Sentience (and plants)

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(There are other discussions on this topic, but they don’t include recent scientific information.)

We talk a lot about sentient beings in Buddhism. But what is sentience? And what is consciousness? To give some context to why I ask these questions, I just had an opportunity to watch this video on " electrical experiments with plants that count and communicate":

And here is a resource indicating that plants can “communicate distress” using an analogue of an animal nervous system:

So if sentience can be (or will be, with more discoveries) extended beyond our current common-sense notion of “just humans, cats, dogs, birds, fish, and beings like them”, what effect will this have on Buddhist thought and practice?


I am a gardener attempting to reconcile “do not kill” with aspects of gardening. It is an ongoing consideration that leads one to consider balance.


I’m a gardener too. Well, more of a theoretical gardener right now. But still very interested. This whole topic raises lots of questions about killing pests to protect plants (killing sentient beings?), pulling up weeds (killing “life”, but killing sentient beings?), and even harvesting grown produce (killing or maiming sentient life?). If plants can be said to be sentient, is a garden our version of a detention center? :thinking:


Sentience is relevant to understanding the dhamma, in Buddhism. Its not any other type of sentience as far as I know. Also have you considered planes of existence in this question?


One definition of “sentient” is the ability to feel pain, which seems significant in a Buddhist context.
It might be useful to investigate the Pali word for “sentient” , which I believe is sacetanika.


From AN9.24, there are nine abodes of sentient beings ending with:

There are sentient beings that have gone totally beyond the dimension of nothingness. They have been reborn in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.
Santāvuso, sattā sabbaso ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ samatikkamma nevasaññānāsaññāyatanūpagā.
This is the ninth abode of sentient beings.

Since the cessation of perception and feeling transcends the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, by inference the Realized One does not abide or is not sentient. Sentient beings are not listed in the section on tens from DN33.

Convention strongly associates sentience with free will and agency. Yet upon closer examination of this assumption of free will, we see that free will implies choices. Choices are listed in the Dependent Origination as arising out of ignorance. And choices lead to suffering.

The escape from suffering leads to freedom from ignorance and choices. The agency that is freed is one of ethical action unbound by choices or ignorance. Indeed, where would such a One abide?


there is very nice book in the topic written by a professional gardener, “The Art of Mindful Gardening”, from Ark Redwood. On practical issue.

Plants sometimes has been classified in Buddhism in a “border line” regarding sentient beings. There is summary with Sutta sources on this issue inside “An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” by Peter Harvey.


I don’t think this is the Buddha’s view but rather possibly a Jain view, that was upset when Bhikkhus were seen cutting some tree branches. Hence, a rule was formed to not upset the populace.


That’s quite interesting. Going back to plants, the one thing they do not have is a nervous system.

Why? Because if you are not capable of escaping danger then there is 0 value in trasmitting the painful information from where ever it stems from.

So plants have no brain, no nervous system. But they have life and some forms of consciouness (they can sense gravity, light and react to this).

Now where does this live us with regards to beings… and sentience?


Sure. The OP includes an article which suggests that plants can communicate stress. I don’t know if that’s comparable to an animal feeling pain via a central nervous system.


As a rock climber, I find intentional harming of rock to be abusive. When I examined that carefully, I realized that the objection was not so much about the damage to the rock (which is incidental compared with natural rockfall), but that the objection was towards the intention itself.

The intention to change the world generates kamma, much of it bad. A simple example is consumption of non-renewable resources. Our collective intentions rob our children of those very same resources.

Because of this, I do not worry so much about the precise boundary of sentience. Instead, I concern myself with restraint of intention.

DN33 (and this is ONLY in DN33) describes the relinquishing of intention born of craving:

Four deeds.
There are deeds that are dark with dark result.
There are deeds that are bright with bright result.
There are deeds that are dark and bright with dark and bright result.
There are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the end of deeds.


I don’t think this is the Buddha’s view but rather possibly a Jain view, that was upset when Bhikkhus were seen cutting some tree branches. Hence, a rule was formed to not upset the populace.

you are right, it seems there is some relation with contemporary Jain. I paste an extract from that book chapter:

