What is a "sentient being"?

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DGA
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What is a "sentient being"?

Post by DGA » Mon Feb 22, 2016 11:31 pm

We have categories for different forms of life. Think of the taxonomies that you study in biology class: animals, plants, fungi, and so on. Do these categories map out neatly onto a meaningful distinction between what counts as a sentient being for Buddhists, and what does not? Or for that matter a meaningful distinction at all*?

It is easy to see from arguments around dietary choices that animals are, by consensus, sentient beings for Buddhists. By what measure?

Are plants?

Are fungi?

Are worms?

Are hives a single sentient being, or a kind of aggregated organism with a mind of its own?

There are some related threads about this...
http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=81&t=6911
http://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f= ... 7&start=20

I want to suggest that the category "sentient being" in Buddhist thought may or may not correspond tidily to the distinctions among plant & animal & other kingdoms that you learn in science class. To the best of my understanding, a sentient being is not a particular life form, but is instead a temporary collection of affliction that may take any form or no form depending on the nature of its affliction. Am I off the reservation here?


*At this point, I don't particularly see a distinction between "sentient being" and "all this other stuff." I just don't get what the fuss is about. YMMV and I may be missing something important--I just want to show my hand on this.

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Simon E. » Mon Feb 22, 2016 11:49 pm

No. To pick up your expression..I don't think you are 'off the reservation' It seems to me that distinctions like sentience or it's absence are in the end, sophistry.
Back to fishin' folks... :namaste:

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by undefineable » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:35 am

DGA wrote:At this point, I don't particularly see a distinction between "sentient being" and "all this other stuff." I just don't get what the fuss is about. YMMV and I may be missing something important.
You're not missing something - I am, and I sense that even as a child (before I blew up my brain), I was at best many lifetimes away from understanding.

"If a plant life form has awareness bound up with it, it's sentient; if it doesn't, it's not": I get that well-adjusted westerners and serious Buddhists have serious qualms about this proposition at the very least, but if sentience and insentience are unreal [even at a relative level], then why and how should one follow the path and have compassion?
Last edited by undefineable on Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:44 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Simon E. » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:39 am

Because there is no choice.
Back to fishin' folks... :namaste:

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by undefineable » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:43 am

There may be no choice for those who are drawn to the path, but if the path makes no sense at all, then why not just put it on the back burner?

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:47 am

One possible definition: a persistent experience of subjectivity, and therefore suffering etc. I don't think can be accurately measured ....almost by definition.
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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by undefineable » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:50 am

"If a life form has awareness bound up with it, it's sentient; if it doesn't, it's not"
Any pointers that show this statenment to be false would be much appreciated

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Simon E. » Tue Feb 23, 2016 1:09 am

undefineable wrote:There may be no choice for those who are drawn to the path, but if the path makes no sense at all, then why not just put it on the back burner?
Isn't that what most people do ?
Back to fishin' folks... :namaste:

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Kim O'Hara » Tue Feb 23, 2016 1:50 am

Frankly, I think most Buddhists (most non-Buddhists, too, that's another whole set of arguments) fudge the issue.
We have to kill to live - even if we only kill something by depriving it of the food it would have eaten if we weren't there - and nearly all of us want to live, so the question is, "What are we allowed to kill, and what shouldn't we kill."
That calls for a binary response: we want to draw a line and say,"This side is okay to eat, the other side isn't."
But the world is incredibly varied and complicated, so there are excellent arguments for drawing the line in all sorts of different places.
:shrug:
We have exactly the same problem in defining when life begins. Exactly the same problem deciding whether someone is 'an adult' or 'of sound mind'. Even the same problem deciding whether someone is or is not 'Buddhist'. :tongue:
In every case, we're trying to impose an arbitrary distinction on a continuous grayscale. The solution I think is best is to acknowledge that it's messy and that there is no perfect solution, and live with it.

:namaste:
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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Wayfarer » Tue Feb 23, 2016 5:06 am

Christians have an idea that 'all life is sacred'. It's a related idea. It recognises the distinction between beings and inanimate objects. Beings are by their very nature subjects of experience, rather than simply objects of perception. (That is probably not an expression you will encounter in Buddhist circles but I'm confident of its validity, although I note that JD. has made a related point above.)
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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by DGA » Tue Feb 23, 2016 1:14 pm

Wayfarer wrote:Christians have an idea that 'all life is sacred'. It's a related idea. It recognises the distinction between beings and inanimate objects. Beings are by their very nature subjects of experience, rather than simply objects of perception. (That is probably not an expression you will encounter in Buddhist circles but I'm confident of its validity, although I note that JD. has made a related point above.)
Yes--I think that is why Hegel's thinking has proved such a fertile starting point for so many Western philosophers. It describes samsaric experience. Subject and object is the stuff of samsara.

What happens when the subject-object distinction becomes less and less convincing? I suspect that the sentient being / insentient matter distinction does too.

