04 April 2014

Experience and Free Will in Early Buddhism

The Four Humours
image via Musings on the 18th C
In a recent exchange in comments on Dhīvan's blog, Two Meanings of Karma, he drew my attention to the Sīvaka Sutta. This sutta says that kamma is only one of eight causes of experience and introduces the term pubbe-kata-hetu "caused by former actions", which is discussed below. Related suttas help to flesh out what is meant by the term and place important limits on the doctrine of karma.

The early Buddhists were critical of the view that everything we experience is a result of past actions because it is a form of determinism that eliminates meaningful moral choices. As such this teaching touches on the subject so dear to Western moral philosophers, i.e. free will. I begin with my translation of the Sīvaka Sutta and a discussion of the main terms and ideas and then contrast it with the Titthāyatanādi Sutta (AN 3.61) with passing reference to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101).

Sīvaka Sutta SN 36.21 (iv.230)
One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir in the Squirrel Sanctuary Bamboo Grove. Then the ascetic Moḷiya-Sīvako approached the Bhagavan and greeted him. When they have exchanged pleasentaries he sat to one side. And sitting on one side he asked:
Mr Gotama, what would you say to the toilers and priests whose ideology is "whatever a person experiences (paṭisamvedeti), whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, is all caused by past actions (pubbekatahetu)"?
[The Bhagavan replied], Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of bile (pitta); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of phlegm (semha)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from the rising of winds (vāta)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from interactions of the humours (sannipātika)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by changes in the season (utu-pariṇāma)...
Sīvaka, some experiences are produced by adverse circumstances (visama-parihāra)...
Sīvaka, some experiences arise from physical injury (opakkamikānipi)...  
Sīvaka, some experiences are also produced by the ripening of actions (kammavipāka); [this fact] one can personally know and [it] is considered true by [people in] the world. In this case, Sīvaka, those toilers and priests who claim that "whatever a person experiences is all caused by past actions" are wrong (micchā). They overshoot what is personally known and what is considered true by [people in] the world.
That said, Moḷiya Sāika said this to the Bhagavan: "Awesome, Mr Gotama, that's awesome. Please remember me as an upāsaka who has gone for refuge for life. 
Bile, phlegm, and wind.
The humours, and the seasons,
Adversity, injury,
And ripening of actions as eighth.

Comments on Sīvaka Sutta

Firstly for enthusiasts of the punctuation problem related to the standard Buddhist sutta opening "evaṃ mayā sutaṃ..." note the opening of this sutta "One time the Bhagavan was staying in Rajgir" (Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā rājagahe viharati). If we care about such things this shows that "evaṃ mayā sutam" is one syntactic unit and "ekaṃ samayam... viharati" is another. In fact to my mind this is the obvious way to read the Pāḷi. A qualifier like ekaṃ samayaṃ is far more likely to appear before a verb or participle than after it. Reading ekaṃ samayaṃ as going with sutaṃ looks like special pleading. If we were going to punctuate evaṃ mayā sutaṃ ekaṃ samayaṃ... we'd mark a new clause with a punctuation mark after sutaṃ. Which is to say that it is not:
"Thus I heard at one time, the Buddha was staying in Rajgir";
"Thus I heard, at one the Buddha was staying in Rajgir".
Secondly the name Moḷiya-Sīvaka is quite interesting. In How Buddhism Began (p.135-164; esp. 151-4) Richard Gombrich proposed that we take Aṅgulimala to be a Śaiva doing extreme antinomian practices. Now the name Sīvaka is probably from siva 'auspicious, fortunate' with the suffix -ka (causing the lengthening of the initial vowel) and thus on face value means 'one who is auspicious'. In which case the name would be synonymous with svāstika. The Pāli is equivalent to Sanskrit śivawhich is also the name of a god: Śiva. Pāli sīvaka might well be Sanskrit śaivaka, "one who belongs to Śiva". Thus we might read Moḷiya-Sīvaka as 'a top-knotted Śiva devotee'. The Dictionary of Pāli Names has nothing to settle it either way, though the name is not common: in addition to our Sīvaka we find just one yakkha (DN iii.205; SN i.211); one physician who was Ānanda in a previous life (J iv.412); and two theras (Thag vs.14 & vss.183-4), one of whom lives in Rajgir

