17 July 2009

Do we have a choice?

Recently Matt Quinn commented on my post "Who Craves?" He asked a very good question and in answering it I found myself edging over into rave mode and realised that it would be a good topic for a stand-alone blog post. I had said "An interesting conclusion here is that we aren't personally responsible for the arising of craving (or hatred) in the present. There can be no doubt that we are responsible for our present actions, ..." and Matt's question draws out an interesting point:
"It seems that you are saying we don't choose whether or not we crave, but we do choose how we act. Have I understood you correctly? If so, then I would like to ask whether you consider choices (or actions) to arise dependent upon conditions just as craving does? If this is the case, then why am I responsible for the former and not the latter? If this isn’t the case, then why isn’t it the case?"
The question is basically the question of free will. Are our choices in response to craving and hatred really choices or are they a matter of karma playing itself out?

There are many ways to approach this. So let's start with cause and effect. Craving is an effect of previous choices. Choices cause craving (or not). The fact that we do crave influences our choices - but it does not determine them. When craving is present we are strongly drawn to the object we desire, but we are not inexorably or invariably drawn to it. Experientially you will know this to be true - sometimes you can say no to desire. This choice, according to Buddhism, is always present, and it is what distinguishes the human state from other possible states of being.

My understanding of free will is that it is silly to insist on absolutes - the debate in the West is often in terms of do we have it or not, and this is framed by a dispute within Christianity, as well as a dispute between Christians and Humanists. This is not a debate I'm inclined to join on it's own terms as it is framed in terms of a world view I don't share. I suggest that it is more useful to ask this: "to what extent are we free to choose?" Our choices are conditioned by our previous choices - the technical term for this is saṃskārā. If we make the same kind of choice many times it becomes habitual, and habits are hard to break, saṃskārās are these habits compounded over lifetimes. Even addictions, where there is very little choice, however, are able to be overcome given good conditions. People can and do change. I know I've seen it for myself, and so the question becomes how much can we change, and under what conditions, and in what directions?

Sometimes rather than exercising free will we might talk about setting up positive conditions for change. By this I mean conditions which encourage mindfulness and emotional positivity. The traditional way of talking about the wheel of life is that most of it is just inevitable, almost like an automatic process: so if you are born, then you die, and are reborn; if you have the sensory equipment then you have sensory experiences. And the rest is just details. But there is a possible gap in the process. It is between sensation (vedanā) and craving (taṇha). It is just possible to experience the pleasurable sensation and not experience the desire to possess it. If this were not possible then we could never say no to desire.

In breaking free of craving we do not break the cycle all at once. At first we weaken the reaction. So when there is no mindfulness we experience the pleasurable sensation, and reach for it without thinking. When we have some mindfulness however there is a possibility of not reaching for the object. We may feel the desire to reach out for the pleasure (to try to obtain, maintain, or retain it: the -tain part comes from Latin tenere "to hold"), but we stifle the desire and in doing so we experience a little bit of freedom - a taste of freedom. We can build on this until we have more and more freedom to not try to obtain the object of desire. We find that this makes us more content. Often you get a taste of this on retreat where the conditions are good for mindfulness and desire naturally reduces. Then the task becomes the breaking of desire itself which means we go beyond being mindful of our sensations and reactions, and trying to hold in mind the process itself, and try to see into that process to see through it - this is the literal meaning of vipassanā, to see through.

Early Buddhist texts identify two trends in conditionality. In one we simply act on craving, hatred and confusion and this sustains those very qualities. Acting on craving leads to more craving. In the second we act on some positive impulse - the two main one's in the texts are faith (saddha) and non-remorse (avippaṭisāra) - then this leads to positive consequences that in turn set up the conditions for more positive consequences. At some point we are making so many positive choices that there is no scope for craving. So we have two ways to deal with craving - to reduce and eliminate it through mindfulness; or we can overwhelm it with positivity. Sangharakshita has called the first path cyclic, and reactive; and the second spiral, and creative.

Note that one strain of Buddhism - descending from the Japanese thinker Shinran - came to the conclusion that there is so little choice that individual will is insufficient and that all we can hope for is rescue by a Buddha as set out in the Sukhāvati-vyūha Sūtras where Amitābha makes a series of vows to save all beings. This kind of faith based approach to Buddhism is very popular in East Asia, and indeed it is important in the West in the form of Nichiren and Soka Gakkai - the latter being an offshoot of the former. However, even within that kind of framework it is up to the individual to develop their faith, so even there we are not free of actually having to make choices.

In fact we are always making choices and decisions even if only unconsciously. It can't be avoided. Scientists have begun to show that animals do make limited choices, but we may still generalise and say that the characteristic of animals is that they simply respond to stimulus and act without reflective thought or self-reflection. Human beings are many orders of magnitude ahead of our animal cousins in that we have the ability to reflect on our actions and to examine our motives for acting. We are moral beings, whether we like it or not, and our actions have moral consequences. In order to fully take up our humanity we must engage with this fact and at least begin to take responsibility for our actions. Though addicted to pleasurable sensations (and we may say the avoidance of unpleasant sensations) we have a choice.

Our instincts are honed for a much less sophisticated and technologically simple world and often do not serve us in the present. The natural desires for example for sex, for sweet and fatty foods, and for social status are hyper-stimulated in our societies. So every relationship is sexualised, we are fat, and we constantly struggle for status through grooming and/or combat. Nietzsche famously said that man is a tightrope stretched between the animal and the 'over-man'. We retain some of our animal characteristics, but we are capable of being so much more. As followers of the Buddha we conceptualise this 'more' as 'Buddhahood', as being liberated from greed, hatred and confusion. And the key is that we do have a choice, and each positive choice we make gives us more choice in the future.

image: cartoon from www.marriedtothesea.com.
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