We may plot to “accidently” run into someone without raising suspicion on their part. We may also go out of our way to avoid being seen by someone we want to avoid. What about Rick and Ilsa? Did Ilsa walk into Rick’s Café in Unoccupied Casablanca by chance?
This type of question has had philosophers tied up in knots over a millennium. If we go to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran we find a concept that appears to answer this: divine will or the will of god is the first cause of everything that exists. If that is the case, then, as the English say “done and dusted.” But is it?
Do we or don’t we have responsibility for our choices? Do we or don’t we have “free will”? Does it have to be one or the other - black or white – like the original Casablanca movie? Or, is ‘free will’ something we’ve given a name but exists only in the conceptual sphere?
I’ve always loved saying the word, kismet. It gives an exotic explanation for things that apparently happen by chance. Kismet is an Islamic concept of destiny or fate. It removes the burden of an individual’s responsibility for their fate. And yet, individuals continue to be punished, or rewarded for their actions. This seems, to me, a contradiction that violates Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction.
Up front - I am treading in waters of philosophy I know very little of. But, I do have questions and this concept of who or what is responsible for my actions is big. Do I or don’t I have free will and exactly what comprises free will? Today’s buzz word of “having agency” appears to remove the metaphysical aspects and implies this as a sociological concept.
If I turn to our Buddhist teachings, I know I am responsible for my behavior, but that I also live interconnected with you and the entire planet so that I am free to choose within the causes and conditions set into motion. It is within these causes and conditions we have “agency” to determine what we say and do. I also am bonbu. Since I do not possess perfect wisdom, and am not free of greed or anger or ignorance, I can only make human bonbu choices. These choices, planned or not, may lead to more misery for myself and others. The simplest of these is when we fiercely hold onto the illusion that “I am absolutely right, you are definitely wrong.”
As Buddhists, we endeavor towards wisdom and compassion by making choices. But also as Buddhists we understand our interconnectedness with external forces, forces that frame choices. Yet each choice we make seems to be made with attachment to desires, ignorance of the illusions and fear and anger at feeling we have no control.
So what is it possible to say about Rick and Ilsa? That if it wasn’t for the Treaty of Versailles, Vichy France, Rick and Ilsa falling in love in Paris, the idealism of a Czechoslovak fugitive, or a bar in Casablanca known for trafficking in exit visas that Ilsa and Rick would never have met again? And if Ilsa and Rick had never met again, how empty of fulfillment would the rest of their lives have been? And, would Major Strasser have lived?
If we understand the teaching of dependent origination, causes and conditions, we can follow the Buddhist path and find it leads to greater liberation from dukkha by our growing awareness of what compassion and wisdom means. At the end of the day, we all want to be at peace, knowing our choices that day were not made by our illusions and attachments, but by wisdom, compassion and liberation from fear.
Namo Amida Butsu