Sentient Being or Being Sentience?

Nothing exists outside of the way we think of it; yet at the same time, nothing exists the way we think of it. The way we experience “things,” through the six consciousnesses and five aggregates, means that we are sentient beings. We have sensations, we think, we have views and prejudices. On the other hand, because on a deeper level reality also lays outside of our usual experience, the things we experience exist well beyond what we think of as our personal experience. The way we experience existence is the way we think about it, the way we perceive it; and the way our mind interprets it also determines how we cling to it or run from it, and the way we are conscious of it. Our experience of reality is what we experience in our mind, the way we think of it. This is a function of what the Buddha called conditional reality.

There is another reality that is far vaster than anything we can now know — transcendent reality. Intellectually we can all understand this reality. Almost every Buddhist student has been introduced to the idea, but few realize that they experience it almost constantly. This second type of reality is far beyond what we think. It exists outside of the way we conceive of it. What we conceive of is only a conception, an idea, it is not the thing itself. Let me explain…

When I am speaking to someone I know exactly what I am seeing; I do not know what they are seeing. When I utter words I know what I am saying; I do not know what they are hearing. When I thought them I know what I am sensing; I do not know what they are sensing. If I smell a fragrance I know what I sense; I do not know what the other senses. If I taste an orange I know what an orange tastes like to me; I do not know what they are tasting. When I read words I know what I am reading; I do not know what the other is reading.

When we have an experience, the experience is unique to us. My experiences are not the same as anyone else’s. Your experiences are unique to you because it happens in the mind. If we are both experiencing a red flower, I usually assume that you are experiencing what I am. I have to make that assumption if we are going to have a conversation. I have to assume that the word “red” has the same meaning to you as it does to me. What if one of us is color blind and “red” to me is “brown” to you? Can I make the same assumption? We base our assumptions of the experiences of others based upon our own experiences and kamma. 

Our perceptions are kammicly influenced. How we have experienced in the past will determine how we experience in the present. Even more interesting is that I cannot perceive patterns I have not already “know.” I can conceive of a unicorn because I have seen a horse and a horn. I know what those things are. So I can recognize the image of a unicorn; but if I have never seen a parrot, that is a different story. 

I cannot conceive of a parrot just by hearing the word “parrot.” I need some more information If someone describes it to me the only real information I have is that a parrot is a rather large, birdlike colorful thing that makes sounds uncharacteristic of the birds I know. It is not until I have seen a parrot that I can recognize a pattern called “parrot.” But without really seeing a parrot any discussion you and I might have about parrots would be irrelevant to me. Still, having had a parrot described to me I now have preconceptions of “parrot” formulated in my mind. How we experience now influences how we will experience in some future. All fabricated things are impermanent, kamma changes over time as well.

So, I have a conception of “parrot” in my mind. If you have experienced parrots, when we talk about parrots your conception of a parrot will be different than mine, so different, in fact, that we will speaking about two different things. Even if I finally do see a parrot in a pet shop, I might be amazed at how different the living parrot looks from my conception. At the same time, because I had the preconception of a fictional parrot already formed in my mind, the pattern remains. My mind now is occupied by two parrots, both are fabricated and both are “real” experiences. No matter 

My conception of a parrot is not a parrot, it is only a conception. Even if I saw a picture of a parrot, that picture is not a parrot, it is only a picture of a parrot. When I see, touch, and smell a parrot that is also not the parrot but only my experience of a parrot. Then I think about the parrot. Where did I experience the parrot? The truth is, I could live with the parrot on my shoulder for a thousand years and I will never get to know the parrot. I will only know what I think of the parrot.

Of course, this is basic Buddhist psychology. Our experiences are the result of our sensual “discovery” of objects. It makes perfect sense. In the Sabba Sutta (The All) the Buddha tells us exactly what our reality consists of.

“Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”

Samyutta Nikaya 35.23

If we take this Sutta to its logical extent then “sentience” takes on an added nuance. The nuance subtlety is that even though I am a sentient being and the parrot is a sentient being, the experience “me” experiencing the “parrot” is simply “being sentience.” It is the experience that is sentience itself. 

Buddhism approaches the problems of humanity from a psychological standpoint. It assumes that the mental activities we experience are decisive in our sense of well-being. The opening statement of the Dhammapada asserts this beautiful in only two verses. 

Phenomena are   preceded by the heart,

     ruled by the heart,

     made of the heart.

If you speak or act

with a corrupted heart,

then suffering follows you —

as the wheel of the cart,

     the track of the ox

     that pulls it.

Phenomena are  preceded by the heart,

     ruled by the heart,

     made of the heart.

If you speak or act

with a calm, bright heart,

then happiness follows you,

     like a shadow

     that never leaves.

The Ratamegha Sūtra restates the idea as 

All phenomena originate in the mind, and when the mind is fully known…bodhisattvas, thoroughly examining the nature of things, dwell in ever-present mindfully of the activity of mind, and so do not fall into the mind’s power, but mind comes under their control. And with mind under their control all phenomena are under their control.

In the Buddhist doctrine, mind is the starting point, the focal point. The culminating point of Buddhist practice is the liberation and the purification of mind. What matters most, both individually and collectively, is the genuine understanding and use of mind simply because all the suffering we experience arises from what we feel, think, do, and ultimately, the ignoring mind, the mind that is blind to reality. When mind is purified from the defilements then we can say it is liberated and the truth of the Sabba Sutta comes home to us in a meaningful way and not just a patented philosophical truism.

