Is there a Buddhist concept that maps to the western concept of the will? For instance the will to get up on a morning, to go to work, practice Buddhism etc... One of my teachers said that it is just another name for our greed, hatred and delusion. I really like that concept but I wonder if the will is discussed in Buddhist texts or by established teachers and in what terms.


6 Answers 6


"the will to get up on a morning, to go to work, practice Buddhism etc"

This sounds similar to Mahayana's virya-paramita, paramita of exertion or energy. According to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the key factor of this is joy. The key to exertion is not as much forcing oneself, as it is an ability to derive delight from the element of doing the right thing.

My last teacher called this the power of good news. He said we should be the masters of information, instead of letting the information drive us around. My Zen master said the same about meditation: don't fight the thoughts but don't let them drive you either. Buddha called this the right attention, focusing on things that help us, not on things that wreck us.

The will your teacher referred to as the three poisons is the samsaric will, the will that drives us. Even the will to practice Buddhism on the initial stages can be a type of samsaric will. We hear a nice story about Nirvana and we get inspired to practice. Like a donkey following a carrot on a stick. This is what he must have meant.

The will that is without defilements -- the Enlightened will we could say -- is not dependent on a carrot. It is the choice you make to be motivated by whatever it is that you chose. It is like making yourself fall in love and then maintaining the affair by deliberately focusing only on signs that stimulate it.

The will that is like "another name for our greed, hatred and delusion" seems the same from non-dualistic no-free-will victim perspective, but from Enlightened master's perspective it is quite the opposite. Enlightenment does entail disenchantment and exhaustion of all projects or impulses, but that only means the projects/impulses that come from greed, hatred and delusion. It does not mean you don't have will to do things you see as worth of doing.


The will to do something would probably be equivalent to the term cetana, which means intention or an act of will. The term itself doesn't have any particular positive or negative connotation, as you can have a cetana that is good just as easily as a cetana to do something bad.

Most significantly, the cetana formed with an act is what determines the kind of karma that is produced, as is explained in AN 6.063 where the Buddha said:

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.

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    I am not sure this answers the question, because as far as I understood, 'cetana' is not necessarily intentional, even though it is called 'intention' sometimes even 'volition'. Maybe Crab Bucket's question relates to the 'desire' translated as 'the wish to do something' (which can be virtuous - like the desire to achieve liberation; non-virtuous, or neutral) and is a main mind which is a conceptual consciousness. What do you think? Oct 3, 2015 at 18:13
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    First of all, welcome to stack exchange! I remember you from Dharmawheel and rather miss your very informative posts!
    – Bakmoon
    Oct 3, 2015 at 19:53
  • Perhaps there is some confusion because of how the term Cetana is used in some texts within the Theravada abhidhamma. Within the Abhidhamma cetana is classified as one of the mental factors present in all mental states, but that is a somewhat different usage of the term. In that context the term cetana refers to the mind's turning away from a previous object and towards a new one, rather than intention in it's normal every day sense of the word.
    – Bakmoon
    Oct 3, 2015 at 19:57

Is there a Buddhist concept that maps to the western concept of the will? For instance the will to get up on a morning, to go to work, practice Buddhism etc...

There's the Four Right Kinds of Striving (Sammappadhana), part of the 37 Aids to Enlightenment:

MN 77: “Again, Udāyin, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to develop the four right kinds of striving.

  1. Here a bhikkhu awakens zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives.

  2. He awakens zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states...

  3. He awakens zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…

  4. He awakens zeal for the continuance, non-disappearance, strengthening, increase, and fulfilment by development of arisen wholesome states, and he makes effort, arouses energy, exerts his mind, and strives. And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge.


Will is cetana, 'consciousness, sense, thought, intention,' the original and originating kinetic aspect of trans-dual reality. Intention is of course the essence of karma, correlative to the "act of observation" in quantum physics.

It is the root of samsara, the principle where samsara originates in reality, not in the sense of a temporal sequence but in the sense of logical primacy. Desirous attachment is will in its objectifying mode. Based on your examples it might also be correlated with 'energy' (viriya'), to which the Buddha frequently exhorts his followers, contrary to the view that Buddhist practitioners are "passive."


"The will" is any kind of desiring, wanting, thinking, intending, choosing, doing, ... Be it very very subtle, very subtle, not very subtle, strong, very strong, etc.

Yes, "the will" comes from greed, hatred and delusion. All come from delusion. When all delusion is removed, "the will" is extinguished.

In the same way as a flame is extinguished when all the fuel is removed, "the will" is extinguished when all delusion is removed.

By removing all delusion, "the will" remains until our bodies die, but because delusion is removed, "the will" is known, it's cause is known and it's ending is known.

"Knowing" leads to final liberation: complete extinguishing of all will.

  • beginner, if indeed the will is caused by delusion, then it must be false. If it is false then it never existed, so how can it be extinguished?
    – Sam Reeve
    Oct 5, 2015 at 19:28
  • Friend, delusion is: not knowing the cause of the will. When the cause of the will is known, this same cause is removed. When removed, it's extinguished. When extinguished, there is nothing else to be done.
    – beginner
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:24

There's a sutta called AN 11.2 Cetana Sutta, which Thanissaro Bhikkhu subtitled "An Act of Will".

The Cetana Sutta is similar to AN 10.1, which is quoted as The rewards of virtue.

Anyway, the Cetana Sutta starts with...

For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, 'May freedom from remorse arise in me.' It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.

... and continues in a similar way.

I read that as saying that being "consummate in virtue" is sufficient: that leads to freedom from remorse, to joy, to etc., through to dispassion, and to knowledge & vision of release.

Perhaps this is similar to Andrei's answer which says:

The key to exertion is not as much forcing oneself, as it is an ability to derive delight from the element of doing the right thing.

It also seems to match other answers in identifying 'will' as 'cetana'.

My personal guess/opinion/interpretation of how it works as described in the sutta is an internal monologue that goes something like,

  • If I do the wrong thing or don't do the right thing then I'll regret it (i.e. feel remorse) which is unpleasant/regrettable
  • I don't want to feel remorse (or don't want to continue to feel remorse)
  • i.e. what I do want instead of remorse is that "may freedom from remorse arise in me"
  • Having desired freedom of remorse, and having seen (right view) that what leads to freedom from remorse is virtue (including Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood), then I (naturally want to) do the right thing in order to attain the desired result.

Saying "there is no need for an act of will" reminds me of Wu wei -- a way in which I interpret that is that if I want to score a goal in football then it doesn't take an act of will to kick the ball ... instead kicking the ball follows naturally from being a good football player, from the desire to play football and to score a goal.

Another interpretation is based on dependent arising: when that when virtue is present then that's the condition for no-remorse to arise naturally (like soil and seed and nutrients and water and sun is the condition for a plant to arise naturally).

Lastly, Buddhism doctrine talks about fetters and hindrances and so on. So what an English-speaker might want to characterize as "an absence of will" (e.g. "I don't want to get up in the morning"), a Buddhist might characterize as the presence of hindrances e.g. of sloth and torpor (but see also Hui-neng's mirror).

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