Analysis of Free Will Versus Determinism

[For further detail, see: The Nature of Time as a Temporal Interval. See also: A Buddha’s Knowledge of the Past, Present and Future]

This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the topic of karma, specifically in relation to the issue of free will versus determinism. When we discuss this topic of free will versus determinism, that has to do with, obviously, cause and effect, and specifically with behavioral cause and effect, which is what karma is talking about – not just the cause and effect of turning the bottle upside down and liquid comes out.

And when we discuss karma, I’d like to present it in a fairly simple way, although it’s a very complex topic. But we can speak of a karmic action and then the karmic aftermath that comes from that on our mental continuum. And although there are many different aspects of that karmic aftermath, let’s just limit ourselves to a simple discussion of them in terms of what would be called “karmic tendencies” – that’s usually translated as “seeds,” but a “seed” doesn’t really give very much meaning. And then we have the karmic result. So, when we are looking at this topic from the point of view of cause and effect, then, again, let’s limit ourselves to karmic tendencies as the cause and the karmic result as the result. So we’re just talking about the tendency and the result as being the cause and the result.

Now, the question then is, “Do we have a choice about the result?” That would be the extreme of free will. Or, “Is there certainty of what the result will be?” And, if that’s so, then does that mean it is determined, what’s going to happen? So this is the basic issue that we’re dealing with here: do we have a choice over the result or is the result already decided.

What Exists and What Does Not Exist

In order to examine this issue, we have to look at what we mean in Buddhism in terms of existent phenomenon (yod-pa) and nonexistent phenomenon (med-pa). So existent phenomena are objects that can be validly cognized, that can be validly known. “Validly known” – this is the most important word in that definition. “Valid” means not just with certainty; “valid” means correctly and with certainty. Actually, “valid” just means correctly; and a nonexistent phenomenon, for instance turtle hair, can be an object of cognition, but not an object of valid cognition. So that would be a nonexistent phenomenon.

So, the way “existent” and “nonexistent” are defined in Buddhism is in terms of a mind that can know it. So, when we’re talking about cause and effect, specifically karmic cause and effect, then we have to know, in terms of the result, the karmic result and this whole process – what would be an existent phenomenon and what would be nonexistent.

In other words, we could imagine that what’s happening to us is based totally on free will or we could imagine that it’s totally determined. But then the question is, “Is that a valid cognition of it?” which means that’s existent, that’s actually what’s happening. “Or is it nonexistent?” In other words, “Is that not a correct cognition?” In other words, if we think that we have complete free will or determinism, is that correct or not? Is it referring to something that exists or something that doesn’t exist?

So, now let’s look at what is nonexistent. In other words, if you perceive things in this way, it would be incorrect. In terms of free will, one possibility would be that there is a truly existent “me,” existing separately from truly existent choices. It exists separately from that, on its own – “me” over here, these “choices” over there, like a menu. And this separately existent, truly existent “me” can decide, for instance, what’s going to happen, or what I’m going to eat for dinner. That doesn’t exist. That’s referring to nonexistent phenomenon. We may perceive it that way, but that’s incorrect.

And I won’t go into the whole voidness discussion of refuting truly established existence, that’s not our topic for this evening. There’s no entity that exists by itself, that something on its own side is establishing its existence by its own power independently of everything else. That’s impossible.

Now, another variant of what would be nonexistent in terms of free will is that a truly existent result arises from no cause. That would mean that anything can happen. I could flap my wings and fly out the window if I choose to do so. So this is also incorrect, a nonexistent process. Although I might think that I could do anything that I want to, we can only do what we have built up the causes to do, obviously. But it’s not as though there’s a “me” separate from those causes and I’ll pick which one I’m going to do.

Now, what about the extreme of determinism? One explanation of that – we might perceive it this way which would be nonexistent, we couldn’t know it validly – is that some truly existent external being has decided what’s going to happen, or causes it to happen. This whole view of “It’s God’s will what happens.” From a Buddhist point of view, to perceive things that way is not a valid cognition so it’s nonexistent.

Then, the next possibility would be that a truly existent result exists already at the time of the cause, and that it’s inherent, sitting there in the cause, and it’s just unmanifest. So that result is sitting there in the karmic tendency, like sitting off stage, waiting to come on stage and do its thing. And then it’s going to go off the stage. So that would be the extreme of it being predetermined. But if it already exists, but just sitting inside the cause, how could it arise again? It already exists. So how could it happen if it’s already happening? So that’s impossible.

