Let us begin with a dictionary definition – this comes from the Collins Online Dictionary:
If you believe in free will, you believe that people have a choice in what they do and that their actions have not been decided in advance by God or by any other power. …the free will of the individual. (collinsdictionary.com)
Note the connection that is made in the definition, between the notion of ‘free will’ and the concept of the ‘individual.’ Free will is often associated with individualism.
‘Free will’ is an odd expression in any context. Unless we have in mind some supernatural power that controls all events, the freedom to ‘will,’ ‘intend’ or ‘wish for’ is not something that can be easily curtailed. On the other hand, if ‘free will’ is interpreted as meaning ‘self-determination’ or the freedom to act as one wishes, then even the most committed of ‘free willers’ would probably agree that this freedom is not unlimited or infinite.
For most Buddhists, free will is always conditional – dependent upon context, circumstance and causality. We can only determine our own future within certain limits or conditions. I can choose to be an athlete, but I cannot choose to win the hundred metres. Choosing to be a runner is easy enough, if I am not bed-bound or otherwise incapacitated, but, winning a hundred metre race depends on many factors out of my control. No amount of ‘willing’ or positive intention alone, will make me a winner. Making a choice of intention is, if you like, an internal matter, a mental operation, but translating that choice into an action depends upon many other conditions being in place. Actions, particularly actions involving others, are always interactions – and are thus often unpredictable. We can choose almost anything in our minds, but to choose to do something involves interacting with a world beyond our minds.
If free will is indicative of a belief that we are independent beings – and that we should have no constraints on our ability to act as we wish – then this goes against what might be considered to be key insights and ethics of Buddhism. That is, the understanding that all phenomena, including all beings, are dependent upon, and interactive with, all other phenomena and beings. There can be no independence in the sense of separation from the rest of society or the world.
The freedom to think and feel is unproblematic – in that thinking and feeling are ‘private’ activities. It is difficult to know how one could restrict these freedoms as it is impossible to monitor thinking and feeling in another person. How would we know what another person thinks or feels, unless they disclose this to us in statements or other modes of communication? How could we restrict such freedoms if we wanted to?
The Buddha seems often to have reminded his students that, to some extent, we hold our future in our hands. We are agents acting in the world and can make choices that lead us to pleasure or pain, anger or kindness, friendship or enmity. We can determine how we think, speak and act, and should take responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions. We are agents of our own learning and development. We are not simply born along by fate, destiny or forces of predetermination. If we are mindful of what we are doing, we can break with our habits of thought and action, and decide to think and act in new ways. Instead of passively thinking ‘this is how I am,’ or ‘this is my lot in life,’ we can wake up to the possibility of change, fresh insight and understanding, and doing things differently.
Of course, unbridled ‘free will,’ if manifested as rampant individualism or insatiable craving, is unsustainable, and likely to be harmful to everyone and to our planet. It may be argued that this is the case with current consumerism and neo-liberal economics.
One of the benefits of zazen and other forms of mindful meditation is that they can help us to make decisions with clarity, stability, balance and compassionate understanding – rather than making decisions clouded by dogma, habit, craving and selfishness.
In this sense, the way of awakening is about freeing ourselves from entrenched habits of thought and action, and, choosing who we become and what we do from moment-to-moment. It is a path of openness, discovery, responsibility and self-determination. But we also have to accept that there are other beings in the world, also trying to determine what they do and become, and we have to learn to live in harmony with each other. To be mindful is to exercise freedom of awareness, intent and imagination, while being responsible, tolerant and compassionate.
It is worth bearing in mind that no amount of ‘free will’ directed only at changing conditions within our embodied minds will necessarily change conditions in the world about us. Mindful meditation can help us to see what needs changing both within ourselves and in the social, political and cultural conditions in which we, and others, live. Awakening needs to encompass both a determination to transform ourselves and the world about us – for these are interdependent spheres – two dimensions of one indivisible reality. If we are to reduce suffering, we have to use our free will to help and care for ourselves and all beings – for we are all members of one extended global family.