Free Will in Buddhism – Connection to Sankhāra

November 3, 2018; revised July 6, 2019


1. Free will is at the core of Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma). If one does not have free will, one would not be able to attain Nibbāna.

  • In a mundane sense also, the applicability of free will should be obvious. Free will is what determines (within certain limits) whether one will become a successful businessman or a master thief.
  • When I said “within limits”, we can only compare situations for two people who are born with comparable capabilities. For example, one born with an “ahetuka birth” (born with brain defects) will never be able to achieve much success.
  • However, a person born with a “normal level of intelligence” (tihetuka or dvihetuka births) can make decisions that can lead to a wide variety of possible outcomes in the future. For example, one could become a great scientist or a ruthless dictator. Both require a “sharp mind”.

2. In the following video by Sam Harris, we can clearly see where modern philosophers get stuck on the issue of free will.

Sam Harris on the Illusion of Free Will

  • He agrees that things happen due to causes, but he cannot figure out the causes for many things. He says, “you don’t pick your parents, you don’t pick your body…”. But we do. That is explained with paticca samuppāda in Buddha Dhamma. We even choose our rebirths too; see, “Uppatti Paticca Samuppāda (How We Create Our Own Rebirths)“.
  • As long as  he does not believe in rebirth, Sam Harris will never be able to understand those “missing causes”. The rebirth picture provides those “missing causes”. Laws of kamma (causes and effects) operate over many rebirths. One cannot analyze the current life in isolation.
  • Furthermore, we need to include animals and beings in other 29 realms too, in order to fully explain the laws of kamma
  • Nature treats every single living being fairly, according to what they have done in the past.
  • One is born into a given existence (human, animal, deva, etc), a given family (good, bad), under different conditions (healthy, handicapped, poor, etc), and so on based on one’s gati. One’s gati are based on the types of sankhāra that one cultivates (basically how one thinks, speaks, and acts).
Background Material in Buddha Dhamma

3. Continuing with the key points in #2: Another key point is that “kammic energy” that lead to future vipāka (results) are generated in one’s javana citta. Don’t be put off by that word. Javana citta are basically thoughts that arise in one’s mind when one is generating conscious thoughts about speaking/doing moral or immoral deeds.

  • Vaci and kāya sankhāra become abhisankhāra (strong sankhāra) that can lead to future vipāka, ONLY IF those actions or speech is either moral (good vipāka) or immoral (bad vipāka). 

4. Vaci sankhāra are responsible for our speech (either out loud or just to ourselves).  When we do something (walk, play, etc) we move our bodies with kāya sankhāra that arise in the mind (basically in the gandhabba). We have control over both those.

  • On the other hand, when thoughts arise automatically due to a sense input, those are manō sankhāra.
  • That is the difference between manō sankhāra (which arise without our DIRECT control) and vaci sankhāra/kāya sankhāra (which we have control over).
  • Whether just sankhāra or abhisankhāra, this distinction holds. For example, we can stop saying anything anytime. We can stop raising our hand anytime we want to, whether it is to say “Hi” to someone (sankhāra) or to hit someone (abhisankhāra).

5. As we have discussed before, the word “sankhāra”  comes from “san” + “khāra” or actions that involve “san“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.

  • “San” are responsible for just getting things done to live the current life (even everyday activities).
  • However, if they involve moral/immoral actions that can bring results (vipāka) in future lives, then those arise due to “strong san” or “abhi san” and thus become “abhisankhāra“.
  • Kamma are actions (done with sankhāra that arise in the mind). Most are neutral kamma: They do not bring significant vipāka.
  • Those moral or immoral strong kamma — done with abhisankhāra — are the ones that lead to kamma vipāka in the future (either in this life or in future lives).
Key Idea: Vaci/kāya Sankhāra are Willful

6. Let us look at some example now.

  • Thinking about going to the bathroom is a vaci sankhāra (kammically neutral). One gets the body to move to the bathroom using kāya sankhāra.
  • Thinking about killing a human being involve abhisankhāra with high  kammic consequences or vaci abhisankhāra; doing the actual killing is done with kāya abhisankhāra. Those can lead to rebirth in the apāyās, because both are based on immoral or apunna abhisankhāra (or apunnābhisankhāra).
  • On the other hand, punna abhisankhāra (or punnābhisankhāra)  (thoughts responsible for good speech and actions) have good kammic consequences and can lead to “good births” (human, deva, or brahma). Even more importantly, they are essential for making progress on the Path.

7. I keep repeating these because it is very important to understand these key ideas.

  • All sankhāra arise in the mental body (gandhabba).
  • Then the brain helps to put those into action/speech (i.e., moving body parts).
  • Most of those actions/speech are kammically neutral.
  • Good kammā that will have good vipāka in the future are done with abhisankhāra that have sōbhana cetasika (compassion, non-greed, etc). Bad kammā that will have bad vipāka in the future are done with abhisankhāra that have asōbhana cetasika (anger, greed, etc.); see, “Living Dhamma – Fundamentals“.
  • Sankhāra is the generic word used in the suttas, even if they could be abhisankhāra. One needs to be able to see which ones are abhisankhāra based on the actual situation.

