Freedom & Responsibility

My father used to quote Rousseau to me:

Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains…

The western Enlightenment idea of freedom is essentially freedom from social constructs. We are shaped, twisted, distorted from our true potential by the deadening, if not positively malign, forces of ‘society’. As the world becomes ever more compartmentalized, regulated, and bureaucratic, our ability to maintain an intrinsic freedom dwindles, little by little, until before we know it we have lost our vitality.

This essentially romantic view of our dismal modern predicament has been repeated endlessly throughout modern art, from Joyce’s Mr Duffy, who ‘lived a short distance from his body’, to Eleanor Rigby as she ‘Waits at the window/Wearing the face/That she keeps in a jar by the door…’. For us, the Hero is the One who breaks out of this predicament and realizes the fullness of her humanity.

But while western culture has excelled in expressing, in endlessly creative ways, the grimness of modernity, it has been far less successful in depicting what it is that the Hero actually does. Once they are ‘free’, where do they go? How do they live?

For the most part the answers are so mundane that they are scarcely less depressing than the initial situation: marry the one you want; leave a dead-end job and go to the country; give charity; or else, simply become a creative individual. This last option, beloved of the Romantics, is peculiarly attractive in the west, but, as someone who has lived the dream, it seems to me that as a vehicle for true liberation, artistic creativity is decidedly overrated. Its prominence in western thought, it seems to me, is little more than a self-justification by those who write the books…

It is not that these things are bad, it’s just that they are not deep enough. They answer certain human needs affecting certain aspects of who we are, but they are woefully inadequate to address the roots of our true humanity.

Perhaps the problem lies in mistaken assumptions. Are we really ‘Born Free’? A baby, lying there in its cot – is that freedom? A baby has very little freedom, mainly because he has so little capacity. He cannot choose, cannot act beyond a very limited sphere. We put our babies in bonds – restricting them in their cribs, or holding them close to our bodies – not to stifle them, but to protect them, to keep them alive. The norms of culture have evolved, not through a nefarious conspiracy of ‘old lady judges’ who ‘push fake morals’, but because culture keeps people alive. It feeds them, clothes them, and most important of all, conditions them with the social, ethical and linguistic conventions that prevent us from killing each other. I was forcefully reminded of this a few days ago by this passage from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, speaking of the Fayu people of New Guinea.

To us, a few dozen people constitute a small, ordinary gathering, but to the Fayu it was a rare, frightening event. Murderers suddenly found themselves face-to-face with their victim’s relatives. For example, one Fayu man spotted the man who had killed his father. The son raised his ax and rushed at the murderer but was wrestled to the ground by friends; then the murderer came at the prostrate son with an ax and was also wrestled down. Both men were held, screaming in rage, until they seemed sufficiently exhausted to be released. Other men periodically shouted insults at each other, shook with anger and frustration, and pounded the ground with their axes. That tension continued for the several days of the gathering…
The Fayu consist of about 400 hunter-gatherers, divided into four clans and wandering over a few hundred square miles. According to their own account, they had formerly numbered about 2,000, but their population had been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu. They lacked political and social mechanisms, which we take for granted, to achieve peaceful resolution of serious disputes.

We are all Fayu, but for the benefits of culture. Of course, it is not the case that our ‘advanced’ culture has solved these things better than ‘primitives’: within both ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ societies we can equally find examples of the civilizing effects of culture, or of the violence and depravity that results when culture fails.

By nurturing, sustaining, and educating us, our societies have brought us to a level where we can ask the deepest questions. Perhaps we are wrong to criticize our culture for not providing the answers. Perhaps the answers lie beyond anything society can deliver.

Society, at its best, can enable us to live in reasonable safety, with enough food to eat, shelter, friends and family, health and education. It can give us freedom of speech and action, but it is up to us to choose what to do with this freedom. If we allow ourselves to be led by the manipulations of advertising and consumer culture, whose fault is that? Yes, there is a powerful conditioning, but there are plenty of people who just ignore the whole schmozzle. And good riddance. Notice that here I am not talking about the problems of society, about what happens when things go wrong, but about what society can achieve, and which it does achieve in some cases.

