How do YOU know its Sentient?

Well, this recent post…

triggered this good ol’ million dollar question once again in my mind…

> “How do we know its Sentient?”

Now that is something I have been puzzling about for many years now, and much of it inspired by this very forum! How many times have we read angst filled accounts of guilt ridden people seeking to come to terms with the strict injunction of the first precept and the demands of ordinary life where, let’s face it some loss of life is inevitable from our most mundane daily activities - driving, walking, house cleaning, taking antibiotics …

There was this comment by someone (?@paul1) many years ago on a thread regarding animals. The gist of it was that animals and cockroaches scurry away when approached, but so do video game characters - does that mean the bots are sentient?

Interestingly, the Pali suttas don’t seem to define what exactly is meant by a Sentient Being (satta), they only enjoin us not to harm them. But, the Chinese parallels have interesting inserts in such passages, for example in the Kalama sutta parallel…

With conscience and modesty and with kindness and compassion, they are beneficial to all living things, even insects and worms.

which makes one wonder if its a later insert!

So, coming back to the topic - how do you know its Sentient? What criteria do you think to be appropriate?



For whoever/whatever 5 precepts are applicable those things are sentient.

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IMHO, anything that is organic and volitionally or instinctually pursues the conditions for its happiness and/or freedom from its pain.

Perhaps this is too simplistic? :confused:


Good point! It does certainly seem that at the time of the Pali EBT texts, one was supposed to make a personal decision.

There are always the hardliners though (Devadatta comes to mind) who insist on stricter and stricter interpretations.

And of course, the smart- alecs… “Excuse me Ven Samghadeva Sir, but what about insects and worms?” … “They are Satta”… “But where does it say so?”… “Enough! Write it down, even insects and worms should not be harmed intentionally!” :rofl:

Does being sentient actually matter though, isn’t the capacity for it to feel physical pain sufficient enough, i.e. it has a nervous system.

As for classical sentience (called sapience these days), as the term keeps changing over the years, I would argue it has to have the capacity to rationalize its existence. I think maybe chimps are the only other species that come close.


Its a good start! But i find it interesting that you use the criterion

When the others, viz volition, instinct, goal seeking etc turn out on close examination to be conditioned and a result of processing data gathered from the stimulation of sensors by the enviroment.

Many AI programs today closely manage to match behavior such as open learning, decision making etc which were once the preserve of humans. Perhaps some such AI might one day be considered Sentient?


I think, perhaps, I am (currently?) not progressive enough to see the inclusion of AI “sentience” as qualifying. Especially since AI intelligence still has a way to go. But, perhaps some day my view on this will change; and, I am certainly open to having my view changed through contemplation, experience, or simply through considered and insightful discourse with others.

But until I come to a different understanding, I hold ‘organic’ as an important criterion for sentience as it applies to the theme of this thread. :slight_smile:

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There is a hierarchy in the suttas whereby the kamma for killing insects is less than for higher beings.


There are beings without the possibility to feel pain but they can still die which breaks the precept of killing that is why just putting “pain feeler” as a bar may not be applicable in general.

Why isn’t it sentient until proven otherwise?

“I’ll keep killing you until you prove to me you feel pain” seems to lack compassion?


There is SN23.2

Seated to one side, Venerable Rādha said to the Buddha:

“Sir, they speak of this thing called a ‘sentient being’. How is a sentient being defined?”

“Rādha, when you cling, strongly cling, to desire, greed, relishing, and craving for form, then a being is spoken of. When you cling, strongly cling, to desire, greed, relishing, and craving for feeling … perception … choices … consciousness, then a being is spoken of.

I like the verse spoken by the Ayya Vajirā from SN5.10.

“Who created this sentient being?
Where is its maker?
Where has the being arisen?
And where does it cease?”

Then the nun Vajirā thought, “Who’s speaking this verse, a human or a non-human?”

Then she thought, “This is Māra the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from immersion!”

Then Vajirā, knowing that this was Māra the Wicked, replied to him in verse:

“Why do you believe there’s such a thing as a ‘sentient being’?
Māra, is this your theory?
This is just a pile of conditions,
you won’t find a sentient being here.

When the parts are assembled
we use the word ‘chariot’.
So too, when the aggregates are present
‘sentient being’ is the convention we use.

But it’s only suffering that comes to be,
lasts a while, then disappears.
Naught but suffering comes to be,
naught but suffering ceases.”

My go to is that wherever there is a perception of suffering, then I should be as kind and gentle as possible. That last stanza makes this rather all encompassing.


For myself i protect the best as i can the life of insects and worms, little creatures, snails, etc. but not bacteria and fungus or algea. If i have some kind of infection, i do not doubt to use the antibiotics prescribed. Or if i have fungus in my house i do not doubts to remove it. But creatures as whoodlouse, spiders, i protect. If i might have a tapeworm i will not doubt to kill it, if that saves my life and cannot be otherwise. Sorry, being.

