chapter  16
11 Pages

Grasping snakes: reflections on free will, samādhi, and dharmas

Introduction Before one can entertain the question of whether or how there is free will in Buddhism, one must define ‘free will’ and decide which Buddhism(s) one has in mind. There are conceptions of free will that are antithetical to common Buddhist ideas about the mind or person-such as the conception of free will as a specific faculty of the soul or as a power enjoyed by an autonomous agent. The fact that Buddhists cannot accept these forms of free will is of historical interest, but does not tell us much about Buddhist perspectives on freedom and action. The problem is that these are specific theoretical postulates invoked to explain a much more basic fact of the human condition-the fact that human beings appear to have some degree of choice and control with respect to their external actions and even their internal mental states. We might call these ‘empirical freedom of action’ and ‘empirical free will,’ respectively. These are conceptually distinct, but for economy’s sake I use ‘empirical free will’ to encompass both. The crucial point is that the term signals a set of pre-theoretical assumptions about human freedom. Regardless of the metaphysical truth underlying empirical free will (or the conceptual models invoked to explain it), it appears to be at the heart of the free will problem in the West, and is presupposed by virtually all conceptions of the Buddhist path. However, until recently, Buddhists did not regard its existence a problem. This should give us pause to consider from whence our free will problem arose, and caution us against seeking in Buddhist texts analogs to the categories and assumptions that have made free will a problem for us.1