Jump to content

Sentient beings (Buddhism)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Buddhist monk protecting an injured sparrow. Likir Monastery, Ladakh, India

In Buddhism, sentient beings are beings with consciousness, sentience, or in some contexts life itself.[1]



Getz (2004: p. 760) provides a generalist Western Buddhist encyclopedic definition:

Sentient beings is a term used to designate the totality of living, conscious beings that constitute the object and audience of Buddhist teaching. Translating various Sanskrit terms (jantu, bahu jana, jagat, sattva), sentient beings conventionally refers to the mass of living things subject to illusion, suffering, and rebirth (saṃsāra). Less frequently, sentient beings as a class broadly encompasses all beings possessing consciousness, including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Sentient beings are composed of the five aggregates (skandhas): matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha is recorded as saying that "just as the word 'chariot' exists on the basis of the aggregation of parts, even so the concept of 'being' exists when the five aggregates are available."[2]

Early Buddhist sources classify sentient beings into five categories—divinities, humans, animals, tormented spirits, and denizens of hell—although sometimes the classification adds another category of beings called asuras between divinities and humans.[1]

While distinctions in usage and potential subdivisions or classes of sentient beings vary from one school, teacher, or thinker to another, it principally refers to beings in contrast with buddhahood. That is, sentient beings are characteristically not awakened, and are thus confined to the death, rebirth, and dukkha (suffering) characteristic of saṃsāra.[3] Thus, Dōgen writes "Those who greatly enlighten illusion are Buddhas; those who have great illusion in enlightenment are sentient beings."[4]

However, Mahayana Buddhism also simultaneously teaches that sentient beings also contain Buddha-nature—the intrinsic potential to transcend the conditions of saṃsāra and attain enlightenment, thereby obtaining Buddhahood.[5] Thus, in Mahayana, it is to sentient beings that the bodhisattva vow of compassion is pledged and sentient beings are the object of the all inclusive great compassion (maha karuna) and skillful means (upaya) of the Buddhas.

Furthermore, in East Asian Buddhism, all beings (including plant life and even inanimate objects or entities considered "spiritual" or "metaphysical" by conventional Western thought) are or may be considered beings with Buddha-nature.[6][7] The idea that "inanimate" beings have Buddha nature was defended by Zhanran (711–782) of the Tiantai school as well as Japanese figures like Kūkai and Dōgen.[8]

See also



  1. ^ a b Getz, Daniel A. (2004). "Sentient beings"; cited in Buswell, Robert E. (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Volume 2. New York, US: Macmillan Reference USA. ISBN 0-02-865720-9 (Volume 2): pp.760
  2. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 78.
  3. ^ Kimura, Kiyotaka (July 1991). "The Self in Medieval Japanese Buddhism: Focusing on Dogen". Philosophy East and West. 41 (3). University of Hawaii Press: 327–340. Archived from the original on Apr 3, 2009. Retrieved 22 October 2008 – via Center for Buddhist Studies.
  4. ^ Dogen Zenji. Translated by A. C. Muller. "Genjōkōan" (Shōbōgenzō). Japan, (1231—1253, translation in "Resources for East Asian Language and Thought", November 8, 2004). Accessed 20 March 2023
  5. ^ Muller, Charles A. (March 1995). "The Key Operative Concepts in Korean Buddhist Syncretic Philosophy: Interpenetration (通達) and Essence-Function (體用) in Wŏnhyo, Chinul and Kihwa". Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University. Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-21. In Buddhism, t'i [體] is regarded as the fundamentally enlightened Buddha-mind that is present in all beings, whereas yung [用] is the manifestation of that mind in actual practice--whether it be a full manifestation (enlightened Buddha) or limited manifestation (ignorant sentient being).
  6. ^ Keiji, Nishitani (ed.)(1976). The Eastern Buddhist. 9.2: p.72. Kyoto: Eastern Buddhist Society; cited in Dumoulin, Henrich (author); Heisig, James (translator); and Knitter, Paul (translator)(2005). Zen Buddhism: A History ~ Volume 2: Japan. With an Introduction by Victor Sogen Hori. Bloomington, Indiana, US: World Wisdom, Inc. ISBN 978-0-941532-90-7
  7. ^ Ray, Reginald A. (2000). Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. The World of Tibetan Buddhism. Vol. 1. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. pp. 26–27. ISBN 1-57062-910-2. Retrieved 2008-10-21. In the traditional Tibetan view... the animate and inanimate phenomena of this world are charged with being, life, and spiritual vitality. These are conceived in terms of various spirits, ancestors, demigods, demons, and so on. One of the ways Tibetans recognize a spirit is through the energy that collects in a perceptual moment. A crescendo of energetic "heat" given off by something indicates a spirit. It is something like when we might say that a rock, a tree, or a cloud formation is "striking" or "dramatic" or "compelling." A rock outcropping that has a strange and arresting shape, that perhaps seems strong and menacing, will indicate the existence of some kind of non-human presence. Likewise, a hollow in a grove of trees where a spring flows and the flora are unusually lush and abundant, that has a particularly inviting and nurturing atmosphere, will likewise present itself as the home of a spirit. The unusual behavior of a natural phenomenon or an animal will suggest the same as will the rain that ends a drought or the sudden irruption of an illness.
  8. ^ Chen, Shuman. "Chinese Tiantai Doctrine on Insentient Things' Buddha-Nature." Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 24 (2011): 71–104.