From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics

With the emergence of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen around the 6th century, Buddhism underwent an evolution in metaphysics, and an accompanying change in the ontology of the nonhuman animal.

A prime example of the conceptual transition of the nonhuman animal from beast to sentient being is seen in The Platform Sutra: an autobiographical account of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng (638-713 CE).

Considered a barbarian by the monks from whom he sought kinship, Hui-neng was not initially welcomed with open arms into the sangha. Upon his arrival to pay homage to the Fifth Patriarch, he was put to task splitting firewood and pounding rice in the back of the monastery.

The [Fifth] Patriarch said, “You are a barbarian from the south; how could you expect to become a Buddha?”

I replied, “there are people in the south and people in the north, but their Buddha-nature is the same. As a barbarian I may be different from you physically, but what difference could there be in our Buddha-nature?”

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

After eight months of pounding rice, Hui-neng’s understanding of the Dharma (and specifically of the essence of mind) was recognized as distinct by the Fifth Patriarch. Upon transmitting his robe and bowl to Hui-neng as the mark of succession, the Fifth Patriarch assigned Hui-neng a new task:

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.” He then gave me this stanza:

Sentient beings sow their seeds
And cause the earth to bear fruit and return to birth;
Nonsentient beings have no seeds,
And their empty self-nature has no rebirth.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

As seen previously, the Buddhist cosmology views nonhuman animals as karmic beings that experience rebirth, so from the stanza above we can infer from the Fifth Patriarch’s words that animals are to be included in the class sentient beings rather than nonsentient beings.

Although my research has not returned any explicit evidence of such a theory, my interpretation of Hui-neng’s initial reception by the sangha as an outsider is that his experience afforded him unique insight into the nature of Otherness.

Combined with the Fifth Patriarch’s parting stanza, this unique insight may have contributed to the development of Hui-neng’s compassion for animals as sentient beings. As beastly and different from humans as early Buddhist texts represent them, Hui-neng nonetheless came to view nonhuman animals as worthy of moral consideration.

Later in life, when forced into hiding due to being “pursued by evil men,” Hui-neng recounts the way he modeled and enacted this compassion, and how he fulfilled the mission tasked to him by his predecessor.

To avoid trouble, I took refuge in Szu-hui, where I stayed with a group of hunters for 15 years. I occasionally taught the Dharma to them, in accordance with their capabilities. They often asked me to watch their nets, but when I found a living creature, I set it free. At mealtimes, I added vegetables to their pots where they cooked their meat, and when they questioned me, I told them I would only eat vegetables.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

Buddhist Metaphysics: The Self and Intersubjectivity

In Buddhist metaphysics, the individual is seen as a collection as skandhas, or constituents of existence. In definite terms, the skandhas are known as form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness (Addiss 268). When taken as an aggregate and situated within natural phenomena (dharma), one’s lived experience emerges. Understanding the interplay between one’s skandhas and the dharma of one’s life is key to setting one on the path to cessation of suffering.

Image Source: TheZenUniverse.org

As explained by Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer:

Seeing clearly into the characteristics of one’s own existence and the connection that creates this existence, and in which it is embedded, is the goal of Buddhism, which should lead to an ending of suffering. Suffering is the result of the opposite; the less clearly the characteristics of being are recognized, the more a human being suffers in life.


–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Because the dharma of one’s own life and existence is determined by the cause-and-effect principles of the cosmic Dharma, it is necessarily interconnected with the dharma of all other sentient beings within the karmic cycle of birth/rebirth.

A keen awareness of this metaphysical state of affairs, namely that one’s place and experience within the cosmos is connected to and dependent upon the place and experience of others, is key to the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity.

In basic terms, intersubjectivity can be understood as “seeing from the Other’s point of view.” However, intersubjectivity is distinct from the modern concept of empathy, which is a much simpler notion used to describe the ability to understand or accurately detect the emotional and mental states of others.

More technically, one might define intersubjectivity as the ability of an embodied subjective agent to comprehend the experiences, intentions, desires, and interests of another embodied subjective agent, and to contextualize that understanding within the broader scope of one’s own life experience (dharma).

To put the term in the context of Buddhist metaphysics, intersubjectivity is the ability of one sentient being to understand the interplay between another sentient being’s skandhas and dharma in relation to one’s own life experience, and the interconnectedness of it all more broadly within the cosmic Dharma.

One particularly powerful and well-known illustration within Buddhism is Indra’s Net. Indra is revered in Hinduism, Jainsim, and Buddhism, and each tradition mythologizes the Vedic god in its own way. In Buddhist cosmology, Indra rules over the realm of the devas, and along with Brahma, he is seen as guardian of the Buddha Siddhartha.

Indra’s Net shows the interplay between Buddhist principles of emptiness, interconnectedness, and intersubjectivity. As described by Virtbauer,

Indra’s net is depicted as an endless fishing net with jewels on its knots. The jewels hang in such a way that in each jewel all other jewels are reflected. When looking at one jewel, one sees all other jewels within this particular jewel. Because of the infinity of the net, each jewel, in fact, reflects infinitely many other jewels. The characteristic appearance of each single jewel is only guaranteed due to the connection and mutual dependence to all other jewels.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)
Indra’s Net. Image source: Buddhism.org

When enacted, intersubjectivity is characterized by one’s respect for the bodily autonomy, self-determination and non-interference in the life of another sentient being, especially through methods of harm reduction and the avoidance of inflicting suffering (known in sanskrit as ahimsa).

Where the Buddhist value of compassion is concerned, intersubjectivity necessarily originates with an empathetic stance toward the material conditions of the Other’s existence, and an understanding of the Other’s place in the cosmos more broadly, especially in relation to oneself.

Such a conception of intersubjectivity is taught by the Buddhists of today, as Virtbauer quotes the Vietnamese monk and vegan Thich Nhat Hanh:

When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Sources for this post

  • Addiss, Stephen, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Virtbauer, Gerald Dōkō. “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis.” Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 11, no. 1, 2010, pp. 85–102.

Posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity

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