It seems to me that the Buddhist approach to freedom is virtually the inverse of the widespread liberal conception of freedom. Rather than the assumption that ‘we are born free’, Buddhism teaches us that freedom is something we have to earn. We have to actively work to deconstruct the effect of the trivializing and same-making of culture. We have to continually question, to be unsatisfied with the shallow answers to life’s problems that are on sale in the marketplace.

Buddhism supplies a more systematic and coherent account of freedom than Western culture. We are imprisoned by the negative and afflictive forces of our own minds, and have to work gradually to overcome these. Each step on the Buddhist path is consciously and freely chosen. There is no ‘Thou shalt’, instead we say, ‘I undertake the training…’. And at each step we are freed – not just aimlessly freed from whatever, but freed from those specific things that cause suffering for ourselves and others. each of the precepts is an exercise in freedom. Contentment, restraint, mindfulness, moderation – each of these essential Buddhist trainings frees us from the inessential. Deeper freedom comes from the release of the mind from the five hindrances in the jhanas, which the Buddha illustrated by similes such as a man released from prison, or a person who is cured after a long illness. Our deepest, most subtle bondage is the illusion that ‘I am’, and so final freedom comes from the elimination of any residual notion of a ‘self’.

From the texts as well as from modern examples, it is clear that there is a distinct notion of what this state of freedom is like. An arahant lives, eats, sleeps, laughs, and talks much like the rest of us. But they are untrammeled by illusion, by sadness, or anger. their life is said to be one of simplicity, contentment, mindfulness, and joy. And for the most part, they choose to do two things with their lives. Left to their own devices, they are simply happy and content. They live, and just that much. When the chance arises, they will work hard help others realize the same contentment. But they are not desperate or pushy: they respond to genuine needs, and otherwise remain silent.

Such an ideal of freedom may seem elusive and distant, but I believe it is possible. It’s a magnificent vision. But it should come with a warning. Such an ideal of personal and spiritual liberation does not displace or marginalize the importance of social freedoms. India in the Buddha’s day was a place of great freedom. People were free to live, to work, to wander across the countryside, to follow their beliefs and religious practices. Of course there were problems: caste, gender, slavery, wealth, and other socially constructed institutions restricted individual choice, like in any society. But the Buddhist culture arose in conflict with these social constructions. Indeed, Buddhism could never have appeared in a society that did not tolerate freedom of thought, speech, and religious practice.

Buddhist ethics should argue against caste boundaries, against discrimination, against inequality. And Buddhist praxis succeeded despite these things, not because of them. Nowhere did the Buddha argue that restrictions, submission to the cultural forms, were in themselves liberating. On the contrary, in texts such as the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, freedom from slavery is one of the prerequisites for undertaking committed Dhamma practice.

Similarly, for women, ordaining as bhikkhunis meant freedom from the socially mandated submission that was required of women. Virtually every Brahmanical law-book states at a woman can never be free. In her youth, she is subject to her father; in adult life to her husband; and in old age, to her sons. The inspired verse of bhikkhuni Muttā exalts that she is free of the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband! Life gone forth was experienced by the nuns as freedom from the stifling restrictions of home life. Freedom from social constriction is a pre-requisite to spiritual freedom.

The many rules and restrictions undertaken by Buddhist monastics are themselves another step towards freedom. The crucial thing is that they are consciously chosen by mature adults. They are not imposed from outside as a means of control. If you don’t want to keep the rules, don’t ordain. If you do want to keep them, you can ordain, and enter into a community of responsible adults, for whom freedom is a gift to be used wisely and responsibly.

As monastics we have many freedoms: freedom from cooking, from shopping, from eating after noon. Freedom from the commitment, attachment, sacrifice, and pain of an intimate relationship. It’s easy to abuse these freedoms. That’s why training and communal support are such an essential part of our life.

Because that is the ultimate burden of freedom. With great freedom comes great responsibility. If we are granted the power of choice, and if we use that choice to suppress others, we have betrayed their trust and shown we are not worthy of responsibility.

