Reconsidering the Status of Plants
in Early Buddhism
1. Plants as a Borderline Case between Sentient and Insentient
1. As is well known, in the course of doctrinal consolidation, Indian Buddhist thinkers, or at any rate non-Tantric Indian Buddhist thinkers, in contrast to the J ains and a strong current of Hindu thought,l came
to regard plants (and seeds) as insentient beings, not participating in the process of reiterated individual rebirth (sarhsiira).2 This does not necessarily exclude that plants are somehow recognized as living things in the context of everyday conceptions.3 But on the doctrinal level they came to be strictly distinguished from living beings ptoper, i.e., from sentient beings, beings "capable of sensation and of at least rudimentary consciousness",4 especially in the form of experiencing, somehow, pleasure and/or pain. And it is, as far as I can see, sentience, or sentient life, that is ethically relevant in the early Indian context.5 It is sentient living beings that are, in Buddhism as well as in Jainism, the object of the basic commitment not to kill or injure animate beings (palJa, pralJint7 This is evident from the Indian formulations of the Golden Rule according to which one should not kill or hurt other beings because they are afraid of death and dislike pain just as oneself.s It even seems to me that in early Indian thought life and sentience almost9 coincide. In early canonical Buddhism, the presence of sensitivity (vififiiilJa)10 in the body guarantees both life and sentience. In doctrinally consolidated Buddhism, there is even atendency to disregard the peculiar features of vegetal life and put plants on a par with the mineral world. At any rate, when arguments against the sentience orin favour of the insentience of plants are produced, Buddhist philosophers, like Bhavya (Bhaviveka), tend to play down the features plants have in common with man and animals and to emphasize the distinguishing features, which bring them closer to the inanimate world.
2. In a small monograph, published hearly 20 years ago (SCHMITHAUSEN 1991a), I tried to find out whether this denial of the sentience of plants in the consolidated doctrinal position of later Buddhist authors
could be traced back to the early period. In other words, did Buddhism from the outset discard the view, apparently quite common at that time,12 that plants, too, are sentient beings, or did this happen
only later, in the course of time? As far as I know, the canonical texts of early Buddhism do not contain any specific discussion of the matter or any explicit doctrinal statement in either direction: there is neither any express assertion in the form "plants are sentient beings" nor a straightforward denial stating that they are not. The latter fact is, by the way, also expressly recognized by the Sarvastivada master Sanghabhadra when he asks the rhetorical question: "Where in the Scriptures is it clearly and unambiguously taught that trees, etc., do not have [sentient] life?" 13
3. Still, a few passages, mainly in comparatively old verse texts, de Jacto include plants among animate beings (piilJ-a) , thus almost certainly presupposing their sentience. The most indubitable one is found in the Viisettha-sutta of the Suttanipiita/4 which in the context of classifying the species of animate beings starts with "grasses and trees" (tilJ-arukkha). To be sure, the main purport of this text is not to offer a classification of animate beings but to demonstrate the unnaturalness of caste distinction by contrasting it with the verifiable distinctiveness of biological species or classes. 15 But even so it includes plants, as a matter of course, among animate beings. Other passages speak of mobile (tasa) and stationary (thiivara) beings, occasionally expressly animate beings, which one should not kill or injure but rather include in one's cultivation of benevolence.16 The "mobile and stationary animate beings" (Skt. trasa and sthiivara) are well known from early Jaina and also Hindu sources/7 and there the stationary animate 'beings are, in the first place, the plants, or plants and seeds. It is hard to believe that in the early times the authors or reciters of the verses, -simply using this expression without any indication of a departure from the current meaning, understood it in a different sense. IS
4. Whereas the passages adduced thus far obviously presuppose, or take for granted, that plants, too, are living and hence, in the context of the ascetic movement and its preoccupations, somehow sentient beings, there are other materials that require a more careful assessment. One of these is the Katadanta-sutta of the Dfghanikiiya,19 where a kind of ideal sacrifice, arranged by a king of the past, is described. In this sacrifice the only offerings were things like butter, curds and molasses; no cattle were killed (hafifiirhsu), no animals (piil}a) slain (iighiitarh iipajjirhsu), no trees felled (chijjirhsu) for the sake of using them as sacrificial posts, and no darbha grass was cut (layirhsu) to strew over the sacrificial ground. According to a couple of other sermons/ a sacrifices performed by kings or brahmins were, normally, characterized by exactly these actions of slaughtering animals, felling trees and cutting grasses. It is clear from the differentiating, terminology that the texts somehow distinguish between killing animals and destroying plants. But even so they seem to regard destroying plants at any rate in the context of a religious ceremony - as unwholesome karma, a judgement that from an early Indian viewpoint hardly makes sense unless plants were presupposed to be, somehow, sentient beings. It cannot, perhaps, be excluded that the text merely argues from the point of view of the Vedic ritualists for whom plants, too, were indeed living, sentient beings.21 But there is no proof for such a kind of argumentation either. Significantly, the reference to trees and grasses is missing in the extant versions of other schools.22 It is hard to imagine a reason why the Theravada redactors should have inserted the reference to trees and grasses. It would seem to make more sense to assume that the reference was capcelled in the other versions because its implication, the sentience of plants, was felt incompatible with the consolidated Buddhist doctrinal position.
