Do we have “a choice" in Buddhism or is it already predetermined?

When I was a young man I wanted to be a professional sports player. As time went on and I started to meet pro sports players I realized they didn’t train any harder than anyone else I knew. Their success was based on luck, right coach at the right time, good genes, right family environment, good timing in physical development etc. In other words, their success was not their own. When I met rich people I also noticed the same thing.

This made me think about choice, these people never chose the be a good at sports or to be rich, it was just circumstances and conditions. When I think about a choice, it seems to be the same. I will choose to study physiotherapy because my Dad was one, I liked sports in school, Australia offers the course, I don’t know what else to do, I understand biology easily. How much of previous conditioning influenced the choice. Was this choice really yours?

So what happens if someone were to steal another person’s money? Do we say that this was not his choice? It was a massive sequence of events, circumstances, and conditioning that brought about this choice.

My thinking on this subject is that we always have a choice to do A or to do B. These choices are highly conditioned until we realize they have been conditioned. Hence, now that I realize I have been making wrong choices I can now become a Buddhist and start making the right or better choices, such as, I will not steal and maybe one day become enlightened; this was a path I chose to walk down.

In Christianity, for example there is always a choice, hence the Garden of Eden story. What does Buddhism/the sutras say in regards to choice?

Ajahn Brahmali just gave a great talk about this :smile:

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Ajahn Brahm usually talks about free won’t in regards to the power of the very first step towards awakening of avoiding what is unwholesome.

This is why from the perspective of the impersonal and natural dependent origination of awakening as per AN10.2 and AN11.2 virtue is framed as a fundamental or ultimate root cause of liberation and destruction of the fetters.

It is something some neuroscientists endorse it seems:

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[quote]Then a certain brahman approached the Blessed One; having approached the Blessed One, he exchanged friendly greetings. After pleasant conversation had passed between them, he sat to one side. Having sat to one side, the brahman spoke to the Blessed One thus:

“Venerable Gotama, I am one of such a doctrine, of such a view: ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer.’”

“I have not, brahman, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view. How, indeed, could one—moving forward by himself, moving back by himself —say: ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’? What do you think, brahmin, is there an element or principle of initiating or beginning an action?”

“Just so, Venerable Sir.”

“When there is an element of initiating, are initiating beings clearly discerned?”

“Just so, Venerable Sir.”

“So, brahmin, when there is the element of initiating, initiating beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer.

“What do you think, brahmin, is there an element of exertion … is there an element of effort … is there an element of steadfastness … is there an element of persistence … is there an element of endeavoring?”

“Just so, Venerable Sir.”

“When there is an element of endeavoring, are endeavoring beings clearly discerned?”

“Just so, Venerable Sir.”

“So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one—moving forward by himself, moving back by himself—say ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’?”

“Superb, Venerable Gotama! Superb, Venerable Gotama! Venerable Gotama has made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as though he were turning upright what had been turned upside down, revealing what had been concealed, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the dark: ‘Those who have eyes see forms!’ Just so, the Venerable Gotama has illuminated the Dhamma in various ways. I go to Venerable Gotama as refuge, and to the Dhamma, and to the assembly of monks. From this day, for as long as I am endowed with breath, let Venerable Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge.”

AN 6.38[/quote]

Can you explain this a bit further please (in the way you personally see it)?

What do you think this passage means?

The more exposed to the Dhamma or those affected by it - i.e. individals who are accomplished in virtue, accomplished in concentration, accomplished in wisdom, accomplished in liberation, accomplished in the knowledge and vision of liberation - the more I find myself able to abandon the perpetuation or repeatition of choices or behaviors that are unwholesome.

Thus the precepts are formulated in its most basic form as commitment to refraining of unwholesome actions.

This refraining gives room for positive behaviors.

I therefore find myself free and able to not perpetuate states of suffering.

This is exactly where SN46.3 starts at. Check where it ends!

It is a very wise and powerful proposition, it approaches what we call will in simple English not in philosophical or ontological way, but in a epistemological way.

As it invites you to witness for yourself this unfolding of wholesomeness from the active refraining of unwholesomeness, it constitutes a middle path practical approach to the challenge of suffering.

Hope it helps. :anjal:


That one indeed makes choices and this can be discerned directly in our experience, e.g. when making decisions as simple as choosing which direction to walk. And we can see that choices are obviously constrained by conditions, e.g. I can’t choose to flap my arms and fly away like a bird.

Thanks for bringing up AN6.38, it offers a very interesting framework for analyzing and understanding the process of will. It does so by beautifully dissecting it into five elements (dhātu):

I wonder what kind of interesting and insightful etymological analysis can be done on these terms. Does anyone know if commentary has anything special to say about this?

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Intension (sankhara) is causally arisen. When someone has the ability to see deeply into how phenomena arises (vipassana) they will see that this process is automatic and doesn’t require a doer.

Believing there is no Self-efficacy can lead to inaction (akiriya vada). The Buddha discourages this. He encouraged a ‘can-do’ approach (sakko-from karaniyametta sutta).
This is not to say that the underlying mechanism required a Self, or wasn’t causally arisen!

Thanks for this!

With metta


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A skillful way to think about it might be as having the choice to choose which conditioning you are exposing yourself to.

For example, in AN 10.61, there is a causal sequence starting with associating with good persons (stream-winners and above) and hearing the good Dhamma, all the way up to true knowledge and liberation.

The analogy given for this is:

“Just as, when it is raining and the rain pours down in thick droplets on a mountaintop, the water flows down along the slope and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these, becoming full, fill up the pools; these, becoming full, fill up the lakes; these, becoming full, fill up the streams; these, becoming full, fill up the rivers; and these, becoming full, fill up the great ocean; thus there is nutriment for the great ocean, and in this way it becomes full.

So too, associating with good persons, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma…. The seven factors of enlightenment, becoming full, fill up true knowledge and liberation. Thus there is nutriment for true knowledge and liberation, and in this way they become full.”

This sutta seems to imply that if you hang out with the right people, that will condition you to make the right choices whether you like it or not.

But that still means one has to put in the effort to make the first link of the causal chain happen. So it doesn’t seem like things being conditioned imply inactivity or a laissez faire attitude towards one’s own actions.