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Dharma Talk - The Illusion of Self and Free Will

Charles Day

A meditator emailed me: "A Buddhist meditation teacher said there is no

free will but we are still responsible for our actions. This sounds like a
contradiction to me. It doesn't make sense, but what the heck, many things
don't. I don't believe in 100% free will but I DO believe in about 17% free
will mixed with a lot of random action. " I emailed back the following

It's precisely this issue of free will that hangs up most everyone, because
giving 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 upon

causes 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 upon
the causes and conditions to which each of us has been uniquely
subjected. Some individuals experience a strong sense of free will and
personal responsibility, while others feel like they're the victims of the
circumstances and people around them.

These perceived differences result from different causes and conditions for
different individuals, differing genetics, parenting, conditioning, and learning
experiences. Both perceptions, whether as master of one’s ship or as a
victim, are real. They are produced by different causes and conditions that
lead 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, and

actions that have definite consequences and in turn produce other causes
and conditions with consequences, it is a good idea to learn to take
responsibility for them. Others will definitely hold us accountable for our
actions. Taking responsibility for oneself - remembering that the degree to
which this is experienced depends upon an individual’s unique past
learning - acknowledges that one is and should remain fully aware that
thoughts, words, and actions have very real consequences for which we
will be held accountable..

Buddha stressed the importance of intention, will, and responsibility

because 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 an
individual’s unique past causes and conditions.

For practical purposes it's good and even advisable in living in a world
governed by conventional thinking to act "as if" free will exists, even while
realizing that it doesn't. Ironically, transcending the experience of having
free will and realizing that our sense of self or ego is simply a continuously
changing composite of body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and
consciousness, leads to spontaneously and un"self"ishly becoming more
compassionately responsible for ourselves, others, and the universe.

This spontaneously increased compassion results, not from the

conventional socialization that leads to greater maturity, but from
transcending the ego. Transcending the ego is characterized by the
dissolution of the subject-object or I-other dualistic relationship and the
resulting realization that "I am That" or "I am You", that there is only an
interrelated and interdependent unity or oneness without an opposite. Out
of 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 from
categorizing, creating boundaries, and dividing the unified whole or
oneness into the multiple dualistic appearances that constitute what we
perceive as our individual physical and mental reality. Our physiological
and neurological limitations prevent us from perceiving and experiencing
the subatomic molecular interconnections and interactions between our
body, the air, and the objects around us. We mistakenly take as real the
illusion or appearances that we created in order to function practically in an
apparent dualistic universe. The Hindu Vedic scriptures are referring to this
misperception when they state that “What is real is unreal, and what is
unreal is real.” Our perceived reality of independent and separate objects

is unreal, while the interdependent, unified whole that we fail to perceive is
what is real.

Eckhart Tolle in his book, The Power of Now, calls the ego a useful
conceptual myth or “operating principle” that enables us to deal with the
perceived duality that constitutes our everyday experiences.

Buddha's major contribution to history, philosophy, religion, and

metaphysics is that our sense of a separate, independent, enduring self is
an illusion, and that our attachment to it is the cause of all our suffering.
Penetrating this illusion and realizing our interconnectedness with all
physical and mental phenomena, he taught, leads to liberation and the end
of suffering, to enlightenment, to nirvana, and to the peace that surpasses
understanding that we are all seeking.

May you all be well, happy, peaceful, and harmonious.


*Contact Charlie Day at (515) 255-8398 or to

discuss meditation, Buddhism, sitting groups, retreats, or meditation
experiences. More information is available at (8/7r10/8)