"Experiences" (present participle, not nominal plural) translates paṭisaṃvedeti. Here what one experiences is obviously vedanā and is characterised (as vedanā always is) as sukha, dukkha, or adukkhamasukha. Both paṭisaṃvedeti and vedanā come from the root √vid 'to know'. From this root we also get veda 'the knowledge'; vedanā 'the known', i.e. what becomes known to us, what we actually experience. Also in this passage: vedayita 'felt, experienced'; in the plural 'experiences'; such events are veditabba is 'to be known; knowable'. This cluster of terms is part of what makes "feelings" an unsatisfactory translation of vedanā. What we are talking about is that which we become aware of due to the activity of all our senses, including the mind. "Feelings" is far too narrow. 

Pubbekatahetu is a three-part compound: hetu = cause, kata = past participle of √kṛ 'to do, to make' and pubbe 'before, formerly'. The compound is a bahuvrīhi meaning 'whose cause is what was done before'. There is a related term pubbekatakāraṇa which we find in a commentarial passage on AN 3.61 where it is also glossed as "Experiencing with actions formerly performed as the only condition" (pubbekatakammapaccayeneva paṭisaṃvedeti). 

Visama-parihāra is an odd word. Bodhi translates 'careless behaviour', Thanissaro "adverse behavior", though PED suggests 'being attacked by adversities'. Parihāra is from pari√hṛ 'to attend, shelter, protect; carry about; move around; conceal; set out, take up, propose'. PED takes it to mean 'surrounding' in the figurative sense. Visama is literally 'uneven, unequal, unharmonious'. Figuratively in a moral sense, 'lawless, wrong'; and 'odd, peculiar.' Buddhaghosa glosses: "Produced by adverse circumstances" means carrying a heavy load, pounding cement etc, or snakes, mosquitoes or falling in a pit, etc for one wandering at the wrong time. "Visamaparihārajānīti mahābhāravahanasudhākoṭṭanādito vā avelāya carantassa sappaḍaṃsakūpapātādito vā visamaparihārato jātāni." (SA iii.81) Thanks to Dhīvan for helping me with this passage. I think his translation of visama-parihāra as 'adverse circumstances' is better than either Bodhi or Thanissaro and I have adopted it.

The main point is that the view that everything we experience is a result of past karma is in fact wrong (micchā). I've pointed this out before and drawn attention to the Devadaha Sutta (MN 101) as another text which refutes this view. There it is attributed to Nigaṇṭhas who we usually take to be the Jains.

Titthāyatanādi Sutta

The idea of pubbekatahetu is also criticised in the Titthāyatanādi Sutta AN 3.61 (i.173) where it is one of three sectarian heresies (tīṇimāni titthāyatanāni). Faced with such a claim as "everything that one experiences is due to past actions" the Buddha questions his opponent about the reasons for unethical behaviour (the dasa kusala-kammapatha; known in the Triratna Order as that "the ten precepts").

In some sense this is a question of free will. The idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a form of determinism. The Buddha's critique points out that if we accept a form of determinism then we have no motivation in regard to moral moral choices in the present, and thus the possibility of liberation is lost.
Pubbekataṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sārato paccāgacchataṃ na hoti chando vā vāyāmo vā idaṃ vā karaṇīyaṃ idaṃ vā akaraṇīyanti. Iti karaṇīyākaraṇīye kho pana saccato thetato anupalabbhiyamāne muṭṭhassatīnaṃ anārakkhānaṃ viharataṃ na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo
However, bhikkus, for those falling back on former action (pubbekata) as the essence it is not a motivation for, not an effort towards, distinguishing between right and wrong. As a result of right and wrong not being truly and reliably ascertained, there is  dwelling forgetfully and vulnerably. [Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist.
Of the three other translations I consulted (Bodhi, Thanissaro, and Piya Tan) I disagree with all of them as to how to render the last sentence. All translate samaṇavādo in the sense of 'call oneself a samaṇa'.

