The Role and Importance of Willpower

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How Is It Possible to Make a Decision?

We’ve gotten to the point of: How do we make a decision? How does a decision arise? We have two wishes, two feelings, that arise from all sorts of circumstances – to yell or not to yell. It’s not free will, because there’s no independently truly existing me encapsulated in plastic sitting separately from these two feelings that are arising and existing separately from this indecisive wavering. Remember, all of this is included within the five aggregates. Within the five aggregates that make up our experience, these two wishes are arising – the cognition, mental cognition, indecisive wavering, and then me is labeled on top of it.

There’s nothing wrong with this. This is absolutely correct that there are the five aggregate factors. That is just talking about what makes up each moment of our experience. Don’t think of it as some sort of boxes up in the sky categorizing things. It’s not talking about that. It’s just a schematic tool to analyze each moment of our experience. In each moment many, many things are networking together to make up that moment of experience:

  • consciousness, either seeing or hearing or we’re thinking,
  • some level of happy or unhappy,
  • some level of distinguishing something; otherwise it’s an undifferentiated sense field. I have to be able to distinguish the colored shape of your head from the colored shape of the sweater of the lady behind you; otherwise I cannot deal with what’s happening. That’s usually translated as recognition, which is not really what it’s talking about. It’s just distinguishing one thing from another, from the background.
  • And then there are all the emotions and concentration.

And all these things are happening at the same time. That’s the five aggregates – a form that we are seeing or sound that we’re hearing, our body, etc. And we can label onto that me. Me. I’m not the word “me.” I’m not a word. I’m what the word refers to. The word refers to me on the basis of all of these things.

This is very important to understand. I didn’t really want to go into this, but it’s important, so let me give my classic example for this. My classic example, the movie Star Wars. There’s the name, the title of the movie, “Star Wars.” So Star Wars is not just a title; it’s not the name. The basis is not just the plastic frames, but every moment of the movie. Star Wars isn’t just one moment of the movie, is it? So the word “Star Wars,” the label “Star Wars” – the title – refers to the movie, the actual movie Star Wars, on the basis of all the moments of the film. Do you follow that?

So that’s me. I’m not just one moment of my experience – me – from when I was a baby until now. I’m not any one of those moments, and I’m not the name “me” or “Alex,” but that name refers to something on the basis of an entire life. That’s the conventional me. So there’s a big difference between what a label or word refers to and what corresponds to the word. What corresponds to the word is something encapsulated in plastic like out of a dictionary. Things don’t exist like that, in these little categories like in the dictionary: good, bad, etc. So that’s what’s absent when we’re talking about voidness, that things actually correspond to our words and concepts. But words and concepts refer – because that’s language – refer to things. There’s a big difference. That’s the key to understanding the difference between the conventional me and the false me.

What is valid is that the words refer to something. What is not valid is that things correspond to what words imply, which is fixed categories with a big line around them, that things exist in boxes: love, hate, warmth, the box. Things don’t exist in boxes. What is love? What’s the feeling of love? Everybody has many different experiences of it, and we can say, “Yeah, I have love for you.” So it refers to something. We actually do feel something. But there isn’t some sort of box over here, love, that corresponds to the word and now we take something from it and now I feel it. It’s very important to understand that. That’s really the essence.

OK, so there’s no separately existing me separate from what’s arising here – the wish to yell, the wish not to yell, and the indecisive wavering between the two. Me is just labeled on that. So there’s not free will. Free will implies a me separate from all of this.

On the other hand, it’s not determined. Because when we talk about a not-yet-happening decision, we can cognize the not-yet-happening of the decision. We know the not-yet-happening of it. The not-yet-happening is what we understand. The not-yet-happening of tomorrow – what is the basis for the not-yet-happening of tomorrow? The presently-happening absence of tomorrow. On the basis of the absence of the presently-happening tomorrow, we can impute the not-yet-happening of tomorrow. Do you follow that? So that we can do, the not-yet-happening of the decision on the basis of an absence of the decision happening, but we can’t validly impute the presently-happening decision on the basis on the absence of a presently-happening decision.

I don’t know if that came out straight. Let’s give a simple example. Today is happening, so an absence of tomorrow. We can know the not-yet-happening of tomorrow. But on the basis of the absence of tomorrow today, we can’t impute a present-happening of tomorrow, because it’s not happening yet. That’s why it’s not determined. That’s the real thing of why it’s not determined. In the absence of something, you can’t say that there’s the presence of something. You can only, on the absence of something, say that something hasn’t happened yet. But when it’s not yet happening, you can’t say that it’s already happening and waiting to come out? OK? I mean, that’s the actual analysis.

