Part 2 – Free Will
Q: We talked earlier about the difference between the direct path and the traditional path.
I was looking through the free will section in your book Back to the Truth and I found this quotation by Franics Lucille:
We are entirely conditioned; therefore, there is no free will. It appears as though we exercise free choice, but in fact we are only reacting like automatons, running through the same patterns of our bio-sociological heritage without respite, leading invariably to the same old reactions, like a vending machine dispensing soft drinks in a train station. As individuals, our freedom is illusory, with the exception of the freedom which is ours at each moment to stop taking ourselves for separate individuals and thus putting an end to our ignorance and our suffering.
On the other hand, at the level of our deepest being, everything flows out of our freedom. Every thought, every perception takes birth because we want it to. We cannot understand this at the level of thought, but we can experience it. When we are totally open to the unknown, the personal entity is absent; then we realize that the tangible and intelligible universe arises out of this openness in the eternal present. We want, create and are at every moment everything in the unity of awareness. (Ref. 8)
[Waite, Dennis. Back To The Truth: 5000 Years Of Advaita (p. 76). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.]
So I checked reference 8 and it says: Eternity Now: Dialogues on Awareness, Francis Lucille, Truespeech Productions, 1996. No ISBN.
I happen to own Eternity Now (kindle edition) so I checked the same paragraph in that book, because I wanted a broader context of this statement, and this is what I found:
In that case, we are entirely conditioned. Therefore, there is no free will. It appears as though we exercise free choice, but we are only reacting like automatons, running through the same patterns of our bio-sociological heritage without respite, and invariably having the same old reactions, like a vending machine dispensing soft drinks in a train station. As individuals, our freedom is illusory.
On the other hand, at the level of our deepest being, everything flows out of our freedom. Every thought and perception appears because we want it. We can’t understand this at the level of thought, but we can experience it. When we are totally open to the unknown, the personal entity is absent. We then realize that the tangible and intelligible universe arises out of this openness in the eternal present. We want, create, and are at every moment, everything in the unity of awareness.
[Lucille, Francis. Eternity Now (pp. 21-22). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.]
If you compare both paragraphs, you’ll see that the underlined sentence in the first paragraph is completely missing in the second paragraph! Why is that?
Is it something you added for clarification, perhaps you heard Francis say that elsewhere, or in an email conversation between you guys? Is it because we have different versions of the book Eternity Now, and maybe sentence was edited out in the newer version? You seem to have a paperback version from 1996 whereas I have the kindle edition. In that case I wonder why they decided to remove that sentence. I have no idea how kindle books work but I’m assuming someone has to type out the entire book, so maybe that person removed that sentence, perhaps it was an accident?
Whatever it is, I really want to get to the bottom of it because I think that missing sentence is really important!
I have been struggling with the notion of free will for a while now so maybe you have some insight? If I were to form a question around it it would be this:
From the perspective of absolute reality, there is obviously no individual person, and thus the question of free will for the individual is irrelevant.
But what if I am in ignorance, aka I am identified with a mithyā body/mind? Do I have the free will to perform a sādhana or seek out a teacher? If we already understand that the person has no free will, because there is no person, then does that mean I have no control over whether I perform a sādhana?
If a person is exposed to the ‘no free will’ teaching before enlightenment, it may cause a person to inappropriately act on their impulses (if they have an addiction for example), because they can justify it by saying ‘my addiction is just an arising in Awareness, and I can’t choose otherwise since there is no free will.’
But this just seems wrong, there is something ‘off’ but I can’t put a finger on it. The sentence above is some fake advaita logic that a separate self may abuse to justify inappropriate behavior. But what is the resolution for this? Is the resolution to just assume I have free will (if I am in ignorance), and then just ‘do my best’? But that just seems artificial as well, because it will always be in the back of my mind that the person has no freedom.
I’m aware that the view of some traditional advaita teachers (such as Swami Chinmayananda and maybe Swami Dayananda?) is that we DO have free will, or the ability to exert ‘self-effort’ that ends up cancelling past karma, but that just doesn’t make sense to me. I think Francis Lucille’s description above is more accurate. You can even verify in your experience that thoughts simply appear with no obvious choosing mechanism. What’s your opinion on the matter?
I’ve heard you say somewhere on your website that the ‘no free will’ teaching was never an issue for you, but it is a huge issue for me! Perhaps you have some advice?
A: It’s clear that you have thought a lot about this. You have phrased the problem and question very well.
Several points first.
- I think I mentioned that ‘Back to the Truth’ was written quite a long time ago and, if I wrote it again (and I may well produce a new book – ‘Teachers of Advaita’ – in the not too distant future), I would include more traditional material and my explanations would be much clearer and, in some instances, different.
- The version of ‘Eternity Now’ that I have was a spiral-bound paper version that I bought at one of Francis’ early residentials. He only produced it as a book some years later so clearly removed that sentence then. I also obtained permission from him indirectly, at the time, to use the quotations.
- (Also I would never add anything to a quotation from another source!)
It is quite reasonable that he did remove it. As I read it now, my immediate reaction was that it contradicted what was said in the previous sentence and he probably realized that also. You cannot say that all thoughts that arise (or responses to them) do so automatically except for thoughts about mokSha! They have to be automatic also.
The thing about Advaita is that ALL of the teaching is in vyavahāra and you cannot say anything about paramārtha. Ultimately all of the teaching has to be dropped. Its function is to take you step by step towards a realization of the truth.
The second part of the answer is also potentially misleading. You cannot say that, in reality, ‘everything happens because we want it to’. Whilst it is true that there is only Brahman in reality, Brahman does not have thoughts or desires. So it cannot be true that Brahman ‘wants’ any of this. This is why Advaita also has Ishvara as well as jIva-s. There has to be a mithyā god as well as a mithyā world with mithyā people if you are to make internal, coherent sense of it all. Essentially, you cannot mix absolute and empirical reality!
Practically speaking, if events in your life (over which you had no free will) led you to think about these matters, chance encounters with others, books etc. would have increasingly led you (again without needing free will) to pursue the teaching. That is how I believe it works. You can read my longer thoughts on the subject (though again written some years ago) beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/free-will/ (5 parts). There are further thoughts at https://www.advaita-vision.org/free-will-again/ and questions 365 and 413.
It is certainly true that people can and do justify actions on the basis of their beliefs. But this seems to reinforce the fact that we have no free will. The response to the query re justification is just as automatic as was the response to the initial stimulus. Obviously we do often think before acting and sometimes this may involve considerable deliberation. But each step of a ‘deliberation’ involves reacting to a thought that arises (outside of our control) using reasoning abilities that have been learned and awareness of prior experiences etc. None of this requires any ‘free will’.
But I am straying from any reference to Advaita here. You are right that the initial teaching of advaita is that we have the freedom to act, not act, or act differently as it is usually phrased. The best metaphor I have heard was of the boat in a fast-flowing river (Swami Chinmayananda I believe). You are being carried downstream whether you like it or not. The most you can do is to stick in an oar or whatever and make the boat ‘tend’ towards one bank or the other. I guess that, the more proficient you are in sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti, the more effect you are able to have. But then, exposure to sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti would mean that you are more likely to attempt to reach one bank rather than the other (i.e. no free will…).
A useful question – thank you. I will be writing about free will (again) in Volume 2 of the ‘Confusions in Advaita’ book that I am currently writing.