Did the Buddha Teach Free Will?

As with so many other issues, the Buddha took a middle path between the two extremes of determinism and total free will. If all your experience were predetermined from the past—through impersonal fate, the design of a creator god, or your own past actions—the whole idea of a path of practice to the end of suffering would be nonsense. You wouldn’t be able to choose to follow such a path, and there wouldn’t be such a path for you to choose in the first place: Everything would have already been determined. However, if your choices in the present moment were totally free, with no constraints from the past, that would mean that your present actions would, in turn, have no impact on the future. It’d be like flailing around in a vacuum: You could move your arms in any way you wanted, but you’d still be flailing.

The Buddha took this issue so seriously that, even though he rarely sought out other teachers to argue with them, he would if they taught determinism or the chaos of total freedom.

His alternative to their teachings was to outline a causal principle in which present experience is a combination of three things: the results of past intentions—your old karma; present intentions; and the results of present intentions. Your present intentions are the determining factor as to whether the mind does or doesn’t suffer in any given moment. They’re also the factor where freedom can come into the mixture. Past karma is a given, providing the raw material that your present karma can shape into present experience; the principle of causality is a given, providing the ground rules as to which present actions will or won’t give good results. These givens provide, so to speak, the point of contact against which present actions can push and pull and actually propel you in a particular direction. The wider the range of skills you bring to your present actions, the more freedom you gain in knowing how to push and pull skillfully—and the more you’ll be able and willing to act on this knowledge.

So the whole purpose of Buddhist practice is to expand your range of skills in the present moment. Take, for instance, the three qualities that the Buddha recommended be brought to the practice of mindfulness leading to concentration and discernment: alertness, the ability to be clearly aware of what you’re doing as you do it, along with the results that come from what you’re doing; mindfulness, the ability to keep in mind lessons you’ve learned both from Dhamma instructions and from you own actions, as to what’s beneficial and what’s harmful; and ardency, the whole-hearted desire to act as skillfully as you can with every moment. As you develop these skills, you build a fund of knowledge as to what works and doesn’t work in leading to true happiness. You also become a more discerning judge as to how to rate what it means to “work” and “not work.” And as you learn how to not be overcome by pleasure or pain—by maintaining your focus in the practice of concentration even in the presence of intense pleasure, and by comprehending pain to the point of not suffering from it—you become like an expert cook, able to make good food out of whatever, good or bad, is in the kitchen pantry.

The Buddha never explains why we have this potential for freedom of choice in the present moment. He just teaches how best to take advantage of it. If you follow his advice in exploring how far it can go, it leads you ultimately to a freedom of a totally different sort: a dimension absolutely free from conditions, the greatest freedom there is.

To fully awaken to this dimension releases you from all the roots of unskillful behavior: greed, aversion, and delusion. You’ve mastered the skills needed not to suffer from past karma and to not create any new karma with your present intentions. From that point on until death, you’re free to will only what is skillful. After death, your freedom is so total that it can’t be described.

It’s for the sake of this freedom that, instead of simply taking a position on free will, the Buddha taught how you can free your will from the unskillful limitations that keep it bound. Even if you don’t make it all the way to full awakening in this lifetime, you find that by developing the skills he recommends, you broaden the freedom you bring to the culinary art that is your life.