Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will: Agentless Agency? gives voice, for the first time, to exclusively Buddhist perspectives on free will. In bringing together the work of [End Page 633] some of the most important thinkers in this relatively new area of Buddhist studies, editor Rick Repetti gives the reader access both to the best theories on Buddhism and free will currently available and to the scholarly debates shaping articulations of and responses to the problem under consideration. Structurally, the book represents a philosophical exchange so that each chapter either foreshadows or responds to those surrounding it. While each chapter offers a unique snapshot image of the relationship between Buddhism and free will, Repetti's editorial work makes the transition between chapters smooth enough for a sequential reading to be the most fruitful. The reader should not feel disappointed by the fact that several debates initiated here are not finally resolved—this book shows that the topic of Buddhism and free will is accessible through a variety of inroads and that, for this reason, the reader must decide between (sometimes mutually exclusive) routes out of the problem. However, while for the most part a sequential reading takes the reader through the core of the debate, there are chapters that feel more peripheral than others, but, again, it is for the reader to determine where, if at all, ring roads or perhaps even dead ends lie.
Broadly speaking, the collection may be divided into three parts: (1) challenges against and defenses of Buddhist theorizing about free will, (2) advancement and rejection of Buddhist free will theories premised on the separability of conventional and ultimate truth/reality, and (3) arguments in support of Buddhist theories of free will that characterize the problem in psychological rather than metaphysical terms. In several places contributors reach fundamentally different conclusions despite working from the same premises. Thus, the reader is confronted by a melting pot of Buddhist free will problems and an even larger collection of potential solutions.
Traditionally, Buddhist philosophers have not problematized free will. This further complicates the task of resolving, in a way consistent with key Buddhist tenets, the tensions between concepts that engender the problem but that may be absent from Buddhism. Several contributors denounce philosophically reconstructive projects delivering Buddhist perspectives on free will. For example, in chapter 1, Christopher Gowans argues that the soteriological orientation of Buddhism renders theorization about free will pointless. He suggests that the Buddha did not explicitly discuss free will because: (a) as a matter of historical fact, his interlocutors did not perceive a problem in need of resolution, and (b) the remit of Buddhist teaching is confined to the existential problem of suffering. Appealing to the Mālunkyāputta sutta for support, Gowans contends that an authentic Buddhist perspective would discourage speculation on free will altogether. The metaphysical questions set aside in the Mālunkyāputta sutta are dangerous for two closely connected reasons. First, they distract those preoccupied with them from attending to the more urgent business of extirpating ignorance/craving and, thence, suffering. Second, in the very formulation of such questions, certain false presuppositions are legitimized that further impede the attainment of liberation. Gowans places questions pertaining to free will in the same category as those posed by Mālunkyāputta and concludes that Buddhist free will theorizing risks undermining the primacy of pragmatics.
Gowans' opening chapter initiates discussion on a recurrent theme, namely Buddhism as therapy. A particularly intriguing feature of this collection is that several [End Page 634] contributors, who ostensibly share the view of Buddhism as therapy, hold diametrically opposed views on Buddhist free will theory. In chapter 2, Repetti endorses Gowans' assessment of the "medicinal" quality of Buddhist teaching. However, rather than designate it distracting, Repetti commends Buddhist free will theorizing as "soteriologically instrumental." Repetti presents a powerful case for examining free will through the lens of Buddhism, since he sees the truth of impermanence as entailing the potential for change in what count as soteriologically relevant...