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Choices and Responsibility

A reader wrote in with the following comment:

[quoting one of the comments from an earlier Daily Buddhism post]
” . . . not judged by (our) actions? Which, by the way, are all a result of ones family life, and how their father treated their mother, grandfather to grandmother, so on and so forth. Our minds exploited by the information and beliefs of our elders. We are all products of societies influence, generation after generation. And are a direct result of our environment. ”

I remember years ago I was getting counseling from a very wise man and explained to him how when I returned to my home town after a couple years away, I fell right back into my old patterns of life, which included many healthy choices. I explained it him this way, ” Have you ever seen those chickens at fairs that do a trick or something? Like the kind that are in a small cage with a light bulb and a piano? When I was growing up there used to be one near our house at a small amusement park. You put a quarter in a slot below the cage and the light bulb in the cage would turn on. The chicken would see the light and walk over to the piano. The chicken would peck out four or five notes on the piano and food would be dispensed as a reward. You see, I feel like that chicken when I come home. When the light goes on, I play the piano.”

My wise counsel replied, ” You have forgotten one important point. You are not a chicken.”

My Response:

This note made me think. We often hear about the nature vs. nurture argument, and I often wonder just how much of the world’s problems are due to genetics. It seems that on the news, more and more bad things are being blamed on genetics, everything from diseases and obesity to criminal actions.

Obviously whether you are tall or short, black or white, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, is a matter of genetics. No one has any control over that stuff. But is it really reasonable to blame things like overeating and drug abuse on genetics? How much behaviorally can we really blame on genetics rather than upbringing, and even more importantly, personal choice? I won’t argue against there being a genetic factor that can push people in certain directions; perhaps genetics is the cause of someone who has a tendency to overeat or even make them more likely to become addicted to something. However, as the reader who wrote the letter above stated, we are not chickens. We do have a choice in our actions.

Buddhism, more than any other religion or philosophy, emphasizes personal responsibility. You make the choices. You control your life. This is the main repercussion of the existence of karma; you are the one ultimately responsible for yourself, bad genes or otherwise.

Another reader sent in the following slideshow which emphasizes this point perfectly. Sometimes it is possible to go against one’s own inner nature and behave on a higher level.

“Tiger Temple”

If the slideshow does not appear, it can be downloaded as a Powerpoint presentation here:

9 comments to Choices and Responsibility

  • These photos really nail the nature / nurture debate!

    Thank you for displaying these amazing and beautiful pictures.



  • Mushim

    I appreciate your common sense approach to the nature-nurture debate. The slideshow of the Temple of the Tigers is fascinating. However, one important point regarding your statement, “Obviously whether you are tall or short, black or white, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, is a matter of genetics. No one has any control over that stuff.” The terms “black” and “white” are racial categories applied by human beings to other human beings. It is well known at this point that the concept “race” is a social construct. The PBS series, “Race: The Power of An Illusion” goes into depth on the complexities of the concept of “race” — there is information online available. Whether as a human being you are considered “black” or “white” is, actually, not a matter of genetics, but is a socially constructed categorization. Not too long ago in the United States, both Irish and Italian peoples were not considered to be white, for instance.

  • Thanks for an amazing email, discussion, and presentation today!

    If a tiger can be trained to reach a state of peace in a community of monks, then human beings should also have the same capacity toward universal peace.

    The Buddha did not become enlightened by wishing, hoping, praying, or commanding. He spent hours, months, and years training his mind and, thus, his body’s reaction.

    Once one goes through such a long, enduring process, sitting in a half-lotus position, which I cannot do well, become second nature. Breathing exercises, then, become second nature. Focusing for ten minutes or an hour becomes second nature. There is a certain ladder one climbs during such training, and I don’t want to refer to this training as “habit,” but if you think about your “enemy” and place yourself in his or her position, as the Dalai Lama describes in many of his books, even the love of your neighbor or “enemy” begins to become second nature.

    We should be mindful of anything that becomes “habit,” but we should also celebrate the progression of learning how to write a letter, how to form the letter into a word, how to create an entire sentence, how to construct a complex sentence, and then how to move that complexity toward ideas and values communicated to others as art or email.


  • I never used the word “race,” as I think it’s inappropriate. There is only one race. I see no problem with the way I used it in this context; I could have said light-skinned or dark-skinned person, but I think it’s clearer as I said it. Everyone knows what I meant, and there was no judgment or racism in the way I meant it or in the way I said it.

    [Actually, I wrote a long detailed response to this message, but rather than post it here in the comments, I am going to do a full post on racism next week. Stay tuned]

  • John Miller

    Thank you for sharing the comments and photos.

    Even if there comes a time in history when there isn’t any color because we’ve become homogeneous, there will still be racial/social issues unless we evolve (become enlightened) to the knowing that we are all connected and therfore one and the same.

  • bloodymice

    I find that assigning blame is rarely helpful, however determining the cause of events can sometimes indicate the solution to problems. Certainly it seems that our genes do determine some things. I suppose the danger is in using genes as a scapegoat for our faults, or as an excuse for behavior our conscience tells us is wrong.

  • Abe Simpson

    Bryan, I am very happy to see you directly address this and very much like your response. This stuck out to me in the original post and it was one of the few times I felt compelled accept the karma of countering somebody’s belief with a “no, that isn’t right.”

    I am going to remember that story too, and call it Pavlov’s koan? πŸ™‚

    As for genetics, I completely agree with the quote posted by bloodymice.

  • JC Colon

    I love the way Stephen Covey explain some of this issues about personal responsability. “Your life is a product of your values, not your feelings” and also “Your life is a product of your desicions and not your conditions”. And from Victor Frankl we have “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

    I believe genes might play a role in our life, but our choices really determined who we really are.

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    This is where mindfulness comes in. If I’m so caught up in myself that I’m largely unaware of what is happening then the Stimulus-Response gap that Victor Frankl talks about is a space I’m also unaware of and like a machine I follow the genetically directed route. The more mindful I become the more able I am to become aware of this space and the more opportunities I have to chose my response.
    Like Jinglett said, the Tathagata didn’t become enlighten by wishing it, he put a lot of effort into it.
    I think it’s too easy to say we’re not chickens, there are countless actions each day which we do on “automatic pilot” without being aware of them… think about walking, do you really know which muscles you move to propel yourself in the direction you wish to go and maintain perfect balance without falling over?
    Stimuli can be small little things that on their own might seem innocuous, but when several occur in a short space of time, it can be like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
    Through my daily meditation practice I have increased my ability to notice many stimuli that years ago I would have missed giving me the choice to act on them or not