Is it the same as saying: I can say there’s an absence and there’s a potential, but I cannot say anything about the qualities that are linked to it, because it’s still only a potential?

That’s right. That’s exactly how we understand karma, that there is a tendency for something to happen, for us to yell. But there’s one part of it which is the not-yet-ripening of the result that will ripen when the circumstances are complete. That’s why you can get rid of tendencies, because when there are no longer any circumstances that will allow for the ripening of the karma, then you can’t say that there’s potential for it to ripen anymore. And because these tendencies can be affected by many, many different circumstances, then there are many possibilities of what it could ripen into.

So that then gets into quantum mechanics and probability. So if you are interested I have a very complex article on my website: What Does a Buddha Know When a Buddha Knows the Past, Present, and Future? And there we get into a quantum physics explanation and so on of all the different possibilities and so on of what does a Buddha actually know. But you’re forewarned: it’s the most difficult article on the website. But it’s important, because otherwise, again, we get into: Is it determined? The Buddha knows it already? Anyway, let’s go on.

[See: A Buddha's Knowledge of the Past, Present and Future]

So neither of the two extremes, free will or determinism. So when a presently-happening decision occurs – that’s how you have to understand it, it’s occurring – it means that we are cognizing one choice (let’s say to refrain from yelling) and we’re cognizing with correct discriminating awareness that this course of action is beneficial. That’s what’s happening at the moment of the decision. Optimally, that discrimination is based on having analyzed the choices. And then we have mental factors that are involved with that that investigate the situation roughly and scrutinize the details. I don’t have to go into all of that. And of course this could only happen if we’ve built up the habits of analyzing so that the tendency to analyze gives rise to these, and we have to have a motivation of why we would want to analyze.

One can get much more complex than this, because also what we can analyze here is what I feel like doing, what I want to do, and what I need to do. For instance, I’m on a diet. I walk past the bakery. I feel like having a piece of chocolate cake, but I want to stick to my diet, and I need to stick with the diet because I have high blood pressure and I need to lose weight. So you analyze all the reasons: Why do I feel like this? Why do I want this? Why do I need this? And then you analyze the validity of each of the reasons. “I need to lose weight so that I’ll be more attractive and win a partner.” Is that based on vanity or… What are the reasons why I need to be on the diet? Why do I feel like it? “Because I have great attachment to chocolate cake.” You analyze what are the valid reasons. OK. So on the basis of that deliberation, if we’re really going to… What should I do? Then you come to a conclusion. Decisive. You focus on one decision with the intention to carry it out. And correct discriminating awareness that this will be beneficial. And all the other mental factors that will support this: mindfulness of the Dharma, concentration, patience, all these things.

The Role of Willpower

So where does willpower come into the analysis of making a decision? Willpower is part of perseverance, one of the six far-reaching attitudes (six perfections): the armor-like perseverance. That’s the perseverance to endure any difficulties that might arise in implementing our decision. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, I’m going to refrain from yelling.” That’s willpower, isn’t it? That’s primarily what we experience as “I made the choice.” But perseverance is a complex of many components. Now we bring in more teachings.

Shantideva – Bodhicharyavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior) – explains six factors that are involved with perseverance:

  • Zestful vigor and strength, accompanied by a strong intention to implement our decision. So strength: “Rrrr. I’m going to do it.”
  • Then steadfastness not to turn back from our decision and self-pride with which we think “I will be able to carry out my decision.”
  • Then being satisfied and happy about the decision we’re making. Otherwise later we’re going to be plagued with regrets and then you’ll turn back – you’ll yell after thirty seconds.
  • Then letting go, which in the case of making a decision means not dwelling on the decision we’ve made once we’ve made it, but going on with what comes next. OK? “I’ve decided not to yell,” “I’ve decided not to go to the movies,” “I’ve decided not to go to the party,” whatever, and then go on with what’s next. Don’t keep on thinking about it. Let go.
  • Then readily accepting the difficulties that might be involved with our decision. So “I accept that it’s going to be difficult to refrain from yelling. I accept that.” You have to be willing to accept it. Don’t be naive.
  • And lastly, taking control of ourselves to overcome laziness and resolving “I’m going to do it.”

