Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.

Heroic Willpower (Virya)

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Freedom through Cumulative Moral Cultivation: Heroic Willpower (Vīrya)

Jonathan C. Gold
Princeton University

Although abstract speculation on “freedom of the will” is hard to find in premodern Buddhist writings, this is not for Buddhists’ lack of attention to responsibility and effortful moral acts. This paper studies early teachings on the dharmas called “effort” (vyāyāma) and “heroic will-power” (vīrya), which are key to such quintessential Buddhist lists as the Eightfold Path, the Four Right Endeavors, and the Perfections cultivated by a bodhisattva. A look at effortful action as treated in traditional Buddhist texts helps to show why the western philosophical preoccupation with “free will” is not self-evidently worthwhile from a practical or moral perspective. Effort on the Buddhist path accumulates into moral strength through numerous and different kinds of enactments at the level of individual mental events. The goal of this model of practice is that one arrives at the ability to transcend the busy, messy work of having to decide to act morally—one’s virtue becomes spontaneous. This structure suggests that not only is the capacity for moral choice not a necessary precondition of effective practice or moral significance; it may get in the way.
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