And the third possibility is the result is truly, existently nonexistent before it happens, and then it all of a sudden becomes truly existent when it happens. That would be saying that a nothing becomes a something. But if something is truly a nothing, how could it ever happen? So it can’t be that the result is totally, truly a nothing, not existing, and then all of a sudden it happens. It could never change from being nothing.

So, we have all these incorrect positions and so we need to come to the conclusion that what actually is occurring in terms of karmic cause and effect is neither of these two extremes. It’s free of the two extremes; it’s neither free will nor determinism. So, what exists and could therefore be validly known?

Valid Phenomena and Invalid Phenomena

Now, we have to make another division. There is something called a “valid phenomenon.” A “valid phenomenon” (srid-pa) is one that is validly knowable now, and an “invalid phenomenon” (mi-srid-pa) is one that cannot be validly known now. Such a phenomenon includes both existent phenomena and nonexistent phenomena. So, an invalid existent phenomenon is one that could not possibly be an object of valid cognition now, but it could be validly cognized at another time. An invalid nonexistent phenomenon is one that could never possibly be an object of valid cognition, not at anytime – it’s not just not now. So that would be a “never valid phenomenon.” So how does that relate to cause and effect? How is it relevant in terms of the three times? This is our question which is a complex question.

Now, the whole way in which we conceptualize the three times in Western thought and in Buddhist thought is very different. Western thought discusses time in terms of the past, present and future, and so that refers to a sequence of three times from the perspective of the present. So, for instance from the perspective of the present year 2009, the past refers to the past year 2008, the present refers to the present year 2009, and the future refers to the next year 2010.

In Buddhist terminology, we express it differently. We would say the no-longer-happening of 2008, the present-happening of 2009, and the not-yet-happening of 2010. So now we’re talking about three different years – 2008, 09 and 10. But, what’s more relevant here in our discussion of the three times in Buddhism is looking at these three times with respect to one object or event – for instance the year 2009, before it happens, during it and after it occurs. This is what is relevant to the discussion of karmic result. How can we know it before it happens, while it’s happening or after it’s happened? What is the status of the result before it happens? What’s the status of the result while it’s happening? What’s the status of the result after it’s happened? How do you know them, and what do you know?

Now, if we look at this from a Western point of view, first, in Western terminology we’d say before it’s happened, the year 2009 is in the future. When the year 2009 is happening, it’s in the present. After it’s happened, the year 2009 is in the past. Well, from a Buddhist point of view, the future, the past and the present aren’t like three different rooms and there it is in these three different rooms at different times. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s not like that: 2009 – first it’s sitting in the future, then it comes and sits in the present, and then it goes and sits in the past. Not like that, that’s impossible. It’s not that you can somehow go in a spaceship faster than light and arrive in the room called the future or the past, and see what will be the result of my karmic action.

So, in Buddhist terminology the three time perspectives are expressed as follows: The not-yet-happening of the year 2009 – that would be a valid phenomenon in 2008. Right? In 2008, not-yet-happening 2009, that’s what’s going on now, isn’t it? It’s not yet happening. That’s because 2009 is not happening yet in 2008, but it would be invalid in 2009 or in 2010. You couldn’t say in the year 2009, “Not-yet-happening 2009” – if we look at it as a year, as a whole – neither in 2010 – you couldn’t validly know, in 2010, the not-yet-happened 2009. You couldn’t have missed it. In other words, the present-happening of the year 2009, it’s invalid in 2008, invalid in 2010; it’s only valid in 2009. It’s only in 2009 that the presently-happening 2009 can be known now. And the no-longer-happening of the year 2009, it’s invalid in 2008, invalid in 2009; it’s only valid in 2010. So, you can see that when we talk about a year – not yet happened, etc. – it’s only valid at a certain time. Not-yet-happening 2010 is an existent phenomenon, can be validly known, but can only be validly known at a certain time – before it happens.