Fantastic analysis from Shantideva of what’s involved with this perseverance, that we’re actually going to do something. All right? All of this is what is necessary for making a decision. We’re not analyzing here the choice of what should I have for dinner. I mean, this is trivial. We’re deciding really “Shall I act destructively or not act destructively?” Our whole enlightenment is going to follow on being able to make that decision, that discrimination. Our whole enlightenment depends on this. If we can’t make that decision, it’s hopeless. That’s where it all begins.

Then, in Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asanga explains five further aspects of perseverance:

  • Armor-like courage – we need armor-like courage to endure difficulties – gained from reminding ourselves of the joy with which we made our decision. “I decided to refrain and I’m happy about it.” That requires great courage. So that’s another factor.
  • Then constant and respectful application of ourselves to the task of implementing our decision. Respectful. That means that I respect what I’m doing. It’s not that I think “Oh, this is terrible what I’m doing.” But I honor it: “This is really worthwhile what I’m doing, that I am refraining from yelling.” That gets very deep. If we have this negative self-image – “I’m no good,” and so on, “I can’t possibly do this,” etc. – it’s not going to work. We have to have respect for ourselves that I can act in a much more wholesome way.
  • Then never becoming disheartened or depressed about our decision.
  • And never withdrawing from it.
  • And never becoming complacent. For instance: “Well, I refrained from yelling once. That’s enough.”

So this is Asanga’s analysis of what we need. Strong perseverance means enduring the difficulties. Do it. “I’m going to do it.” That’s what’s involved with a decision. To just make the decision and not implement it doesn’t get us anywhere.

So all of these factors and aspects of perseverance network with each other to give strength and energy to the decision-making process. And what do we call this whole thing together? We call that "willpower." So think about it. What is willpower? To most people that’s what is involved with making a choice: “It’s my will that I’m going to do this.” So this is the analysis of what’s involved with that. Obviously you’re going to have to read this list later. I don’t expect that anybody can remember it. Courage, strength – “I’m not going to turn back. I’m not going to get disheartened. I’m not filled with doubts and regrets,” and all of that, and “I’m happy and I’m satisfied with what I’ve decided.”

Now, when all these factors that we can label willpower are present in this moment of our experience in which the decision-making occurs – it’s part of the five aggregates that make up that moment of experience when the decision making occurs – then we impute the conventional me on top of that. All right? We impute it, or label – there are many different words for that – and that allows us to experience the occurrence of this decision of refraining from yelling as “I made the decision.” This is the conventional me – “I made the decision” – labeled onto what’s occurring now, and that is a correct imputation, a correct mental labeling. I made the decision; no one else made the decision. This is valid, but without there being a separate me that’s doing it or that the decision is already sitting there.

So now we could impute different things onto this complex of what’s happening at this moment, the decision-making occurring, the presently-happening of the decision. If we label the conventional me on it, that’s correct. If we impute onto this a truly existent me, a false me, then it feels as though it was free will – “I made the decision,” a separate me from all of this – because we label that separate me onto what happened and then we say – big ego – “I did it.” You see the difference? It’s all a matter of how we conceptualize.

How do you conceptualize what has occurred? Either a conventional me (“I made it. Nobody else made it.”) or a big separate ego me (“I made the decision,” free will). And you see what follows from imputing the false me onto this occurrence. Then you get pride: “Oh I’m so good. I’m so wonderful. I did this.” Or “Oh, I was so stupid to do that. This is ridiculous.” So all disturbing emotions arise on the basis of labeling a truly existent me onto the decision making.

If you label the conventional me – “I made the decision,” and then so what? Then you go on, but that means being relaxed, relaxed about ethical discipline, not uptight: “Oh, I have to be good. The me has to be good and decide this,” and “I did this, and now I’m so good.” Then you are very stiff in ethics and making choices. “I have to be good,” this sort of feeling. That’s all involved with the false me.

The horrible thing is that if we impute the false me onto this decision-making process, it feels as though the big me, the ego, made the decision. That’s deceptive cognition (’khrul-shes), that’s is the technical term for that. It deceives us, because it feels like that. It feels as though there is a separate me sort of sitting at the desk behind the control board in my head, a little me, and here are the decisions that come up on the board and I decide and press the button. It feels like that. That is absolutely absurd, isn’t it? But it seems like that, doesn’t it? That’s deceptive, and we believe it. We believe it. Then disturbing emotions and all sorts of things follow from that. So the stages for overcoming that of course are, when that feeling arises, to say, “This is ridiculous. That doesn’t correspond to reality,” and eventually, the more used to that we become, then this feeling won’t even arise of this separate me making the decision.

