What is the position of Buddhism in regards to free will and Determinism? What would be the correct position of Buddhism and could you use an analogy to describe to me the correct view of Buddhism

Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu


7 Answers 7


In my opinion, the Dhamma is in-between those two extremes. The Dhamma teaches us Dependent Co-arising.

One's mind is not free from the influence of past conditions. What affects the aggregates in the present will influence its future state (or the state of the next group of aggregates causally derived from and connected to a past group of aggregates). In that sense, the mind is not free, at least not in an absolute sense.

On the other hand, is not only the past what influence the way the aggregates are or present themselves; the present, "external conditions" (external to the aggregates) also play a part in determining the state of the mind and the body. When we say "external conditions", we mainly refer to sensory stimuli and sense information, including thoughts (which are the stimuli of the mind, the sixth sense door in buddhism). That's why I think "external" is not a precise word for what I'm trying to say; maybe a better word could be "sense objects". In sum, sense objects contacting with sense organs/doors influence the aggregates, so we cannot say that only the past is responsable for present conditions; and so, we are not determined only by the past, at least not in the absolute sense.

The aggregates are conditioned by both past and present events, and this is precisely what allows us to change and to overcome and eradicate past kamma, to create new habits and tendencies leading to liberation.

Kind regards, and welcome to the site!


When I asked my teacher, he said "both". Why? Because these are two different perspectives on the same reality, one is looking objectively (determinism) and one is looking from the subjective perspective of a sentient being (free will).

From Wikipedia:

Causal determinism [...] in physics is known as cause-and-effect. It is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states.

Imagine a Robotic Vacuum, the kind that builds a map of the house internally and then orients itself by the map. It runs according to program, right? This program is deterministic, it works according to rules, correct?

And yet, from the perspective of the robot (or rather its software program), it receives inputs from its "sensory organs", it "knows" where it is at the moment, and "makes decisions" about where to go next.

Now, imagine if we said, "Since the world is deterministic, the robot does not need the software. Everything is predestined, so we can just leave it unprogrammed and everything will happen as it should. We don't even need to charge the battery. If it is destiny, it will get charged somehow..." Funny, right? Thinking like this you will end up with a dirty house. Even though the robot's behavior is completely deterministic, it still needs the right software and the right sensory information in order to build the right map, so it can make the right decisions (where to turn etc.)

Same with people. Even though the world is actually deterministic, each of us learns, thinks, and makes decisions. If we don't understand what's good, what's bad, and which actions lead to what results, if we simply let it all happen by itself, how can we get any results?

This is why the Buddha basically said, yes, the world operates according to Law, and the results of our actions are deterministic, but each of us has responsibility to build "the map of the house", evaluate our "inputs", and decide where to go next. We can't just sit there and expect Enlightenment to happen automatically - exactly because the world is deterministic.

The world is deterministic and this is why Nirvana is possible. If we don't create a cause, the result will not follow.

This includes me answering this question. If I tell you that there is no free-will and you believe my authority and stop trying, then I will create bad causes for you. However, if I tell you that even though the world is deterministic, you are still responsible for your (local) decision-making, then I will create good causes for you. In this case, again, your future behavior is influenced by me, it is a result of the causes I create. This is why the Buddha was so much against the no-free-will teachers - because by denying free-will they create causes that lead to people giving up and surrendering to the hopeless suffering! But when we say that people are creators of their own destiny we create causes for the Right Effort, which quite deterministically leads in the right direction.

Now, in real life the relationships between events are complex. It's never as simple as the abstract billiard balls, one pushing another. Instead, something I say to you is added to the mix of other things you hear, and the final result is a complex formula aggregating all of these. Many past causes taken together shape the future results. This is why it is usually impossible to trace one future event to one past event, but in general none of the future events happen without some influence from the past events. In other words, the world is temporally continuous, it does not have gaps with something appearing out of absolute nothing. Everything develops continuously, mixing and changing shapes like the drifting clouds.