There are also three things that can be discussed here. Let’s just focus on not-yet-happening, because that’s what our topic is about, the future. Do we have free will about what happens or is it determined? So, in Buddhism we make a difference here. We talk about three different things: the not-yet-happening of 2010, the not-yet-happening year 2010 and the year 2010 which has not yet happened. Those are three different things and I don’t want to go into great detail about the differences of them, but when we are looking in terms of the future, what the result is going to be, are we looking at the result or are we looking at the fact that it hasn’t happened yet? What are we looking at? These are different questions. What is the result that’s not yet happened? Do I want to know what the result is that’s not yet happened? Or do I want to know that something has not yet happened – the not-yet-happening of it? So these are different phenomena here.

The distinction between these three items parallels the distinction in the Western formulation of time. Three things from a Western point of view: the future of an object, a future object, or an object which is in the future. Note that only during the temporal interval – that’s the time span – of the not-yet-happening 2010 can the not-yet-happening 2010 and the year 2010 which has not yet happened, only at that time are they valid phenomenon.

This is a little bit complicated. Let’s say here we are in 2009. This is the time of the not-yet-happening of 2010. So only in this time, now, would it be a valid phenomenon to talk about the not-yet-happening 2010, or the 2010 that hasn’t happened yet. That, we could validly know now, before a presently-happening 2010.

Another example is at the time of the “not-yet-happening yoghurt” at the time of the milk. Only at that time can you know the not-yet-happening yoghurt. Now, there is a same commonsense yoghurt that can pass from one spatial location to another. Presently-happening yoghurt on the table, presently-happening yoghurt in the refrigerator – you can’t know those both at the same time. They can’t appear at the same time. Yoghurt can’t be in both places at the same time. You can know them validly one after another. So, you can have that same yoghurt in different spatial locations, the same commonsense yoghurt.

So, you can have that same commonsense yoghurt that can pass from one spatial location to another. Then the question is, “Can you have a same commonsense yoghurt that passes from one temporal location to another?” In other words, in the sequence not-yet-happening yoghurt at the time of the milk and the presently-happening yoghurt at the time of the yoghurt and the no-longer-happening yoghurt at the time of the cheese – does that refer to temporal coordinates of the same yoghurt, the yoghurt passing through time? Do they have a common locus? Is there one yoghurt that is the same commonsense object at the time of the milk, at the time of the yoghurt, and at the time of the cheese?

And according to a Prasangika point of view, as explained by the Gelug tradition, there is no such thing, even conventionally. There is nothing that passes through the three times, as if it were on a conveyor belt moving along a hall. So there’s no conventionally existent, commonsense result that passes through the three times. It’s not that there’s one object – the result – and now it’s not yet happening, now it’s happening and then it’s no longer happening. It’s not one commonsense object. Do you follow that?

What Is a Karmic Result?

So, what actually is a karmic result? The not-yet-happening result, presently-happening result, and, well, we won’t discuss no-longer-happening [result]. Let’s just leave it not-yet-happening and presently-happening. So now when you analyze it, it’s not so simple, especially when we’re talking about karmic cause and effect. So, let’s speak of the sequence of somebody experiencing karmic cause and effect.

OK, now we have a causal action. So, for example, hitting with anger somebody with an object, and experiencing as the karmic result being hit on the head with a clay pot by somebody and wanting to hit the person back, who hit us. It’s a classic karmic sequence of cause and effect. So, what are the karmic tendencies that have come from that action of hitting somebody with something, with anger? And what do they ripen into? I mean, the result is not just one solid thing here, so these are the results that come from it. So, first of all, the primary consciousness involved when experiencing a result that’s similar to its cause. We’re talking about the body consciousness of the physical sensation of being hit on the head, but with a clay pot by somebody. Being hit on the head is a result that’s similar to our hitting somebody else. Right? So one result is that body consciousness at the time when we experience being hit.

Then there’s the mental factor of liking or wishing to do an action similar to the one that we did before, like wanting to hit the person back who hit us on the head with a clay pot. Then there’s the eye consciousness of seeing the person who hit us, while wanting to hit him back; and the feeling of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies these primary consciousnesses; and our human body and its physical elements, but only in the context of their serving as the physical basis for the above mentioned primary consciousness and mental factors; and the body sensors, at that time, in that context.