“The Buddhist ideal of non-harming is one that extends to all sentient beings. What, though, of plants? The Jains certainly thought that plants, and even minerals, contained life-principles or souls and were part of the round of rebirths. Buddhist texts, though, do not say that it is possible to be reborn as a plant, or for a plant to be reborn, and later texts explicitly deny this. Nevertheless, the Buddha is described as having avoided harm to seed and plant life, and there are monastic rules against harming trees and plants.
It is an offence requiring expiation (by acknowledgement) for a monk to fell a tree or to ask someone else to do so. Here, the occasion for making the rule is that a god who had lived in a felled tree complained to the Buddha. In addition, lay people complained that Buddhist monks, in felling trees, were ‘harming life that is one-facultied’ (ekindriya jiva): i.e. only possessing the sense of touch, an idea found in Jainism. The Buddha thus bans the destruction of ‘vegetable growths’ by monks.
The belief in ‘one-facultied life’ is not endorsed by the Buddha, but it is not actually criticized either. After a careful examination of the evidence on this in early Buddhist texts, Lambert Schmithausen holds that plants were seen as a ‘border-line case’ as regards sentient life, and there was no real interest in resolving the matter as a theoretical issue. The Abhidhamma, though, lacks reference to ‘one-facultied life’ in its very detailed analysis of phenomena. In practice, however, plants were still included within the ambit of non-violence for monks.”

Section “Plants, Trees and Forest”.


If an icicle melts due to the sun shining is that a response to the environment.


The Jain view is incompatible with my gardening. For example just today I chopped off the leaves of a plant so that I could maintain access to its watering source. If I had not chopped the leaves, I would not be able to water the plant and it would die. So I chopped the leaves and watered the plant.




Right but plants are connected to each other via mycelia network, which very might well be the brain (but of many plants rather than one plant). That said, I think on a mythopoetic level the existence of nature spirits kind of lends itself to a kind of sentience to plants. Kill a giant tree and you might hurt a nymph. I don’t know if I believe in these literally, but it does to me confirm a kind of borderline sentience to plants.

Not that I am against ethical gardening and that does involve killing plants (and accidental killing of insects). But I do believe in a certain kind of respect to the life as a whole in the micro- ecosystem we are working with. In a way, I think that is what the various nature devas speak to to me.


I don’t think the EBTs explicitly exclude plant sentience or proto-consciousness (but I know at least the Indo-Tibetan tradition does reject it). I don’t remember the Buddha ever rejecting this view outright. Is there any material from the suttas which speaks to this?


The fact that they are excluded from the no killing precept in part suggests a lack of sentience.

But as I suggested with the idea of nature spirits/devas, the idea of plant sentience might be snuck back in. I mean even for Tibetans, they have naga rituals they might perform for old trees, for example. So there is an invisible world of sentience found in nature. I think this kind of thinking lends a level of sentience to plants even if not directly. And references to these go all the way back to the EBTs.

This is personally why I like to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when looking at the mythopoetic. And sometimes science and the myths can be linked. Like can the mycelia network that acts like the brain of a forest be a nature deva?

This is just environmental theological speculation on my part. But doing these kinds of readings is important in our era of clear cutting forests and climate change.


This is how I think of it–the earth as an organic living being whose breathing is the cycle of the seasons. Preserving and promoting soil integrity is a large part of no-till farming


Here is an article that explores the question of plant sentience in early buddhist. Unfortunately, most of it is behind a paywall. However, based on what I can read, it sounds like a case can be made that plants had a higher “status” in early Buddhism, while later texts were much more explicit about excluding them from sentience. Excerpt:

If plants and seeds–including grasses, creepers, bushes, and trees–are, as one of the objects of the ethic of non-violence, not to be injured, then it would make sense that they would be included among those designated as living, sentient beings. And if they are designated as living, sentient beings, then they should, concomitantly, be a part of the samsaric world and in some way subject to the laws of kamma. The texts of the early Pali canon are, however, as Lambert Schmithausen has carefully shown, relatively silent about the place of plants in the scheme of samsaric life. While later Buddhist texts are clearer about plants being not counted as sentient beings, earlier texts have “no explicit statement declaring plants or even earth and water to be living, sentient beings,” nor do they seem to have “an explicit… statement denying them the status of sentient beings.” Thus, “plants… in Earliest Buddhism [are] a kind of borderline case.” (4)


Schmithausen further suggest that “originally also the monks themselves, and even the Buddha, [may] still somehow [have] held the view that plants and seeds were living beings.” Early on, however, there is a “shifting emphasis from the ahimsa aspect towards matters of ascetic decorum”–already evident in discussion of the Patimokkha rule–and the exclusion of plants from the ahimsa rule then becomes, more or less, standard practice. “My personal feeling,” he concludes concerning early Buddhist monastic sentiment, is that plants “are certainly not sentient in the same way as men or so-called higher animals. But they may not be entirely insentient either, and they are certainly alive. We simply do not know what it means for a plant itself to live or to be injured or killed.” (8)