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Cover of "Search for the Self", showing Orange Manjushri
Free Will and Predetermination


Searching for the Self

Volume 7 of The Library of Wisdom and Compassion – new book!

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and
Ven. Thubten Chodron

Wisdom Publications

The issue of free will and predetermination has plagued Western philosophers for centuries. Do we have choice or are the events in our lives pre-determined? Interestingly, this topic was not among the topics of interest that Indian and Tibetan Buddhist sages debated. There is no mention of this issue in scriptures that I know of. Perhaps that is because the theme of dependent arising permeates the Buddha’s teachings, deflecting such questions early on.

The potential to make choices is always present. Our taking a fortunate or unfortunate rebirth is in our hands. Although ignorance prevents us ordinary beings from choosing the specific body we will take in our next rebirth, we make conscious choices during our lives to engage in constructive or destructive actions, which are the principal causes of the type of rebirth we will have.

The habitual emotional and thought patterns cultivated in previous lives influence the ones we have today. They also condition our inclinations, interests, likes, and dislikes. None of these things are predetermined in the sense of being fixed and inflexible.

On the other hand, past actions and thoughts influence present ones. Some children are naturally compassionate toward their playmates and animals from a young age, whereas other children are chronically unhappy and disgruntled. Of course, their upbringing, education, and societal conditioning in this life can alter these tendencies, either increasing or decreasing their strength.

While the conditions we are born into may circumscribe our choices, the key lies in how we respond to those conditions. This is where our choice lies. While a difficult situation may be the result of the ripening of previous destructive karma, we still have the choice to respond to it with fear, indignation, and anger, or with acceptance, compassion, and wisdom.

As we practice the mind-training teachings and the meditations on the stages of the path, our worldview will broaden. We will see that our emotional states and physical and verbal responses to situations are not fixed.