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by DGA » Tue Feb 23, 2016 1:17 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:One possible definition: a persistent experience of subjectivity, and therefore suffering etc. I don't think can be accurately measured ....almost by definition.
What's the difference, then, between a living sentient being and a dead one? If there is persistence, there is continuity, which means that the conventional life-death distinction seems all wet.

This seems consequential, again, for the interminable round-and-round conversations we get about Buddhism and food choices. Apropos also of Kim O'Hara's post.

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Astus » Tue Feb 23, 2016 1:57 pm

DGA wrote:What happens when the subject-object distinction becomes less and less convincing? I suspect that the sentient being / insentient matter distinction does too.
Sentience is defined by experience, a mental continuum, thus the six realms. Plants do not appear to be sentient, unlike animals and humans. And while externally we can generally only observe physical properties (with the flesh eye), the definition of sentience is not physical. Approaching from a scriptural perspective, because neither the Buddha nor others described birth as plants and such, they are insentient. There are other possible problems with rectifying the karma of a tree or a stone, as they seem to lack any intentional action, although that part may not be so different from some heavenly realms.

Moving the definition to another level, it can be safely said that Buddhism can conventionally accept categories set up by a given society, to a certain extent. But getting bogged down in biological definitions and endless moral issues are unwholesome distractions that only hinder the understanding of the Buddha's intention and the meaning of the path.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by DGA » Tue Feb 23, 2016 2:27 pm

Astus wrote:
DGA wrote:What happens when the subject-object distinction becomes less and less convincing? I suspect that the sentient being / insentient matter distinction does too.
Sentience is defined by experience, a mental continuum, thus the six realms. Plants do not appear to be sentient, unlike animals and humans. And while externally we can generally only observe physical properties (with the flesh eye), the definition of sentience is not physical. Approaching from a scriptural perspective, because neither the Buddha nor others described birth as plants and such, they are insentient. There are other possible problems with rectifying the karma of a tree or a stone, as they seem to lack any intentional action, although that part may not be so different from some heavenly realms.

Moving the definition to another level, it can be safely said that Buddhism can conventionally accept categories set up by a given society, to a certain extent. But getting bogged down in biological definitions and endless moral issues are unwholesome distractions that only hinder the understanding of the Buddha's intention and the meaning of the path.
I disagree with two of your premises. or maybe one and a half.

First, I'm not convinced that only animals (including homo sapiens) appear to be sentient. I think fungi and (less convincingly) plants appear to be sentient, but do so from a physical substrate that is significantly different from that of the animal kingdom. (worms too)

I do agree that sentience is not the same as physicality, which is why I don't think the categories "life form" and "sentient being" are the same thing. They may overlap, as in a Venn diagram, but they differ significantly in what they cover and what they leave out.

Does Buddhism have anything to say about birth as a plant or fungus? I'm not sure, but I don't think the four categories of birth (from an egg, from a womb, from moisture, or from spontaneous transformation) disallow it. I'll defer to those who know better than me on this one. I'm not so sure it's the most important issue at hand, though, since we've already established that there are sentient beings who are not born in this sense.

Second, I agree that getting bogged down in biological definitions can be hugely problematic and lead to endless red herring discussions about what is OK to eat, what isn't, and so on. Part of my intention with this thread is to debug our discussions here at DW of some of these definitions. Where I disagree is in how the conventional definitions and categories of a particular society ("ours" whatever that means) are at cross-purposes with Buddhist practice and conduct.

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by seeker242 » Tue Feb 23, 2016 2:34 pm

What did the Buddha have to say about it?
One should not kill any living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite any other to kill. Do never injure any being, whether strong or weak, in this entire universe!

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Malcolm » Tue Feb 23, 2016 3:02 pm

Astus wrote:a tree or a stone...
Trees and stones are not commensurate examples, therefore your analogy is flawed.

Trees, plants, fungi and so in in general, breath, grow, excrete, defend themselves, communicate within their own communities and other communities, an using fungi as as a web for other plants to communicate, they respond to stimulus, learn, and so on.

The only things plants cannot do as opposed to animals is move themselves from one place to another because their brains aka roots and the vast majority of their sense organs are buried in the ground.

Stones, and rocks, etc. in general exhibit no living properties whatsoever.
Buddhahood in This Life
འ༔ ཨ༔ ཧ༔ ཤ༔ ས༔ མ༔


[A]nything at all that is well spoken is the word of the Buddha.

-- Ārya-adhyāśaya-sañcodana-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra

The different sūtras in accord with the emptiness
taught by the Sugata are definitive in meaning;
One can understand that all of those Dharmas in
which a sentient being, individual, or person are taught are provisional in meaning.

