Gotama on Free Will and Determinism

One might say that Reverend Gotama had a quick answer to the question of free will and determinism. He called it dependent origination, the middle way. Neither of these alternatives, neither free will nor determinism, is the case. Like so many of these apparent dichotomies, the members of this pair “take in each other’s washing.” The problem is not with one or the other of the pair, but with the pair itself. Free will (mind) is dependent on causes in the world, including the body, but also including every event that took place before, but it can also be a cause, bringing about what follows. Mind exists as a momentary flash of energy, causing events which result in other events, for good, ill, or naught. Mind depends on body. The body is the consequence of past actions. And on.

But Gotama didn’t think the question was simple. In the Mahanidana Sutta (DN 15,) Ananda says “It is surprising, sir, it is wonderful, sir, how profound this dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) is and how profound is its illumination. Yet it seems to me as if very simple.” Gotama replies: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. This conditioned origination is profound and its illumination is profound. Through lack of understanding, lack of comprehension, of this doctrine, this creation does not escape transmigration (samsara), which is misery, an evil destiny, ruin, as if it had become tangled in a loom, with its threads twisted and knotted, or were (a rope) of rushes and straw.” (A.K. Warder’s translation in his book Indian Buddhism)

Gotama goes on in this sutta to outline the 10-step version of dependent origination: ageing and dying is conditioned by birth, birth by existence (bhava), existence by attachment (upadana), attachment by desire (trsna), desire by experience (vedana), experience by contact or stimulus (sparsa), contact by sentient body (namarupa), which is conditioned by consciousness (vijnana), and which in turn is conditioned by sentient body (namarupa again). Gotama explains that samsara can be traced to namarupa together with vijnana.

In my first paragraph, I focused on the last three steps: the reciprocal relationship between sentient body (namarupa) and consciousness (vijnana.) There is not much more elaboration of this reciprocal relationship in the Mahanidana Sutta (there is much discussion of consciousness and freedom, of which more later) but in another sutta, the Mahavadana Sutta (DN 14) there is (a little) more. This sutta tells the story of past Buddhas and contains the story about a past Buddha (Vipassi) who as a Prince, comes upon an ageing man and discovers that ageing and dying are caused by birth. After “many thousands of years” with his father, the King, keeping him occupied with pleasure and after several similar experiences with ageing he finally takes up the homeless life. In this sutta Vipassi outlines an 11-step version of dependent origination concluding “this consciousness turns back again to the sentient body. It does not go further.” There is a note in the Walshe translation of this sutta to the effect that this means “no further in this life.” I haven’t checked the Pali, but neither Walshe nor Warder mentions it in the text itself. Gotama does mention in this sutta that the lifespan of Vipassi was eighty thousand years! So much for the absolute truth of everything in the Pali Canon!

Back to the Mahanidana Sutta. The sutta ends with a very illuminating discussion of consciousness and freedom. It starts with a discussion of the self, or atman in Sanskrit. Warder explains that this word is a reflexive pronoun meaning “himself”, “herself”, etc but that it was also used to refer to an essential self in a person, a “soul.” Gotama discusses several theories of the soul, whether material and limited, immaterial and limited, or immaterial and unlimited. He concludes that it is not fitting to maintain: that feeling is my self, my self is impercipient, or that my self is of a nature to feel. All of these are impermanent. Warder concludes that “the present text, referring to ‘attachment to the theory that there is a soul’ as a condition to be eliminated, sufficiently demonstrates that the Buddha rejected this theory.” Warder goes on to cite several other arguments in the DN and SN to support this opinion. But the point in the present context is that when the follower no longer regards these things as self, he clings to nothing in the world and by not clinging he attains liberation (individual Nibbana, paccattam.) Gotama then goes on to say that the tetralemma that the Tatagatha exists after death, doesn’t exist, both does and doesn’t, or neither does nor doesn’t exist is wrong view and unfitting (Walshe – Warder says “unsound”.)

Then, Warder says, “after rejecting the theories of an eternal soul, the Mahanidana Sutta returns to the subject of consciousness.” There are seven stations: 1) beings which have a diversity of bodies and a diversity of perceptions, like human beings; 2) beings which have a diversity of bodies but a unity of perceptions, like Brahma’s retinue; 3) beings that have a unity of body but a diversity of perceptions, like the gods of the world of radiance; 4) the beings which have a unity of body and unity of perceptions, gods of the beautiful world; 5) beings which have transcended perceptions and gone to the infinity of space; 6) beings which have completely transcended the entrance of infinity of space to the infinity of consciousness; and 7) those beings that have transcended the infinity of consciousness and gone to the entrance to nothingness. These are references to stages in meditation. The two entrances are 1) the entrance of beings having no perception and 2) the entrance of neither perception nor non-perception. “Having known (‘ascertained’) them (these nine stations and entrances) and their origination, etc. in their true reality a monk has become free (vimukta) through non-attachment (annupada, adverbial, ‘being without attachment.’) Such a monk, Ananda, is called freed by understanding.” (Warder) I suppose, an eternalist would say that this freedom is only available at the end of the line, in Nibbana. The eternalist may say that, and this may well have been what Gotama intended (in spite of his many denunciations of eternalism, in the Brahmajala Sutta, for example,) but I take it as freedom in this world. How else is the eight-fold path to be followed? How could we ever turn away from bad karma?

I have gone on about this because it elaborates Gotama’s views on consciousness. Consciousness is what permits freedom to act for good, ill, or naught. Free will and determinism is our subject here. Stcherbatsky has a section in Buddhist Logic about this. He mentions that “This problem, which has always perplexed almost all the human race, was also vehemently discussed at the time of Buddha. He had singled out for special animadversion the doctrine of one of his contemporaries, Gosala Maskariputra, who preached an extreme determinism and denied absolutely all free will and all moral responsibility.  According to him all things are inalterably fixed and nothing can be changed. . . . Buddha stigmatized him as the ‘bad man’ who like a fisherman was catching men only to destroy them. He rejected his philosophy as the most pernicious system. ‘There is free action, he declared, there is retribution,’ ‘I maintain the doctrine of free actions.’”

Stcherbatsky is not too scrupulous about citing where he gets his quotes. A Makkhali Gosala is mentioned in the Walshe translation of the second sutta in the DN as one of the sramanas to whom Ajatasattu goes seeking “peace to our heart.” Ajatasattu needed this, since he had imprisoned his father, King Bimbisara, who died in prison. I can’t find a quote from this sutta directly by Gotama about Gosala, but in his response to Ajatasattu Gotama describes the fruits of a homeless life. At one point he says “a monk with mind concentrated  . . . directs his mind to the production of a mind-made body.  . . . This is the fruit of the homeless life more excellent and perfect . . ..” The mind-made world is a world of free will, but one conditioned by previous events. I see this as the middle way.

Given all of the fantastic references in the Pali Canon, it seems unconvincing for an intelligent person in our day to insist on scriptural reference as the ultimate proof of a point in discussion. This scholastic or fundamentalist position is taken by some, but I think it is off the mark. In the advice to the Kalamas, Gotama himself argued against it. Many Buddhists afterwards have argued for the Buddha’s omniscience. Both Jayatilleke and Warder argue that the texts that accept this were later additions to the Canon and not necessarily “original Buddhism.”

Be that as it may, I feel that we have to decide for ourselves what to believe. I think that dependent origination, the middle way as I understand it and have tried to explain it, is a profound concept that explodes many of the dualisms (and monisms) that have dominated both Indian and Western philosophy. I credit Gotama who, as the discoverer of this insight, spent the rest of his life trying to show others this truth that he felt he had gained under the tree in Gaya.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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