So, many, many things that make up that result, aren’t there? The consciousness, you see the person, you feel something hitting you on the head, anger. There’s the mental factor of wanting to hit them, and there’s unhappiness there, and there’s probably anger in both cases, and there’s your body that’s the basis for all of this. So, there are all of these things, and they don’t all ripen from the same karmic tendency. The result is an event; this event is made up of all these different parts and they’re not all coming from the same cause. The feeling of unhappiness is the result of destructive actions in general. So that’s coming from some karmic tendency of a destructive action. This human body that I have, well, that’s the result of some karmic tendency from a constructive action. And then these other phenomena, the eye consciousness and wanting to hit them back, etc. – these are coming from the tendencies from that specific destructive action of hitting somebody.

But then there are other types of tendencies besides karmic tendencies. There are tendencies for the mental factors, like anger. And so, out of that tendency for anger, the anger that accompanies this event, this resultant event, comes out of that tendency – it’s not a karmic one, it’s a tendency of a disturbing emotion. And these tendencies, these karmic tendencies and the tendencies of anger, they don’t ripen into the form of physical phenomenon. In other words, they don’t ripen into the clay pot, that this other guy hits us with, which is also part of the event, isn’t it? The clay pot comes from a result of its own causes and conditions: the unfired clay, the firing oven, the heat of the oven, the potter’s wheel, the potter, etc. So, the connection between our karma and the clay pot is established merely in the context of our cognition of a physical sensation of the pot breaking on our head, or the sight of that pot before it hits us.

And there are different karmic causes on the mental continuum of the person who hit us on the head with the pot. Those karmic causes on that person’s mental continuum ripened into them wanting to hit us, and led to their action of hitting us with the clay pot. It’s not from our own karma; it’s their karma. And even though our body that’s hit on the head with the clay pot by someone has ripened from a karmic tendency, and in terms of our body at that moment, when we are hit, we experience that physical sensation, yet our body did not pop out as a material object from the karmic tendency on our mental continuum. Our bodies have many other causes, like the sperm and egg of our parents and our mother’s womb.

So, on our mental continuum, after the occurrence of a presently-happening karmic action, we have a not-yet-happening of the result. But, what is that not-yet-happening of the result? Is it the not-yet-happening of the body consciousness? Is it the not-yet-happening of the unhappiness, or of the pain that we’ll feel? Is it the not-yet-happening of the anger that we’ll have? Is it the not-yet-happening of the clay pot that’s going to hit us? Is it the not-yet-happening of our body at the moment it’s going to be hit by the object? Is it the not-yet-happening of the person who has not yet hit us with the clay pot, but will? And the not-yet-happening of his or her body? Or the not-yet-happening of his or her act of hitting us? Or is it the entire not-yet-happening event of being hit on the head with a clay pot by somebody, imputed as a whole on all these parts?

So, when you analyze, what are we talking about when we are talking about a future? Is it determined, what’s going to happen, or do I have a choice? There are all these different aspects of it, aren’t there? They’re all coming from different causes. So, even if at the time of a karmic tendency for a result, we are able to cognize a result which is not yet happening, with all these different parts, can we know at that time a result which is presently happening, that’s going to arise from that karmic tendency?

In other words, you could know a result which is not yet happening with all these different things, so is that result which has not yet happened a presently-happening result? No. Now I’m sitting here. I hit somebody on the head in past life, and here you are sitting next to me with a clay pot in your hand, and now I am validly knowing that I’m going to be hit on the head with this pot, by this person. I validly know that. So I know this not-yet-happening event – karmic result. I’m imagining it, I’m inferring it, presuming that it will happen. Maybe somebody will stop him, I don’t know. I mean, you know this type of examples, somebody comes to you with a knife or a gun and you imagine, “Now you’re going to kill me.”

OK, so it’s a not-yet-happening event and I know that now. Whether it’s going to happen or not is something else. At that time, when I’m thinking of this not-yet-happening being hit by him with the pot that he has behind his back there, am I knowing validly my being hit on the head? No. Not even a Buddha could know that, because that’s an invalid phenomenon, it can’t be known now. It could be known when it’s presently happening. But that event is not sitting somewhere, waiting to come on stage and happen. And it’s not just popping out of nothing. You get a little bit of the idea here, “valid” and “invalid” is a very important distinction. Whether you can know it now, or not; or maybe you could know it later, but not now.

The Certainty of Karma

Now, let’s talk about the factor of certainty of karma. Karmic impulses, as karmic causes, and therefore also the karmic tendencies, can have certainty or uncertainty as to the time of their giving rise to a result which is presently happening. There’s karma that it’s certain that it will ripen in this lifetime; certain that it will ripen next lifetime; certain that it will ripen in some other lifetime after that; or there’s the karma that there’s no certainty as to when it’s going to ripen. So there’s a division in the presentation of karma.