And if we impute a truly existent decision onto the dependently arising decision, then it feels as though it was determined. That’s the mistake. What do we label onto the decision that has arisen? Just a conventionally, dependently arisen decision or a truly existent decision? If we impute a truly existent decision, then it was sitting there already; it was determined. And if it really feels like that to us, we believe it. “I had no choice,” is what we would say. “I couldn’t help myself.” We make all sorts of excuses. What’s behind it? We feel that it was already determined and there’s a truly existent me separate from the whole thing that is helpless: “Poor me.” So mental labeling – very important.

Dependent Arising

We’ve seen that all of what we’ve discussed… To develop bodhichitta for the first time arises dependently on everything that we’ve been discussing and analyzing: precious human rebirth, and refraining from destructive behavior, and all the causes and conditions that are necessary for these. And all of these factors and conditions can be condensed into two: positive force and discriminating awareness, our two networks. I mean, basic, basic. And the opportunities to develop these are only available on the rare occasions when we’ve attained a precious human rebirth.

So you can see that this type of analysis, when we’ve applied everything that comes later in the lam-rim to this very first step in the lam-rim, taking advantage of the precious human rebirth becomes much stronger: “I have to take advantage of this precious human rebirth because of all these things that we’ve been discussing. It’s only at this time when I can really make any progress.”

Inspiration from the Buddhas cannot overcome the compulsion of our karma. See how important it is to understand what we’re talking about here? If we translated it differently it would come out: “The blessings of a Buddha can’t overcome actions.” What in the world does that mean? So we’re talking about inspiration. The Buddhas… There’s only a certain amount of energy in the universe – it sounds like physics now – only a certain amount of energy in the universe, energy of inspiration from the Buddhas and energy of the compulsion of our karma, and one isn’t stronger than the other. OK. So now, if the compulsion were stronger than the inspiration of a Buddha, nobody could ever become enlightened. And if the inspiration could negate the compulsion, everybody should be enlightened already. So these two things are equal, and our beginningless ignorance, unawareness, is continually cancelling out whatever progress we made.

So what we need, then, is willpower, willpower to overcome the compulsion of negative karma so that we make the correct decisions with correct discriminating awareness that will eventually lead to our developing bodhichitta for the first time and then building up the enlightenment-building positive force that can’t be depleted or destroyed. And as we’ve seen, willpower consists of a network of many factors, and it arises dependently on many factors that all arise from other factors. So willpower is devoid of self-established existence precisely because it dependently arises – many factors that all arise from other factors. That’s the classic best reason for voidness, a dependent arising. It’s not that willpower just comes out of nothing and we tap into it and use it to make a decision to not yell, and it’s not like that because it dependently arises on so many different factors.

The Importance of Willpower

Tsongkhapa emphasizes the importance of willpower in Lam-rim chen-mo. He does this in his presentation of the four forces with which we can develop bodhichitta for the first time, four forces that are possible. It could be any of them, but it could be any combination. It’s usually a combination. This is a fantastic teaching. He takes it out of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi (Bodhisattva Stages of Mind).

1. The force of our own strength – that’s willpower – from our own efforts and our willpower. That’s one force that we can use to develop bodhichitta for the first time. All right? “I’m going to do it.”

2. The second one is the force of others, meaning relying on the inspiration, support, and help of others, for instance our spiritual teachers and spiritual community.

I hear this all the time from my students. They’re always complaining “We don’t have a spiritual community to support us.” I’m not talking about people here in Hamburg; for instance people in Russia or Ukraine. “We don’t have a community. We don’t have the teachers. Nothing supports us, so I can’t do it.” They feel that they need the support of others in order to be able to go on the spiritual path, to have the strength. They gather their strength from others to refrain from acting negative and developing bodhichitta, etc. And of course that is helpful. I mean, we have the Three Jewels, so there’s the Sangha.

3. Then the third force is the force of a cause. This means by the force of having become familiar with Mahayana teachings in previous lives so that we have instincts for bodhichitta. These instincts arise just when we merely hear talk of the Buddha, talk of the teachings, and so on. All of a sudden something goes “boing” inside us and we say, “Wow. This is what I want to do.”

