The dictionary defines free will as, “The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”
Free will vs. determinism has been a hot issue in the West for thousands of years. Some think that we’re autonomous agents with wills of our own, that we always have the ability to make our own choices. Others believe that our brains are so conditioned by genes and past experiences that each thought and action is involuntary, even when they seem deliberate.
Most of us certainly feel like we have free will. I decided to write these words, for instance, and you’ve decided to read them. No one forced us to. And even though we might’ve been compelled to at an unconscious level, we could’ve easily decided to say, “Nah, I’m not in the mood.”
Where does Buddhism stand on the issue? Did the Buddha believe in free will or was he a determinist?
This is a tricky issue, because Buddhism doesn’t fit nicely into Western philosophy. None of the Sutras or commentaries ever mention fate or free will, but we can fill in the blanks by drawing from what they do mention.
Each experience is pre-determined through dependent arising. The things we intentionally think, do, and say plant seeds in our minds that will one day bear fruit as this or that emotion, urge, thought, perspective, or perception. But that doesn’t mean we’re bound by our past actions. Skillful intention can uproot the harmful seeds we’ve planted and replace them with healthy ones.
Some of these seeds come to fruition right away, like when we’re worrying about something and suddenly say, “That’s enough, there’s no reason for me to worry about this,” and the worry vanishes. Some of them take a little longer.
Nothing “just happens” in Buddhism. Buddhadharma presents an orderly view of reality in which everything that appears depends on different causes and conditions. As those causes and conditions change, the appearance of something changes. When they cease, it ceases. Buddhist practice involves studying, understanding, and working with causes and conditions to produce beneficial effects, and limit or totally annihilate harmful ones. We couldn’t do that without free will, we’d just be stuck in our cognitive loops forever, or we’d get busted loose from them by accident.
But Buddhism isn’t totally on the free will bandwagon. When we make a choice, like, “I’m gonna have some ice cream,” that isn’t really free will. That decision is the appearance of dozens of different causes and conditions. We didn’t choose to be hungry, and we didn’t choose to create ice cream—someone else did that. We didn’t choose to make ice cream cold or make it taste sweet. We didn’t even choose to call it, “Ice cream.”
And, odds are, we only want ice cream because we’ve chosen to have it as a midnight snack dozens of times in the past. The only choice we have in the matter at all is whether to eat it or not, and nine times out of ten, we usually give up that modicum of free will to blind habit.
Also, anatta throws a giant wrench in the whole thing, pissing equally on both sides of the fence. Who is it that has free will? Who is it that is subjected to fate? Who inherits and changes the flow of dependent arising?
When we talk about free will and determinism in a Buddhist context, we’re not referring to traits that belong to some kind of agent or ego. I neither have free will nor am I subjected to fate. I’m no one, and I’m nowhere, and I don’t do anything. I’m a moment to moment still frame of an ever-changing process that’s ordinarily so rapid that it’s beyond the scope of awareness.
So it’s not me who has free will when it comes to changing causes and conditions; it’s intention and consciousness. And it’s not me who inherits the results of dependent arising; it’s the body, feelings, perception, intention, and consciousness.
To cut to it, the body and mental processes both have free will and don’t have it, and it’s the body and mental processes that inherit the results of those voluntary and involuntary choices. I am just a compounded perception of all those things, I don’t have any will—free or otherwise—of my own apart from them.
All of that was about the busy, unsteady mind. When we move toward the equanimous, steady mind, the game is different. To the steady mind, fate and free will are both just thoughts, just words. The comings and goings of the unsteady mind are like a magic trick, a vanishing act. For the steady mind, there’s no such thing as will, there’s just Suchness, the ungraspable, unspeakable present moment. Ideas like free will and determinism are ultimately inapplicable once the unsteady mind has been exhausted.
But when causes and conditions meet, free will and determinism still exist as ideas, just as the ego does. But they don’t linger as memories, views, and expectations once those causes and conditions have disappeared. They only exist as instances in the moment and as totally non-existent apart from the mind.
So, Buddhism’s take on the issue is a, “Yes, but,” to all sides.