Fate and free will on the Silk Road

Buddhist monks and philosophical concepts

A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuanzang on his journey to India — Wikimedia Commons

“On one hand, it’s nihilistic to think that every outcome is simply random. I have to believe that the world is better when we act morally, and that people who do good things deserve a somewhat better fate on average than those who don’t. But if you take it to extremes, that cause-and-effect view can be hurtful.”

[Bill Gates]


Three Parts Destined by Heaven,

Seven Parts by Personal Effort

[Traditional Chinese saying]

We travel not only to experience the sights and sounds of a new place that we may have heard about, but also to expose ourselves to the unexpected and to the completely unknown. This must have been especially true for the Chinese Buddhist monks who travelled along the Silk Roads from their known homelands in China through the dangerous mountain passes and to the unknown realms to be encountered in and across India.

Two of the most prominent amongst these Chinese Buddhist monks, who both wrote detailed memoirs of their travels, were Faxian (法顯) who flourished in the 5th century AD and Xuanzang (玄奘) who flourished in the 7th century AD. Despite having comfortable lives in their own home towns, esteemed for their knowledge of Buddhist scriptures and for their monastic piety, these notable figures, like thousands of their fellow monks across a span of many centuries, set off for India motivated by the desire to increase their knowledge of Buddhism and encounter the original home of the Buddha.

Many were the perils and dangers that lay in store for these monks, including typhoons and pirates at sea, as well as dangerous mountain passes where tigers roamed and temperatures could plummet to well below freezing. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that many such monks perished, killed by wild animals, murdered by bandits, succumbing to frostbite, and through many other equally unpleasant means. Xuanzang, however, was not only attacked by such figures, but by means of Buddhist scripture, even managed to appease them and convert them to Buddhism.

Particularly noteworthy is the humility of monks that that they were psychologically able to lay aside their own convictions and their sense of their own authority in order to begin afresh in learning about Buddhist scripture from the Indian teachers. Indeed, many of these monks did in fact come to understand that the teaching received in China had suffered greatly in translation, and they were in fact mentally capable of reconfiguring their beliefs to assimilate their revised understanding of Buddhist teaching. This motivated them to assiduously study the Sanskrit language in which many Buddhist teachings were written and to carry back a huge weight of Sanskrit manuscripts on their return journeys to China, on pack-horses and even on their own backs.

The question of whether humans control their own actions individually and autonomously is one which has preoccupied perhaps every culture and people since prehistoric times. In the modern English language, we have a wide variety of terms, such as fate, destiny, providence, lot, fortune etc. to refer to describe the idea of an external or supernatural force acting on our decision-making process in a manner that is somehow determinate or planned. Complementing these are terms like chance, luck and fortune seem to describe the idea that events that befall us are in part outside of our control in some kind of indeterminate or unplanned way. In the Indian tradition, the well-known karma theory proposes that there is a direct relation between the moral quality of an action and the moral quality of some later impact on the person who performs it. As expressed by Prof. H.T. Colebrooke –

“The action ceases, yet the consequence does not immediately arise; a virtue meantime subsists unseen, but efficacious to connect the consequence with its past and remote cause, and to bring about, at a distant period or in another world, the relative effect.”

A wide variety of alternative theories were also formulated in India to explain the relationship between human exertion and factors outside of our control, including notably destiny and chance. The question of what causes the joys and sufferings of our existence is addressed in the Śvetāsvatara Upanishad of the Krishna Yajur Veda. The text opens with the following questions –

“Is Brahman the cause? From where are we are born, do we live and by what and where do we exist?

Governed by what in our joys and sufferings?”

[Śvetāsvatara Upanishad 1.1abc; my own translation]

Time, intrinsic nature (svabhāva), destiny, chance, material constituents and the generative role of procreation are all canvassed in the following verse as possible answers to these questions. Significant in the above quote is the connection with the theme of joys and sufferings, which perhaps give us an immediate first-person motivation to engage in theoretical speculation, in order to understand if and how we may change the balance of these in our lives. The same formulation is found elsewhere, such as in the Saundarānanda of Aśvaghosa, which similarly presents these as theories of how suffering occurs in the world.

Indeed, a major preoccupation of many Asian philosophies centres around themes of fate and predestination, and of random chance and luck. It seems to me to be no coincidence that games of chance such as cards and dice can also be traced back to earliest times. In ancient India, the game of snakes and ladders represented the relative influence of human effort and external influence, whether from some unseen force or owing to the randomness of the cosmos.

We can imagine that the many Chinese Buddhist monks journeying to India must have been keenly alive to the force of these questions about human effort and fate in determining the outcomes of our lives. On the one hand, there was their physical striving to reach India and intellectual striving to master the canonical Buddhist texts. On the other hand, there was the unpredictability of the journey and whether they would be attacked by bandits or by lions. How did they conceptualise the relationship between human effort and elements of chance or fate?

Along with the transmission of Buddhism to China, there was also the transmission of the Sanskrit language and a plethora of more-or-less connected philosophical concepts to China. The theory of karma and rival views as well as material related to conceptual terminology and debate also found its way into the stream of Chinese thought, including Chinese Buddhist thought. In particular, the Indian notion of karma was transmitted to China and evolved into the notion of yuánfèn (缘分) in classical Chinese philosophy and poetry. This concept, although it can be applied to any situation in life, primarily relates to our chance encounters with new people. Many twists and turns in our life result from such random and chance encounters with each other. The concept of yuánfèn is a hybrid concept consisting in the idea that every single encounter we have with a new person was somehow destined to occur (yuán, 缘) as well as the idea that what we are able to make of the opportunity is partially constrained by destiny (fèn, 分), although allows some role for human effort too. In this way, according to this stream of Chinese thought, each new encounter should be seen as a precious opportunity provided by fate for which it is in our power to make the most of it.

Like the modern English counterparts such as fortune and destiny that over a similar semantic field, Asian concepts such as karma, svabhāva and yuanfen are rich and complex concepts, that have multiple interpretations and a history of evolution through time and through intellectual reformulation. We can only imagine how these and other philosophical concepts may have inspired and influenced these Chinese Buddhist monks as they journeyed on the Silk Road to India.

In the modern world, the question of free will has come to focus increasingly on the extent to which our decision-making processes may be influenced or controlled by the user experiences of digital technologies. This opens a new chapter in the story of this theoretical debate, with a connection to our joys and sufferings again manifest, and with new insights yet to be gleaned.

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