In the end, perhaps this is why most of us choose lives of quiet desperation; why we find it so persuasive when the rich and powerful, whether politicians or spiritual leaders, explain to us the virtues of poverty and submission. It’s easier to let someone else make the tough choices. We can pretend to be impotent. Pretend we are less than fully human. Collude in our own inadequacy.

Or we can make a choice.

18 thoughts on “Freedom & Responsibility

  1. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    thankyou for this thoughtful post – it’s a question that I have been doing a lot of thinking about recently, as someone who spends a lot of time reading broadly leftist critiques of modernity, capitalism, and neo-liberalism. I think there’s an issue here – related to your point regarding choice – about that old political-philosophical chestnut, freedom from vs freedom to.

    Modernist social programmes like communism had a vision of what the utopian society would look like, however badly that worked out in practice, whereas today that doesn’t seem to be the case, which, for all the justice in being suspicious of grand narratives, might be related to the weakness of the Left (maybe it’s very difficult to conceive of alternatives to current structures of power, just as feudalists probably couldn’t imagine capitalism).

    As you point out, we don’t come into existence free – indeed, our ‘self’ as we come to apprehend it is socially constructed. But, again as you mention, in all of the critiques of contemporary society, there is little discussion of how we willbe when we are free FROM, and how this will make us happy (at least those of us who presently have easy access to life’s necessities) – that is, what freedom will we have TO? (one thing I would say is different about capitalist society, though, is that despite the historical universality of the desire for acquisition capitalism has made this a much more universal-structural aspect, including everyone except the very poorest). When it’s so difficult to realise that buying things doesn’t bring any reliable happiness, it’s all the more difficult to have that same realization about creative activity (despite looking at the lives of so many renowned artists)!

    Just a few thoughts – with metta.

  2. Venerable, I enjoyed your article — not many other Theravada Blogs get into these issues ! Again, I think it’s valuable that you are widening up the debate, not narrowing it down.

    Sujato wrote — ” Once ( we ) are ‘free’, where do (we) go? How do (we) live?

    For the most part the answers are so mundane that they are scarcely less depressing than the initial situation…. it seems to me that as a vehicle for true liberation, artistic creativity is decidedly overrated. Its prominence in western thought, it seems to me, is little more than a self-justification by those who write the books…”

    Agreed — western art and radical literature in the 20th century seems to be an act of catharsis, a breaking of bonds — but what do we replace the ruins and rubble with? Much of the critique is startling in its perceptive deconstruction of the appaling state of our materialistic culture. Look at Guy Debord, Baudrillard, Horkheimer, Adorno etc etc….but what to do once we have seen through the mirage of life? These ( albeit great men ) offer no substantial answers.

    However, I do not believe that is the case with all 20th century radical/critical thought — thinkers like Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and others are looking at human justice and ways in which we can all live better,kinder, more just, more honest and righteous lives….But are they ‘spiritual’ solutions?

    Well — if being ‘spiritual’ means only thinking about *our* Dukkha, *our* mind, *our* meditation,*our* key to *our_ cage — then maybe not. But, if being kinder and being more just to our fellow human beings is the ‘spiritual’ priority — then yes, I’d say writers like Finkelstein and Chomksy are noble ‘spiritual’ men in my view.

    Love and Light; Free Gaza.


  3. Talking now of uniting the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘socially engaged’, political scientist Norman Finkelstein has presented a new critique of Gandhi, some of which boarders may find it surprising.

  4. This is a very thoughtful, insightful read Bhante. A shame it is getting a little lost in amongst the furore over the UN Vesak issue. Thank you for this…I will take it to meditate on.

    • It’s a striking image, but I find it doesn’t fit for me.

      Like Chromatics said above, it’s not just about freedom from, it’s about freedom for, and the question is always “freedom for what”?