5. Another important issue concerns the rules of behaviour for monks (and nuns, by way of implication). In a number of sermons, the basic principles of correct behaviour start with "abstention from killing any animate being (P( r )a"(uitipCita ). The basic rules are often followed by a succinct set of mainly ascetic observances, the first of which is, in the Theravada tradition, "abstention from violent treatment (samarambha) of seeds and plants (bljagama-bhutagama)", a formulation that is also found at the beginning of another, much more elaborate set of guidelines for the proper behaviour of Buddhist ascetics? As in the Kutadanta-sutta, in these passages, too, the separate registering of "killing animate beings" and "violent treatment of seeds and plants" seems to indicate awareness of a certain difference between humans and animals on the one hand and seeds and plants on the other. But the verbal noun used in connection with seeds and plants, viz., samarambha ("violent treatment"), though certainly less specific than atipCita ("killing"), is occasionally also used for slaughtering cattle (Sn 311), and in early Jaina sources (sam)a-rabh- is closely associated with committing acts of violence26 against any kind of living, sentient beings, including plants and seeds. Hence, though registered separately and thus clearly distinguished from humans and animals, plants and seeds may not yet have been regarded as being entirely excluded from the realm of sentient beings. Actually, in Jaina sources, too, the term "animate beings" (palJa) is not infrequently reserved for humans and animals (i.e., used in the narrower sense of "breathing beings"), in spite of the fact that seeds and plants are asserted to be living and even sentient as well.
6. In connection with killing or injuring, a similar distinction between humans and animals on the one hand and plants (and seeds) on the other is also found in the code of monastic discipline, the Patimokkhasutta, which seems to be a more developed collection of rules than the succinct set of ascetic observances in the sermons discussed in the preceding paragraph.28 In the Patimokkhasutta of the Theravada school as well as in the preserved Pratimok!jasutras of other schools, monks (and nuns) are prohibited from killing animals as well as from destroying plants (and seeds)29, but only animals are termed "animate beings" (palJa: Pacittiya 61) - humans are treated separately because killing a human being is a more serious offence according to the criteria of the Vinaya (Parajika 3). Moreover, in contradistinction to the killing of an animal which is called "depriving it of its life" (jfvitavoropeti) - which is the same term the text had also used for killing a human -, in the case of plants the Theravada version (Pacittiya 11) uses the archaic term patavyata, probably meaning something like "uncontrolled, ruthless behaviour".30 Other versions show the same contrast but have replaced the obscure term piitavyatii by piitana "felling", "destroying".31 One may be tempted to deduce from this termiri.ological difference that in this text plants are no longer considered to have life (jfvita), or are at any rate regarded to be a doubtfu1 case. One might argue that from a moral point of view the rule that at least monks (and nuns) should not behave ruthlessly towards plants just as they should not behave ruthlessly towards animate beings (i.e., animals)32 would make much better sense if plants, too, were somehow living, sentient beings. However, the Vinaya is not so much concerned with morality (much less than the rules for monks referred to in the preceding paragraph) as with preserving harmony within the Order and, above all, its reputation in society.33 Hence, the rule may as well merely take into account views or expectations prevalent among the people of the time or possible criticism from rival groups.
