Mirror of Zen Blog

What I Am Listening to This Weekend

Final Thoughts on Free Will (Episode #241)

More great teaching from Sam Harris.

Just listened to the first five minutes, and can’t wait to get some chores done to resume. . He never fails to challenge and open new doors, whether you agree with him or not. (It is sometimes deeply unnerving to see how constant is my agreement with him.) Subscribing to his “Making Sense” podcast eight years ago is one of the best intellectual decisions I have ever made, bar none. Really. Right up there with making Jacques Derrida run away absolutely scared shitless late at night on a darkened street in New Haven when I frightened him into thinking I was a mugger. Ran off like a little girl! C’était pathétique! But that’s another matter…


Sam’s insights into the matter of “free will” are, by now, already somewhat legendary. They are provocative and controversial for many people. To me, they make lots of perfect sense on so many levels, from a deeply intuitive standpoint. They also seem to align, in most degrees, with insights that the Buddha had about the nature of the “self,” the nature of mind and karma.

What is so helpful in listening to Sam is his cool rationality, his lack of can’t, and — most of all — his reasoned and deft employment of the latest in neuroscience to back up his subtle intuitions.

I do not recommend books much to people, for many of the same reasons that Dae Soen Sa Nim did not do so: We are already overfull of concepts and learning. The muscle-memory of half-random thought-networking is always too ready to assume its central place in consciousness, trained by years schooling and the ways of surviving in an information-overloaded modern life. Further strengthening that thought-networking — after one has settled on a strong meditation practice — is not of the greatest benefit. The webbing and inter-webbing of random thought can be one of the biggest hindrances to deriving benefit from our practice, no matter how many hours we spend on the cushion. I still have notes from Mahler’s 7th Symphony weaving here and there in fragments in my mind, I have noticed, despite having listened to the symphony as long as one week ago!

But I do recommend Sam’s small yet deeply significant text, Free Will, to some people. I believe it serves a great purpose: it gives a scientific view into the facts of moral agency. Our entire criminal justice system is built on punishing vast numbers of people were actions that have committed which have brought injury to others. At some level, this might be a “good” thing. But those actions were themselves conditioned by other factors (the person’s lack of opportunity due to race, social condition, place of birth, mental capabilities, etc.) that cannot be said to have given them a will as equally “free” as someone who has been born into better conditions.

One only needs to read the opening few pages of the book. The opening few pages of this book lay out the problem in a way that do not “let” you turn your eyes from this subject. The agonizing event he describes make you unable to put the book down, actually.

And that, in a nutshell — if you are really paying attention — is already some taste of the truth of Sam’s argument.

The only dispute or “clarification” I would wish to have with Sam over this — and I have wished the opportunity to send him this question on his “Ask Me Anything” sessions, before COVID and US election matters crowded it out — would be to ask him about the matter of karma (“mind habits”). The Buddha also recognized that, rather than having some substantial, unitary “self” (strong believers in “free will” believe we have such a thing, calling it a Soul or identity or whatever), what we take to be the self is merely “baskets” of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness (“the five skandhas”).

And yet, the Buddha gave us PRECEPTS so that, bobbing in this rolling ocean of “the five skandhas”, in this shoreless sea of phenomenal experience, we could make a DECISION about the cause-and-effect appropriateness of certain actions or behaviors. Having decided to guide ourselves through these actions according to the guideposts of the precepts, we “limit” the shipwrecking life of purely karmic-based behavior.

So, if there is no “free will” (and when I hear or read Sam on this topic, I feel a natural agreement, almost as if he is saying things I have already thought or felt without giving words to) — if there is no “free will,” then what about the practice of the precepts? (Funny to ask about this, as I have never been a very great student of that practice over 30 years of Zen work!). This decision to TAKE the precepts is influenced by what I have read and seen and heard and experienced about Buddhist teaching’s absolute worth and efficacy. So, that is a conditioned decision not entirely taken through “free will,” by Sam’s bright lights. So far, so good.

But when situations arise, and there are choices of experience or behavior, am I not choosing — again and again and again — to be guided by the precepts (caveat: as much as possible, and never perfectly) to sail me through the situation? Is this not some “choice”?

As I see it, there is not a dispute with Sam, as much as a wish for some clarification: I believe that the Buddha gave us these precepts surely through his insight into the fact there is no substantial, abiding “core” of I, and that rather we are this package of five rotating “gases” (someone once described it that way) that need to be “herded”, as it were, in generally more “positive” directions than “negative” directions if we are to create continued affinity with conditions which will be conducive to the flourishing of ourselves and others.

But by referring “back” to them, as it were, in some situation which demands their guiding agency, is there not a “choice” happening here? We learned, from Dae Soen Sa Nim, whenever we take the precepts — in the very Precepts Ceremony itself! — “know when the precepts are ‘open’, and know when they are ‘closed’, when you should keep them, and when you can break them.”

In the view of Zen, this is why it is just so damn essential that we continue to practice. Only the pure, clear awareness (note: we are not always perfectly connected with this awareness, due to distraction or fatigue or busyness or even hormonal changes and imbalances) can guide our actions. Only pure clear awareness guides our precepts: “Know [meaning, “don’t-know”] when they are ‘open,’ and when they are ‘closed’.”

I have this funny intuition that Sam might also share this view.

Anyway, I listen to his talks on this not to “learn” something like getting some new object, as much as to gain some better evidence for how I describe my own intuitions about the matter, which seem to line up so closely with his own.

You can read it in one day. It might change your whole life.

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