      There’s an American teacher called Daniel Ingram (who claims to be an arahant – don’t know if he is but it’s not relevant here) and of the three parts of the 8FP, he calls sila “the first and last training” because you can reach attainments and breakthroughs in meditation and insight which are irrevocable and don’t need repeating, but when you come back, you’re still here (until you’re not) and you will end up doing something, so sila doesn’t end (until it does).

      As Sujato said about arahants, “when the chance arises, they will work hard help others realise the same contentment”. Those of us of lesser or no attainment still face the same choice of what to do between waking and sleeping.

      I was struck today by a quote from Nagarjuna, translated by Stephen Batchelor: “What do you make of a life that won’t go away?”

      The leap is not into nothingness, it’s into a life that won’t go away (until it does).


  5. Yes, MMM, I love that image too — yes, it’s staged as you say, but what a great idea.

    I think Sujato is pointing in the right direction here, and has made some honest, ‘soul searching’ points — Sujato seems to be saying, however much we seek ’emancipation’ via ‘worldly’, artistic, political or other means — we are still left with ourselves after all, our own mind and our own dilemmas of how to work with our mortal body and consciousness.

    Indeed,those who choose monotheism, Islam or Christianity or a social, or community cause as their liberation, they seem to be ‘satisfied’ and seem to find a faith and solution in a certainty that evades at least some Buddhists. I envy the monotheists that absolute affirmation and the peace it seems to bring them.

    And then there the people, people like us, who find themselves on the road mapped out ( to a degree anyway ) by The Buddha and Lao Tzu. And we find sometimes ourselves on different paths than those activists or monotheists.

    I’d say one slight concern I have nowadays, is the sheer amount of people from the Western Sangha who disrobe — I find myself less inclined to see monasticism as the only route, as I once did. My thoughts are, if it’s that much of an assured path — why do so many westerners stay for five, ten or fifteen years — and then bail out and get married and get a job like the rest of us ? Was it some kind of prolonged self searching existential holiday for these people? Why should I take them that seriously if they threw the towel in after ten years and eventually looked to the same solutions ( love, marriage, a relationship a job, leisure activities , social obligations ) as the rest of us ‘worldly beings?’ Was being in the Sangha part of some kind of reified, fetishised drama ? Were all the robes, shaven heads, the bowls, the ceremony, the ritual, the hierarchies and incence at least partly, some kind of theatrical narcissism?

    Again, these are genuine questions to me.

    • Barnabas :
      …The Buddha and Lao Tzu…

      Just a quick note here: Laozi says that the Truth is inexpressible using language, which is utterly at odds with the Buddha’s ministry and his skillful use of language to express the Dhamma. In addition, Taoism holds that the Tao is eternal – hardly compatible with anicca.

      It’s a little bit vogue to showcase religious similarities, but in many cases (as in this one) the thought structures being compared are too contradictory to be seen as similar in any practical way.

  6. PS Many posts I make seem scpetical about Buddhism and the Sangha — however, overwhelmingly, I have very deep levels of belief in Buddhism and the questions it raises. But I am a ‘questioner’ by nature. Now I reach middle age, that’s a sustaining lesson life teaches me.

    As people said when I was a teenager, “question everything”. I think that ( often cliched) aphorism has much to commend it.

  7. Reported on Alternet is this article “How Making a Difference Can Make You Happy”

    It’s a series of studies done in the USA that finds activism brings pleasant emotions, greater life satisfaction, and more experiences of freedom, competence, and connection to others.

    It concludes that the results suggest that it might also be worthwhile to highlight the internal rewards citizens can obtain from being politically engaged: A sense of satisfaction, the experience of pleasant emotions and of connection with others, and a feeling of aliveness.

    Ah! this gives me an opportunity to combine Buddhist practice with social and political activism.

  8. David Meadsaid : “Tao is eternal – hardly compatible with anicca.

    It’s a little bit vogue to showcase religious similarities, but in many cases (as in this one) the thought structures being compared are too contradictory to be seen as similar in any practical way.”

    Hold on, don’t make assumptions my friend — I put the two together in one sentence — and you assume that I beleive they are similar and cinsistent throughout ? Why do you make that assumption ?

