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On the Illusion of Self and Free Will

On the Illusion of Self and Free Will



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Published by Charles Day
This essay deals with Buddha's unique contribution to philosophy and metaphysics: Our identification with and attachment to an ego, personality, or sense of a separate, independent, enduring, self is an illusion that causes all our suffering. For more information, see www.desmoinesmeditation.com
This essay deals with Buddha's unique contribution to philosophy and metaphysics: Our identification with and attachment to an ego, personality, or sense of a separate, independent, enduring, self is an illusion that causes all our suffering. For more information, see www.desmoinesmeditation.com

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Published by: Charles Day on Oct 07, 2008
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Dharma Talk - The Illusion of Self and Free WillCharles Daywww.desmoinesmeditation.comA meditator emailed me: "A Buddhist meditation teacher said there is nofree will but we are still responsible for our actions. This sounds like acontradiction to me. It doesn't make sense, but what the heck, many thingsdon't. I don't believe in 100% free will but I DO believe in about 17% freewill mixed with a lot of random action. " I emailed back the followingresponse.It's precisely this issue of free will that hangs up most everyone, becausegiving up free will means giving up the illusion of an independent,autonomous, controlling self or ego that depends upon its existence.Buddha said everything is interrelated, and everything is dependent uponcauses and conditions. Each of us definitely does feel a sense of will,intention, accountability, and responsibility, but these are not "free" or random because the extent to which we experience them depends uponthe causes and conditions to which each of us has been uniquelysubjected. Some individuals experience a strong sense of free will andpersonal responsibility, while others feel like they're the victims of thecircumstances and people around them.These perceived differences result from different causes and conditions for different individuals, differing genetics, parenting, conditioning, and learningexperiences. Both perceptions, whether as master of one’s ship or as avictim, are real. They are produced by different causes and conditions thatlead to the general sense of having either a lot of or very little free will or control over one's destiny.Because causes and conditions produce thoughts, feelings, words, andactions that have definite consequences and in turn produce other causesand conditions with consequences, it is a good idea to learn to takeresponsibility for them. Others will definitely hold us accountable for our actions. Taking responsibility for oneself - remembering that the degree towhich this is experienced depends upon an individual’s unique pastlearning - acknowledges that one is and should remain fully aware that
thoughts, words, and actions have very real consequences for which wewill be held accountable..Buddha stressed the importance of intention, will, and responsibilitybecause these determine our karma or the consequences of our actions.Choosing to practice meditation and the Eightfold Path helps us better understand this concept of karma. Again, however, the so-called "choice"or "will" to practice or not practice is not "free" but is determined by anindividual’s unique past causes and conditions.For practical purposes it's good and even advisable in living in a worldgoverned by conventional thinking to act "as if" free will exists, even whilerealizing that it doesn't. Ironically, transcending the experience of havingfree will and realizing that our sense of self or ego is simply a continuouslychanging composite of body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, andconsciousness, leads to spontaneously and un"self"ishly becoming morecompassionately responsible for ourselves, others, and the universe.This spontaneously increased compassion results, not from theconventional socialization that leads to greater maturity, but fromtranscending the ego. Transcending the ego is characterized by thedissolution of the subject-object or I-other dualistic relationship and theresulting realization that "I am That" or "I am You", that there is only aninterrelated and interdependent unity or oneness without an opposite. Outof this realization of unity, compassion naturally and spontaneously arises.Or perhaps better stated, this realization is compassion.
All our experiences, including the separation of self and other, result fromcategorizing, creating boundaries, and dividing the unified whole or oneness into the multiple dualistic appearances that constitute what weperceive as our individual physical and mental reality. Our physiologicaland neurological limitations prevent us from perceiving and experiencingthe subatomic molecular interconnections and interactions between our body, the air, and the objects around us. We mistakenly take as real theillusion or appearances that we created in order to function practically in anapparent dualistic universe. The Hindu Vedic scriptures are referring to thismisperception when they state that “What is real is unreal, and what isunreal is real.” Our perceived reality of independent and separate objects

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