Buddha and Free Will

I’ve been wondering about what the Buddha’s position on free will might be.
The idea of an agent behind the actions is incorrect, let alone a free agent. What about the will itself? It is conditioned, so libertarian free wil is wrong. On the other hand, the following sutta indicates that determinism is wrong as well:

Having approached the brahmans & contemplatives who hold that… ‘Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by what was done in the past,’ I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by what was done in the past?”’ Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’ Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of what was done in the past. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of what was done in the past.’ When one falls back on what was done in the past as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my first righteous refutation of those brahmans & contemplatives who hold to such teachings, such views.
AN 3.61

That is, the past doesn’t determine our actions. I’m puzzled about how our will can be conditioned at the same time that it’s not determined by the past.

Maybe the solution lies in the difference between conditionality and causality. Everything is conditioned, so something can’t exist without its conditions, but the existence of the conditions don’t always determine whether or not the effect exists. For example, water is necessary for a plant to grow, but the existence of water doesn’t always imply that there is a plant growing there. Another example is the own paticcasamuppada: ignorance is a condition for kamma, but the existence of ignorance doesn’t imply that there will be kammic formations, or else we would be forming kamma absolutely all the time, even during sleep.

To be honest, this doesn’t seem to be the solution, but it’s still the best I got. What are your thoughts on this?

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As I see it, free will and determinism are two extremes.

The extreme of determinism would be that there are no choices, and all is just a mechanical playing-out of causes and effects. The extreme of free will would be that all paths are open to us, and we may choose any of them freely.

The reality is that we do have choice, but our possible choices are limited by our past kamma. Those possible paths are limited both externally, in the options available to us in our current life situation, and internally by how we’ve conditioned our minds, which determines which of the available options we’d actually be willing to choose.

As you say, there is no agent behind the choices, but there is choosing.

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“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

"Perception is a clingable phenomenon. Any desire-passion related to it, is clinging related to it.

"Fabrications are clingable phenomena. Any desire-passion related to them, is clinging related to them.

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The idea of free will makes sense in a Christian context. In which case, it means a will free of God’s influence.

But what is free will free of in a Buddhist context? Surely not conditioning. Without a self, there can’t be unconditioned choices. Right?

Ajahn Brahmali often uses the robot simile. Saying that we are like robots, doing exactly as we’ve been programmed to do.

Is it just me or does the sutta not actually say that? It says what we experience/do is not solely determined by past actions. I don’t see where it says that the will itself is not totally conditioned. Not being solely determined by past actions doesn’t negate being completely conditioned by conditioning from the past (not just actions). To me, it seems the point is that it’s wrong to think behavior is unchangeable or inevitable because of past deeds. Not that behavior can somehow be changed without being conditioned to do so.

Certainly, this is an ancient and persistent question not only for some practitioners of the Dhamma, but for many beings past and present; and the absence of a clear and categorical answer after thousands of years might be a clue that no such answer is to be had. :slightly_smiling_face:

When asked about philosophical questions like this, the Buddha often replied that the question was neither necessary, nor suitable, for practicing the Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of dukkha. Rather, such questions would often vex the mind to no purpose.
So one option is to put such questions aside and practice the Dhamma as best we can, knowing it leads to the ending of all dukkha – including vexing questions!

As well, we know and can experience in a practical sense that choosing (whatever that means), to follow the Precepts, practice samadhi, and cultivate wisdom results in greater peace, kindness, and clarity. It’s just how it works. And the more we stick with this, the more the wholesome intentions and actions will lead to more wholesome effects, leading to even more wholesome actions…until utter release from rebirth and dukkha – the very purpose of the Teachings.

In other words, while perhaps not “solving” the free will question in a scientific or philosophical way, wholesome choices in Dhamma practice support conditions for more wholesome effects and choices all the way to liberation. In this way, it’s a kind of virtuous and efficacious feedback loop, including better and better choices.
And it works.

Hope this is of some help! :pray: :slightly_smiling_face:

I found Ajahn Sona’s discussion of this topic quite helpful. It’s in this talk on Right Effort, at time 4:50.

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Here are some readings I’ve collected on the topic: Free Will in Buddhism - Google Drive

In case that’s helpful to anyone :slightly_smiling_face:

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I have always thought of it this way:

Our past kamma is the cards we are dealt.
Our current kamma is how we play them.

As the venerable Paul Newman once said: “Sometimes a fistfull of nothing can be a pretty cool hand.”

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I agree with the first part of this, not so much the second.

I think the origin of the idea of free will is the will of God themselves. When God decided to create the world, it was a pure act of volition, unconditioned by anything.

From a Buddhist point of view, of course, none of that makes any sense: you can’t have something unconditioned that conditions other things. It’s a fundamentally confused concept.

But if “free will” is an incoherent idea, it doesn’t mean that “determinism” is true. It means that the whole question is nonsensical in a philosophical sense. Hard determinism—the idea that causes fix outcomes—is a metaphysical fancy, with no evidence to support it in the real world.

Which is why, I believe, the free will/determinism dichotomy never comes up in early Buddhism, or indeed, as far as I know, in the whole of Indian philosophy. Someone please correct me on that point if I’m wrong!


Recently, I read of “intuitionist maths”, which posits that real numbers with infinite precision do not exist. If true, it would imply that the non-determinism of quantum mechanics was not the exception, but the norm: there’s no such thing as a full set of conditions that will determine an outcome.

The article discusses the theories of Nicolas Gisin.