And then there’s also the factor of certainty or uncertainty of whether it’s going to give rise at all to a result which is presently happening. Because there’s some karma that can be purified so it’s not going to bring about its result. So there’s no certainty that it really will give its result. Although when it does give its result, it will be certain when it does, for example. But there’s no discussion of certainty or uncertainty concerning the specific details of what will be the presently-happening result that will arise.

OK? You could know the not-yet-happening of the lunch. That doesn’t mean that you know what the lunch is going to be, but you know that it’s not yet happening. And as for the not-yet-happening of the lunch – you don’t need to know the details of the not-yet-happening lunch to know that it’s not yet happening. So the same thing with the karmic result: you know that it’s not yet happening, but there’s no certainty of what’s going to happen. So the specific details and the time of the arising are going to be affected by many circumstances that are all variable. We feel regret, we repeat it again – there are many, many variables that affect the strength of what ripens and when it’s going to ripen. And whether the arising will happen at all depends of the application of opponent powers.

So only some variants are possible, but there’s a wide range of what’s possible. However, a Buddha’s omniscient awareness cognizes simultaneously in one moment everything that is not yet happening, what’s presently happening, and what’s no longer happening. So the question arises, when a Buddha cognizes a karmic tendency on someone’s mental continuum – and remember, there were all sorts of tendencies that give rise to the event, but if we just simplify it, the karmic tendency, or one aspect of the result – so when a Buddha cognizes that, does a Buddha cognize all possible results that maybe can happen in general, but a Buddha doesn’t know which one is going to happen? That’s not the case, by the way. Or, does a Buddha cognize the one result which is not yet happening, but definitely will happen? And then all the results which are not yet happening and which could happen, but definitely they’re not going to happen? They could happen, but they’re not. And does Buddha know all other results which are not yet happening and which could never happen? That’s the case, that’s what a Buddha knows.

But this is now determinism, so we have to understand this. So, when we talk about a karmic tendency, one facet of it, one aspect of it, is the ability to give rise to a result which has not yet happened. The question is, “What’s not [yet] happening?” What’s not [yet] happening is giving rise to the result. And when the result arises, it’s not going to be a not-yet-happening result that arises; it’s going to give rise to a presently-happening result. But the karmic tendency has the ability to give rise to not just one fixed result which is presently happening. It has the ability to give rise to many different results which are presently happening. This is demonstrated by the fact that strong regret can affect the ability of the tendency to give rise to its result, so that the presently-happening result will be weaker.

You have a tendency, and it has many different facets, abilities. It has the ability to give rise to this result, the ability to give rise to that result, the ability to give rise to another result – depending on circumstances and other causes and conditions. Many, many abilities, and each of these abilities is associated with another facet of the karmic tendency. It’s temporarily not giving rise to its presently-happening result, so long as the circumstances for an arising of the result are incomplete. When the circumstances aren’t complete, that result is not arising – a presently-happening one; it’s not that the not-yet-happening is sitting over here and then it’s going to arise, come here and happen. These are different.

So, consequently, there are many results of this karmic tendency which are not yet happening, and they’re all valid phenomena, validly knowable at the time of the karmic tendency. Now I have a karmic tendency, and I know that not-yet-happening, it could ripen into this, but if I apply opponent forces, it will ripen into that; if I repeat it, it will ripen into that. I can know all of those. All of those are not yet happening, because the circumstances aren’t complete yet. So the actual presently-happening result that the karmic tendency gives rise to will depend of various circumstances.

So, as long as these circumstances are incomplete, it’s uncertain what the presently-happening result will actually be. What it will be will arise dependently on the circumstances. Now, the question is, “Is it uncertain to everyone?” From the point of view of ordinary beings, there’s no certainty at all of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency. There’s no certainty; they can only guess with presumption what it will be. We don’t know; it’s uncertain from our point of view.

For an arya bodhisattva between the first and tenth level bhumi minds, they don’t have the omniscient awareness of a Buddha, but they have advanced awareness, ESP. And so they are able to perceive the karmic tendencies on somebody’s mental continuum, and the various abilities each tendency has to give rise to a possible result. And they can also validly cognize a certain range of possible results which are not yet happening. So, it depends on what bhumi they are at, how many eons back and ahead they’re able to know with certainty what’s going to ripen.

