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Free Will and Kamma

August 19, 2013

Q: Do we really have free will, or is kamma completely deterministic?

The Arahat: An absolutist could call this an invalid question. After all, whose free will are we talking about? ‘I’, the fictitious ‘self’? But taking the conventional meaning, this is a commonsense question. In our experience, the ‘world’ presents us with a ‘situation’, and based on our past conditioning we perceive a range of choices. In an existential sense, we can choose for the ‘other’, for the expectations of the ‘world’—or we can choose for our authentic ‘self’ and values.

Putting that in the context of the Buddha’s teaching, in any given situation we can choose for the Dhamma or against the Dhamma. Of course, we know that most of the time, most people choose for the ‘world’, against their authentic values, against nature, against Dhamma. They are overwhelmed by their conditioning, by social pressure, by cultural context. This is their great misfortune.

Still, the fact remains that at every moment we have a range of choices, and we can use them for our benefit if we know how. The Buddha says:

“Over and over, beggars do their begging;
Over and over, the givers give out gifts.
Over and over, the giver who has given;
Over and over, goes to a better place.

Over and over, he tires and he struggles;
Over and over, the fool goes to the womb.
Over and over, he’s born and he dies;
Over and over, they bear him to his grave.

But one whose wisdom is wide as the earth
Is not born over and over,
For he’s gained the path
Of not becoming over again.” — Udaya Sutta (SN 7.12)

Now as regards kamma, free will is never unlimited. The ‘situation’, as we conceive it, always contains a range of choices. That range may be larger or smaller depending on our past conditioning. But there are always choices available that lead us closer to the Dhamma and ultimate freedom from suffering, if we only knew what they were.

Voluntarily chosen limits empower your growth. It’s practical to accept the Buddha’s teaching—the Dhamma and Vinaya—as a guide to decision-making, if only because it reduces the number of possible choices to a more manageable range. Too much freedom of choice is just as bad, if not worse than too little. Life lived without guidelines is confusing and impractical—just look at the hippies. To make genuine progress, we must first define our path.

But even pursuing the Dhamma can be overdone. We often see people who want to be very strict, especially in the beginning. However, having too many restrictions eventually causes rebellion or falldown—being too strict can set us up for failure. Therefore there must be limits even on limits, rules even about rules. 227 precepts is too much, especially in today’s climate of so-called freedom. We have to be practical about how much discipline we accept.

Nevertheless, accepting precepts is a good idea because it means defining your purpose and responsibilities, and setting your goals. That way you have a clear aim for your energies. You should determine your central purpose and the amount of discipline you are willing to accept—not any other person or the culture in which you live. Avoid being harsh or impatient with yourself; true progress is made in gradual steps over a significant time. Allow yourself harmless, innocent pleasure, but avoid careless self-indulgence.

Don’t be a hypocrite—make sure that you practice any rule or principle you advocate for others. Don’t expect others to take up your discipline or observe your self-imposed limits. But do place limits both on your own actions with others, and the indulgences you offer them. Encouraging others’ inferior qualities invites misfortune. Your interactions should be marked by gentleness, tolerance, and innocence—but don’t allow anyone to influence you to break your principles.

Avoid indulging in egotistical extravagances, even if you are successful in achieving your goals. Follow the Dhamma without ambition, just because it’s the right thing to do. Continually observe yourself, and correct your mistakes as soon as you become aware of them. Be gentle, innocent and above all truthful, especially with yourself.

If you can live like this, even as a monk following strict Vinaya, you will experience great joy and happiness. Heaven on earth exists for those who maintain their thoughts and actions according to the Dhamma and Vinaya. Harmony and prosperity reward those who correctly balance the high requirements of the Dhamma with the practical needs of the body and mind, just as there is naturally a strong flow of life energy in the spring.

We can attain this happiness and peace by remaining aware of the needs of our body and mind while insuring that our conduct is governed by the Dhamma and Vinaya. This is using the law of kamma and our free will in a constructive way.

You are fortunately already situated in the Dhamma and Vinaya. You are like a young tree planted in fertile ground, with plenty of sunlight, water and wind. Being properly situated, you can reach great heights simply by maintaining your focus on light, clarity, and purity. Do not become entangled in inferior things, but stay balanced, innocent, and correct, and ultimate enlightenment is assured. Enjoy the full benefit of this gracious blessing of the Enlightened One!

From → Q&A

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