7. Since so far no consensus has been reached with regard to a detailed stratification of the (earlier) canonical texts, the evidence presented above may admit of different hypothetical explanations. If one is of the opinion that the verse texts referred to in § 3 represent the oldest stratum of the Buddhist textual heritage, one might conclude that in earliest Buddhism acceptance of the sentience of plants was still a matter of course. If these texts are instead regarded as a more popular, doctrinally less rigid strand, one might interpret them as borrowings from pre- or non-Buddhi~t ascetic poetry, borrowings which need not exactly represent the Buddhist view on plants, which might, in this case, have been more reserved from the outset. In any case, the above-mentioned evidence, together with the lack of fully explicit doctrinal statements in either direction, seems to exclude the existence of a clear-cut, binding dogmatic position with regard to the sentience of plants in earliest Buddhism. My own suggestion34 was that plants (and seeds) were probably regarded as a kind of borderline case, on the boundary between sentient and insentient beings, and that a theoretical, doctrinal decision with regard to their status was not found necessary, or was even deliberately avoided. As a borderline case, plants (and seeds) could be dealt with pragmatically. In the context of developing a mental attitude of all-encompassing peacefulness or benevolence towards all animate beings, e.g., it made good sense to include even borderline beings, or at least no need was felt to cancel a reference to them if it was part of an inherited formulation. In connection with rules or guidelines for physical behaviour, however, it was useful to make distinctions in order to underline the difference. Thus, the separate mention of refraining from injuring plants (or seeds and plants) in the case ofa monk's correct behaviour is intended to make clear that monks (and nuns) are expected to avoid violence even against borderline beings, whereas in the case of lay followers the lack of such an additional rule35 makes tacit allowance for - the fact that such a requirement would render their life impracticable.
2. Alternative Proposals
8. Since the publication of my study, several scholars have taken up the issue of the sentience of plants in earliest Buddhism, pointing out further pertinent source material but partly also proposing diverging interpretations of the evidence. Of particular interest I find, apart from most valuable supplements contributed by Nalini BALBIR (2000), two articles by Mamiko OKADA (1998 and 1999),37 a paper by Ellison Banks FlNDL Y (2002) as well as her recently published book on Plant Lives (FINDL Y 2008), in which the ideas of her paper have been fully developed and integrated into a broader perspective, and, finally, an article by A.kira FUJIMOTO (2003).38
9. OKADA admits that in the Northern tradition and in Mahayana sources plants are on the whole not regarded as living, sentient beings, but she thinks that in earlier and Theravada Buddhism they were considered to be living beings with at least one sense-faculty (ekindriya), viz., the sense of touch.40 She substantiates her view by means of an exhaustive and most valuable examination of the Jiitakil literature. As she points out, she could not find any Jiitakas where the Bodhisatta is reborn as a plant,41 but in the PaIi Jiitaka collection there are quite a few stories describing him as having assumed rebirth as a plant deity (mostly, but not exclusively, as a tree deity).42 Although the relationship of the deity to the tree is usually that of an inhabitant to his abode, so that the deity is able to move to another tree in case of emergency, OKADA presents three cases where the cutting of the tree is regarded as entailing the death of the deity.43 In these cases, the relationship between the deity and the tree is obviously much closer, looking more like that between a tree-spirit or tree-soul and its - body.44 It seems that OKADA considers this relationship to be the genuine one and that she takes it as additional support for her assumption that in earlier and Theravada Buddhism plants were considered sentient.45 In this way, the potential for becoming a Buddhaattributed to tree or plant deities by virtue of their identification with
the Bodhisatta46 would,practically, accrue to the trees or plants themselves. It is all the more remarkable in this connection that OKADA herself observes that in the narrative literature of the Northern tradition stories in which a tree deity, not to consider a tree, is equated with the Bodhisattva seem to be entirely missing.47
10.1 FINDLY, too, though accepting my suggestion that in earliest Buddhism plants were treated as a kind of borderline beings, assumes a standpoint different from that presented in my analysis in taking, like OKADA, early Buddhists to have shared the view that plants are living beings with one sense-faculty (ekindriya jlva) , viz., the sense of touch (252a; 254a!124; 165; 253; 369),48 and that they are thus sen~tient (252b /370). She tries to support this idea by adducing further evidence from the canonical texts for the assumption that plants were indeed regarded, by the early Buddhists, to be sentient beings (satta) endowed with the sense of touch (256a-257a /127 f; 130-i33; 136-142; 183).
10.2. However, FINDLY does not stop here. She rather suggests that the sense of touch somehow implies or includes the other sense faculties. Touch is "the one sense faculty that pervades all the others" and underlies them as the "base sense serving as the foundation of the other four" (2008: 144) or as the "foundation of all reception of sense data" (2008: 147), to the extent that "at base there is only one sense organ, that of the skin" (257b /142-165). By these assumptions, she tries to make sure that the sense of touch in plants is sufficient to establish contact (phassa) between sense organ(s) and objects, involving consciousness (vififia]Ja: 260a/l47; 151; 153 f; 227 f) and entailingfeeling (vedana) or experience of pleasure and/or pain (260a jl55-160) in the sense of the twelve-linked formula of origination independence (paticcasamuppada) (258a /161). Consequently, plants should, in spite of what textual evidence suggests (2008: 209), by implication (2008: 227) also be considered as subject to ignorance, desire, and attachment (258a /161), and hence to participate in the process of kamma-directed rebirth in the samsaric cycle (258a /207 ff, esp.223 f and 227-229), including having the capacity to develop (2008:•161), even spiritually (2008: 162; 165). In this connection, FINDLY suggests that since 'kaya' is used for both the faculty of touch and the body as one of "the three channels by which kamma is made" and since "such dual usages are not ordinarily coincidental", it would seem that plants being endowed with kaya would also be kammaproducing (258a-b /223). Though FrNDL Y herself seems to have some doubt about this conclusion, conceding that "early Buddhists do not admit to kammic endowment in plants" (259a), she nonetheless suggests that they could not but recognize somekamma-like features in plants, viz., "that they grow luxuriantly with constant change and variety, and that they have ongoing lineages like human families"• in the form of the seed-plant-seed-plant sequence (259b /230 f).
