IF: Freedom of Choice
by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)
For Americans the July 4th weekend is a time to think about the freedoms we have and how they were attained. It is Independence Day. What isn’t usually part of the celebration is thinking about how we go about making the concept of freedom a positive part of our dispositions and actions. How about if Western Buddhists named July 1st Interdependence Day?
For thousands of years, from Greek philosophers to the thoughts of contemporary philosophers the concept of “freedom” has been debated and theorized, sought after and feared. For now we’ll set aside the deep philosophical arguments and focus on what the ideal of freedom can mean in Buddhist practice.
The ideal of freedom that is realized in the teachings of the Buddha, and that same freedom that each of us are capable of realizing is bound up in one word . . . IF. All of Buddhist philosophy is based on freedom of choice, what we do IF. . . There is no predetermined future, no fate, and no pre-ordination; there is choice in thought and action that can lead to whatever you can imagine your life to be. You can choose a course of action then stick with or not, it is entirely up to you. The path to positive living and the Awakened life isn’t there for some and not there for others. It is a path open to all who set forth on it with a commitment to developing positive traits and dispositions.
In the introduction to his book, The Six Perfections, Dale S. Wright writes, “The question my life presses upon me, whether I face it directly or not, is “How shall I live?” “As what kind of person?” All of us face the task of constructing a life for ourselves, of shaping ourselves into certain kinds of people who will live lives of one kind or another, for better or worse. Some people undertake this task deliberately; they make choices in life in view of an image of the kind of person they would hope to become. From the early beginnings of their tradition, Buddhists have maintained that nothing is more important than developing the freedom implied in their activity of self-cultivation – of deliberately shaping the kind of life you will live. For Buddhists, this is the primary responsibility and opportunity that human beings have. It is, they claim, our singular freedom, a freedom available to no other beings in the universe. And although circumstances beyond anyone’s control will make very different possiblities available for different people, Buddhists have always recognized that the difference between those who assume the task of self-sculpting with imagination, integrity, and courage, and those who do not is enormous, constituting in Buddhism the difference between enlightened ways of being in the world and unenlightened ways.”
A closer look at the teachings of the Buddha allows us to recognize the type of freedom he was illuminating. It was freedom of choice when we determine by our intention and what situation presents itself how we will act, not the concept of free will offered in the Judeo-Christian heritage that the Buddha saw as part of the path away from suffering (though free will in j/c teachings is confusing when “we are all part of God’s plan”). Wright implies the concept of IF with his use of the word deliberately, a word that speaks to motivation and mindfulness necessary for self-cultivation that comes from freedom of choice. Wright also wants us to recognize the fallacy behind the concept of free will, that there are circumstances beyond our control.A dilemma faced by those seeking a spiritual path is the belief that we have “free will”, or complete control of how we act. We are unique expressions of the Universe but we are not unique in the Universe. In the causal process of the Universe we are only a link in the chain of causation. Most people are only conscious of a small portion of what they do, the consquences of their actions, and what happens to them. In the causal mix are genetics, influences, cultural context and experiences that become factors in our decision making process. It is more logical to act from the basis that we have free choice in our own actions, reactions and perceptions, rather than the notion of free will.
Realizing the reality of the Universe as a causal process and the fact that what we do matters makes freedom of choice even more important. We must look at the possible choices, the situation, and possible results before engaging in freedom of choice IF we want results that engender human flourishing. “Freedom” is in being aware of HOW we are, being mindful of HOW we want to be, and being mindful of HOW our actions become part of the causal process. That freedom becomes enlightening moments when we focus on taking the most positive action due to our realization of our connectedness.
In Buddhist practice pre-determinism, fate or pre-ordination are non-existent. As only one element in the causal process we don’t have complete control over WHAT happens to us; we can determine HOW we react to and perceive situations. There is no agency, being or book that has our birth, death and all the good stuff in between mapped out. We know we are the writers of our own story.
A negative experience doesn’t have to result in suffering. We have the freedom to choose to see past sadness and depression to what can be IF we apply positive thinking and action to create opportunities to positively affect our practice. IF we can realize the reality of the Three Characteristics of Existence: Impermanence, Causality, Not-Self and put those concepts into our moment-to-moment thinking we attain a level of freedom. We free ourselves from the psychoemotional suffering brought about by anxiety, worrying about life and death, and fear of being disconnected. No matter the situation or experience we know that they are temporary, that we have the means and opportunity to change it, and the potential in ourselves to take action, IF we choose to. A positive experience shouldn’t result in attachment. We have the freedom to see the impermanence in emotions and to recognize that they are not us. That leads us to enjoying the positive moment and letting it go IF we choose to.
Once we recognize personal psychoemotional freedom we can offer ourselves as examples of the empowerment of that freedom to others. Without the hindrances of unsatisfactoriness and the knowledge that what we do, positive – negative – neutral matters, we gain the freedom to be an effective social self. We can commit ourselves to a path of social virtuosity by focusing on what we can do for others as well as ourselves. In engaging the IF factor it is our responsibility to view the situation with an encompassing and corrective lens, one that sees the situation as it is and endeavors to make the best choice possible. If presented with a choice that leads to a selfish result or one that is selfless we have the freedom of choice to take the selfless route. It is in the realizing of connectedness and how, through our freedom of choice we can make decisions that lead to encompassing human flourishing that we also realize the path to enlightening moments.
What about when we engage freedom of choice and make a wrong decision? We then choose to set aside feelings of guilt and IF presented with a similar situation again . . . make a better choice. Freedom of choice is a vehicle to give ourselves permission to try again, to do better next time, and to have a positive effect on those around us. Freedom of choice, when applied with mindfulness and clarity is another powerful tool in a Life Toolbox. When we feel “pushed into a corner” in a situation and experience the thought that we have no choice but to . . . we can let the awareness of our freedom of choice to rise and endeavor to make the choice that leads to encompassing harmony and corrective action.