    I am influenced by Buddhism, Chomsky and Steve Biko and Shia and Huey Newton,Finkelstein and Guy Debord and Baudrillard ( amongst many others) — are you now going to assume that I beleive they are simliar and consistent with one another?

    Poor logic my good friend. Very poor logic. And what is your talk of being “in vogue” — possibly that is a concern of yours — as a middle aged man, I long ago lost interest in being, as you say, “in vogue.”

    • Barnabas

      Well, you did write about “the road mapped out ( to a degree anyway ) by The Buddha and Lao Tzu” … THE road, the same road. I can’t read it in any other way.

      I used to think it was the same road too, until I found out it isn’t.



  9. Again it’s empathy. This from Haaretz seems to be more self-aware than the American press is (over drones, torture, and unending war)

    Marx: “The nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains,”


    HomeNewsPublished 04:58 12.05.10

    Israelis’ state of denial over treatment of Palestinians
    By Yitzhak Laor

    Israelis love military secrets. Books by retired security officers, former spies and former members of the Shin Bet security service and Mossad sell well. An entire culture is built around “what it is forbidden to talk about but nevertheless we like to know.” Not merely stories from the past – for example, how the “Red Prince” (Ali Hassan Salameh of Black September ) was assassinated in Beirut in 1979 – but also the Dubai affair, which is an excellent example of the public’s lust to know, hear, see and consume news. Even the failure was of interest to the public, and the matter had moral backing. This moral backing goes well with the desire to know: “Even if we did not kill him, he deserved to die,” they said on TV.

    There is one thing the public does not want to know, or perhaps “most of the public” is a more cautious expression, and we are not talking about a military secret. A survey carried out two weeks ago by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, which was published in Haaretz, touched on the issue: The only thing the public does not want to hear about is the repression of the Palestinians. This is not a matter of keeping secrets, but of denial.

    It is doubtful whether a survey is necessary. It suffices to watch the news on commercial television in order to understand that what is going on in the territories “doesn’t sell.” But the matter is more grave. What is happening in the territories is becoming taboo. Not only do people not want to know because there is something to know (otherwise people would not refuse to know ), the army is seen as the sole legitimate source of information about events in the territories.

    But the army lies, to put it mildly. The language it uses to describe firing at non-violent Palestinian demonstrators is always laden with euphemisms, and the need to explain arises only when organizations like B’Tselem publish pictures in which it can be seen, for example, how settlers open fire and the army does not lift a finger. That is an example of the kind of things Israelis do not want to know about.

    The territories are far away. The Palestinians live far away. This hallucination can be attributed to the walls, the separation roads, the army and the TV news. “Judea and Samaria” are close. The settlers live among us. There are photographs of them, their homes are photographed. They are in the army. They are the army. But the separation between those who are very close, who have the right to vote, weapons, rights and state financial support, and those who live at the same physical distance but must be left far away, on the other side of the walls, the fences, the roadblocks – this separation is made with the aid of the refusal to know. The denial.

    Human rights organizations are persecuted – simple as that – exactly in the name of the refusal to know. “It is forbidden to know” means that it is forbidden for our consciousness to move freely among the facts, the scenes, the voices, the options. All these were supposed to comprise the awareness of the Israeli who lives five minutes from these unimaginable things – 43 years of military dictatorship over another people.

    The security claims are dwarfed by the opposite claim – that the security situation is a function of the disinheriting (of the Palestinians ), the control of their natural resources and the never-ending restrictions on their way of life. But the other claim can in no way compete with the Israeli way of thinking: We are here and they are not here. The only freedom is the freedom to be and to blot out whatever casts doubt on the safety of the knowledge that denies this.

    When the principal of the Ironi Aleph school in Tel Aviv wanted to take his teachers to see the roadblocks, they attacked him angrily and demanded that he be called for a hearing. The few prophesies of Karl Marx that came true included one that he wrote about in a short article in 1870: “The nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains,” he said. There is no better historic moment to demonstrate this prophesy than the moment we are now living.

    This story is by:
    Yitzhak Laor

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