Nishijima Roshi, in the book I translated with him a few years back, had a pretty good section on this: How we can be bound by causes, yet have great freedom. I think it is as good a solution as one will ever get to the old "
If you are interested in the subject, here is what he wrote, which (in my free will, due to endless causes and conditions :D ) I have decided to slightly abridge:
21. CONTRADICTIONS IN HUMAN FREEDOM
Sekishin: [If] I recall from our recent discussions, I think it was said by you that human beings are bound hard and fast, top to bottom, by the ‘Law of Cause & Effect’ …..
Gudo: Yes, that is right. The perspective of the ‘Law of Cause & Effect’ is that our every action, without exception, has its origin in a priori causes stemming from our actions, as well as environmental and other factors which occurred in the past.
Sekishin: But if that is the case, I believe that there are some strange implications. For example, if we posit that we are so firmly bound by ‘Cause & Effect,’ by a priori causes, then we human beings truly lack freedom of action, freedom of choice and free will. And if that is so, [free choice] loses all real meaning … What was the means [in Buddhism] to resolve the contradiction?
Gudo: That means of resolution was found in a concept of the ‘instantaneousness of the universe.’
Sekishin: The ‘instantaneousness of the universe?’ ….. What is that?’
Gudo: If I were to describe in a very few words the meaning of the ‘instantaneousness of the universe,’ I would say this: ‘Each and all of that which exists in this world in which we reside arises and take places moment by moment, all while vanishing and passing away moment by moment.’
Sekishin: That seems like a rather strange idea …..
Gudo: Well, if we look at it from our ordinary, common sense viewpoints ….. it could be seen as strange. However, if we look at it from a Buddhist perspective, we see that the idea is straight on the mark as a statement of Reality, and constitutes one of the pillars of Buddhist thought.
Sekishin: Might I trouble you to explain it in a way that may be easier to understand?
Gudo: [The] one and only time in which we can live is in this present. Yet, this ‘present’ in time is continuously, moment by moment, but the future becoming the present as the present turns into the past ….. Thereby, this time which is the ‘present’ can never be but the continuous ‘moment to moment.’
If we think from a common sense view, we human beings feel, in some vague manner, that we are existing somewhere in an expanse of time, at a point on a ‘time line,’ stretching from the past into the present connecting to the future. However, in our daily lives as human beings, if we try to think realistically about the situation, we are not living in some expanse of time stretching from the past into the present and connecting to the future. Instead, we must perceive that we are ever, always living just in this present, and nowhere else. We are living in the moment which is this very present that arises and passes away, in each smallest instant. And because this very time in which we are living is this moment, this very instant which is the present that arises and passes away moment by moment, when we hold up this world in which we live against such a vision of time, we must see that this world too, and all this world contains, arises and passes away, comes and vanishes moment by moment, instant by instant.
Sekishin: I see….. This is something that we usually do not realize in our daily life, but when you state it in such manner, I see how we could think in that way.
Gudo: Certainly, it is not something that we become aware of easily in our day-to-day lives, but this instantaneous world that I have described is the world in which we are actually living. And this idea of the nature of the world constitutes the Buddhist concept of the ‘instantaneousness of the universe,’ in Japanese ….. setsuna-shoumetsu. The word ‘setsuna’ derives from the Sanskrit term ‘kshana,’ an extremely small measure of time which we might refer to, in modern language, as ‘an instant,’ ‘a moment.’
Sekishin: But how does this concept of the ‘instantaneousness of the universe’ serve to settle the contradictions regarding human freedom ... and the idea of the ‘Law of Cause & Effect?’
Gudo: With regard to that matter, Master Dogen, in the Hotsu-Bodaishin chapter of the Shobogenzo for example, stated such ideas as, ‘If all things did not arise and vanish instantaneously, bad done in the previous instant would not depart. If bad done in the previous instant had not yet departed, good of the next instant could not be realized in the present.’ Namely, in this very world in which we live, precisely because it is arising and passing away, coming and going moment by moment ….. the good of the present moment can occur despite the bad which occurred in the moment before. The reason that it is possible for the good of the present moment to occur despite the bad which occurred in the moment before is just because this world is arising and passing away, coming and vanishing moment by moment, instant by instant. In other words, the events and circumstances of the moment before fade, thereby clearing space for the events of the current moment to happen …. If circumstances did not change moment by moment, the world would be frozen and static. Thus, the freedom of action which we possess in the present moment can be sought in the fact that the time which is the present is an instantaneous existence.
Let us imagine that we are standing atop a place as thin and narrow as the blade edge of the sharpest razor ….. Just as we would then have the freedom to fall to the left or to fall to the right, the time of the present which is the stage for all our actions, the one and only foundation for our lives, is also a momentary existence of the thinnest and narrowest width, whereby ….. although we are bound within the world of reality, the world of actions ….. yet, we are free, and although we are free ….. yet are we bound.
Sekishin-san, have you ever heard, as one term representative of Buddhist thought, the phrase ‘shogyoumujou,’ meaning the impermanence, the transitory nature of all worldly phenomena? It means that all our various actions are instantaneous existences, not possessing any lasting nature. Such thinking is the same as the idea of the ‘instantaneousness of the universe,’ but viewed from its other side …… meaning that our actions in the present, precisely because they are impermanent and transitory ….. are free yet fully bound by the past, and while fully bound by the past ….. yet are we free.