30 January 2015

A Sutta on Freewill

your move...
This is a text I recently stumbled upon. It is quite interesting because it directly addresses the issue of freewill, something I have not come across in a Buddhist text before. The Buddha is seen arguing with Brahmin who denies freewill and argues for a form of determinism or fatalism. This kind of view is popular again today. Advaita Vedanta enthusiasts, such as Gary Weber, also hold that free will is an illusion and that everything is predetermined. We are increasingly seeing the influence of Advaita Vedanta on Buddhists who use the self-enquiry methods of Vedantins. Many scientists are also determinists are well. Therefore knowing how the suttakāro dealt with this assertion is of some interest.

The title of the sutta is Attakārī Sutta AN 6.38 (AN iii.337-8). The adjective atta-kārin and noun atta-kāra are central to the text so let us first pause to consider what they mean. Attan (atta- in compounds; ātman in Sanskrit) is, of course, the reflexive pronoun 'self, own'. It's not being used here in the sense of a metaphysical self. It is being used in an empirical sense: the experiential self, or, for the finicky, the physical locus of awareness and intention, broadly speaking the body ('body' is one of the meanings of Vedic ātman). Since the text itself provides the argument for this, we'll let it speak first. The other part of the compound is kāra 'act, deed'. Like the world karma it stems from the verbal root √kṛ 'do, make'. So, atta-kāra refers to 'one's own act'. In this type of compound the -kāra can mean 'maker' (literally 'one whose action is...'). So the term suttakāra can mean the one whose act was the creation of the suttas, a 'sutta-maker'. Another term, drawn from the Sāṅkhya school is ahaṃkāra 'I maker'.  Kicca-kāra is doing what ought to be done, doing one's duty.The adjectival form atta-kārin means 'doing one's own action'. The word para used as a pronoun means 'other' and contrasts with attan. If attakāra is one's own action, then parakāra is another's action.

The text begins with the meeting of the Buddha and an unnamed Brahmin who tells the Buddha his view, there's no nidāna beginning 'evaṃ me sutaṃ' or telling us where the encounter takes place, we just dive straight in. The whole Pāḷi text is cited below, with my translation and commentary interspersed.
Atha kho aññataro brāhmaṇo yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami; upasaṅkamitvā bhagavatā saddhiṃ sammodi. Sammodanīyaṃ kathaṃ sāraṇīyaṃ vītisāretvā ekamantaṃ nisīdi. Ekamantaṃ nisinno kho so brāhmaṇo bhagavantaṃ etad avoca – ‘‘ahañhi, bho gotama, evaṃvādī evaṃdiṭṭhi – ‘natthi attakāro, natthi parakāro’’’ti. 
Just then a certain Brahmin approached the Bhagavan and exchanged polite greetings. Having greeted each other the Brahmin sat down on one side and spoke to the Buddha. "Mr Gotama, my philosophy, my view, is that there is no 'one's own action'; there is no 'another's action'.
Bodhi translates attakāra as 'self-initiative' which I think hints more at free will. I suppose we could say it means acting on one's own accord, or being free to act. Bodhi wants us to think about who is initiating the action. Vedantists say that no one initiates the action. Things just happen. There are hints here of Sāṅkhya darśaṇa. The Sāṅkhya view is that in reality what is most fundamental in us is a passive essence called puruṣa. The active side of experience (prakṛti) is like a distracting illusion that keeps puruṣa involved in the world of matter and away from quiescent perfection (kevala - literally isolation). In order to get back to perfection one has to role back the illusion until prakṛti returns to it's quiescent potential state. Sāṅkhya is very vague on some of the details of this view and many of the questions we'd like to ask don't seem to have answers on Sāṅkhya terms. But this view that there is no such thing as 'one's own action' shares some characteristics with Sāṅkhya. This is apparently news to the Buddha.  
Māhaṃ, brāhmaṇa, evaṃvādiṃ evaṃdiṭṭhiṃ addasaṃ vā assosiṃ vā. Kathañhi nāma sayaṃ abhikkamanto, sayaṃ paṭikkamanto evaṃ vakkhati – ‘natthi attakāro, natthi parakāro' ti!
Brahmin I've never seen or heard of this philosophy, this view. For how indeed does one who comes and goes under his own steam possibly say: there is no 'one's own action'; there is no 'another's action'.
So the Buddha's first reaction to this previously unknown philosophy is to ask how anyone who had just walked up to him, greeted him, sat down on one side, and stated his philosophy (all apparently of his own free will) could possibly believe that he did not do so of his own accord. The commonsense response is that the view cannot make sense of what is happening right now. The Brahmin arrives by himself (sayaṃ abhikkamanto) and he leaves by himself (sayaṃ paṭikkamanto). So the determinist view is at best counter-intuitive.

