Free Choice: False or Fundamental?

Loved what you wrote. Even after reading a few paragraphs, I said to myself, “Aha, I recognize this.”

 

I’ve been listening to Paramarthananda for three years now, and teaching about the joy of being adequate (from Introduction to Vedanta by Swami Dayananda).

 

I teach a course in Eastern Religious Thought at Bryn Athyn College in Pennsylvania, and have my students read The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by Eknath Easwaran–also a great teacher.

 

Here’s my question: Paramarthananda says there is no grace without effort, and no effort without grace. I understand this to mean that we must always make efforts, but when we are aligned with God, our efforts are effortless. We love to do the right thing. And although are still making choices (effort), they now come naturally and spontaneously (grace).

 

But a good friend of mine, who also studies Vedanta, likes to say that free choice is an illusion–although it is a necessary illusion at the beginning of our spiritual development. Other friends (students of Swedenborg’s teachings) insist that we always retain free choice because this is what makes us human. It is a necessity–not an illusion.

 

So, is free choice an illusion, or is it central to our fundamental humanity?

 

Thanks for your help!

 

With all best wishes,

Richard

 

 

Dear Richard,

 

There are several points that need clarification in order to sort out this issue.

 

First of all, what is grace?

 

Often, grace is thought of as the benevolent hand of some grand being in the sky who is orchestrating miraculous and inexplicable events in our lives in order to give us what we want – as opposed to “God’s will,” which is the term we use to placate our frustration when we don’t get what we want or what we think is “right.”

 

Vedanta does not see it this way. According to Vedanta, grace is the quite predictable result – provided, that is, you have the omniscient vision of Isvara, Bhagavan, or God, which are names by which we refer to our personification of the macrocosmic or total mind, and can see the entire web of factors influencing said result – of the chain of cause-and-effect that emanated from the action the apparent individual person has executed or offered into the dharma-field or the manifest universe.

 

Swami Paramarthananda’s statement that there is no grace without effort reflects a proper understanding of the law of karma by which the manifest universe operates, one of the fundamental principles of which is that action ultimately produces results after its kind. Due to the punya (merit) and papa (demerit) that is accrued in one’s karmic account as a result of each and every action one executes, one inevitably is revisited with experience whose nature corresponds directly with the spirit and intentions of one’s previous actions. As it is said, what goes around comes around. Hence, when one puts forth effort toward the goal of self-knowledge, one is eventually visited with the “grace” that affords one the opportunity for exposure to the truth and enhances one’s ability to understand and assimilate it.

 

Paradoxical as it may seem, the second half of Swamiji’s statement, the assertion that one can make “no effort without grace,” reflects the fact that the apparent individual is not in charge of the result of his or her actions. All of the karma, or action, that takes place in the field of experience is dictated by two factors: 1) the gunas – i.e. sattva (purity, beauty, intelligence), rajas (passion, activity, projection), and tamas (dullness, inertia, concealment) – or the three qualities that in various mixtures comprise everything in existence, and 2) the vasanas – i.e. the impressions one is left with as a result of experience, which depending upon their quality form and eventually manifest as an individual’s preferences, likes and dislikes, desires and fears, and when reinforced through repetitive indulgence become “binding” and compel one to behave at their behest rather than at the directive of dharma. Both the gunas and the vasanas originate from the macrocosmic causal body, which we might liken to the blueprint of the giant mechanism of the manifest universe, and therefore are in fact brought into manifested form and visited upon any given individual as the result of the natural design and functioning of the field, or, in personified terms, as the result of Isvara’s will or divine grace.

 

When we understand that all the karma or action we seemingly execute as apparent individual persons is actually Isvara in the form of the vasanas functioning through us, then, as you say, “we are aligned with God” and “our efforts are effortless,” for we know that we are not the doer. Ironically, it is only when we know that we are not the doer that, as you state, “we love to do the right thing” simply for the sake of its being the right – i.e. most appropriate within the context of the situation – thing to do.

 

In order to uncover just exactly why this is the case, and just exactly why our choices so “naturally and spontaneously” present themselves in all circumstances, it is worth engaging in a closer analysis of the nature and operation of the dharma-field.

