How to properly distinguish sentient beings?

  1. How to properly distinguish sentient beings? (specially tiny ones)
    We know the aggregates which have mentality/Nama are sentient beings, in theory.
    But what is the “practical criteria” to distinguish living beings?

  2. And we know the Blessed One asked Venerable Anuruddha to not to see micro-organisms by divine eye while drinking water since it leads to arise Vinaya doubts.
    So can we (as a theory) disregard living beings whom can not be seen by physical eye?
    Is there such a minimum size or qualification?

May I know the source of that Arahant Anuruddha Thera’s story?

This is a very interesting topic…

A while back someone wrote that they thought bacteria and Virus were alive so it was breaking a precept to ‘kill’ them.

In ancient times people also
believed that there were microscopic beings. In the Milindapanha
King Milanda asks Venerable Nagesena, if it is true that when we
boil water the reason for it splashing up is that the microscopic
beings in it are writhing in pain. Ven. Nagasensa said this is not

At this time we think we are more knowledgeable, and have science to
tell us what is rupa, what is not. But it is not so easy.

The Visuddhimagga talks about the egg and sperm (in pali of course)
and how after they join consciousness has a base for arising. It is
clear from the passage in the Vis. that sperm and egg are considered
only as rupa, no mentality- they are not alive.

Yet if you have seen pictures of sperm they look like little tadpole
and move about exactly like small tadpole- they appear to be living.
Bacteria and virus are smaller than sperm and much smaller than the
egg. They do not move as much as sperm… So I don’t see where there
can be any basis to think they are alive.

Take a tiny drop of bacteria culture, within that there would be
hundreds of thousands of bacteria, or more. Is each one alive, is
each bacteria making kamma? , or is it the whole drop is one living
being, or …It seems unlikely thus I am sure they are only rupa.
But of course there are no direct references to bacteria and virus
in the Pali.

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It is kinda perplexing to differentiate what’s living and what’s not living…

And for me, I am using sanitizer everyday for my hands and to think bacteria are living organisms…that would mean I am killing them everyday…


Sentient beings has the will to live (bhava-tanha) thus they

  • actively seek food and safe environment
  • actively avoid dangerous environment

The problem with drinking water is the same with this problem: do one always check for tiny insect before taking step?

Unless one actually have a cetana “I want to kill all single cell creatures in this water”, then what happens to those creatures (if there even exist) is simply their past kamma coming into fruition.

The problem is not about “Killing precept”.
We can escape from it if we don’t have a killing intention.

But there are other “Pacittiya rules” to avoid neglecting beings while drinking or using water. It should be a kind of akusala for lay people also I think, even though not a rule.

(Venerable Mahakassapa ordained because of he thought he had to commit huge demerit while ploughing as a layman.)

Here, the problem is about the criteria for “allowed neglecting”. ( about the minimum size etc. of the being.)Many people infer the size as “minimum visible size”, by reading different information in the Vinaya.

I think Curd and yoghurt are considered bacteria (and mushrooms are also considered fungus/bacteria). Because they are explicitly allowed, we can guess that bacteria are not alive or at least are allowed.

The science couldn’t clearly draw the boundary between inanimate and animate organisms.
For an example I have heard that scientists had some criteria earlier like breathing, moving, reacting etc. to distinguish sentient beings. But later they have found the plants also do the same.
And the other thing is, there can be many other micro sentient beings other than what science has been revealed.
If we take medicine or use a chemical substance to intentionally kill some unknown kind of microorganisms, then there will be doubt at least. But if it is unintentional we can escape from killing akusala.

For an example some people have doubts in using germ-killers because the substance is made to directly kill and we don’t know the germs are alive or not. Using worm-killer pills is more serious.

But Ayurvedic (or such kind of) medicine is considered made for “intoxicating and removing” the worms. Then it is safe.

What are your opinions and precautions on protecting from akusala in these cases?

On the contrary I think, taxonomy has clearly defined criteria for plants (including bacteria), animals (including sincle cell organism like amoeba), and virus (which is not a living thing but only genetic materials). The first kingdoms in taxomony was basically only animals and plants.

The problem is that for some single celled “animals” like amoeba, their structure and behavior are too simple to consider as a being with consciousness.

Theinngu Sayadaw was very sensitive about these beings. He called them ‘Peta’, which is almost always translated as hungry ghosts. In earlier time of his enlightenment, he was complaining about sweeping the ground and floor because that action could kill these very tiny beings. Later he stopped doing that. Perhaps, he mistook the microbes as peta. He never explained why he called them peta.

Kamma is volition (intentional action). Any action with no intent to cause a certain event (breaking the precepts for example) but it happens anyway, then the action cannot be volition anyway.

Four Paramattha are Citta, Cetasika, Rupa, Nibbana. A being is the aggregate of Citta and Cetasika combined with Rupa. Citta and Cetasika are Nama that should be considered as a plural word imo. Rupa can exist without nama. Nama do not exist alone, except in the forms of arupa-brahma. In terms of a being, nama and rupa co-arise as interdependent.