So the world is deterministic and this is why we must create good causes and not create bad causes. The world is deterministic and this is exactly why our choices matter. The world is deterministic and this is why karma works. The world is deterministic and this is why Teaching works.

Like those Robotic Vacuums, once our battery is charged with good karma and our software is updated with the wisdom of Dharma, we can build the right map of the house and make the right decisions, each one of us acting from their unique perspective and making the best decisions possible with the information we have.

Some people call this view "compatibilism". Meaning, this is a view that determinism is compatible with personal agency and decision-making; determinism is compatible with Right Effort - and not only compatible, determinism is what makes karma and Right Effort work.

  • 1
    Hi @Andrei Volkov, this is a good answer. I read and re-read it few times. I am feeling that you have some how employed circular reasoning. After reading the answer one can again ask, 'do we have a choice to create a cause in the first place?' What if the causes get created in deterministic way based on current state of aggregates and present moment sensory input. That leaves us with no-free will. Am I right or I am missing something or not understood u rightly. Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 14:56

When your mind is agitated, your heart beats faster. When your mind calms down, your heart rate slow down. When you consume caffeine, your heart beats faster and your mind becomes agitated. If you take some medication that causes drowsiness, your heart rate slows down and also affects your mind. Does the mind control the body or does the body control the mind? It's in between.

Similarly, there is no 100% free will and no 100% determinism in Buddhism. It's in between.

We all know that the circumstances of one's birth - in which country, in which family, with which level of affluence and character - will affect how one turns out. Bill Gates wouldn't be Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, if he was born in Kazakhstan. That's determinism.

However, two identical twins with identical genetics and upbringing may turn out to be two completely different individuals. Let's say they attended the same school. Due to free will, one twin gave in to bad company and eventually became a criminal. Due to free will, the other twin decided to choose different company, and eventually became a Buddhist monk after being exposed to Buddhism. His criminal brother heard about Buddhism but thinks it's nonsense.

There is free will. That's why the twins can make their own choices.

But if no one introduced the second twin to Buddhism, would he have chosen to become a Buddhist monk? No. There's some element of determinism there.

To follow the five precepts, practise virtues and learn the Dhamma, is completely within your free will. But how and when did you first come to know of the five precepts, virtues and the Dhamma? That's determinism. But would all people who hear the Dhamma practise the teachings of Buddhism? No. Some instead choose to become Christians or Muslims. That's free will.

There's no perfect free will and there's no perfect determinism.

Free will and determinism are two sides of the same coin. That's the coin of impermanence.

  • You say, 'There is free will. That's why the twins can make their own choices.' How can you be sure of free will here. What if the choices are determined by past life karma or what if the choice is determined by interacting aggregates. How can you be sure about the choice at hand. Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 15:01
  • @TheWhiteCloud That's what I meant by "Similarly, there is no 100% free will and no 100% determinism in Buddhism. It's in between." Indeed, all phenomena is not self, and not everything is under your control. But you do have some free will which is why you can have the desire to practise the Dhamma, observe the five precepts and make better decisions regarding your future conduct.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 15:12
  • What if that free will you are talking itself is an illusion. To clear my point, Siddhart Gotama was already destined and predicted to become the Buddha but after his enlightenment he as not sure should he teach or not after intervention from Brahma he made a choice to trach the dhamma. So did he had a choice? When it was already determind that he will be a Buddha. So his making a chouce to teach was merely an illusion. Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 15:34
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    @TheWhiteCloud Yes. Free will is actually an illusion, but conventionally it is real and it is also skillful means (upaya) to employ free will to direct oneself towards the practice of the Dhamma. This is also included in Right Resolve (samma sankappa) of the Noble Eightfold Path.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 16:49

