Emotions and choice: lessons from Tsongkhapa
B. Alan Wallace has called the Buddhist traditions’ view of free will a ‘pragmatic position’ that builds on an obvious fact of human experience: “there are circumstances under which we are more or less free to make wise decisions that contribute to our and others’ genuine happiness” (Wallace 2011, p. 218). In Buddhist traditions, then, the pressing questions of freedom of will-and the related concepts of autonomy and choice-are more experiential than intellectual: how do we experience freedom in our everyday lives? They are also more normative than descriptive: why is exercising choice a good thing? I flesh out this ‘pragmatic’ position on free will in the Buddhist philosophical traditions by focusing on one aspect of human experience that is often assumed to be largely unfree: emotional life. Buddhist moral philosophy, especially Tibetan Buddhist philosophy-which I draw and focus on here-stands out for the attention it pays to the subtlety of emotional experience and the seriousness with which it considers our ability to exercise freedom in our emotional lives. In fact, the intentional intervention in-and cultivation of-our emotional experiences is a foundational part of Tibetan Buddhist ethics. Many of the Tibetan Buddhist mind training (blo sbyong) exercises are aimed at reducing the negative emotional experiences of anger, envy, and hatred and cultivating positive emotions, including love, compassion, and equanimity (e.g., Patrul 1994, pp. 223-237; Tsongkhapa 2000, pp. 50-60; Gyalchok and Gyaltsen 2006, pp. 247-257). I turn to the fourteenth century Tibetan Buddhist yogin and philosopher Tsongkhapa, whose account of anger and compassion offers a compelling explanation of the causes and conditions of our emotional experiences and the extent to which they are under our control. Drawing on Tsongkhapa, I argue that our ability to choose emotions is best understood as a capacity for intentional intervention, which depends not only on the strength of the emotion, but our background knowledge of the nature of emotional experiences and our capacity to observe our emotional states as they occur. First, two qualifications regarding terminology are in order. As has been demonstrated by others (Dreyfus 2001; Heim 2008), there is no concept of
‘emotion’ in Buddhism and hence none of the accompanying concepts, such as the reason/emotion dichotomy, which are so prevalent in Western philosophy. In Tibetan, as in all traditional languages of Buddhism, there is no word for ‘emotion,’ although there are words for particular emotions, such as love, anger, compassion, and envy, which are analyzed at length.2 Although there are no theories of emotion in Buddhist philosophy, philosophical reflection about the nature of certain emotions tends to emphasize the cognitive and affective elements of emotional experience, as well as long-term causes and conditions of emotional experience, such as underlying predispositions and habits, one’s environment, and the company one keeps. In what follows, I draw on these reflections on the nature of particular emotional experiences to investigate the degree of control we have in these experiences and the dispositions that form from them. Second, one of the aims in this chapter is to uncover what ‘choice’ means in the context of emotional life. I use the word ‘choice’ mainly because it is used in the Western philosophical scholarship of the emotions with which I am in dialogue (Solomon 1976a; Rorty 1980; Nussbaum 1990). I take ‘choice’ to refer to a general sense of having control of and facility with our emotional experiences as well as the capacity to directly, intentionally, and through our own power influence our emotional dispositions. In this way, I use a more conventional rather than philosophically technical definition of ‘choice,’ for instance, one that already assumes certain metaphysical notions of free will. Part of what I am attempting to do here is to try to uncover what a Buddhist pragmatic position on free will would look like. In Tibetan, there are no words that directly correspond to the Western philosophical concepts of ‘choice’ or ‘free will.’3 But, there is overlap between the more conventional notion of choice, as outlined above, and traditional concepts in Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, the Tibetan word ‘rang dbang’—which Tsongkhapa uses in his discussion of managing our negative emotions-connotes self-control, autonomy, and independence. In what follows, I hope to show that we can learn a great deal about exercising choice in our emotional lives-in the general rather than philosophically technical sense-by examining Tsongkhapa’s analysis of the possibility of having self-control (rang dbang) in the midst of a strong emotional experience.