A being is a unit of co-arising namarupa aggregates.

An Arupa-brahma is not formless as it is a being. It’s not free of sankhara (formation) imo. Arupa cannot mean formless in Buddhist context.

The story is Whether water is alive, not the microbes. Water makes such a sound, people considered it being alive. Venerable Nagasena explained Water is not alive.

Here we must consider the intention to kill or to help the patient.

What about deworm pills?

If we have a dog infested with parasitic worms, and we had to use deform drugs to save the dog…

If we leave it alone, surely the dog will die…
If we save the dog, it means we have to kill those parasitic worms…

Oh the dilemma, I will still save the doggy. But that would mean I perform the act of killing…

Hard dilemma!

This kind of medicine only paralyze the worms. Being paralyzed they do not cling to the surface of the intestines. Not clinging they can be flushed by the natural movement of the intestines.

The BMC 1 says…

Still, the Commentary states that if one notices even bed bug eggs while cleaning a bed, one should be careful not to damage them. Thus, “out of compassion, one’s duties are to be done carefully.” Or, in the words of the Sub-commentary: “One’s duties in looking after one’s dwelling are to be done with mindfulness well-established so that such creatures do not die.”

Been there, done that. Pa-Auk Mawlamyine has many bed bugs. We used to have to clean the meditation cushions and we would have a jar to collect the eggs. Eventually the kappiyas fixed the problem, but I heard it came back.

Ajahn Thanissaro explains that if it is too small to be seen with the naked eye then it is okay. However, I might question that with a newly fertilized human egg which would be pārājika if intentionally killed.

A big problem arises with water that has been left out over night. There might be mosquito larvae in it. Many of our kuties have old engine oil moats around the supports . This can help reduce ants from getting inside.

Algae often grows on the tiles and bricks. This is not a job for monks and (usually) only kappiyas and sāmaṇera do this.

Intention plays a big role. That is mentioned in the story of cakkhupāla and why the first verse of the Dhp was brought about.

I heard the same from a sermon of a Sinhalese lay Dhamma preacher. But he doesn’t say intentional killing is okay, rather says ignoring is ok.

He shows the incident of venerable Anuruddha as the proof for it and also he uses this incident to prove the Vinaya as something only in the area of the Buddhas.

This ignoring boundary seems practical (not for intentional killing), but it is better if there is a way to be confident in such a decision using textual evidences

I guess this is typing mistake and bhante had intended to write ‘Pacittiya’.

Not a typo but no enough information to express my intention. I have since edited and qualified it with “human” to say:

“fertilized human egg”

I just had a look, because I remembered that a human egg can be seen. I fact checked it just now here:

Egg cell fact #1: The egg is one of the biggest cells in the body.

Egg are larger than any other cell in the human body, at about 100 microns (or millionths of a meter) in diameter, about the same as a strand of hair. That means you could, in theory, see an egg cell with the naked eye. The fact is that egg cells are about 4 times the size of skin cells—and about 20 times the size of sperm!

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Better define killing according to Buddhism so they would not define killing in other beliefs to bring them into Buddhist context.
The monks are prohibited from picking plant leaf from a living tree, breaking plant branch, and pulling out grass. The Buddha acknowledges plants have jiva/life force. Laypeople are not prohibited, because plants do not have consciousness although they are alive. Plants are not sentient.
As sentient life begins at foetal stage, ending the development of a foetus is killing a sentient being.

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Yes, killing as in killing of a sentient being in as would be defined in the by the first precept. Not the scientific definition of living (in which sperm counts as living) or any other definition, although in that rule i think the Buddha simply says that people in that day regarded plants as having life force, not that they were actually living. Kinda similar to how other cultural things became vinaya rules, like not eating certain types of meat.

Plants are alive, living and breathing, some are even killing for food. Jiva is the keyword. In this context, jiva is life (vital principle). Lifeform/living thing is a special construct different from random state of nonliving things. We as lifeform can eat living things (plants and animal), but we cannot eat nonliving things like soil, stone, etc. To certain extent, plants are not conscious.

Some plants are conscious just like some fungus are conscious. These plants are like fungus rather than like animal. I understand this is debatable.

Jiva meaning in Theravada: Jiva, Jīva, Jīvā: 43 definitions
life, vital principle, individual soul. ‘Soul (life) and body are identical’ and ‘Soul and body are different’, these two frequently quoted wrong views fall under the 2 kinds of personality-belief (sakkāya-ditthi; s. ditthi), i.e. the first one under the annihilation-belief (uccheda-ditthi) and the second under the eternity-belief (sassata-ditthi).

“Verily, if one holds the view that the soul (life) is identical with the body, in that case a holy life is not possible; or if one holds the view that the soul (life) is something quite different, also in that case a holy life is impossible. Both these extremes the Perfect One has avoided and shown the Middle Doctrine, which says: ‘On ignorance depend the karma-formations, on the karma-formations depends consciousness’, etc.” (S. XII. 35).

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