests that the Buddha taught a certain kind of "free will." Federman's article attempts to substantiate that suggestion. The Tathagata (the Buddha) never discussed "free will," but he did discuss fate, chance, karma, "dependent origination" or "conditioned arising" (the thesis that all conditioned phenomena originate or arise in dependence upon previous conditions), (7) the efficacy of volition, effort, choice, and action, and a host of things that presuppose a kind of free will. But as the s?tra quoted above suggests, explicit and implicit accounts of the Buddha's thought are very different things.

Contemporary Western philosophical positions on free will are almost entirely defined by their stance on the question of whether determinism or indeterminism is compatible with free will, (8) which poses the following dilemma. If determinism is true, our choices are inevitable, lawful effects of causes that predate our existence, so our belief that we have free will--that we could have done otherwise--is illusory. But if determinism is false (indeterminism), then our choices are random, no different from coin tosses, so we cannot credibly claim they are "up to us." Thus, either way, there is no free will.

Dependent origination seems to be the same as determinism, under a slightly different description. But different descriptions that pick out identical phenomena cannot be substituted within belief contexts. For instance, "Clark" and "Superman" are different descriptions of the same (fictional) entity. Lois Lane may have seen Superman at the scene, but it would be an error to conclude that she believed Clark Kent was there. Likewise, dependent origination and determinism might describe the same principles, and it is not certain that they do, but even if they do, they involve different descriptions. Thus, it would be risky to conclude that the Buddha was a determinist. (9)

The Buddha explicitly discussed dependent origination, not as a threat to volitional freedom, but rather as an aid: to teach that volitional (and other) conditions that lead to mental bondage could be reversed, that they could lead to mental freedom. Those mental-bondage-fostering conditions involve the unreflective, unrestricted expression of volitional impulses, which is what many Westerners typically associate with free will: the ability to choose freely, to do whatever we want to do, to do as we please. The Buddha did not prize unregulated volitional expression, however. The Buddha valued the more general ability to regulate volitions, to choose which ones to express or restrain in order to attain liberation. He more likely would consider this broader ability to be what is meant by "free will." And he would likely consider unrestricted volitional expression as a mental-bondage-fostering indulgence, propelled mainly by unreflective dispositions and thus better described as "unfree will."

In any case, the Buddhist notions of (autonomy-resembling) regulated volition and (determinism-resembling) dependent origination are certainly compatible, because the former requires the latter, so the "problem" of their compatibility never arose within Buddhism. The Buddha did not explicitly discuss "determinism" or "free will," nor did he value the conception that Westerners take to constitute free will, so the problem of the compatibility of determinism and free will never arose either. The Buddha advocated other volitional-regulation-related abilities, such as the ability to control attention, to be mindful, to cultivate dharmic (10) (liberation-oriented) views, intentions, and habits, and to reverse adharmic ones. …

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