The doctrine of no-self (anātta) is difficult for almost anybody, even Buddhist so-called masters. As long as we only intellectualize this doctrine we really do not understand it. We lose track of the Five Aggregates (khandhas), the sense doors and the six consciousnesses, dependent co-arising and the rest. It becomes too much for our ignoring minds to comprehend. We begin to take it personally when someone is not reading the words we wrote but reading personalized meanings into them, cannot hear what we mean when we speak, do not appreciate the world in the same way that we do. We absolute ignore the fact stated in the Sabba Sutta — the all is what we experience — and we are the ones who determine what that experience is going to be. This brings us back to the added dimension of nuance I spoke about earlier. The idea of Buddha nature is one such added dimension of nuance but only when properly understood as impermanence. The nature of Buddha, and all other phenomenon is impermanence, simply because all phenomenon is impermanent. The mind determines what a Buddha is just as it determines what everything else is. A Buddha and a parrot share in impermanence and in mental conditionality at the same time. Like the parrot, any Buddha that we can conceive of is not a Buddha but only a conception.

In the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra (the Mahāyana version) there is made a statement, “All sentient beings posses Buddha-nature without exception.” The statement is written in Chinese and this is the generally accepted translation. The statement is patently non-Buddhist in tone and sentiment. It is an invitation to reinvent a soul theory and insert it into Buddhism. It is the idea of “possession” that is irksome to Dhamma. Even the beloved Mahāyana Heart Sūtra would have to dispute this sentiment as it is translated.

The verse can easily be read in an alternative way, however, that makes sense in terms of the Dhamma. It can read as, “All existence (all sentient beings) is Buddha-nature.” If it is read this way then its meaning is radically transformed and makes perfect sense in terms of the Sabba Sutta. If we reinterpret this verse then all existence = Buddha-nature and not that sentient beings possess something called Buddha-nature. This is a huge difference. The “me” who is a sentient being and the “parrot” that is a sentient being disappear into the experience that is “being sentience.”

In the Sabba Sutta, the Buddha clearly said that all there was to our entire experiential existence consists of nothing more than senses, the object of those senses, and sense consciousness. What we perceive with our senses is nothing more than the aggregates (khandhas/skandhas). The aggregates are impermanent fabrications. That is the realm in which we live. We find our enlightenment in this geography of quicksand like experience. We do not experience nibbana, the unconditioned, to become enlightened but by experiencing the unconditioned. Our nature is impermanent simply because it is a fabrication. Whose fabrication is it? My “self” is “my” fabrication. Your experience of “my” self is your fabrication. Because enlightenment is only possible through the experience and transcendence of these fabrications we have the possibility to become fully enlightened, in the Pali sense and Buddhas in the Mahāyana sense. 

It has been reported that the Sixth Zen Patriarch, Huineng, gave a teaching to his disciple, Gyōshō, where he said, “Impermanence is, of course, Buddha Nature, and permanence is, in fact, the mind dividing up all things into good or bad.” The impermanence of which the Sixth Patriarch spoke is beyond the conjecturing of non-Buddhists just as the Sabba Sutta says. Huineng went on to say, “persons who founded their traditions up to their most recent descendants—may speak of something being impermanent, it is unlikely that they are able to fully fathom what it is. For the one who would clarify, put into practice, and fully realize impermanence as being impermanent in itself, all will be impermanence…What is constantly saintly is impermanent and what is constantly ordinary is impermanent.” This why Zen promotes to the expression, “Nothing sacred, nothing profane.” In our experience everything is impermanent; and this is the key to understanding the universe as we may or may not know it. “What is impermanent is, of course, Buddha Nature.”

It is that our very fabrication is our Buddha Nature. This is why Dōgen Zenji could say that all existence is Buddha nature and Buddha nature is all existence. Buddha nature, then, is not a possession in common with all “sentient beings” but rather that all existence is imminent Buddha nature — impermanence itself and a function of “being sentience.” He goes on, “Though not identical they are not different; while not different they are not one, though not one, they are not many.”  This neither one nor many viewpoint is also found in the Avatamsaka Sūtra as “mutual identity and mutual penetration.” This also coincides with the Sabba Sutta. It also agrees with the Bhikkhu Sutta: The Monk (aka, On Identifying with the Aggregates — Samyutta Nikaya (22.36) where the Buddha indicates that the aggregates are both impermanent and interdependent. By this definition what is impermanent and therefore conditional is necessarily interdependent — not one and not many.

In the Na Tumhaka Sutta (Not Yours — Samyutta Nikaya 35.101) the Buddha tells us it is the All that we are to let go of in order to uncover enlightenment. We must let go of our clinging to and obsession with the experiences of the six sense consciousnesses. When we do that we are able to simply experience insight into the impermanence, stressfulness and the lack of inherent & autonomous self-existence of the objects of our experiences and the experiences themselves. If we continue to cling we will only experience existence as how we think of it. If we can let go then we can experience things outside of the way we think of it, as they truly are.

We should we let go of these “things” that are so important to us? Because of an even subtler nuance of. The Mahāparinirāna Sūtra, as originally translated, assumes that sentient beings are “feeling beings.” The way in which Dōgen puts it, and the Sabba Sutta would insist, if taken to its logical conclusion, is that sentience is not so much about beings as it is about “sentience as the being.” If we view the Sutta in this light and make use of the alternative translation mentioned earlier, it changes the meaning of the path of the Bodhisattva and aligns it more with that of the Arahant. All experience is “being sentience.” Because we experience the world in mind and nowhere else, all experiential existence, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, participates in one’s own unique sentience.

My cat, for example is not so much a sentient being but a participant in my own sentience. Rivers, mountains, thunderstorms, everything participates in being sentience itself. This is why the Buddha said, “It is in this fathom-long carcass…that, I declare, lies the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 1.62) It is in this “world” that we walk the Path to Awakening. The whole world is within us. It is in this world that all the work is done, conditioning the mind so it may experience the unconditioned.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us experiencing mutual identity and mutual penetration, leaving sentient beings and being sentience itself.


About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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