8. Manō sankhāra are those automatically arise in a mind due to a sense input, based on one’s gati.

  • We don’t really experience those initial  manō sankhāra and we only experience when it comes to the next stage called vaci sankhāra (“talking to oneself”).
  • This is an important point. Even if one does not say a word, when one is “thinking to oneself” that is called vaci sankhāra. If one gets really interested, one may speak out and that is still a vaci sankhāra.
  • If one’s interest builds up, one may even take bodily action. Those bodily actions are done with kāya sankhāra that arise in the mind.
  • I strongly urge everyone to re-read the posts: “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
  • The strength of kammic energy created increases in the following order: manōvacikāya sankhāra.
Manō Sankhāra Arise Based on Our Gati

9. As we discussed many times, we get “attached” to something AUTOMATICALLY based on our gati and arise as manō sankhāra.

  • If the attachment is strong enough, the mind will now start thinking about it consciously, i.e., vaci sankhāra arise and we become aware of these vaci sankhāra.
  • Now, we have the ability to be mindful and think about its consequences and move away from it, as soon as we become aware of this “attachment” to something. Therefore, we can stop such thoughts at the vaci sankhāra stage; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
  • However, our minds like to enjoy such vaci sankhāra. It is easy to do and is very tempting. Many people get their sexual satisfaction from just “day dreaming” about either events in the past or sexual encounters that one would like to have in the future.
  • In order to change manō sankhāra, we need to change our gati; see, “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna“.

10. Please read #9 again. That is the key to understanding “free will”.

  • We have total control over vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra.
  • The reason is that there is a “time delay” between the mind (in the gandhabba) deciding to speak or make a bodily move and the time takes for the brain to carry out those commands and to move parts of the physical body; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“.
  • However, animals do not have this “safety barrier”. Lower animals do not have a neocortex. Even in monkeys, neocortex is only partially developed. Thus, their manō sankhāra automatically continue as vaci and kāya sankhāra. Also, see, “Truine Brain: How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits“.
  • Those are the reasons why humans have free will and animals do not.
Key Concepts in Satipatthana and Ānapāna

11. Therefore, the concept of free will becomes clear if one can understand the concepts of manōvaci and kāya sankhāra.

  • In fact, in order to have a firm grasp of Satipatthana and Ānapāna meditations, it is essential to understand what is meant by “mindfulness” and how vaci and kāya sankhāra are different from manō sankhāra.
  • The bottom line this: Once we become aware of an action that we are about to take, we have the total freedom to choose to either to go ahead with it or to stop it.
  • We should stop any bad actions that we are about to do and continue with any good actions. That is the basis of Satipatthana and Ānapāna meditations.
  • All we need to do is to cultivate the habit of “catching one’s response early enough”. “Being mindful” is just that; see, “6. Anāpānasati Bhāvanā (Introduction)” and “Maha Satipatthana Sutta“.

12.  If one can understand the post, “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna“, one can not only see that free will is “built-in” for humans, but one will also be able to see how one can purify one’s mind and make progress on the Noble Path.

  • As explained in that post —  and the reference posts mentioned there — only manō sankhāra arise without our control.
  • We have total control over vaci and kāya sankhāra, at least when one  gets better in practicing Satipatthāna/Ānapāna.
  • This is also why humans are different from animals: Humans have the ability to think for themselves and make rational decisions.
Libet Experiments on Free Will

13. Scientists misinterpret the experiments on the famous “Libet experiments” simply because they believe that the mind resides in the brain. Therefore, they wrongly conclude that the “brain activity starts” before one makes a decision; see, “Neuroscience says there is no Free Will? – That is a Misinterpretation!“.

  • Libet experiment is very simple: A person was asked to move his/her own finger whenever at his/her will, and scientists monitored that person’s brain activity. They concluded that the brain started the “finger moving” process before the person made the decision to move the finger!
  • If the brain indeed started the decision making process, that would confirm that humans do not have free will. But then the question arises what triggered that brain activity? Of course, scientists or philosophers do not have an answer to that question. If human decisions are random, this world would be a very chaotic place.
  • However, the explanation is simple with the concept of a mental body (gandhabba) controlling the physical body with the help of the brain.
  • As explained in the above post, the decision in made by the gandhabba and that started the brain activity. Scientists did not correctly monitor the time at which the person made the decision, because their “model” was incorrect.

14. Gandhabba or the “mental body” or the “manomaya kaya” is a key concept that has been neglected in even the current Theravada texts. This concept is ironically somewhat similar to the “ghost in the machine” concept; see, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“.

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