You see, there is only one constant, one universal, it is the only real truth: causality. Action. Reaction. Cause and effect. (...) Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. (...) Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it.

-- The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded

I've read/listened somewhere that the illusion of control and choice is a source of suffering. Does the Buddhist see it in a unyielding manner as the Merovingian?

Does different groups of Buddhism view this point differently?


Please complement your answers. Beyond the views on causality (deterministic or stochastic perception) how these views relate to suffering? Is there relation between suffering and how someone perceives choice? The misunderstanding of causality and control can produce suffering?

  • 1
    The entire matrix series is advocating of determinism. Like the oracle said, "dont worry about the vase". I think a simulated world will be deterministic. Buddhism encourages mindfulness and right efforts so it inclines on free will of individual. Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 13:34

5 Answers 5


If I could be as bold as to identify the viewpoint of Buddhism in terms of western philosophy, I would say Buddhist position on free will is close to that of Compatibilism (see the Wikipedia entry).

Basically, on one hand, the universe can be seen as deterministic. On the other hand, our choice-making is what objectively leads to our outcomes, so even if our choices are metaphysically determined by various factors, bad choices still lead to bad results, and good choices -- to good results.

From this perspective, Buddhism provides a way to escape the inherent dominance of the deterministic universe, through exercising control over your mind. Because our experience of existence is 100% assembled by the mind, we have leverage over our experience.

In Buddhist philosophy it is not the illusion of control that is the source of suffering, it is the clinging to something that you think is supposed to be a certain way while in fact it is not. Basically, clinging to illusions.

The entirety of Buddhist path can be seen as the quest for Freedom through mastery of mind. "Mastery" means, as my Zen Master says, to operate mind, instead of letting mind operate you.

  • If your choices are metaphysically determined, there is no true freedom. The person who escapes the deterministic universe is merely being determined by a higher force which other people have not been lucky enough to receive. Essentially the same as the Calvinism tradition in Christianity. There is no true compatibilist position, compatibilism is an illusion.
    – yters
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 18:17
  • If you choose to think so ;)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 18:27
  • But seriously, your consideration above is at kindergarten level, the level of objectified logic. You take your mental constructs and assume them to fully express the ontological. But in reality, "ontological" is infinitely multifaceted. Buddhism goes far beyond simplistic single-faceted metaphysics. As my Zen Master said, learn to operate your mind, instead of letting your mind operate you.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 18:41
  • 1
    Right, if you don't want to care about logic and consistency, anything goes. But, if we are dealing with logic here, then what I say is correct. Of course, you can just insult me instead of responding to my point :) I guess us kindergarteners deal with logic and reason, and adults just deal in insults....
    – yters
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 1:48
  • 1
    Yes, the way you rushed to dismiss a 2600 years old living philosophical tradition you know virtually nothing about as "essentially the same as the Calvinism", is nothing but childish. Your conclusion that deterministic universe is incompatible with freedom is based on your (implied) assumption that freedom means an agent capable of action independent of any cause. But Buddhism operates in a different frame of reference, phenomenological, rather than mechanistic. From phenomenological perspective, experience of freedom is freedom, because experience covers 100% of our ... er... experience :)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 2:06

causality. Action. Reaction. Cause and effect

This is agreeable with Theravada Buddhism. This is dealt in dependent origination

Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without

Not relevant. As there is no one with absolute power nor are we puppets to some external force.

Having said this. We do have some degree of choice in the present moment, which has some degree of influence on the future which hence some level of influence of the future.

the truth is we are completely out of control

Do not aggree. We have some degree of control but not absolute control (Anatta nature, marks of existence), i.e., fuzzy, stochastic and complex.

Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it.

Do not agree.

By understanding cause and effect (dependent origination) you can break out of this vicious circle and attain Nirvana. You are at Nirvana when you break the cycle of dependent origination, hence free from cause and effect.

Also cause and effect in Buddhism is more like:

Hence we not completely enslaved nor are we completely free from it. We have some degree of choice but not absolute choice. (Refer to marks of existence)

Is there relation between suffering and how someone perceives choice?

Also any form of perception clouds your view of reality. So any perception regarding choice also results in misery as you are looking through coloured glass (See Moha and Avidyā in the 3 unwholesome roots).

  • Even though your "we are somewhat free" position is not ultimately satisfying, for practical purposes this is a great answer, +1.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 17:19
  • @Suminda Is it because of karma that you say we don't have total control?
    – dmsp
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 11:47
  • 1
    Annatha nature of existence. Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 11:49
  • Why don't you give that reason in the answer then? That makes it more easier to grasp what you say :)
    – dmsp
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 12:00
  • 1
    It is actually impossible to break free of cause and effect. Zen koan claims that a master once told a pupil that the buddha was free of cause and effect and as a result the master was reborn as a fox until he realised that none are free from cause and effect but can be free from uncontrolled rebirth and ignorance.
    – Sam Reeve
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:09

This says,

In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on kamma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the notion of kamma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, and makes it possible for a person who has completed the practice to survive and teach it with full authority to others. For more on these points, see the articles, "Karma," "A Refuge in Skillful Action," and "Five Piles of Bricks"; see also the Introduction to The Wings to Awakening, along with the introductions to the sections on Skillfulness and Kamma & the Ending of Kamma in that book.