Samaṇa-vāda is a nominal compound in the nominative. PED sv. vāda has "2. what is said, reputation, attribute, characteristic." PED cites Sn 859 for this reading, and one Jātaka reference. The final pāda of Sn 859 reads tasmā vādesu nejati. The Niddesa glosses vādesu here as ‘criticisms, blame, reproaches, not getting any renown, not being praised’. Though the SnA has "On that account he is not cowed because of criticisms" (taṃ kāraṇā nindāvacanesu na kampati) and K R Norman seems to follow this interpretation in his translation : "therefore he is not agitated in [the midst of] their accusations". (p 107 & 338-9). But the this also fits with the context. It seems to me that PED is probably correct to include this second sense of vāda in SnA, since that is how the commentator understood it, but wrong to attribute it to Sn. It's a commentarial usage not a sutta usage. As far as I can see there is no parallel usage in Sanskrit.

I had some discussion with Dhīvan on this and he pointed out: "Looking at the comm., it’s clear that the translators are following what it says but putting it into clearer English.
na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo: for you beings or other beings thinking, ‘I am an ascetic’, individually the reasonable characteristic of an ascetic isn’t, doesn’t succeed. For though there are ascetics whose reason is only past action, also there are non-ascetics whose reason is only past action. ‘Reasonable’ (sakāraṇa) means having a reason. (AA ii.272)
So Buddhaghosa’s argument is that the ascetics who claim that what is experienced is caused by past action are not really ascetics because non-ascetics also believe this, it’s not a right view that will get you anywhere, so it’s hardly a good view for a so-called ascetic.
Thus we can see where the other translations are coming from. My feeling, however, is that we should always make a strenuous effort to translate the text and at the very least include it as a footnote, before adopting the commentarial gloss. Buddhaghosa's view is not that of early Buddhism, but that of 5th century Theravāda scholasticism. Sometimes it's helpful and sometimes not. Here I disagree with him. His reading is one that requires us to treat rather too many words as meaning something other than their obvious meaning.

Na hoti samaṇavādo would be an entirely straight forward sentence meaning, 'It is not the doctrine of a samaṇa' [with an emphasis by putting the verb first]. Sahadhammiko is in the same case as, and thus goes with, samaṇavādo. Piya Tan says it is an adverb 'with justice' and Bodhi also translates as an adverb, 'legitimately'. This appears to be based on the commentarial gloss: sakāraṇa (above). However as an adverb it ought to be in the accusative, not the nominative. By contrast paccattaṃ is a neuter accusative used adverbially (individually). So, sahadhammiko simply cannot be an adverb, it can only be in apposition with samaṇavādo. The commentarial gloss is mistaken and misleads those who follow it. Here I take sahadhammiko in the obvious (and dictionary) meaning of 'one who shares a dhamma' or a 'co-religionist', i.e. from our point of view, another Buddhist. And the idea that everything we experience is due to past action is a not the doctrine of a samaṇa who is Buddhist. Indeed, as above, it is the doctrine of a samaṇa who is a follower of Nigaṇṭha Nāgaputta, which is to say, a Jain. So sahadhammiko samaṇavādo must mean 'the samaṇa doctrine which is co-religionist' (as I understand it sahadhammiko specifically qualifies vādo). In more elegant English, "the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

One of the problems here is the switch from plural to singular. Bodhi, for example, translates as though the whole as plural. But I think in "na hoti paccattaṃ sahadhammiko samaṇavādo" we have a completely separate sentence in the singular with an implied 'it' as agent. And the obvious candidate for 'it' is pubbekata 'former action'. Thus the sentence means "[Former action] is not, on its own, the doctrine of the samaṇa who is Buddhist."

The problem here then, is saying, as the Jains do, that experience is based on former actions alone. Notwithstanding this, as I pointed out in my 2009 essay, many Tibetans insist on a pubbekatahetu doctrine. For example Tai Situpa has said :
"Now, this way, everything is karma. Only one thing that is not karma that is the Buddha nature and the enlightenment."
Or Ringu Tulku Rinpoche cited on the Rigpa Wiki:
Strictly speaking, therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, you cannot say that there is anything in our ordinary experience that is not somehow a result of our karma.
These same teachers argue that their view is not deterministic and that a particular calamity cannot be viewed as a punishment for some particular act. However, the Dalai Lama, for example (and I have heard Robina Courtin of the FPMT say the same), believes that the Chinese invasion of Tibet was because the present occupants of Tibet had accumulated bad karma in past lives (See this personal account of a discussion the DL for example).