 

The dharma-field is so termed because it is governed by dharma, the host of universal physical, psychological, and ethical laws that ensure its overall balance, harmony, and wellbeing. We can liken the dharma-field to a gigantic intelligently designed machine comprised of myriad components that contribute to its functioning.  These components are essentially the upadhis, or limiting adjuncts, the names and forms, that constitute the costumes, we might say, that disguise absolute awareness and make it appear as all of the gross and subtle objects that inhabit the apparent universe. This machine, moreover, has a built-in self-regulating capacity.  In other words, it is fluid and in a constant state of flux and is, thus, able to self-adjust in order harmonize, heal, or re-establish its balance no matter what “anomalies” might occur within its field of being. In other words, whatever actions are effected within it are absorbed by the field by means of its ability to reconfigure itself in such a way as will accommodate the results of those actions and yet maintain the overall balance and well-being of the whole system or field.

 

Although the immediate affects of any given action may appear to be unjust or throw the system seemingly out of balance, the adjustment made by the system itself will serve ultimately to “dole out” the appropriate karmic consequences to the apparent doer or perpetrator of the action, and in this way the apparently disturbed or disrupted balance of the system will be reestablished in a way that is in the best interests of the total and, thus, since one is part of the total, in a way that ultimately serves one’s own best interests as well. For this reason it is said that dharma always protects those who follow it.

 

When one knows that one is always taken care of by the dharma governing the universe and that moreover all of one’s choices are ultimately dictated by Isvara, then one is able to trust that all will be well no matter what results ensue and simply go with what one’s conscience is telling one to do in any circumstance. Simply put, one does what needs to be done with the best intentions and understands that whatever results ensue from one’s choices will ultimately be in the best interests of all concerned. By analogy, we might say that all of us are at once both advisors and constituents of the Lord, and that our choices and consequent actions constitute our opinion concerning what should be done, which invariably is what we believe will grant us the most immediate personal benefit with reference to our goals in life – i.e. any of the various forms of security, pleasure, or virtue for samsaris or worldly people; moksha or freedom for jijnasus or seekers of self-knowledge. Having humbly cast his or her vote, so to speak, by means of his or her thought, word, and/or deed, the spiritually mature individual subsequently accepts whatever results ensue as the omniscient Lord’s infallible “judgment” regarding what is best for each and every aspect of the kingdom. In other words, I offer my two-cents concerning what I believe should be done, and the Lord – i.e. the lawful operation of the dharma-field – responds by showing me what is actually in everyone’s best interest – including my own. Sometimes the Lord’s response corresponds with my own vasana-driven personal opinion, and sometimes it does not. In either case, I know that I am always okay, that dharma is always protecting me. The ultimate welfare of the apparent person I seem to be is ever being served, and, moreover, no objective phenomenon has the slightest affect on pure awareness, which is my true nature. Such being the case, there is no reason for a mature individual to foist his or her personal will on any circumstance or interpret the value of any given situation in terms of his or her personal desires and fears. There is no reason, as is said, to upset the apple cart, no reason to break the rules in order to get what one wants. No matter what action a situation calls for or what result ensues, it all amounts to essentially the same thing. Thus, the mature individual naturally and spontaneously serves the situation. He or she loves to do what is right.

 

Ignorance of our true nature is the only reason we transgress dharma. Due to our erroneous notions of inadequacy and incompleteness, we pursue various objects in the vain hope that these objects will complete us – i.e. provide us with permanent peace and happiness. Though no limited object is capable of producing a limitless result and thus liberating us from the sense of limitation, the temporary joy we experience when we do obtain the objects of our desires tricks us into thinking that the joy is coming from the object when actually it is actually our own intrinsic contentment welling up from within us when the mental agitation caused by our condition of incessant want momentarily abates. Having mistakenly assumed that the object is the source of our joy, we quickly develop a vasana, or desire, for that object, which consequently becomes more and more deeply ingrained in us each time we pursue and/or enjoy it. Eventually, these vasanas, which are essentially our likes and dislikes, become so deeply ingrained in us that we no longer have control over our taste for them. Rather, they become cravings and eventually attachments and addictions that take control of us and compel us to act at their behest. It is when such binding vasanas have completely taken charge and coerce us to satisfy them at any cost that we are willing to violate universal values. Despite the fact that we know what we are doing is inappropriate and in some cases even potentially harmful to either ourselves, others, or both, we are willing to follow through with our adharmic – i.e. unethical or immoral – action because our unresolved sense of incompleteness and inadequacy, to which we hope satisfying the vasana will put an end, coupled with our repeated indulgence of the desire has made the vasana virtually irresistible.