It is also a bit dreamy, i belief, to think one can be totally uninvolved in killing and hurting other beings and be completely innocent while living. I belief one is involved in killing while eating meat, and also involved in hurting geese while eating foies gras although one is not the actor. If we use a phone and for fabrication people and Earth are exploited we become also part of that misdeed, i feel.

To treat even anorganic things as sentient and living has, i belief, benefits. One is more sensitive, careful.

Sentience is one of those fabulous English words that nobody knows the meaning of that is routinely used to translate Pali and Sanskrit words that nobody knows the meanings of.

the online etymology dictionary gives:

sentient (adj.)

1630s, “capable of feeling,” from Latin sentientem (nominative sentiens) “feeling,” present participle of sentire “to feel” (see sense(n.)). Meaning “conscious” (of something) is from 1815.

As far as I can tell it was first coined by philosophers in the 1600’s to distinguish the capacity to experience sensations (sentience) from the capacity to reason (rationality) but is now often used colloquially as a synonym for consciousness which by the way is another word that no one seems able to define to anyones lasting satisfaction.

In this thread I see it brilliantly defined by recursion as whatever the first precept applies to, which is genius in that from a Buddhist perspective it is both incontrovertibly true and also completely uninformative.

Do the suttas actually refer to a “sentient” being? I sort of feel like I have seen both “sentient being” and “living being” are these different things in the suttas?

like the word we are talking about is sattā right, or satto? and it means a “being” but saying sentient being is a gloss, it’s not actually there in the word is it?

Te online etymology dictionary has:

“truth” (in Hindu philosophy), from Sanskrit sattvah “truth,” literally “being,” cognate with Gothic sunjis, Old English soð “true” (see sooth)


Old English soð “truth, justice, righteousness, rectitude; reality, certainty,” noun use of soð (adj.) “true, genuine, real; just, righteous,” originally *sonð-, from Proto-Germanic *santhaz (source also of Old Norse sannr, Old Saxon soth, Old High German sand “true,” Gothic sunja “truth”).

The group is related to Old English synn “sin” and Latin sontis “guilty” (truth is related to guilt via “being the one;” see sin), from PIE *hes-ont- “being, existence,” thus “real, true” (from present participle of root *es- “to be”, also preserved in Latin sunt “they are” and German sind.

Archaic in English, it is the root of modern words for “true” in Swedish (sann) and Danish (sand). In common use until mid-17c., then obsolete until revived as an archaism early 19c. by Scott, etc. Used for Latin pro- in translating compounds into Old English, such as soðtacen “prodigy,” soðfylgan “prosequi.”

PTS has:

  1. Satta, 2 (cp, Vedic sattva living being, satvan “strong man, warrior, ” fr. sant) 1. (m.) a living being, creature, a sentient & rational beiṅg, a person D. I, 17, 34, 53, 82; II, 68; A. I, 35 sq. , 55 sq.; S. I, 135; V, 41; Vin. I, 5; Miln. 273; Vism. 310 (definition: “rūp’ādisu khandhesu chandarāgena sattā visattā ti sattā, ” thus=satta1); Nett 161; DA. I, 51, 161; VbhA. 144.—naraka° a being in purgatory (cp. niraya°) Vism. 500.—2. (nt.) soul (=jīvita or viññāṇa) Pv. I, 81 (gata°=vigata-jīvita PvA. 40). ‹-› 3. (nt.) substance Vin. I, 287. nissatta non-substantial, phenomenal DhsA. 38.

but it seems a stretch to equate the european philosophical notion of “sentience” in any direct and interchangeable way with the indic notion of “satta” on that basis doesn’t it?

the law will:

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act will lead to the formation of an Animal Sentience Committee, which will be able to scrutinize government policies that affect animal welfare and publish reports on its findings. The minister responsible for that policy area will then be obliged to present a written response before Parliament within three months.


The scope of the legislation includes all vertebrates and some invertebrates, such as octopuses and lobsters.

So even the legislation does not seem to be actually relying on any technical definition of “sentience”, it is just covering all the different animals that might be subject to welfare concerns and saying “they are sentient, just like humans”

in as much as animals appear to behave in ways that demonstrate motivation and goal directed behavior this seems manifestly true, but I am not sure I need the concept of “sentience” to feel like compassion for animals is a desirable thing, and I am not sure that there is any sense in the EBT’s where the term is used in a way that makes it neccessary, say in relations to a philosophy of perseption etc, it just seems like its added as a gloss to satta meaning being or “one who exists”. why is it neccessary to translate one five letter pali word into 2 philosophically loaded english ones?

And in fact the PTS has sentient AND rational, which might considerably narrow the implied scope, why is one of the terms kept and the other discarded?

and in fact “sentient” cannot be the meaning anyway as at AN9.24 we have;

There are sentient beings that are non-percipient and do not experience anything, such as the gods who are non-percipient beings.
Santi, bhikkhave, sattā asaññino appaṭisaṁvedino, seyyathāpi devā asaññasattā. This is the fifth abode of sentient beings. Ayaṁ pañcamo sattāvāso.

so in this context the beings being described are non-sentient by definition!


