Buddhists/Free will



I am curious how buddhism views free will or if there is any official stance. Recently through my studies of neuroscience I have found that it is likely that a self-consciousness doesn't exist as we think and that free will is an illusion. Everything is the cause of brain chemistry, genetics, history, mental wiring, environment, past experiences, etc.  The reason I ask this is because this had led me to view horrible offenders compassionately, realizing that they are just the victims of circumstance and they can't help the way they are at that particular time. I have recently began to study mahayana buddhism and was wondering if my scientific view of free will being an illusion would be compatible with me becoming a buddhist. I believe in determinism that one thing leads to the next and we don't exactly have control over the way things are. Thank uou,


Sorry my english is bad I am german

Hi Chris,

Thank you for letting me answer your question.  Sorry it took me so long to get this written.  The hard drive on my computer crashed and I had to improvise

First off, let me say that your English is very good. If you had not have told me, I would not have known that English was not your native language.

Secondly - wow!  You ask good questions.  I hope my answer is half as good as your questions.

Despite the title of this website, I am not an expert. I have been studying Buddhism for a while but by no means am I an expert on the subject.  All I can do is tell you what I have learned so far.

As for what Buddhists believe about humans having free will, I can only answer from the side of the Gelupa Mahayana prasengika school of Buddhism.

And what answer you get rather depends on who you ask.

A simple answer is yes,  we have free will.  We can choose what actions to do.  There is no Creator determining our actions Ė no predetermination. But the amount of free will we have depends on who you talk to.  Some will say we have a lot and some will say we donít have much.  The reason for such varied answers is karma.

Our karma determines our actions.  So, if we have created the karma to be able to not be led by the nose by our mental obscurations, the amount of control we have over them is the amount of free will we have.

If we do have the karma to be led around by our mental obscurations such as our attachment to getting pleasure and our desire to avoid pain as well as our anger, jealousy, pride, greed, lust and craving, then we really donít have much free will at all.  Our kleshas, or mental obscurations are holding our free will hostage.

One can ask oneself how many minutes a day we are ruled by our aversions and our cravings.

So the amount of free will we have is determined by how much we can make choices that are free of  being motivated by these obscurations.

You say everything is the cause of the brain.  I believe Buddhists would disagree.  Buddhists say yes, of course there is a brain, but there is also a mind which is not physical like the brain and is the part that travels with us from life to life holding our memories and our karmic seeds which determine the traits we have when we are born as well as where we will be born and what kind of life we will be born into.

I suspect Buddhists would also say that it is the karmic seeds we have created and that are carried from life to life in our mind (on our mindstream) that create our genetics, environment, history and past experiences that we carry into the next life.  One could therefore argue that the karma we create that creates those karmic seeds molds our reality and shapes how we are which can be viewed as limiting our free will.

I rejoice that you are able to see horrible offenders with compassion.

You are correct from a Buddhist point of view in thinking that people who do negative things are not really in control of themselves at the time they do them.  But from a Buddhist standpoint, this has less to do with brain chemistry and more to do with being held hostage by our mental afflictions.

We can see this clearly when we, or someone we know gets angry. Once that anger arises, you no longer have control over your mind (note, I did not say brain) The delusion of anger has control.

So, someone who has done a horrible thing has no free will or control of their mind at the time they are doing the horrible action (because if they did they wouldn't do it). And since none of us that are not highly spiritually evolved have control when negative emotions arise, we can generate compassion for those that are causing the suffering of others realizing that we have times when we are not in control and do negative things.

This does not mean that they (or we) are not responsible for their actions.  They are still responsible for them and will eventually be brought to justice by the ripening of the negative karmic seed that they planted in their mindstream when they did the action.

So they are not really victims of circumstance because this implies that they were not responsible.  In fact they were completely responsible even though they did not at the time have the free will to do anything except what their ripening karma dictated.

You ask and interesting and ironic question.  You ask if your scientific view of free will  being an illusion is compatible with you becoming a Buddhist.

What is ironic is that free will is an illusion to a Buddhist but not, I donít think because of the reason you think it is.

The reason I say this is that according to Buddhism, pretty much everything in fact has as one of its characteristics being and illusion.  We call this all pervading characteristic emptiness.

What this means is that nothing, not even free will exists from its own side intrinsically.

This is a subject of a much longer answer on the subject of emptiness. But briefly Buddhists say that to see the world the way it truly is, and therefore live in accordance with it, we need to realize that things, thoughts, concepts, people do not exist as they appear.  They are not as solid and substantial as we make them.  

Free will has the quality of an illusion not because  of the regular way we think an illusion is which kind of means that it we can dismiss it but because it does not inherently exist.  Because if it did, if free will existed inherently, then it could never change.  It would always be one way all the time and we know free will is constantly changing Ė even us debating what free will is means that it exists differently for you as it does for me.

And after you read this reply your idea of free will might be changed Ė so there is not something that exists out there that is a free will that we can dismiss, instead free will is an idea in our mind (not our brain) that changes moment to moment that is like an illusion that arises and then disappears back into the ether only to arise again in a different way.

It is this idea of emptiness that is one of the defining characteristics of both Mahayana Buddhists (those who follow the Sanskrit canon) and those who follow the Pali canon of Buddhism.

As far as determinism - yes one thing does lead to another but that is because of the links of karmic chain we form by each thought, word and deed we do.

And we do have control (to a greater or lesser extent) of the actions we do every moment that produce our future karma. As we go farther along the Buddhist path, our ability to take control of our own actions grows.

I hope this helps in some way to answer your question.

If you have any further questions on this subject, donít hesitate to let me know.  In the mean time I wish you much happiness and success.


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Laurie McLaughlin


I can answer questions about basic Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and meditation especially how the Buddha's teachings can help us in day to day living.


I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism and meditation since 2001. I have lead meditation classes and retreats for over 5 years. I have lived at a Buddhist retreat center for over 4 years and am currently ordained as a novice Buddhist nun. My nun name is Gyalten Yanghchen.

I hold a BA degree in technical theatre from the University of South Florida.

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