The Buddha then asks a series of questions:
Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, brāhmaṇa, atthi ārabbhadhātū ti?
Evaṃ, bho.
Ārabbhadhātuyā sati ārabbhavanto sattā paññāyantī ti?
Evaṃ, bho.
Yaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, ārabbhadhātuyā sati ārabbhavanto sattā paññāyanti, ayaṃ sattānaṃ attakāro ayaṃ parakāro.
Do you think, Brahmin, there is a factor of instigation?
Yes, Sir.
And when there is a factor of instigation, is it evident that beings are instigating?
Yes, Sir. 
So, when there is a factor of instigation and it is evident that beings are instigating, this is the 'one's own action' of beings, this is another's action.
This question is obvious. It stems from what the Buddha said initially. If we see beings instigating actions (ārabbhavanto) then why would we assume that they are not doing their own actions? 'Instigation' is a translation of ārabbha from the verb ā√rabh 'to begin'. Here dhātu is similar to the word dharma in many respects: 'a factor, an element'. 
Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, brāhmaṇa, atthi nikkamadhātu…pe… atthi parakkamadhātu… atthi thāmadhātu… atthi ṭhitidhātu… atthi upakkamadhātū ti?
Evaṃ, bho.
Upakkamadhātuyā sati upakkamavanto sattā paññāyantī ti?
Evaṃ, bho.
Yaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, upakkamadhātuyā sati upakkamavanto sattā paññāyanti, ayaṃ sattānaṃ attakāro ayaṃ parakāro.
Do you think, Brahmin, there is a factor of going out... a factor of advancing...  a factor of resistance... a factor of endurance... a factor of approaching?
Yes, Sir.
And when these factors are present is it evident that beings are performing them?
Yes, Sir.
So, when there are these factors and it is evident that beings are performing them, this is the 'one's own action' of beings, this is 'another's action'.
Note the CST version of the text here seems to have been abbreviated more than the text that Bhikkhu Bodhi translates in his AN translation (p.902-904). I've followed the text I have, though I rather than using only the first and last members of the list, I've rendered the final question as a collective inquiry about all the actions involved.

The Buddha lists a series of generic actions which beings are seen to perform. And he asks the same question in each case. And, weirdly, the Brahmin answers "yes" in each case. And the Buddha simply points out the obvious: we all make choices all the time and act on intentions all the time. To argue against free will on some abstract principle is bizarre. Presumably the Brahmin thinks that even though we give the appearance of willed actions, that this is an illusion, a la Sāṅkhya or Advaita Vedanta. But the Buddha is far from impressed by this and repeats the phrase above:
Māhaṃ, brāhmaṇa, evaṃvādiṃ evaṃdiṭṭhiṃ addasaṃ vā assosiṃ vā. Kathañhi nāma sayaṃ abhikkamanto sayaṃ paṭikkamanto evaṃ vakkhati – ‘natthi attakāro natthi parakāro’ ti.
Brahmin I've never seen or heard of this philosophy, this view. For how indeed comes and goes under his own steam possible say: there is no 'one's own action'; there is no 'another's action'.
Then the Brahmin, in a predictable change of heart, converts to being a follower of the Buddha:
Abhikkantaṃ, bho gotama…pe… ajjatagge pāṇupetaṃ saraṇaṃ gatan ti!
It is amazing, Mr Gotama... etc... from this day on [I've] gone for refuge for life. 
Again Bhikkhu Bodhi seems to have an unabbreviated text. I translate the text as I have it. Bodhi says that the Brahmin becomes a lay follower. So a determinist is now convinced that we have free will (attakāra) simply be having the obvious situation pointed out to him. Not a very inspiring story - he doesn't even argue. But it shows that free will is a given in early Buddhism.

This word attakāra is in fact quite rare. It occurs in only one other sutta, Jātaka 528 (Mahābodhijātaka) and an Apadāna Story (i.24). The sutta is the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) where this view on self-willed actions is associated with Makkhali Gosāla (DN i.53-55). Makkhali is a determinist, in that he doesn't believe any theory of causation or conditionality, nor does he see the point in religious exercises. He sums up his view as
Seyyathāpi nāma sutta-guḷe khitte nibbeṭhiyamānam eva paleti, evam eva bāle ca paṇḍite ca sandhāvitvā saṃsaritvā dukkhass'antaṃ karissantī ti.
Just as a ball of string that is thrown, will run away always unwinding, even so the fool and the wise running on, circling around, will eventually make an end of suffering. 
So despite being a fatalist, he's also an optimist because he believes that events will play themselves out positively. The ball of string will eventually unravel and the end of dukkha will be reached. It's just that there is nothing we can do to speed the process up and no external power that can come to our rescue. What will be, will be, and it will take as long as it takes. One just has to accept that events will play themselves out for the best. To counteract this we simply point out that one can choose to believe that or not. It's up to the person, because we do in fact have choices.

These days many scientists are also determinists with no teleological bent: "there is no free will; what will be, will be; we have no idea what it will be, except that the entropy of the universe is increasing." Tackling this view is a more difficult problem that I'll try to address in my next essay.


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