I happen to think that the early Buddhist view is more coherent and less a result of blind faith in a supernatural force, but the really interesting thing is that once again we see that the metaphysics of a basic Buddhist doctrine changed. I say once again because I have already written about another way that karma changes from being inevitable, if mitigable, to being entirely avoidable through the use of mantras. Over the centuries the doctrine of karma has been modified to suit the needs of Buddhists. Perhaps the two changes are related. After all a hardening of views towards everything being a result of karma would probably make the ability to avoid the consequences of karma seem more attractive. Perhaps the change to everything being the result of karma required a let out so that it was not absolutely deterministic?

Niyama & Naturalism.

The commentarial teaching of the "fivefold restriction" (pañcavidha niyama) is sometimes cited as another example of how karma is not the only type of causation in our lives. This is mainly due to a modernist interpretation promulgated by Ledi Sayadaw and Mrs Rhys Davids in the 1930s, and Sangharakshita's development of their ideas in the 1960s and 2010s. (For the history of the idea see Dhīvan's essays and published article).

In Pāli, we don't have "five niyamas" but one fivefold niyama which is five applications of one principle of conditionality. The doctrine seems to aim at naturalising Buddhists ideas about three subjective or supernatural processes: cognition (citta); the functioning of karma; and the miracles associated with a buddha (dhamma-niyama). This done by likening them to observable processes in nature. So we have bījaniyama which describes rice seeds becoming rice plants and producing rice grains; and utuniyama, the fact that trees flower and fruit together in the appropriate season. These are limitations or restrictions (niyama) on how natural events unfold that can be observed by everyone in nature and they form the model of understanding unseen processes.

To some extent the Buddhist model of cognition is a result of introspection by yogis, but we can only ever observe our own cognitive process and never someone else's (at least this limitation clearly applies in Iron Age India). However Buddhists felt confident in providing a generalised description of cognition all the same. Similarly the process of karma is unseen and supernatural - it operates behind the scenes and cannot be understood in it's specifics. Karma, the idea that good and evil deeds have appropriate consequences for the appropriate person, is an article of faith. The various miracles accompanying the life history of a Buddha are also supernatural and by the time the niyama doctrine is composed they occurred centuries in the past.

The argument is that the limitations on the natural, seen processes of seeds and seasons, apply also to the unseen and supernatural. Clearly the analogy of karma with the process of planting seeds and reaping grain was one that appealed to the Indian mind, because a more literal version of this same analogy became the main Mahāyāna view of karma. The seeds were even provided with a storage pit in the from of the alayavijñāna.

The point about karma here is not that it is only one of many types of conditionality, but another example of the one type. It is a "natural" process characterised by inevitability, by results which are appropriate to the cause, and by ripening in due season.The idea that not everything is a result of karma is fine. As above it is definitely part of the early Buddhist view on karma. It's just that this is not the point of the niyama.


So the basic Buddhist teaching is that experiences are not all dictated by karma. A variety of causes and conditions including health, seasonal changes, and just plain luck can be invoked. The view that everything we experience being the result of karma is specifically criticised as deterministic. Such a view leaves us unable to make moral choices which is why early Buddhism rejects it. Buddhist soteriology requires that we have a measure of freedom to choose between right and wrong. However, according to this basic teaching, karma does determine which realm we will be born in. And one of the characteristics of the manussaloka or human realm, is that humans have sense objects, sense organs, and the potential for sense consciousness. Thus as human beings we experience vedanā every moment of our waking lives. And how we respond to vedanā is karma.


See also previous essays:
See also 'Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will.' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. [This article, along with its predecessors, explores various attempts to define Buddhist morality as in/compatible with Western ideas of free will. On the whole I think the attempt tells us much more about Western Philosophy and its preoccupations that it does about Buddhism.]

Dhīvan's Essays on Karma

Norman, K R. (2006) The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta). PTS.

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