Once again, thanks to livelysceptic for posing the question that led to this post.
Buddhism has something called Dependent Origination. Dependent Origination is causality or the interdependence of things. This seems so obvious as to be banal, but it gets interesting when applied to people. In fact, the implications of doing so are rarely appreciated by many Buddhists and end up revealing that many Buddhists harbor closet beliefs in the very self Buddhism denies.
The most common formulation of Dependent Origination is the 12-Point Chain. This is a chain that is said to operate over 3 lifetimes. Since I avoid the supernatural in my analyses of Buddhism, and since the complexity and divisions on the chain do not allow any obvious, workable, non-supernatural interpretation, I will instead focus on the implications of the general outline of Dependent Origination.
Dependent Origination of Persons
When interdependence or causality — depending on how you view it — is applied to the self, it reveals the self as nothing more than the environment. Let’s do this by examining the common candidates for the self: body, mind (thoughts & emotions) and the controller.
Body. My body exists because two people had sex long ago and brought me to term. My body’s condition is due to genes, nutrition, accidents and illnesses that befell me. What’s more, it is not totally under my control: my stomach can growl, my muscles can spasm, certain motions are unavailable to me, and it will age. It will end due to illness, age, or the actions of other people. My body is a product of the environment.
Mind. My mind arose from my brain (body), and since my body is causally determined, so is my mind. Additionally, my mental state is the result of all my experiences: parents, TV, books, interactions, etc… This in turn interprets subsequent experience which leads to a new mental state which… My decisions, quality of my life, and so on are all determined by this (determined) mental state and the (determined) environment. For instance, if I see a cake, this will trigger thoughts of craving or mindfulness depending on my mental state. The cake is a (determined) part of the environment and the mental state is a (determined) trajectory of all past experiences. Even not responding at all to the cake (outside of the neurological fact that registering it is a change in my mental state) is in itself a function of my mental state, which was due to past experiences.
Controller. Am I mind + body, or is there something above that, something that controls both? I have a “sense of self” but this can’t be it; after all, if it this thing chooses among senses, how can the senses it chooses from reveal it? Also, this self serves no purpose: all my decisions can be explained by my mental state and environment. In fact, drugs which alter brain functions also alter behavior, strongly implying the brain is in control. An independent controller must choose independently of mental state. Arguing that the controller can be affected by mental state constrains it so it is function of the environment and is no longer free. Hence, this controller either does not exist or does not freely choose/control. Either way it’s the same thing: there is no free will.
Free Will: The Last Bastion of Self
Free Will is the existence of an independent controller. Buddhism denies the existence of an independent self. The similar phrasings reveal the same thing is being referred to. No Self = No Free Will. Despite this, many Buddhists believe in Free Will and even defend Dependent Origination while simultaneously defending Free Will.
Whenever people say things like “in the same situation, I would have done differently” they are implying this Self/Will for that statement assumes an entity can exist in the same mental state and situation and choose differently. Yet the person IS the mental state and IS the situation and therefore the same decision would be made by definition.
The lack of Free Will makes more sense as it not only implies much of Buddhist practice, but also helps prevent some subtle mistakes.
What it Means for Practice
Unconditional compassion and forgiveness. With no agent who freely chose to do the wrong thing, being angry at someone for doing wrong is like being angry at a tree limb for falling. What’s more, doing right is also as determined and therefore, one can take no pride in having the “moral high ground”. We still try to do what’s right, but without blame, we are more free to be compassionate to all those involved, including those who do wrong.
How No-Self Affects Happiness. Most of our pain is due to a vain attempt to be separate from the world. Even trying to maintain equanimity is an attempt to separate. This separation fails because the world determines us, down to our most cherished thought. There is no “out there” and no “in here” and hence nothing to defend. Events don’t get in our heads, our heads are repositories for events. People don’t affect us, we are the product of interactions with others and vice versa. And so on. Realizing this, we stop fighting and fully accept everything (this implies no clinging). The result is that we are much happier and equanimity naturally arises.
Practice. Since our sense of separation is a mental state, we work on changing this mental state so that this separation is naturally eroded, rather than trying to impose unity by an act of will. Imposing unity by an act of will may ironically be the very same separation we are trying to avoid. This is where small things like mindfulness practice, forgiveness, and deconstructing experience are continuously and unconditionally applied to alter our foundational mental state so that unity is the natural reaction.
In its most general form, Dependent Origination is interdependence applied to ourselves to undermine the belief in a self. Yet this undermining cuts close to home, to a place many Buddhists may not want to go: Free Will. Yet fully embracing determinism, understanding that I am no more than a conscious subset of the environment is a key to embracing all experience rather than fleeing it, an embracing which leads to a more joyful life. I can think I don’t believe in a self, but to really contemplate that I’m no different from a rock (except in that I’m conscious) can really open my eyes to what no-self really means, in a way no other Buddhist teaching can.