 

An interesting aspect of our make-up as human beings, one that speaks to the intelligent design of the universe, is that we have a built-in sense of dharma, an instinctive sense of right and wrong, which is essentially based on the standard of mutual expectation. In other words, we know that the way in which we hope or expect others to treat us is the same way we should treat them. Essentially, dharma boils down to the principle of non-injury. All universal values are fundamentally based on this principle. Even criminals are encoded with this value, which is the reason they resort to stealth while committing their crimes and go to elaborate lengths to cover them up. They know what they are doing is wrong. Even in the case of the most hardened criminals, we almost invariably discover that their warped view of the world and their seeming disregard for morality is rooted in abuses and injustices to which they were subjected as children. Their subsequent immorality is not rooted in amorality, but rather in the anger they harbor over having been defenseless victims of what they intuitively know were atrocious violations of universal ethical values.

 

Guilt is our “dharma-violation alarm,” so to speak. Simply enough, when we fail to do what we know is right, we feel guilty. Though, depending on the magnitude of the violation, we may be able to deny, repress, or rationalize our feelings, our mind will most certainly suffer some degree of agitation that will prevent our enjoyment of inner peace. When, due to ignorance, however, we have not personally assimilated a universal value – that is, we have not fully understood the value of the value in terms of our own life, have not seen the benefit we derive from adhering to and upholding it through our own behavior – then we have little problem acting out of accord with what we intuitively know to be right. Once we see that peace of mind, which of course includes a guilt-free conscience, and ultimate inner freedom, which is essentially freedom from dependence on objects for our happiness, is the underlying goal of all our human pursuits, then we see the personal value of universal values and, thereafter, naturally act in accordance with them. In other words, when we no longer feel compelled to obtain objects in order to feel fulfilled, then we have no problem sharing and caring and generally playing by the rules. We know that dharma will take care of all our essential needs, and that the fulfillment of no gratuitous desire can give us the freedom we’ve already got. Thus, while we continue to conduct business as usual, so to speak, apparently pursuing goals and seemingly making choices, within ourselves we rest content with the way things are.

 

Which at last brings us to your question concerning whether free choice is an illusion or a fundamental aspect of being human.

 

And the answer is…as it always is in Vedanta…

 

Both.

 

It depends on the perspective from which you are viewing the issue.

 

On the one hand, your Vedanta friend is right. Free will is an illusion, but nonetheless a necessary concept for a seeker at the beginning stages of the self-inquiry. If an apparent someone still functioning under the spell of ignorance simply adopts the attitude that there is nothing he or she can do to get free, then he or she will ever remain an apparent someone doomed to perpetual suffering within the context of samsara.

 

On the other hand, therefore, your Swedenborgian friends are right. Free will is central to our humanity. That is, though in reality we are nothing other than limitless actionless awareness, our identification with the mind-body-sense complex is what makes us appear to be limited volitional human beings. And though the mind-body-sense complex is itself nothing more than an inert mechanism, it is equipped with a component called the intellect that performs a function that seems from the apparent individual person’s point of view to be free will. Moreover, of all the apparently sentient beings inhabiting the manifest universe, only human beings enjoy the capability of exercising their apparent free will at any more than a rudimentary level. In this sense, it could be said that free choice is “what makes us human” or is at least a central characteristic of our apparent humanity.

 

Essentially, there are three perspectives from which to consider the issue of free will – that of pure awareness (Brahman), that of God (Isvara), and that of the apparent individual person (jiva). In order to explore these three perspectives in more detail, I am copying below the text of an essay I wrote titled “The Cycle of Life and the Illusion of Free Will.” Let me preface your reading of the essay by saying that free will is not an illusion. It is experienced and can apparently be wielded by the apparent individual person. At a fundamental level, however, it is not real. There are two reasons for this. First, free will is an observable/experienceable action and is, thus, nothing more than an object appearing within the scope of awareness, which is the sole reality. Second, when traced back to their source it becomes clear that the choices made by means of it are neither initiated by a sentient entity nor are they wholly free in the sense of being spontaneously made by a sentient entity. In simpler terms, what appear as choices are under close analysis revealed to be predictable responses to the “program” operating or playing out through a particular mind-body-sense complex.

 

 

The Cycle of Life and the Illusion of Free Will

 

 

Stricken with the disease of ignorance and taking ourselves to be small, incomplete, and inadequate beings riddled with myriad limitations, the most fundamentally troubling of which is our undeniable mortality, and intuitively believing there to be more to this existence than meets the eye, some “bigger picture” of which we are part, some greater cause to which we contribute, we human beings are driven, consciously or unconsciously, by a penchant to act purposefully and in accord with the meaning of life. Though most people wander aimlessly through life giving little, if any, consideration to what might be its underlying meaning and their place in relation to it, quite a number of people are consciously trying to “find their purpose,” fewer who have identified their purpose are actively exploring ways to give it expression, while a small handful are actually executing their plans in the here and now. Unsettling to virtually all, and downright abhorrent to some, is the idea that life may have no particular meaning, that there may be, in the end, no ultimate purpose. Only in terms of some grand goal or overarching plan would this volatile carnival of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, ecstasy and agony seem to have any point.