I think the summary is that, although the past affects the present, and the present affects the future, nevertheless we can also choose (control ourselves) in the present, which affects the extent to which we're liberated now.

I looked through the hyperlinks quoted above; and what seemed to me the most relevant snippet/extract/highlight from each links were:

  • Kamma

    So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are — what you come from — is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we've been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we've got. If you're suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. If you see that other people are suffering, and you're in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Someday you may find yourself in the same predicament that they're in now, so here's your opportunity to act in the way you'd like them to act toward you when that day comes.

    This belief that one's dignity is measured, not by one's past, but by one's present actions, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and explains why early Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and mythology of the brahmans. As the Buddha pointed out, a brahman could be a superior person not because he came out of a brahman womb, but only if he acted with truly skillful intentions.

  • Skillfulness

    The most basic lesson he learned was that mental skills can be developed.

  • The Khandhas

    Instead, it quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, "What am I?" is best ignored. This suggests that he formulated the concept of the khandhas to answer other, different questions. If, as meditators, we want to make the best use of this concept, we should look at what those original questions were, and determine how they apply to our practice.

  • The Awakening

    After trying several false paths, including formless mental absorptions and physical austerities, he happened on the path that eventually worked: bringing the mind into the present by focusing it on the breath and then making a calm, mindful analysis of the processes of the mind as they presented themselves directly to his immediate awareness. Seeing these processes as inconstant, stressful, and not-self, he abandoned his sense of identification with them. This caused them to disband, and what remained was Deathlessness (amata-dhamma), beyond the dimensions of time and space. This was the happiness for which he had been seeking.


In my opinion, determinism is a feature that appears in all conditioned phenomena (at the very least, in all phenomena of our subjective experience), which makes those phenomena follow inconditionally causality and conditionality.

With X set of conditions, Y consequences occur; Y depends on X to arise.

Some fact or state of affairs A leads to a new state of affairs B; B is caused by A.

This order of things is what allow us to predict events, to manipulate circumstances, to increase our chances of success, and to achieve desired outcomes. Both Dhamma and science follow this, with the former having the main purpose of attaining liberation from dukkha and the cycle of rebirth.

What the Dhamma training does, in my view, is not to "bypass" determinism, but to change what factors are decisive to give rise to interpretation, subjective experience, intentions and deeds. Instead of being governed by the "imposed" interpretations of others, becoming ourselves trained and habituated on such interpretations; becoming ourselves replicators of such interpretations; producing intentions and new interpretations from such habitual and learned interpretations.

Right View is key for all lf this: RV is achieved by reasoning or by influence of others, which leads to acquiring or producing new information that could make our interpretation not giving rise to afective and cognitive contradictions between expectations and facts.

With Right View sufficiently developed, other mental factors and qualities start developing as well, while others become diminished in its presence and influence. This makes one's own critical judgement, reflection and knowledge (both led by the wisdom we have cultivated previously) to have be more preponderance when taking decisions or intending something, or to put ir from the opposite perspective, allows us to not get blindly and impulsively influenced by old habitual patterns, by others' opinions, by unsupported assumptions, by the worldly winds, etc.

I wouldn't summarize all of the above by stating that the mind becomes predominant over the external conditions. This is because, without exceptions, it is the mind the one that give rise to mind states. As long as there is the conditions for the arising of intentions, intentions will arise, choices will be made, and deeds (thoughts, communication or bodily acts) will be executed. The question, then, is what factors and conditions are responsible for the arising of intentions as it arises in some specific context.

Instead, I'd summarize all of the above by saying that the training in the Dhamma strenghten, develops and takes to fulfillment the factors that give rise to wisdom and mindful living, while weakening, diminishing and eradicating the ones that lead to ignorance, acritical and impulsive lives.


As I understand it, the teaching is that the simple picture of "cause and effect" that dominates the western / scientific view is a fiction, because every cause has many effects and every effect has many causes. With this in mind, the notion of personal choice is seen to be, perhaps too simple to be explanatory. Choicelessness is therefore also untrue, and so with anything "personal". It all unravels in the light of awareness.

The questioner asked how this influences / brings about suffering. Pushing on a door which is locked, or opens the other way, will produce suffering. Wrong ideas about anything will inevitably lead to choices that do more harm than good. Does this answer the question?

I referred to the above noted Wikipedia article on Prattiyasamutpada for this analysis. This stuff need not be so complicated! Nor need anyone judge others. - Peace

  • I like the question's reference to The Matrix movies. I call a person who is (somewhat) free of ego but with the point of view of a Self, a "Neo".
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 13:13
  • "Does this answer the question?" My doubt is wether choice itself is a source of suffering. Trying to always make the correct choices, or make the most correct choices can produce suffering? Trying to bend causality does produce suffering?
    – eric
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 22:38

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