So, the certainty of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency within a certain time span, but no certainty beyond that time span. But, as we saw, the presently-happening result is a very, very complex phenomenon, happening from so many different causes: the tendencies on one person’s mental continuum; other people who are involved in the event – their mental continuum; so many things. And only a Buddha can know the whole time span, which has no beginning and no end.

What Does a Buddha Know?

And so a Buddha knows exactly what will ripen from each karmic tendency on the mental continuum of each being. But a Buddha knows the not-yet-happening result. What a Buddha knows is from the perspective of a Buddha who is presently happening. Presently-happening results of other’s karmic tendencies that have not yet ripened are invalid phenomena now, even for a Buddha. They’re not possibly occurring now. Buddha knows it’s not yet happening. There’s a tendency, and many, many abilities, so the ability to give rise to many not yet-happening-results. And a Buddha knows what all the circumstances are that are going to be complete for that one to ripen. And the other ones won’t, because the circumstances won’t be complete; because a Buddha knows everything, and everything is going to affect this. But a Buddha isn’t knowing that presently-happening result, because it’s not yet happening.

That’s a little bit difficult to really comprehend. There’s a form of a not-yet-happening event that only can be known by, well, in this case the omniscient mind of a Buddha, but in general just a mental consciousness, like a dream image. But it is not something that you’re seeing over there, like in the future; because it’s not yet happening. So from the point of view of a Buddha there’s certainty of what result will ripen from a karmic cause and tendency; from the point of view of an ordinary being there’s no certainty of what’s going to ripen.

I mean there’s all these tendencies and all these abilities and many not-yet-happening results. From the point of view of an ordinary being looking at it, there’s no certainty of what’s going to happen; from the point of view of an arya bodhisattva, it’s certain what’s going to happen within a certain time span but not beyond that; and from the point of view of a Buddha, who knows the whole time span, it is certain what’s going to happen. So, which one is actually true? They’re all true, they’re all valid; they’re all valid cognitions.

So, we have to go to the example of a conventionally existent phenomenon that can be cognized by humans as yoghurt, by the ghosts as pus, and by the gods as nectar. And each of these three cognitions is valid with respect to that class of being. So existence as yoghurt, pus or nectar is not established from the side of the conventionally existent object, but it arises dependently on being a referent object of the valid mental labeling by a class of beings.

Do you follow that? A human being – I look at it, I eat it, and I label that “yoghurt.” And I experience it as yoghurt. So what’s the yoghurt? It’s the referent object of that label, what that label is referring to. A ghost does the same thing, and experiences it as pus. So what establishes that it’s pus? What that label “pus” refers to. Same thing with a nectar for the gods. It’s not that something is on the side of the object, that it’s really only one of those, or that it’s all three of them from the side of the object. This gets into the whole discussion of voidness. It’s not so simple. And it isn’t something there, on the side of the object, that each being is labeling differently.

So it’s the same thing with this karmic tendency. It’s not some sort of factor on the side of that object, that tendency, a so-called “factor of certainty” that ordinary beings experience as being uncertain. What is the value of this certainty factor? Just like what’s the value of the taste factor of this object; it’s similar to that. For ordinary beings the value of that certainty factor is uncertain; for aryas it’s certain up to a certain span; and for Buddhas it’s completely certain. It’s the same thing: yoghurt, pus, nectar. You see, the problem is: what is going to ripen is going to depend on so many causes and circumstances, and ordinary beings are only aware of a very limited amount of them. So, because of that, it’s uncertain what’s going to happen. An arya bodhisattva knows a certain amount of these factors within a certain time span, but not beyond that. And a Buddha knows the whole thing, everything that’s going to affect it.

The certainty factor is dependent on how many circumstances you know. The certainty factor is just labeled; it’s not sitting on the side of the object. So, because ordinary beings are unable to cognize any significant extent of this basis for labeling with certainty – they don’t know all the factors – for them it’s uncertain what’s going to happen. So consequently, because ordinary beings experience uncertainty concerning the future, they experience the decisions they make as being the consequences of choice. This is because they don’t know the full extent of the factors that influence their so called “choice.” Nevertheless, their cognition of choices and choice is valid for them, just as a Buddha’s cognition of certainty is valid for them.