 

Inextricably bound to the idea that, though we might not always, if ever, have a clear understanding of what it is, there must undoubtedly be a meaning to life is the notion that human beings have been endowed with free will in order that they might use it to ascertain and act in accord with life’s purpose. To that end, whether they believe that purpose to be the establishment of some utopian existence on Earth or the enjoyment of a pleasurable afterlife in heaven, many people ascribe to the idea that God has given man free will in order that one might choose, for better or worse, one’s destiny. Some would go so far as to say that one’s capacity to make choices and act either in accordance with or in violation of “God’s Plan” is fundamentally what gives life its meaning.

 

Seen in this light, several questions concerning free will suddenly take on particular significance.  First, do human beings actually have free will? Second, if we do have it, to what degree exactly are we able to exercise it?  In other words, is our free will limited? Third, assuming we are able to exercise it, in alignment with or in service of what purpose should we exercise it?

 

In order to satisfactorily answer these questions, we must examine them from three distinct perspectives: that of the absolute reality, or limitless awareness; that of Isvara, or the creator God; and that of the jiva, or the apparent individual.

 

From the perspective of the self, limitless awareness, the absolute reality, the answer to the first question is short, succinct, and to the point, and it eliminates in one fell swoop the necessity of answering either of the other two. Since the self is non-dual awareness and is, thus, everything that is and is, moreover, inherently desireless, due to its complete fullness, and actionless, due to its all-pervasive presence, nothing, from its point of view, is actually happening. Since nothing other than itself actually exists, there is no universe, there are no people, and there is neither an historical timeline of events nor an experiential present moment. All such objects are rendered obsolete when considered in terms of their essential nature. In this context, which technically is not a context, the whole notion of free will is obviously a moot point.

 

Isvara is the name used to personify the macrocosmic causal body, which is the subtle storehouse of all the vasanas, or impressions (in this context, the conceptual building blocks for creation rather than the individual’s likes and dislikes, which arise later as a result of experiencing the objects fashioned out of these impressions), that constitute “creation,” or the manifest apparent universe. Isvara, or the macrocosmic causal body, is brought about by the curious conjunction of absolute awareness and its inherent power of ignorance, or maya. Though there is no explanation for how, given that absolute awareness or reality is non-dual, or why, given that absolute awareness has no desire, this conjunction occurs, it seems, in experiential terms, that when absolute awareness wields it power of ignorance it seemingly falls under the spell of that ignorance and apparently forgets its true identity and thereafter manifests as the relative universe. Hence, the equation of Isvara and the macrocosmic causal body, or the body that causes the appearance of the manifest universe.

 

From Isvara’s perspective, many events are taking place and innumerable people are performing actions. Rather than the collected exploits of a vast array of volitional individuals, however, it is essentially Isvara alone who is overseeing, orchestrating, and enacting all that occurs on both the gross and subtle levels of the field of experience. Hence, here too there is fundamentally no free will for the apparent person.

 

The field of experience, or the apparent reality, can be likened to a gigantic intelligently designed machine with myriad components that contribute to its functioning.  These components are essentially the upadhis, or limiting adjuncts, the names and forms, that constitute the costumes, we might say, that disguise absolute awareness and make it appear as all of the gross and subtle objects that inhabit the apparent universe. This machine, moreover, has a built-in self-regulating capacity.  In other words, it is fluid and in a constant state of flux and is, thus, able to self-adjust in order harmonize, heal, or re-establish its balance no matter what “anomalies” might occur within its field of being. In other words, whatever actions are effected within it are absorbed by the field by means of its ability to reconfigure itself in such a way as will accommodate the results of those actions and yet maintain the overall balance and well-being of the whole system or field.

 

Although the immediate affects of any given action may appear to be unjust or throw the system out of balance, the adjustment made by the system itself will serve ultimately to “dole out” the appropriate karmic consequences to the apparent doer or perpetrator of the action, and in this way the apparently disturbed or disrupted balance of the system will be reestablished in a way that is in the best interests of the total.