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If we would be arising tendencies, intentions, plans, volitional formations, we would not be able to let them go. We would not be able to abandon them while arising. If we are able to see volitonal formations arising, and do not follow -up, abandon them, at least we are not just machines, forced to think, speak and act upon those arising volitional formations.

I feel the Buddha point this way to a domain of non-action. A domain which is not involved. It registers, sees, but is not involved.

In contrast to will, plans, intentions, tendencies, volitional formations, one does not see this domain arising and ceasing. If this domain of non-action (or no formation) would not exist, there would be no escape of the conditioned.

May I ask why having our behavior determined by past actions would be any worse than having it determined by the past?

also might wanna check out “fuzzy logic”

these guys go at it pretty good, re free will vs determinism.

as you might know, sam is a seasoned meditator… second link is him in conversation with j goldstein. ajahn thanissaro dunks on sam’s free will views , referring to him as ‘that neuroscientist’, in his typical diplomatic style lol

Thank you for your explanation Bhante!
Something that’s confusing me a lot, though, is how we are not determined at the same time we are conditioned. Aren’t our actions caused by certain causes that, when not present, don’t cause the same action? Wouldn’t this mean that our actions end up being determined? This view sounds very enticing to me, but the Buddha’s rejection of Makkhali Gosāla’s view in AN 3.61 shows that it’s wrong.

I’ve read in some places that we are conditioned, but not fully determined, but I haven’t found any thorough explanation of what this partial freedom could be like and what causes it. Could you please explain this to me? Or maybe indicate some source or sutta that explains it?

There is a Youtube video discussed on free will in Buddhism by @dougsmith years ago here:

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The will is free only to extent that it aligns with the most desired intention. A person, for example, may want to to be someone who holds the eight precepts, but the defilements challenge their ability to do so. To the extent they are able to hold them amidst greed, hatred and delusion is the extent to which the will is free.

Different people, different intentions. It comes down to what ideal is being upheld and what gets in the way. All in all, though, it is a question of wholesome or unwholesome. Those who do not practice any sort of discipline are not as aware of their own notions of right and wrong and have no problem letting the three unwholesome roots guide them. They may regret it later, which, if they paid attention, is the discrepancy that reveals the extent of the virtue they value. Unfortunately, most don’t take these cues as a reason to strive for behavior that would reduce that discrepancy of regret, which is nothing other than the extent to which they are not free to behave in the way they actually value.

For those of us who do practice discipline (the precepts/virtue), we are even more acutely aware of being able or unable to maintain those behaviors (see AN 10.1). Too often, free will gets associated with the ability to “keep going”, but with that, there is the risk of things getting bound up with an acceptance of failure and inability to acknowledge weakness. We are going to fail, but what we take from it is what matters. It seems the Buddha was clear that we should make use of regret to develop strength so that next time around we can uphold our virtue and instead of regret, build up the aggregate of virtue so the result is joy, as AN 10.1 describes.

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I think this is a really important point. Options are more or less prominent depending upon what has been previously cultivated.

We are all aware of the precepts, which means there will always be the option to keep to them - no matter how faint. And they could end up being very faint at times. How prominent they grow as a viable option, though, really depends on often we remember the value of that virtue, even when the situation may be very difficult (the non-regret and joy of AN 10.1). I think it takes training to look past (or through) the loud, boisterous, unwholesome options, that are often most prominent, in order to get to something more valued, more reasonable and more wholesome. That sounds like more of a free will to me.

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Well that seems reasonable. It’s hard to tell, though isn’t it? When it comes to human behavior, you can’t simply extract a single factor from the equation and run the experiment again and identify the specific thing that is the cause.

And the thing is, even in physics, when you can do precisely that, it remains dubious whether you can, in fact describe a complete set of causes that will explain any given effect. In the realm of quantum physics, this is well accepted, and it may even apply in other domains too.

The fact is that, even in a well-constrained, simple physical system it is practically impossible to isolate a specific and defined set of conditions that will, in all cases, produce the same outcome. There are always variables, omissions, assumptions, and inaccuracies. This is why I said that the idea of hard determinism is a metaphysical fancy. It is not something that can be proven, even in the realm of physics. It’s an assumption, i.e. something that the observer brings to the data. Thus the idea of “hard determinism” belongs to philosophy, not to science.

And if this is the case even in physics, how much more so when it comes to the workings of our mind? Heck, we don’t even have a robust theory of elementary ideas like what is the relation between brain and mind. It’s speculation and theories all the way down.

Try not to think in terms of the two opposites, free will/determinism, and how they can be “mixed” or “partial”. Step out of the ring, don’t get drawn into the fight.

Worth noting that, while Harris does have a Phd in neuroscience, he’s not by any means a “neuroscientist”, having never worked in the field or made any substantial contributions. He’s a public philosopher with a background in neuroscience.

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I do think that the Buddha certainly teaches that past actions, which are repeatedly done, and have become habitual forces in ones make-up, start to determine our current and future thoughts, speech and actions and even start to determine our future lives. This is the principle of kamma and kamma-vipaka

But this is not fatalism. We are not powerless, like some teachers taught in the time of the Buddha.

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This might be the diference between Moha and Panna.

  1. As fas as we are in Moha ( darkness) , our actions are predetermined. We are not free. We are bound to past.
  2. If we are exposed to a Condition which could give rise to Panna ( to dispell darkness) in us, we can underatand the three natures of the existance and are free from past influences.
  3. Then with Panna we are free to make decisions. This might be total freedom- Vimukti.