Paying Our Debts

Karma means “action.” Do our actions have consequences? Yes. Nagarjuna likened them to “debts.” Rather than take these debts to be some sort of payback or karmic retribution, I prefer to think of simply taking responsibility for our own actions.  Not that taking responsibility is all that simple.

It’s said that all karma is volitional. All human activity is volitional, a result of an individual’s own self-determination, and even when action is not determined by choice, but by external forces, one may choose a response that is not prevented by any outside forces or conditions. This is freedom of choice, free will.

We are always free in one way or another. We exert our free will by choosing our actions, our behavior. Volitional activity is always directed by will, determined by choice.

I was reading something on this subject by someone who evidently practices Buddhist meditation but may not be a Buddhist, and he maintains that free will is an illusion, that everything in the world is the result of past events, which is more or less the popular view of karma, and along with other causes and conditions, such as biology, there is no freedom.

From the Buddhist side I see some holes in this position. One is that this “illusion” would be created by the mind, which is thinking, and if karma is created by thought, words, and deeds, then thinking must on some level be a volitional process.  Secondly, if there is no freedom of action, then how do we even explain volition, one of the Five Skandhas, the components of human life? Thirdly, Buddhism teaches that we can control our minds, and I don’t believe that would be possible unless we maintained some degree of free will.

Maybe we are conning ourselves about freedom.  Maybe you can scientifically prove there is no free will.  Nonetheless, for me, the idea of everything per-determined is a tough sell.

As for karmic retribution, we should be less concerned with payback and focused more on paying it forward.

Nagarjuna says, “[The debt] is paid only through cultivation.” He’s talking specifically about meditation. However, in a broader sense, it means “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good, and to purify the mind” (the Buddha’s words). We pay forward by striving to improve ourselves and our choices, and helping others do the same.  Compassion is also paying it forward.

We are free to choose our actions, and we are free to decide how to react to the consequences of our actions. So, there is free will, but this is not absolute.  As living beings, our existence is dependent upon causes and conditions, but neither is determinism absolute.  The real Buddhist answer to all this is where is always is, in between absolutes, for that is The Middle Way.


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