Probably a combo. of both. Sorta like a combination of nature and nurture. For example, 2 kids in 5th grade sitting in the same class would have different levels of mental acuity. One can learn things much faster than the other. And the Buddhist explanation would attribute the kid's mental sharpness to certain wholesome kamma from his previous lives (wholesome kamma of past lives). That's the "nature" side of the equation. However, the bright kid due to his intelligence might becomes over-confident and starts slacking off in his study, while his average-intelligent friend puts lots of time and effort into his study. And the end result is that the bright kid ended up getting an average grade for his final exam, while the average kid aced the test. This is the "nurture" side of the equation, or in Buddhist term, the wholesome kamma in the present life. There're many other examples in life, like a man who was born into a very wealthy family but squandered all of his inheritance through drugs and sex, versus another man born into a modest household but became wealthy later on in life due to his hard work and abstaining from those debaucheries, etc.


Both are extreme or positive views rejected by Mahayana. For this view we require a form of Compatabilism for all metaphysical dichotomies.

On freewill Ramesh Balsekar writes this in his book The Ultimate Understanding, giving the meaning of ‘Wu Wei’, or non-volitional living.

"Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing - the positive doing and the negative not-doing - are both aspects of ‘doing’.

How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life - and everyone else’s life - is being lived.

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ - who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?

To be enlightened is to be able to accept with equanimity anything in life at any moment as God’s will."

Here's Gurdjieff on the topic.

“I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.

“What to do?” asked G. as though surprised. “It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.”

““How can one get rid of false ideas?” I asked. “We depend on the form of our perceptions. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.”

G shook his head. “Again you speak of something different,” he said. “You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood. Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him - all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.

Everyone finds that nothing is being done in the way it ought to be done. Actually everything is being done in the only way that it can be done. If one thing could be different everything could be different. … Try to understand what I am saying. Everything is dependent on everything else, everything is connected, nothing is separate. Therefore everything is going in the only way it can go. If people were different everything would be different. They are what they are, so everything is as it is.”

This was very difficult to swallow.

“Is there nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done?” I asked.

“Absolutely nothing”.

“And can nobody do anything?”

“That is another question. In order to do it is necessary to be. And it is necessary first to understand what to be means.”

P.D.Ouspensky Conversation with Gurdjieff In Search of the Miraculous - Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1949)


Householder, interested,

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...-ism isn't/doesn't do (or) intend anything, since it has no will. But in regard of what the Buddha taught, if such is asked:

Householder wouldn't be here if not wished to come here. Such is not possible. So ever intention, going after what ever, is ones choice, good or bad.

The position of the Buddha is clear, although the stream of past actions pushing hard toward old habits and leave one often to think that there is no escape, seeing the essence and what has no and no essence in what has.

Kusala Sutta: Skillful

"Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.'

"Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.'"

In regard of approaches from sects who held the view of "all is caused by the past", MN56, aside of many other rebukes, may be of help to abound such views.

See also in regard of the most dangerous views of sectarians, who reject responsibility in various forms for their actions and if not doing much wrongs on them, waste themselves of in in-action:

AN 3.61: Tittha Sutta — Sectarians

A generous talk on this matter by Ven Thanissaro Maha Thera: Did the Buddha Teach Free Will? will be surely of help for all who have gained some good amout of free-will or strong Upanissaya toward the Tripple Gems.

(note that this Gift of Dhamma is not given for trade, stacks, exchange or entertainment, but for ones work trough maccharia to escape the wheel here and liberation)


If we choose the right path of our own free will, the outcome is pre-determined.

Right view gives rise to right thought. Right thought gives rise to right speech. Right speech gives rise to right action. Right action gives rise to right livelihood. Right livelihood gives rise to right effort. Right effort gives rise to right mindfulness. Right mindfulness gives rise to right immersion. Right immersion gives rise to right knowledge. Right knowledge gives rise to right freedom.


  • But do we have a choice to choose the right path. What if the choice we make that itself is an illusion? What if we are on auto pilot mode and volition is an illusion. Commented Aug 1, 2020 at 15:10

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