The answer to this question seems to depend on what school one talks about. So my question is about Mahayana Buddhism, more specifically Tibetan Madhyamaka Buddhist schools.

I kind of wonder where the line is drawn between beings that are sentient and beings that are not. How about f.ex. corals, algae, amoeba, crill and living creatures like that.

As far as I can understand (which is probably not very far) this has got to do with whether the being has consciousness/mind or not. Is that so? Maybe the question should be "what does it mean to say that a being is conscious or has a mind?

Is there a generally accepted definition of what a sentient being is? Anywhere in the suttas the Buddha is talking about this?

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    The sutras emphasize that humans can choose whereas animals simply respond and cannot reflect on their actions or motivations. I recall in an old TV show I saw as a child, someone said, "A man is different because a man has a choice." Perhaps they were including the distinction between adult and child in there. So, do you mean having any sort of awareness, or having the ability to reflect on self?
    – user2341
    Dec 8, 2015 at 13:06
  • I don't mean self reflexiveness. I mean simply what it means to say thet a being is "sentient". As for the idea that "A man is different because a man has a choice." .. I'm not really sure if that's what separates us from animals. I think it has to to with the structure of our will. Very simply said, humans can have desires about their desires whereas (other) animals don't seem to have that capacity Dec 8, 2015 at 13:26
  • But I think that you are asking about sentience, which for you seems to include parts of the animal realm, yes? Anything that can move can respond, feel pain, etc. Is that what you are interested in distinguishing? The idea of consciousness and mind is hard to attribute for simple animals that we do not usually interact with, like fish. What is the reason for understanding this difference? What will you do with it?
    – user2341
    Dec 9, 2015 at 13:49
  • I'm curious, that's all. "Compassion for all sentient beings" - and so I wonder what does sentience mean. Another q/a pointed out to me the realm as opposed to individual/biology/species categories. That was very helpful. Your first comment about humans "reflect[ing] on their actions or motivations" is very interesting, and I agree that capacity is very human. Many of my fellow philosophers disagree, though, they say we too "simply respond", we just think we don't. I remain skeptic Dec 9, 2015 at 13:56

1 Answer 1


Purbuchok. in Explanation of the Presentation of Objects and Object-Posessors as well as Awarenesses and Knowers:

With regard to persons, the definition of something’s being a person is: a being imputed in dependence upon any of its five aggregates.

Self, I, person, and being are synonymous. An illustration is a being who possesses a basis of one of the three realms.

That which is both a person and is not an arya buddha is a sentient being. An arya budha is a person, but not a sentient being.

From Geshe Gyaltsen's commentary to Maitreya's Sublime Continuum:

Person pervades all sentient beings and sentient beings pervade all ordinary beings, or ordinary persons. There are therefore three possibilities. Therefore the broader category is person, the person being someone with a mind, whereby all sentient beings and arya buddhas are included. Arya buddha is the buddha as a person.

According to the so-called Wheel of Life (Skt. bhavacakka; Tib. srid pa'i 'khor lo) there are six realms, that is six types of rebirth, six types of sentient beings. It is thus generally accepted that the are the six : hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. All other existent (minerals, plants, fungus, my carpet, my cup of tea) are not sentient beings. Then, suffice it to establish that bacteria are fungus in order to establish they are not sentient beings, but it goes already beyond the scope of Tibetan treatises.

The wheel is talked of in the tales called Divine narratives (Skt. Divyāvadāna).

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    So it seems that the OP would want a distinction of where 'animal' begins? Fish, probably yes, jellyfish, no? Barnacle, even less so? Some people define animal as "anything with a face".
    – user2341
    Dec 9, 2015 at 13:44

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