How It Looks from Our Perspective

For an ordinary being, it’s valid for me to cognize that there’s no certainty. I don’t know, and that’s valid for me, that I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances that affect what’s going to happen, and so for me it’s uncertain, and that’s valid; that’s how I experience it. So I experience it as having a choice of what I’m going to have for lunch, for example. Therefore my experience of having choices is valid, so it’s like my experience of this is yoghurt. But that doesn’t negate the fact that for a Buddha’s cognition of certainty, it’s certain what’s going to happen – but that’s valid for a Buddha.

Do you follow that? So, for me, it’s valid that I have a choice, and for a Buddha it’s valid what’s going to happen, what the choice is going to be. And both of these are valid. Of course what’s going to happen is not presently happening now, obviously. And despite the fact that a Buddha has complete certainty about what the result will be of all causal phenomena, this doesn’t render as invalid the ability of causal phenomena to give rise to various results, some of which will never happen.

Here is a karmic tendency. It is totally correct and valid that it has the ability to give rise to many, many different results. And the fact that a Buddha knows what’s going to happen, the certainty of which ability is going to be what ripens – although a Buddha has certainty about that, that doesn’t negate the fact that that tendency has all these different abilities. These other abilities won’t happen, but it has those abilities. The other abilities won’t give rise to the result, but it has those abilities.

So in terms of karma, karmic tendencies on our mental continuum have the ability to give rise to a variety of karmic results. And remember, we are talking about the tendencies to get angry, the tendencies for feeling unhappy, the tendencies for something to happen to us – I mean, we’re talking about all these different tendencies – or certain things happening to us or wanting to do something to somebody else. All of these have the ability to give rise to a variety of karmic results, depending on whether or not we repeat the action or regret the causal action that gave rise to them, or whether or not we apply opponent forces.

Before we’re Buddhas, we can validly cognize or at least know with presumption that these abilities exist, and based on that understanding we have choices of how we will act, and thus we can affect which result will arise from these karmic tendencies. And so we can affect – we know that if I repeat it, this is going to happen; if I regret, that’s going to happen; if I apply the opponent forces, I do Vajrasattva or whatever, that maybe it’s not going to happen at all. So, we can know that or at least we presume that that’s what’s going to happen. So, we don’t know for certain what’s going to happen; that’s valid for us. But we know that I can influence what’s going to happen, so we can do something.

From our perspective, we have choice. It’s valid. But, because our karmic tendencies have all these abilities, we can affect what these tendencies give rise to. And because all these abilities and the choices we make are based on previous causes, all of which a Buddha validly cognizes, Buddhas are certain of which result will actually arise. There are all these tendencies, there’s all these abilities, and we have the ability to affect them. And no matter what we would do comes from causes, and a Buddha knows all the causes. So because of that, it’s certain what’s going to happen, from the point of view of a Buddha. So, we limited beings can affect the future, while Buddhas validly cognize the future without predetermining what the future will be. It’s not predetermined; it’s not that the Buddha has decided it; it’s not that the result already exists in the cause.

So, although you may not believe it, that is a simplified form of the discussion of this topic. It is a very, very complicated, difficult topic to explain and to understand, because it depends on so many things. We have to understand all the different factors about karma; we have to understand the voidness of causes and effect; we have to understand mental labeling; we have to understand the Buddhist presentation of the three times; we have to understand the Buddhist presentation of valid cognition. And only when we have all of this as our basis can we really understand this whole issue of “is it free will or is it determinism, what happens.”

So, what we have to differentiate is between an explanation that we have for it; in other words I experience it and how I explain it… When I’m explaining it or understanding it in a certain way, is that correct or incorrect? Is it possible or impossible? We had existent and nonexistent phenomena. So, I experience that I have a choice. And we saw that that is valid for my way of experiencing it. From my point of view, that’s valid. But what is nonexistent, what isn’t correct, is that there’s a separately existing “me,” over here, and the choice is sitting over there, like a menu, and I can choose. That’s impossible. It’s not how it’s working.

