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Specifically, I mean this meaning of locus-of-control

The way I see it, if one doesn't have a strong internal locus of control, it becomes very hard to go through daily life, since you keep considering the outcomes of your actions to be driven by external forces outside of your control.

On the other hand, it makes sense to me that the self is an illusion (anatta), that it is in constant flux, and impermanent. From this logic, it seems like an internal locus of control also means buying into an illusion. How does one not have a strong internal locus of control, and still deal with the myriad challenges in daily life?

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  • internal locus of control is the right thinking. Not relying on outer forces.
    – Pycm
    Mar 25 at 13:13
  • My understanding is that internal locus of control in psychology (see link) or in terms of the studies by Julian Rotter about locus-of-control and motivation to work - are always dependent an existence of stable self. You can consider this self as being in flux when it comes to failures (e.g. "I failed but I am capable of change because everything changes") but stable when it comes to successes (e.g. "I succeeded because of my hardwork and this is unchanging, so that I can keep working hard"). This acknowledgement of a stable 'self' that is in control, doesn't seem to align with anatta. Mar 25 at 15:41
  • It's true self and internal locus are illusions. But one should walk through this illusion to find the truth. One can't avoid this illusion. One must find the way through illusion using illusion. That's why this is hard. This is my view. I am open to discussion.
    – Pycm
    Mar 25 at 16:59
  • Anatta=no self but at the beginning, one should think, I am suffering, I should work hard, learn. It's okay to think like that. But when one walk through the path, oneself understand the truth, that self is illusion. After oneself go to Nirvana / remove self, there's no learning, working hard. All is completed. No purpose anymore for oneself.
    – Pycm
    Mar 25 at 17:10
  • I appreciate your comment. But respectfully, I am asking not for faith (i.e. "one 'must' walk through the illusion using illusion). I'm asking philosophically/logically, how does one 'walk through the illusion' (i.e. maintain internal locus of control) while acknowledging the illusion (i.e. there is no self, no internal locus of control), seeing both of them as logically consistent with each other Mar 26 at 13:05

5 Answers 5

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The Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path comprises of Three Trainings:

  1. Ethical Conduct

  2. Concentration

  3. Wisdom that ends suffering, which includes the realisation of Anatta.

In respect to ordinary daily/worldly life, the development of Ethical Conduct and Concentration (and also Wisdom) will develop a person's Internal Locus Of Control as best as possible. For example, the Dhammapada says:

160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.

165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

166. Let one not neglect one's own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one's own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

Attavagga: The Self

The doctrine of Anatta first explained in SN 22.59 (about how the five aggregates cannot be prevented/controlled from sickness/affliction) is "Supramundane/Transcendent" (SN 20.7), meaning, its sole purpose is to end suffering. Its purpose is to overcome the suffering that ignorantly/ordinarily occurs about uncontrollable inevitable events, such as sickness, aging & death.

In other words, the realisation of Anatta is the foremost in Internal Locus Of Control because, even though the five aggregates cannot be controlled, peace of mind can be controlled, established & maintained. Keep in mind, about its ultimate purpose, SN 22.59 says:

O monks, the well-instructed noble disciple, seeing [Anatta] thus, gets wearied of form, gets wearied of feeling, gets wearied of perception, gets wearied of mental formations, gets wearied of consciousness. Being wearied he becomes passion-free. In his freedom from passion, he is emancipated.

Also, the purpose of Anatta is not to encourage carelessness/negligence and is not to dominantly believe in an External Locus of Control. In relation to this question, in its doctrines of Ethical Conduct, Kamma & Development (Bhavana), Buddhism is reputed for asserting an Internal Locus Of Control.

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life are primarily a result of their own actions: for example, when receiving exam results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities. People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the difficulty of the exam.

For a layperson to deal with the myriad challenges in daily life, Buddhism has scriptures about Ethical Conduct such as DN 31 and many other teachings summarised in a book called Constitution for Living: Buddhist Principles for a Fruitful and Harmonious Life by Thai monk P.A. Payutto.

In conclusion, the Doctrine of Anatta is the foremost in Internal Locus of Control because the doctrine of anatta controls the mind so the mind has no suffering at all.