I’m sure many of us have experienced that. That is quite frequent. How did you come to Buddhism?

4. And then the fourth force is the force of application, which means habituating ourselves to constructive factors for a long time in this lifetime. That means really working hard at it, entrusting ourselves to a spiritual teacher, thinking about the Dharma, meditating, all these things. So we develop it through the force of what we do in this life.

Tsongkhapa paraphrases Asanga and he says that the development of bodhichitta from relying on our own force or on the force of a cause from previous lives will be firm, it will hold – it will be stronger than if you rely on the force of others or the effort that you put in this lifetime. Very, very interesting. Very profound. So think about that. If you feel instinctively drawn to the Mahayana teachings – “I don’t care what other people do. I’m going to do it myself” – that’s going to be much firmer than if “Oh, I need a community, and I really have to work hard.” That makes sense.

So that’s why it’s clear that willpower plays a large role in making a decision to refrain from acting destructively. Willpower is very important. So dependently arising decision-making based on dependently arising willpower is neither free will nor determinism.


The further we analyze, we realize that we must modify our discussion. This is because, given beginningless time, not only have we developed bodhichitta countless times, we have also given it up countless time. Therefore, we must modify our question. Rather than asking, "How is it that someone can develop bodhichitta for the first time?" the question becomes, "How is it that someone can not give up bodhichitta for the first time." The answer to that is that the person needs to have taken the bodhisattva vows and not lost them by giving up bodhichitta. Our previous analysis is still valid, since all the factors needed for developing bodhichitta for the first time would also apply to not giving up bodhichitta for the first time. The main addenda, then, to the analysis is the willpower to safeguard the bodhisattva vows "even at the cost of our lives."


So in short, summary, final statement: Everybody hasn’t become enlightened yet because the myriad countless number of decisions needed for developing bodhichitta and not giving it up for the first time only occur through dependent arising. If they occurred through free will or determinism, everyone would have become enlightened already, and they have not. So when we ask the question “How do we develop bodhichitta and not give it up for the first time?” the answer is “through dependent arising.”

That’s the presentation, and actually we fit it in. Amazing. We have five more minutes, so we can meditate on this. Because if I open it up for questions, it’s endless. But all of this is food for analysis, food for thought. And even if we haven’t followed everything or understood everything, I hope that at least you’ve learned what the process of analysis is like.

Analytical meditation, which is really thinking about the teachings to become convinced, to figure it out. (We called that analytical meditation. Analytical meditation actually is the next step after that.) But this analysis is in this hearing, thinking, meditating. Actually it’s in the thinking, step two. Meditation is after we’ve understood it already and we’re convinced; then you familiarize yourself (that’s meditation). All right? Analytical meditation is we’ve become convinced already, so we go through the line of reasoning again just to refresh our conviction, and then we stay focused on it. Analytical meditation is a resume, going through again the line of reasoning. We’ve already understood it; we’re already convinced. The thinking process is going through the analysis in order to understand it and get convinced. That’s step two. And it’s a process of putting together all the different pieces of the puzzle. The more pieces you put together, the bigger picture you see, the more you understand. And the more we do that, the more conviction we have in the omniscient mind of a Buddha – that it’s incredible all these pieces fit together in innumerable ways. That also helps us to strive for enlightenment. That also Tsongkhapa points out.

Now we have only one minute left, so let’s reflect, and I will control my compulsion to say more.


OK, so then we end with the dedication… Now remember, we’ve built up some positive force, hopefully, by listening to all of this and some understanding, hopefully, and if we don’t dedicate it, it will just by default go into the samsara-building folder in our internal computer. It will help to improve samsara. So we have to consciously save it in the enlightenment folder, not let it just go by default into the samsara folder. Absurd examples are very useful. This is the Buddhist method, prasanga method. So even if the bodhichitta here is not sincere – I mean, that’s the whole point (it really has to be sincere) – then we have what’s called, the step before that, which is facsimile: it’s a little bit like it. But don’t just have it be in words: “Blah blah blah, may this go to enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.” A parrot could say that.

So whatever understanding, whatever positive force has been built up from this, may it act as a cause really to attain enlightenment, and like Shantideva’s prayer, not just for my attaining enlightenment (again that becomes a little bit selfish) – may it act as a cause for everyone’s reaching enlightenment.