Mind, karma and free will

Aug 29, 2021


Dear Ven. Robina,


Someone asked me if I thought Mahayana can be said to fall into the just world fallacy, if it’s an attempt to explain away injustice so it can be avoided. Thinking about this made me wonder about oppression such as racism for instance, and the relationship between it (and other forms of discrimination or bigotry generally). If how we’re treated is a result of past actions via karma, would that mean that experiencing things like racism, sexism, etc are also caused by our past actions? And if an entire group is subject to discrimination, like does that mean the karma manifests as being born in that oppressed group, or is it that everyone who’s in an oppressed group has karma to experience discrimination and this is how it’s manifested? Please correct me if I’ve made any mistakes in my reasoning here, I’m still learning about the intricacies of karma.


On that note I’ve also been wondering about the relationship between karma and free will. If our actions are of our own free will, but what we experience is based on our karma, what does that mean for the free will of others? For instance, I read in Lamrim Year that if we take the vow not to kill, that means we’re decreasing the harm any beings we would have killed experienced. That being the case, would that mean that their experiences – say, that of the spider I put outside instead of squashing yesterday – aren’t completely a product of their karma but are also affected by the free will of other beings? My thinking is that if the karmic seeds of others inevitably must ripen then the practice of bodhicitta wouldn’t really work, but that doesn’t feel like a complete answer if that makes sense?


Another question I’ve been wondering about since watching your YouTube lectures is, what exactly is mind? I understand it’s like a mirror that reflects reality perfectly if it’s unclouded, and that it’s without form, immaterial etc, but it is empty of inherent existence the way, say, a cup is? Also, if we don’t have a spirit or a soul etc, what is it within us that is reborn? I understand the answer here is mind lol but wouldn’t that make mind analogous to a soul? I know this contravenes the idea of Anattā but I haven’t gotten my head around it yet. Also what would happen to our minds after all beings have achieved enlightenment and are free from samsara? Are we all part of one whole, larger consciousness? Because if our mind has limitless perception, that would make it indistinguishable from other minds or consciousness wouldn’t it? I know in Theravada there’s a belief that the mind is extinguished like a flame, is this true in Mahayana also?


I really appreciate your time and wisdom.






Dear L,


Good to hear your thoughts.


1. As for karma. For the buddha it’s a natural law that runs the universe; or, if you like, within which the universe runs. It’s not run by anybody; there’s no creator, therefore no punisher or rewarder.


The simple law is that whatever any sentient thinks or does or says just naturally sows seeds in the mind that ripen in the future. Virtuous actions, those driven by kindness, love, compassion, etc., ripen as happiness: a good rebirth, good tendencies, good experiences, good environment. Negative actions, those driven by attachment, anger, etc., etc., ripen in those four ways as suffering experiences.


It’s just the way it is. No one made it up. It’s not fair or unfair. Buddha observed this to be the way it is and presented his findings.


It’s like any natural law, such as botany: it’s the law within which growing things function. No one created it and then dumped it on gardens. It’s an explanation of gardens. 


Therefore, all our happiness — being treated nicely by others, having a good life, etc. — is necessarily the result of our own past actions. Ditto suffering.


2. Free will: everyone talks about it, but what is it? It’s a Christian teaching, actually: When he created us God gave it to us. That’s not Buddha’s view!


“Free” will implies it’s not dependent on anything. Nothing exists like that! Everything is a dependent arising. 


Of course, therefore, our decisions are contingent; everything is. We make choices based on various conditions, not in spite of them. 


3. Mind is not physical, is not a function of the brain, is not the handiwork of a creator or our parents, did not begin in the mother’s womb but goes back and back beginninglessly, will not end, and, finally possesses the potential to be completely rid of all delusions — the meaning of “budh” — and full of all goodness — the meaning of “dha.”


It’s mind that continues from life to life, carrying the imprints left by our actions. And, yes, it’s a dependent arising, is empty, like everything else.


There’s no such thing as a collective consciousness. Minds are all separate. But when we’ve achieved buddhahood — this is the Middle Way Consequentialist view — your mind and the minds of other buddhas are essentially the same mind now. 


And, according to that view, when you’ve achieved buddhahood, you’ve extinguished all delusions, but not the mind. Mind never ends. A buddha, driven by compassion and having perfect wisdom, never stops manifesting in various bodies in various realms for the sake of the suffering sentient beings.


Yes, excellent to study the teachings, L! There are some good courses around. Choose carefully. Know the style of Buddhism you want to study and then go for it!


What do you think?





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