Determinism in Buddhism

Determinism is the view that an unbroken chain of prior occurrences causally determines every event, including human cognition, behavior, decision, and action. [Van Inwagen, Peter, 1983, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press.]
What you are now is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will be the result of what you are now. The consequence of an evil mind will follow you like the cart that follows the ox that pulls it. The consequence of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. [ Ven. H. Gunaratana Mahathera, Mindfulness in Plain English,1991, Wisdom Audio Visual Exchange.]
Is our future rebirth predetermined by our karma? Is the concept of karma deterministic for most being, with the exception of humans, whom through realization and discipline is able to liberate us from the determined path?
But in the following verse, be it good karma or bad karma, we inherit them and with our will, we forge our future path, conditioned by what we inherit.
"I am the owner of my karma.
I inherit my karma.
I am born of my karma.
I am related to my karma.
I live supported by my karma.
Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit." [The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya V.57 - Upajjhatthana Sutta]

Does karma determine our future or condition our future?

determinism is a function of conscience

Does karma determine our future or condition our future?

Determinism is a function (=varies according to) of conscience.
The more conscient (=awakened) we are, the less prone we are to fall for the Buddha's three temptations:
MARA (fear)
KAMA (sensual pleasure)
DHARMA ( social duty).
Only a saint may know which seeds are in store in his karma exactly.
Normal people typically have no clue.
Mahayana Buddhism's mind-only (Yogacara) school posits the imagery of a stormy sea as explanation for man's being in the world.
They may unwittingly carry explosives in their pocket. If they are not conscient of that fact, woe to them.
Conversely, even explosives can be handled in relative safety if one knows what he's doing.

Is our future rebirth predetermined by our karma?

Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes one's "throwing karma" at the moment of death, and so do certain Indian schools such as Kriya yoga.
For example, it is inauspicious to brood over one's bad deeds before death.
Thoughts of bad deeds, guilt, anger, resentment, sadness etc tend to pull us towards a rebirth that may reflect those attitudes.
Then there's the general karma.
Karma at the moment of death triggers the more immediate results, whereas general karma ultimately prevails in the long term.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Determinism in Buddhism

Narada covers this in Chapter 21 of The Buddha and His Teachings, which begins with a quotation also from the Anguttara Nikaya,

“If any one says that a man must reap according to his deeds, in that case there is no religious life nor is an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow. But if any one says that what a man reaps accords with his deeds, in that case there is a religious life and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow."

He follows with a clear and emphatic statement, "One is neither the master nor the servant of this Kamma." [Narada 293]

Elsewhere I've heard Thanissaro Bhikkhu reject determinim in the context of skillful action. If there were no freewill, if there were no opportunity for overcoming our karma, there would be no skillful action.

Download the MP3 of his talk on the Path containing this message here.

His whole series of talks on the Eightfold Noble Path is available here.

Hirakawa also addresses this point in the context of belief systems popular in India at the time of the Buddha

In Buddhist texts, the non-Buddhist schools of thought are divided into three main groups: those who believe that everything occurs through the will of god (P. issaranimmana-vada), those who maintain that
every event is predetermined by past karma (P. pubbekatahetu), and those who believe that everything occurs by chance (P. ahetu, apaccaya). The Buddha rejected all three of these alternatives because they denied free will and the efficacy of human efforts; instead, he preached a moral law of cause and effect that transcended these three positions. [p. 19]

Furthermore, I suppose there would be no 3rd and 4th Noble Truths if all of our actions were solely determined by our kamma.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Makkhali Gosala

It appears that the Ajivikas were in fact strict determinists as they accepted fate over free will and effort, as evidenced in the teachings of Makkhali Gosala.

Such a perspective invalidates the Path and the need for spiritual effort since the only way to purification is simply riding out Samsara to its end.