-- Samadhirāja Sūtra

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Astus » Tue Feb 23, 2016 3:50 pm

DGA wrote:I'm not convinced that only animals (including homo sapiens) appear to be sentient. I think fungi and (less convincingly) plants appear to be sentient, but do so from a physical substrate that is significantly different from that of the animal kingdom.
That is a question of measurement. As far as I'm aware, mushrooms to most people appear to be no different from plants. It is only some form of biological education that tells otherwise. Nevertheless, I speak only based on my own small cultural sphere.
Does Buddhism have anything to say about birth as a plant or fungus? I'm not sure, but I don't think the four categories of birth (from an egg, from a womb, from moisture, or from spontaneous transformation) disallow it.
It is not included as a realm one can be born in, it is not a question of categories of birth. However, if we were to add it, all plant life would need to receive a similar position to other realms of birth, with all the ethical issues involved in treating other sentient beings.
Where I disagree is in how the conventional definitions and categories of a particular society ("ours" whatever that means) are at cross-purposes with Buddhist practice and conduct.
I consider social issues a fairly secondary and external matter relative to the path. That's why I say that there needs not be problem with any culture.

You are probably aware of the East Asian idea of universal buddha-nature, where it is attributed to both sentient and insentient. However, and while it has (almost) nothing to do with the question here, it could be used in some constructive ways perhaps.

Denkoroku, case 17 (Rahulata's story):

Ragorata was a man from Kapilavastu; the issue of the karmic cause from a past life arose in the following manner. Kanadaiba, after realizing enlightenment, was travelling about converting others when he arrived at Kapilavastu. In the city there resided a prosperous elder citizen named Bomma Jotoku (S. Brahmasuddhaguna, ‘He Who Is the Pure Virtue of Brahma’) in whose garden, one day, a tree had sprouted a large, ear-shaped mushroom with an exceedingly fine flavour; only he and his second son, Ragorata (S. Rahulata, ‘He Who Has Been Seized’) by name, picked and tasted it. From wherever they picked a piece, the mushroom would regrow; after they had picked it all, it sprouted anew; no others in the household were able to see it. Kanadaiba called on the family because of his awareness of the karmic cause of this mushroom from their past lives and, when the old man asked the reason for the mushroom’s appearance, Kanadaiba replied, “Long ago your family gave alms to a monk but the monk vainly consumed the alms from the faithful without having succeeded in opening his Enlightenment-seeking Eye and, because of this, he became a tree mushroom in his next life as recompense. Since only you and your son have given alms with untainted sincerity, only the two of you have succeeded in acquiring this mushroom; the rest of your family have not.”
...
Today’s story is not about sentient and non-sentient beings; do not separate things into inner karmic tendencies and outer karmic conditions. A monk in a previous life duly became a tree mushroom in a present life. Whilst a tree mushroom, he did not know that he had been a monk and, whilst a monk, he did not know that he had manifested as a myriad things so, even though you are now sentient and have a bit of awareness and comprehension of what you are doing and can distinguish somewhat between a pain and an itch, you have never been in any way different from a tree mushroom. The reason for this is that the tree’s not knowing you is, beyond doubt, dark ignorance, and your not knowing the tree mushroom is exactly the same thing; this is why people make distinctions between the sentient and the non-sentient as well as between outer karmic conditions and inner karmic tendencies. When you clarify what TRUE SELF is, what is there to call sentient, what is there to call non-sentient? IT is not past, present or future nor is IT the sense organs, their fields of perception or their types of perceptual consciousness and IT neither cuts itself off from these nor can IT be cut off from them. IT is neither self-made nor made by others. You will see by training thoroughly, probing deeply and dropping off body and mind.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Astus » Tue Feb 23, 2016 4:01 pm

Malcolm wrote:Trees, plants, fungi and so in in general, breath, grow, excrete, defend themselves, communicate within their own communities and other communities, an using fungi as as a web for other plants to communicate, they respond to stimulus, learn, and so on.
Then we might consider computers are already or about to be sentient as well. And maybe a number of other phenomena too, like memes.
Stones, and rocks, etc. in general exhibit no living properties whatsoever.
Then perhaps from a more higher perspective, like volcanoes, a whole living planet, etc.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Malcolm
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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by Malcolm » Tue Feb 23, 2016 4:04 pm

Astus wrote:
Malcolm wrote:Trees, plants, fungi and so in in general, breath, grow, excrete, defend themselves, communicate within their own communities and other communities, an using fungi as as a web for other plants to communicate, they respond to stimulus, learn, and so on.
Then we might consider computers are already or about to be sentient as well. And maybe a number of other phenomena too, like memes.
No, computers merely mimic sentience, they are not self-organizing. Self-organization is the hallmark of all living systems and is the benchmark for sentience.
Buddhahood in This Life
འ༔ ཨ༔ ཧ༔ ཤ༔ ས༔ མ༔


[A]nything at all that is well spoken is the word of the Buddha.

-- Ārya-adhyāśaya-sañcodana-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra

The different sūtras in accord with the emptiness
taught by the Sugata are definitive in meaning;
One can understand that all of those Dharmas in
which a sentient being, individual, or person are taught are provisional in meaning.

-- Samadhirāja Sūtra

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Re: What is a "sentient being"?

Post by DGA » Tue Feb 23, 2016 4:09 pm

seeker242 wrote:What did the Buddha have to say about it?
Good question. Enlighten us, maybe?

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