10.3: As an alternative, FlNDLY then proposes to integrate plants into the samsaric scheme as a form of rebirth where karma is,omy consumed but not accumulated (259b /231; 233 f; 252).49This, she continues, need not mean that they are lowly beings reborn in a state of "darkness" (tamas) - inertia, stagnation, helpless suffering – duy to previous bad karma, as in J ainism and some Hindu sources (261 a/158 f; 195-198; 230; 234 f). She rather suggests placing them at the top: "The critical location in early Buddhism where a sentient being does not accumulate kamma ... , but does consume it, is the postnibblina and pre-parinibblina stage, when the adept is unable to beget new kamma, but is still living out the residue of old" (259b-260a/234 f; 254). What she thus describes is, in other words, the state of an arhat. F'INDL Y thus proposes to understand plants in early Buddhism as liberated, A wakened beings, spontaneously bountiful and compassionate (2008: 253 f; 360 f). ill order to render her hypothesis plausible, she refers to "some East Asian Buddhists who not amy believe plants to be sentient beings, but who ... describe plants as of a sattvic nature, and as beings who have already reached enlightenment (261 b /248; 253; 262-264 n. 202). ill support of her suggestion that a similar view "may be present already for early forms of Buddhism" (263a /248 f), she points to three aspects of the treatment of plants in early Buddhist texts. First, "the centrality of renunciants dwelling at the root of trees" (262a/237; 242-244), second "the use of trees in metaphors for spiritual growth" or models of ascetic behavior (262a-b 1237; 245-247; 250), and third the fact that plants are referred to as thiivara, which means "stationary" in the first place but is interpreted in the sense of spiritual ahd emotional stability in the commentaries (262b /248 f). In this connection, FINDL Y also points to the analogy between plants as stationary beings and the immobility and inactivity of the advanced Jain ascetic (263a /249). Thus, for FINDL Y, plants may, to be sure, be called a "borderline case", but not necessarily in the sense of rudimentary beings of doubtful sentience; rather, they are at the upper end of the scale, "so advanced that they no longer move about and need only dissipate a few kammic remains before final enlightenment50" (263b 1254).
11. FUJIMOTO, in an interesting attempt to clarify the position of plants in early and Theravada Buddhism, seems to take for granted that already in early canonical Buddhism plants are de facto regarded as insentient and not participating in karma-conditioned sarhsara (87,12-16).51 At the same time, he stresses the fact that monks are prohibited from injuring them just as they are from injuring animals, both being piJ.cittiya offences (93,4-5; 102,4-6). He admits 52 that there is no explicit statement in the Sutta- and Vinayapitaka according to which this is based on the fact that seeds and growing plants, too, are regarded as living beings (90,3-4; 93,9-14). But he tries to prove that, according to the Theravada Abhidhamma, plants, although insentient, i.e., lacking sense-faculties and mind, are nevertheless living beings because of being endowed with material life-faculty (ntpa-jlvitindriya:96,16 ff; 101,14-16), just like the so-called unconscious heavenly beings (asanna-satta: 96,22 ff, esp. 97,3-5). It is, according to FUJIMOTO, on this view (which he thus takes to have been a tacit assumption in the earlier period as well) that the prohibition to injure seeds and plants (102,4-8) as well as their inclusion into the cultivation of benevolence towards all living beings in the Metta-sutta of the Sutta-nipiita (102,11 ff) is based. According to him, what is ethically,relevant is thus not sentience but life, and life is not more or less coincident with sentience, not even in earliest Buddhism. And instead of having a precarious borderline status between sentient and insentient,plants have an unambiguous nature: they are insentient but living organisms (101,10-17).
12. Though very much appreciative of the above-mentioned publications as stimulating and sympathetic contributions, I still cannot help having some doubts with regard to the conclusions and to the arguments adduced in support. Since progress and clarification in research takes place through critical discussion, allow me to reconsider the matter.