 

All of the karma, or action, that takes place in the field of experience is dictated by two factors: 1) the gunas – i.e. sattva (purity, beauty, intelligence), rajas (passion, activity, projection), and tamas (dullness, inertia, denial) – or the three qualities that in various mixtures comprise everything in existence, and 2) the vasanas – i.e. the impressions one is left with as a result of experience, which depending upon their quality form and eventually manifest as an individual’s preferences, likes and dislikes, desires and fears, and when reinforced through repetitive indulgence become “binding” and compel one to behave at their behest rather than at the directive of dharma. Both the gunas and the vasanas originate from the macrocosmic causal body, and therefore are in fact brought into existence and visited upon any given individual as the result of the natural design and functioning of the field, or, in personified terms, as the result of Isvara’s will.

 

Nevertheless, by all appearances, the apparent individual does seem fully capable of exercising his or her free will in order to fulfill his or her desires and/or act in accordance with dharma. And, therefore, from the perspective of the apparent person, free will not only exists but is, moreover, an invaluable tool that potentially enables one to navigate successfully the unpredictable field of the apparent dualistic reality

 

Though the apparent individual does seem to have the capacity to strengthen or weaken his or her vasanas solely by means of his or her free will, however, there is more going on with regard to this process than meets the eye.

 

What is actually happening is a result of the universal dharma, or natural law, that governs the life cycle of all manifest objects in the apparent reality. As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, “those who live in a body experience birth, childhood, youth, old age, and death” (Ch 2, v. 11).  While Krishna was referring specifically to human beings in this statement, the essential premise informing the five-phased cycle he describes is equally true for any object, sentient or insentient. Everything “created” or that comes into manifestation undergoes some kind of growth (or perhaps, as the case may be with regard to insentient objects, increased usage or “breaking in”) that peaks at a certain point and then begins a gradual or more rapid decline that culminates in the object’s ultimate demise.

 

While vasanas are not sentient themselves – actually no object is, all sentiency solely due to the insentient body of the seemingly sentient object being illumined by awareness – they are an integral aspect of the sentiency attributed to living beings. We might liken them to subtle organisms the live by means of the vehicle of their host. At any rate, the vasanas are born out of Isvara and traverse the same life cycle as all other objects. For this reason, we might say that the vasanas have a life of their own, so to speak.

 

As a particular vasana grows, develops, and strengthens, the particular apparent person, or mind-body-sense complex upadhi, with which that vasana is associated and expressing through will be increasingly influenced by that vasana and ever more blatantly exhibit the tendency that is its manifested consequence. In other words, the person will behave at the vasana’s behest.

 

As a particular vasana declines, decays, and weakens, the person’s compulsion to act at the command of the vasana will gradually abate and his or her behavior will be increasingly characterized by what seem to be volitional acts of resistance to the influence of that vasana. In other words, the person will refuse to indulge the vasana’s demand.

 

Though on the surface it seems that the apparent individual riddled with the vasana is consciously choosing to indulge or deny it, this is not in reality the case. To the contrary, the vasana’s present level of vitality is the primary factor determining the individual’s behavioral decisions. What looks like a person making choices concerning his or her actions is actually just the vasanas spontaneously expressing themselves in accordance with their current station in the cycle of life.

 

This process is quite complex considering the innumerable vasanas influencing one’s mind-body-sense complex, but the fundamental mechanism that determines the apparent individual’s thoughts, words, and deeds is essentially quite simple. Though, as mentioned, the vasanas are not sentient, but when illumined by awareness they are the sparks that ignite the apparent individual’s apparent choices and subsequent actions. The process impelled by the vasanas natural life cycle leads to the illusion of individual free will because the degree of influence asserted by the vasanas prompts the apparent individual through whom they are expressing to make whatever choices he or she appears to make with reference to a particular goal, which is itself determined by the vasanas as well.

 

The conclusion to be drawn from this inquiry is that the apparent individual is definitely not the doer. To the apparent individual, however, the process heretofore described feels like free will, and thus from his or her point of view it amounts to the same thing.  Hence, the apparent individual isn’t off the hook. He or she still must pay attention to his or her inner promptings and respond to them in the way that he or she deems most appropriate. Ironically, though determined by the vasanas, one’s destiny is revealed through the mechanism of one’s apparent free will.  In other words, one’s apparent choices betray one’s causal program. Paradoxically, therefore, pre-destination and free will are, for all practical purposes, fundamentally the same thing.

 

Hope this helps clarify matters.

 

All the best,

 

Ted