Sentient Beings Explained

A Buddhist concept

Katinka Hesselink 2007

Sentient beings
A Buddhist concept for every conscious being imaginable . In other words: people, gods,animals, elves etc.

A Mahayana Buddhist will often meditate on the Bodhisattva vow:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Taking this vow implies that no rest (paranirvana) will be taken until all conscious beings - whether animal, plant, human or god - has attained enlightenment as well. More on the Bodhisattva vow and the path of the bodhisattva.

Types of sentient beings in Buddhist cosmology:

  1. Gods (Devas)
  2. Humans
  3. Animals (including birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, insects etc.)
  4. Titans or demons (Asuras)
  5. Hungry ghosts (Pretas)
  6. Denizens of the hell-realms

Many of these can be interpreted symbolically. For instance the Asuras are often interpreted to mean negative states of mind.

Every sentient being is part of the cycle of rebirth.Buddhists are warned that negative actions will result in rebirth as a lower sentient being: an animal, demon, hungry ghost or in a hell realm. The Pali texts on which this warning is based however can also be interpreted symbolically. The warning to be reborn as a 'brute' for instance, could mean being reborn as an actual pig. It could also mean being reborn as a human whose life is brutish, pig like.