:slight_smile: Reminded me of the wood frog. For extended periods of time, non-percipient, but still sentient beings? Maybe? We probably wouldn’t want to ‘kill’ a partially frozen one.

Terrestrial frogs normally hibernate on land. American toads (Bufo americanus) and other frogs that are good diggers burrow deep into the soil, safely below the frost line. Some frogs, such as the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and the spring peeper (Hyla crucifer), are not adept at digging and instead seek out deep cracks and crevices in logs or rocks, or just dig down as far as they can in the leaf litter. These hibernacula are not as well protected from frigid weather and may freeze, along with their inhabitants.

And yet the frogs do not die. Why? Antifreeze! True enough, ice crystals form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs prevents freezing. A partially frozen frog will stop breathing, and its heart will stop beating. It will appear quite dead. But when the hibernaculum warms up above freezing, the frog’s frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume activity–there really is such a thing as the living dead!


Perhaps what we need to dissect further here is the relationship between Satta and Atta.

At first glance one might be tempted to assume that since there is no Atta, there is no Satta either.

This is the trap of nihilism which the Buddha strongly refutes (Mn41, AN10.211, AN10.217 etc).

My understanding is that though there is the set of 5 aggregates, held together by craving wherein Suffering arises and ceases and which is born and reborn according to Karma (Satta) yet there is no independent, permanent controlling entity within (Atta).

Maybe we could broadly define a Sentient being - Satta - as that within which Vinnana arises in dependence on namma-rupa? :thinking:


inside the Suttas appears the becoming of sentient beings through the dependent origination, because the ignorance and nama-rupa and conciousness.

It means sentient beings has representations of Reality, which will be objects of knowledge of the world. Machines and also vegetables only have reactive mechanisms, they lack of representations. In fact that’s not properly knowledge, despite our times are pushing this idea into the culture, science and etc, to favor an interpretation of the new complexity of machines and software like a type of mind. Probably this preaching is necessary to satisfy many impulses, the necessity of knowledge, the greed, the so-called “progress” and etcetera.

However, the machines and software are only rupa, matter. Machines cannot have a mind and they will never have it. No possibility of imagination, dreams, etcetera. This condition cannot change because are just rupa, and no consciousness in them from any beginning.


Why not just define “being” that way? What is the function that “sentient” performs here? Why isn’t it superfluous? Is it ok to kill the comatose? Why have two words to translate one word? So many questions.

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I think when terms like this aren’t defined it’s because it was assumed that everybody understood what they meant at the time. Then centuries go by and people wondering exactly what it meant. People like poor translators who have to decide on a word in another language. Yikes! Speaking of which, does anyone know exactly why we ended up translating satta/sattva as “sentient being.” The word sentient isn’t actually there in the original language. In Chinese, they used two words mainly: “various beings” and “has feelings.”

Probably a good starting place is to assume a sattva is a being that gets reborn, i.e., the beings that exist in the different realms (hell, animals, spirits, humans, gods). And often it’s just another word for humans in many passages, or maybe it includes humans and gods together as a category - but they are things that talk and listen to Dharma. Even in jatakas, the animals are like people in their fairy tale way.

Vijnana is probably a good common denominator, especially since many reborn beings don’t have a physical body. Or it’s kind of a magical physical body (trying not to think about the descriptions of the hells I translated recently [shudders]). Humans and animals are just part of the gamut of sattvas.

Do insects or worms get reborn in Buddhist literature? I don’t know, I’ve not seen that yet. Animals, yes. Quails and deer and such. I think that Madhyama Agama passage, which is repeated whenever the first precept is defined, was trying to close a loophole people were using to shrug off killing things. I.e., they wanted the precept to be about the moral compass in the practitioner, not the status of the potential victim.

It’s saying that a practitioner should just avoid killing and be good to beings. Don’t worry about if they qualify or not in a legalistic vinaya kind of a way. If you see a worm that’s going to drown in a puddle, scoop it up and put it in the grass. (Okay, I’ve done this, mainly because I’m an old softy who remembers being a cruel kid long ago.)

The same definition is usually part of the gradual training, which has renunciates as an audience rather than non-Buddhist laypeople. So, maybe it’s a bit of overkill for the audience in MA 16.


Do sutta references to “satta” actually imply sentience? I’m not sure they do.

We probably need to look at how “satta” is used in different contexts. For example, looking at the nidana descriptions for birth, aging and death in SN12.2, a being (satta) appears to mean any living organism subject to birth, aging and death.
Meanwhile, SN5.10 implies that a being (satta) is any living thing which can suffer.

As this thread has illustrated, using the adjective “sentient” with “being” raises more questions than it answers. I would recommend dropping “sentient” entirely, and just referring to “beings”.


Looking at SN5.10, a being (satta) seems to be any living thing which suffers. This presumably includes the instinct to avoid suffering.