And it’s not that what’s happening comes from no cause at all, and when I hear that a Buddha knows what’s going to happen – knows with certainty now the not-yet-happening result, even though it’s not happening now – that doesn’t mean that the Buddha decided what’s going to happen, and that what’s going to happen is sitting some place and waiting to happen; or that it is truly nonexistent and all of a sudden that light’s going to go on and now it exists. But a Buddha knew before, so what did a Buddha know? He knew nothing? That’s weird. That’s the basic understanding that I think we need to go away from this lecture with: That it’s correct from my point of view that I have a choice – that’s valid – it’s correct from a Buddha’s point of view that it’s certain, what I’m going to choose, and that only can happen in a way that it’s possible; it is arising dependently, dependently on mental labeling, the level of mind of the person that’s cognizing it. What it is especially dependent on is mental labeling. So, well, from a Buddha’s point of view it’s mentally labeled like this, and that’s valid. For ordinary beings it’s mentally labeled like that, and that’s valid. Why? Because each of those minds is at a different level and knows a different basis for labeling all the factors that are going to influence the result.

Take the example of the weather, that’s a very good example. We know – just the ordinary person looking out the window – a very limited amount of factors that influence the weather. And maybe we read something in the news that says what the weather will be; that’s all that we know. So based on that, we can guess what’s going to happen, but it’s really uncertain. I don’t know what the weather’s going to be tomorrow. But it’s certain that something is going to happen tomorrow, isn’t it, that there will be weather tomorrow. It’s not yet happening; tomorrow’s weather is not yet happening, but it’s not that it’s happening in England and then it’s going to happen here, is it? And the weatherman – or weatherwoman, whatever you want to call it – knows some more factors, but also limited. He doesn’t know every single factor that affects the weather. They have a little bit more certainty about what will happen in a certain period of time, but not all the weather that’s going to happen the next century – this whole example of global warming, for example.

But a Buddha would know all the factors. And so a Buddha would know for certain what’s going to happen. But that hasn’t happened yet, has it? It’s not happening now. So, it is valid for me that it’s uncertain. To me, it’s valid. I don’t know what’s going to happen, what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, let alone a hundred years from now. And that’s correct for me, because my mind is very limited. For the so called “experts,” they make a pretty good guess, a pretty good estimate, of what’s going to happen with this global warming. And that’s valid, from their points of view, based on their knowledge – that’s the important point. Based on the amount of information that they have, the conclusion that they come to is correct.

And so, my uncertainty is correct from my point of view; I don’t know. If I pretend to say, “I know,” that’s incorrect; I don’t know. Alright? The experts’ prediction is correct, based on the amount of information that they have, but a Buddha knows all the circumstances. The experts don’t know all the circumstances. Buddha knows all the circumstances, so for a Buddha, it really is certain what’s going to happen. A Buddha knows that correctly. And although it is true that given the present situation, many different things can happen; only one thing will happen. That’s certain. So putting this whole lecture into very simple terms, that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the future. I think this global warming is a very good example that we can relate to, in terms of this.


Is the perception of what’s going to happen valid just in terms of, or relative to, or dependent on the convention of a group and their level of knowledge? And if so, then if according to my knowledge, I have an opinion A – for instance that humans are affecting global warming – and according to your knowledge you have an opinion B – that it is not affecting global warming, and in fact global warming is not happening. How can we actually communicate with each other about this? Is there anything like a wrong opinion?

Of course there can be a wrong opinion. That’s because there is valid, straightforward cognition: I look outside and I see it’s raining. And so, that’s correct. It’s correct based on obvious, verifiable evidence. If I look outside and say it’s not raining when it is raining, that’s incorrect. So I have a wrong opinion.

Then there is inference, correct inferential understanding. I hear a certain sound on the roof and I infer that it’s raining. I didn’t see it. But that’s a correct inference. There are different ways of knowing something: some are valid, some are invalid. We can make a guess, the guess can either be correct or incorrect – that’s also a variable. The experts could look at all the data, and one person comes to a correct conclusion, and one person comes to a mistaken conclusion. And the other people check their work and they say, “Look, you made a mistake in the calculation, so your conclusion was wrong.” So, one conclusion is correct, one is incorrect, based on the validation of other valid minds on that same level. Because it’s confirmed by others with the same level of mind.


I’m sorry I’ve given you a great deal to digest, but I was asked to serve a very large meal. I think with this example of global warming and the weather we can start to understand this topic a little bit. So, let’s end with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all, and contribute to the cause for everyone to achieve enlightenment, not just my enlightenment.