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  • Okay I can agree with you that in Buddhism, at least based on the Dhammapada, it is encouraged to rely on cultivating an internal locus of control. I can also agree that perhaps anatta according to the scriptures doesn't encourage carelessness/negligence. This however, doesn't answer my question from a logical POV. It just makes the Dhammapada inconsistent with the Three Marks of Existence! Mar 26 at 13:01
  • The doctrine of anatta in SN 22.59 says the realisation of anatta allows the mind to 100% control suffering so suffering never arises. Therefore anatta results in the highest internal locus of control. I will amend my answer to reflect this. This said, the doctrine of Julian B. Rotter was obviously not about the end of suffering. Mar 27 at 0:38
  • I find it funny that you keep mentioning scriptures and doctrines. I don't 'believe' in the 'doctrine' of Julian Rotter, nor in some Buddhist doctrine. Even Buddhist scriptures say think for yourself and don't follow the Buddha without questioning. My question is about how do 'you' act when your 'self' doesn't exist. The locus of control is just a stand-in to show nuances of the action of any person. It's hard to act at all with conviction, when you can't even convince yourself that you are in control of anything. Apr 2 at 18:26
  • Buddhist scripture don't say to think for yourself. Even if they did, this comment would be contradicting itself. As for action, there is no self acting. All that is acting is ignorance or otherwise wisdom. Take care. Apr 2 at 22:12
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In general, comparative philosophy is not the most productive way to engage with Buddhism. I like how Chogyam Trungpa explained it: when you come to another country, if you really want to understand them you should learn their language and customs on their own terms. Then again, I suppose as a mere tourist to the land of Buddhism you expect the tour guide to explain local phenomena within the framework of your preexisting concepts.

In Buddhist view, the inner/outer separation is a simplification, or to put it in stronger terms, a childish illusion. In mature Buddhist perspective, there's no inner and outer, making the locust-of-control definition utterly non-applicable. Indeed, how can you believe that your life is controlled by external forces if you have no concept of "external"! How can you place the locus internally if you have no concept of the "internal"!

Once you make this first step into our land, it shouldn't be difficult to understand that the normal duality of free will vs fatalism does not apply either. Instead, the will of the universe (so to speak, if we can be as bold as to simplify it down to a singular noun) and the will exerted by the individual is the very same will.

For an enlightened individual, the main driving force is Knowledge or Wisdom (Prajna). His or her acts are determined and directed by the understanding of how things work and what therefore is the best course of action (or inaction which is also a kind of action).

For a student of Buddhism the main driving force is inspiration by the words of wisdom coming from The Teacher. This inspiration takes form of conviction and motivation to practice with perseverance.

As you can see, there's indeed no boundary between external and internal. The actual way the universe works, the knowledge of how it works, the explanation, the inspiration, the conviction, the motivation, and the resulting action are all parts of a continuum.

Say, something draws you to Buddhism, you catch the Dharma bug and earnestly engage in Buddhist studies. Where's the locus of control in that case?

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  • Thank you for your response. I am not a Buddhist, nor a student of Buddhism. I agree that perspectives can differ between Buddhists and myself, but I'm willing to reason as long as there's mutual understanding of this difference in perspectives. I am a layman and I intend to go through my domestic activities in a way that is consistent with my personal philosophy. To that extent, I can accept the Three Marks of Existence, since they make logical sense to me. (More in next comment...) Apr 1 at 10:21
  • ...what doesn't make sense to me is this: how does one go through domestic activities in life while recognizing that the self is impermanent and ever changing, and at the same time believe that the outcomes of one's actions are determined by the entirety of an impermanent ever-changing universe! I can see that, like you said, the will of the individual is the same as the will of the universe. What I can't see is in daily life, how does one find what exactly is the direction of that will, or as a complimentary question, how does one self-correct that direction when required. Apr 1 at 10:30
  • I am sorry but I am not willing to accept an arbitrary statement of "take your Teacher's wisdom as a student". That sounds dangerous to me. (how do you know if the teacher is actually wise?) I hope my comment above is something you can respond to, even if we ignore the whole 'locus of control's concept. Again, for me without a sense of self it's hard to agree on any will to be existing, and without any will, it's hard to act in any direction in life. I want to understand how do Buddhists 'act' while acknowledging anatta. Apr 1 at 10:36
  • A (well trained) Buddhist thinks in terms of causes and effects, looking at things as it were objectively, without a selfish bias. "Getting angry and hitting back would lead to an escalation therefore a gentle humorous response would be more appropriate". And so on, there's no issue with anatta, even if the action is not done by the self, the reasoning is still there. The right choice is still better than a wrong choice even if there's no "self" making it.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Apr 2 at 2:26
  • And who decides what is right or wrong? Don't you think it's a slippery slope if someone decides it and they act in bad faith? (I don't intend to support violence in this case) In any case, my question is more about why act at all (inaction is also action) when there is no self? Apr 2 at 15:44
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The locus of control looses its ability to control. Therefore is not worth calling self, therefore locus of control is Anatta.

