Tuesday, June 06, 2006

religious exchanges 2: sentience and sentient beings

(The first post in the series is here.)

May 21, 2006. Me to Sneem:


re: Groner

Small world, eh? Ha!

re: migraine's return

I'm sorry to hear that. Can you get another nun to rub your head or something? You have my sympathy.

re: sentient beings

I have a question (well, really, a cluster of questions): what do Buddhists consider "sentient beings," how do they define "sentient," and what relevant scriptures lay all this out?

MAY YOUR HEAD KNOW BLISS. I'll keep your head in my thoughts.


May 21, 2006 (same day). Sneem to me:

Hmmm. Sentience.

I can give you a quick-and-simple answer that I've gotten from a tangled mixture of Tibetan teachers (from my time in Nepal) and scripture, and can no longer remember where it all came from. Then I'll check my copy of the Digha-Nikaya tonight and see if there's anything more in there--i.e., an actual definition.

Anything with sentience is naturally a sentient being. It should be obvious but people get stuck on "being" and assume one of two erroneous things: sentient beings are normally visible (leaving out heavenly beings, asuras, hungry ghosts, and hell beings--2/3 of sentient beings), or that anything visible is a sentient being (and so plants are sentient in this mistake, while to classical Buddhist thinking they are not).

Consciousness is another word for "sentience"--and using the word consciousness has to be done carefully, since in the five skandhas we also have feeling, perceptions, and impulses listed separately from consciousness (and matter). Consciousness has been described to me as the quality of (sometimes luminous) awareness that tends to underlie all our other mental processes, though consciousness itself is not "awakened." According to Access to Insight's glossary, there's a sixth consciousness (viññanam anidassanam) that lies outside the five skandhas. What I'm struggling to figure out is if the five skandhas are what make something sentient, or if it's the presence of the additional consciousnesses (which go up to nine, I think--I'll check) that qualify a being as sentient. In any case, consciousness is also the thing which transmigrates at birth--rebirth being a tricky teaching at best, the consciousness is said to inhabit a subtle material body while in the bardo waiting for the next gross material body.

Despite consciousness' apparent stability--it seems to underpin our other mental processes and therefore seems more permanent than them; it is the main mental aggregate involved in transmigration, and therefore suggests coherency beyond death--it too changes, decays, grows, etc. If it did not, then liberation such as the Buddha achieved would not be possible. The "turning around" of the "inner eye" that many Zen masters refer to to seems to mean (to me, but what do I know?) that the consciousness must somehow see itself; the organ by which we perceive impermanence must see itself that way [i.e., as impermanent]. Ouch.

But the most important consequence of all this talk on sentience has little to do with Zen theory. Morality--and the first precept--make understanding sentience crucial for non-theoretical Buddhists. Although all our actions create karma, even if the object is insentient (like a rock or a plant...unless the rock or plant in question has a spirit dwelling inside it), it is only when we act against another sentient being that our karma becomes "complete." And here my memory is fuzzy--and I'm almost certain this is a Tibetan formulation of karma--but there are four factors required to make a karmic action complete. One is the thought to do something. The second is the impulse to do it (action). The third is completion of the action. The fourth is that the result of the action is experienced by the other party. So: You want to steal something (thought). You make a plan to do so and carry out the plan (action). You actually succeed in stealing the object (completion). The person to whom the object belongs is aware of the loss of the object (experienced result). Since all four conditions were met, the karma becomes complete and will have a material, physical impact on a future life. (Examples of these kinds of karmic ripenings are ugliness, physical deformity or weakness, mental dullness, intense hunger--and that's if you're lucky enough to remain a human. Usually, you get dropped straight into one of the three lower realms for bad deeds, whereas good deeds will lead you to either rebirth as a human or into the heaven realms. Asura rebirth is the result primarily of anger, not so much heavy crimes against other beings.)

If one condition is not met--and it's usually the last condition--then the karmic action becomes the seed for a "condition" of rebirth (i.e., rich or poor family, Buddhist nation or not, time of famine or drought, etc.). The precept not to kill, therefore, can only apply to sentient beings, and not to grasses, trees, and so forth. (Chinese and East Asian Buddhists don't make this clear in some of their stories, which make it sound like Mahayanists are proposing that *even* rocks and trees are sentient.)

It's unclear whether things like yeasts or bacteria are sentient, but most Buddhists I know, including myself, chalk it up to "one of the two of us has to eat and live, and it's going to be me" and don't worry about it.

This will probably be tricky, to be honest. Mahayana sources might turn up more, but I'm a little sparse on those. Anyway.



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