Sentient beings is a term used to designate the totality of living, conscious beings that constitute the object and audience of the Buddhist teaching. Translating various Sanskrit terms (jantu, bahu jana, jagat, sattva), sentient beings conventionally refers to the mass of living things subject to illusion, suffering, and rebirth (saṃsĀra). Less frequently, sentient beings as a class broadly encompasses all beings possessing consciousness, including buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The Pāli nikāyas and the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma differentiate the mass of deluded beings subject to saṃsāra into a hierarchy of five paths or destinations of rebirth based upon karma (action): divinities (deva), humans (manuṣya), animals (tiryak), spirits of the dead (preta), and denizens of hell (naraka). An alternative list of six categories, which was attributed to the Vātsīputrīyas and gained popularity in East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, places a class of demonic beings (asura) between humans and gods.
All of these beings reside in the three realms of existence (tridhātu) that comprise the entirety of the Buddhist universe. The realm of desire (kāmadhātu) is residence for beings from all the categories, while the realm of form (ārūpadhātu) and the realm of formlessness (aruypadhatu) are reserved for gods of higher achievement. Among these paths of rebirth, the denizens of hell, spirits of the dead, and animals are regarded as unhappy destinies, while rebirth as humans and gods (as well as asura in the list of six) are considered desirable, most importantly because it is only through the human and deva destinies that enlightenment can be obtained.
Although the Buddhist message from its inception held as its goal the liberation of sentient beings from the cycle of rebirth, the concern for sentient beings took on even greater urgency with the emergence of the MahĀyĀna tradition, since all called to this tradition's bodhisattva vocation were entrusted with the welfare and ultimate liberation of all sentient beings. The compassion, transfer of merit, and cultivation of upĀya (skill in means) that are central in the cultivation of the bodhisattva path are all concerned with the salvation of sentient beings. The Mahāyāna tradition furthermore came to maintain that all sentient beings possessed the buddha-nature, which meant that all inherently had the potential to become enlightened. In later developments in East Asian Buddhism the possession of this nature was extended to insentient existents as well.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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Sadakata, Akira, et al. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, tr. Gaynor Sekimori. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997.
Daniel A. Getz