However if the locus of control is found or experienced then it should be used to get rid of suffering. It should not be understood as self.

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  • I think you and I are talking about different things with the term 'locus of control'. Please read the link in the original post, to the Wikipedia article. Mar 26 at 13:07
  • @blehblehblecksheep I read that. I did this , I did that has a locus of control as internal. Both internal or external locus of control are not Self. Mar 26 at 13:40
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Let's look at "locus of control" in the context of "giving". The Buddha said this about giving in his definition of one kind of right view:

MN117:7.1: And what is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment?
MN117:7.2: ‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. ...

I think we can agree that people who do not give have wrong view and no locus of control.

But let's discuss people who give with right view and some locus of control. Let's discuss people who think that there is meaning in giving. In that context, we note that the Buddha gave us the Dhamma thousands of years ago. The Teaching is a gift that affects us here and now.

Are we in the Buddha's locus of control? I don't think so. The Buddha does not make our legs move when we walk. Yet here we are benefiting from the gift of the Dhamma. Are we in the Buddha's locus? I don't think so. We are thousands of years away from that "locus", that particular point, place and time.

What about our own "locus of control" and "anatta"? Well if we believe in giving, we can act on that belief and give for the benefit of ourselves and others wherever and whenever they may be. People with attachments can give. And so can people without attachments. The Buddha (anatta) gave--and so can we.

But what about that locus of control? Well there is one thing that each of us with the even the tiniest, smallest locus of control can do. We can listen to the words of the Buddha and act on them:

AN2.126:1.1: “There are two conditions for the arising of right view.
AN2.126:1.2: What two?
AN2.126:1.3: The words of another and rational application of mind.

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An internal or external locus of control, I think, are adaptation mechanisms. They evolved to help us adapt to our environment. As mentioned, a strong internal locus would motivate a person to put in more efforts, time and energy into a task thereby increasing the chances of success. However, the success of any task is not solely the result of individual efforts. It relies on many factors; some are internal, some are external and others are intertwined. If the difficulty level of a task exceeded a threshold, the success probability diminishes exponentially.

A strong external locus may help a person to realize the futility of pursuing a task due to extremely unfavourable external factors. This may actually prevent needless wastage of time, effort and energy which could then be channelled into other more productive labour (an example would be a person of short stature trying very hard to be a great basketball or tennis player).

I think from a Buddhist perspective both internal or external locus of control are merely tools, arising from self-identity and co-evolving with our self-identity. Some tends to rely more on a certain tool while others on another. Occasionally, there are some who are equally comfortable with both (e.g. the bi-locals as mentioned in the wiki).

As a Buddhist, I believe we should utilize the right tool for the right situation/time/context/people. This would require us to get familiarized with various tools and their usage, something that maybe a challenge. Ultimately, the goal is to attain a better future and long-lasting well-being for ourselves and our loved ones. So, this is something worth pursuing even if difficult and challenging.

In order to achieve the above, I believe we first need to raise our awareness level. Only with a heightened awareness of our inner strength and weakness, of the external environment and the changes taking place; can we wisely use whatever is at our disposal to better ourselves and our conditions in life. And, to me, awareness is the greatest advantage of being a Buddhist.

Surprisingly, the perception of anatta (not self) can make it easier to achieve the above. It reminds us of the constant changes taking place within and without. It encourages us not to be too attached to any particular tool, use it as necessary and then to move on. Lastly, it gives us an inner strength to bear with the changes, discomfort and unfamiliarity that comes with learning different ways (and tools) to cope, adapt and flourish.

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