It’s Your Choice

William B. Turner
4 min readJan 31, 2021

You choose your situation.

This is a claim that invites the allegation that I am blaming victims. There are thousands, likely millions, of people all over the world who are in horrible situations that no one would choose.

As is often the case, the Buddhist perspective is hugely different from the one most people bring in the United States. Where we can, we certainly should take steps to help people and to alleviate suffering.

But we also need to keep in mind the first noble truth, that suffering or disappointment is the lot of us humans and we only make it worse for ourselves without helping anyone else by worrying about situations we have no control over. The Dalai Lama well knows that most Tibetan people live under the vicious invasion of the Chinese and mostly make the news these days when they immolate themselves in protest, but he still looks like a happy person, not because he doesn’t care about his fellow Tibetans, but because he knows that happiness does not depend on external circumstances and he lacks the ability to reverse the Chinese invasion.

As Ajahn Sumedho puts the point, don’t take your life personally. It’s not about you. There is no you for it to be about. We mostly do not think very clearly about choices or what it means to make them. A common, mostly useless, concept in the modern United States is “free will.” Even though he was writing explicitly about Christianity, still the analysis of Jonathan Edwards from the 18th century is still logical and useful apart from his appeal to an omnipotent deity. He wrote that “free will” rests implicitly on a claim to events that lack causes. What can “free will” mean other than choices by humans that lack all antecedent causation?

From a Buddhist perspective, this claim to “free will” must also appeal to a sovereign self, or individual identity that the Buddha says does not exist. We are just walking effects, not the autonomous agents of “free will” our prevailing ideology tells us we are.

But we do make choices. This paradox has long bedeviled philosophers. John Locke, whose ideas had a huge impact on the United States, was a devout Christian. He wrote once that he “[chose] not to think on” the problem of reconciling what he called the “sovereignty of god” with the ability of humans to make choices.

The Buddha simplified the problem by not positing an anthropomorphic, omnipotent deity who had supposedly created the universe and all beings in it. He…