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Are plants sentient beings?

Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Tue Aug 04, 2015 2:35 pm

99% of the planets organic matter consists of plants. Here is a Guardian review of a fascinating new book by plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso and journalist Alessandro Viola. Mancuso maintains that plants have intelligence and ought to have rights. The review is worth reading as it shows the many ways in which plants show intelligence and how they react to their environment. Mancuso considers that we have so little interest in plant intelligence because it is so different from ours.

Do Buddhists, past and present, consider plants to be sentient beings? Are plants included in the Bodhisattva vows?
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby desert_woodworker on Tue Aug 04, 2015 4:06 pm

Humbaba,

Good to see your post.

Coming to mind immediately is the Japanese art -- inspired by Zen Buddhist ways, and temple altar emplacements -- of Ikebana, flower-arranging (where other plant parts are also woven into the art). This art shows very high regard for plants, indeed, and workers cut and employ only the expendable (renewable) parts of plants, the flowers, stems, and leaves.

Also coming to mind is bonsai, the cultivation of miniaturized trees. This also shows exceptionally fine regard and appreciation of plants, and of all of Nature.

The first Buddhist Precept is "No Killing", yet we must eat to live, and that involves using plants. Even rice is a seed, and the potential of a new plant's life is in every grain (before hulling and boiling).

In this life of ours, and the life of the World, there seems to be just one being (if that many). Is there really killing? Is there really death? Yes. And no.

I don't claim that there's any answer to your question. There is only appreciation.

But when we awaken, plants definitely awaken with us. Or, we notice for the first time that they've always been preaching the Dharma, while we'd just been sleeping and dreaming.

--Joe
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby littletsu on Tue Aug 04, 2015 5:20 pm

The Diamond Sutra lists 4 types of sentiens beings:

The Buddha said to Subhuti: “The bodhisattvas and mahasattvas should thus subdue their thoughts: All the different types of sentient beings, whether they are born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation; whether or not they have form; whether they have thoughts or no thoughts, or have neither thought nor non-thought, I will liberate them by leading them to nirvana without residue. When immeasurable, countless, infinite numbers of sentient beings have been liberated, in reality, no sentient beings have been liberated. Why is this so? Subhuti, if bodhisattvas abide in the notions of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a life span, they are not bodhisattvas.”

According to Master Nan plants and rocks are complimentary products of karma. Born of eggs and wombs are quite obvious, those born of moisture are fish, mosquitoes, fruit flies, etc., those born of transformation include cicadas, beetles, frogs, butterflies, etc.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Tue Aug 04, 2015 5:45 pm

Thanks for your reply, desert_woodworker

desert_woodworker wrote:Coming to mind immediately is the Japanese art -- inspired by Zen Buddhist ways, and temple altar emplacements -- of Ikebana, flower-arranging (where other plant parts are also woven into the art). This art shows very high regard for plants, indeed, and workers cut and employ only the expendable (renewable) parts of plants, the flowers, stems, and leaves.

Also coming to mind is bonsai, the cultivation of miniaturized trees. This also shows exceptionally fine regard and appreciation of plants, and of all of Nature.

I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is the appreciation of Nature in Zen and Japanese art, on the other hand, this seems to be a "small" or "man-made" Nature (e.g. bonzais, temple gardens, etc.). In my experience, most Japanese buy into the idea of the close relationship between Nature and Japanese culture while at the same time being horrified of the big and untamed Nature out there. For example, in most Western cultures (especially in temperate of cold climates) to take a walk in the forest or to go on a mountain hike is a popular past time. Most of my Japanese friends would only consider such an outing if it is combined with a visit to some scenic spot such as a temple or shrine and omiyage shops.

The first Buddhist Precept is "No Killing", yet we must eat to live, and that involves using plants. Even rice is a seed, and the potential of a new plant's life is in every grain (before hulling and boiling).

Life on this planet literally grows on the fertile substrate of innumerable plant and animal carcasses. For something to live something else has to die. That to me is in the natural order of things. What is not natural is an industrial society that turns this living substrate into dead or toxic waste.

Thus, I can see a difference between killing that gives future life and killing that poisons future life.

In this life of ours, and the life of the World, there seems to be just one being (if that many). Is there really killing? Is there really death? Yes. And no.

The ant colony does not die if individual ants are killed, just like the tree does not die when its branches are trimmed. But humans now have acquired the technical means to severely impact on the ecosystem as a whole. I think our sense of responsibility for the environment has not increased proportional to our technical means for impacting on the environment.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Tue Aug 04, 2015 5:58 pm

littletsu wrote:The Diamond Sutra lists 4 types of sentiens beings:

The Buddha said to Subhuti: “The bodhisattvas and mahasattvas should thus subdue their thoughts: All the different types of sentient beings, whether they are born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation; (...)

According to Master Nan plants and rocks are complimentary products of karma. Born of eggs and wombs are quite obvious, those born of moisture are fish, mosquitoes, fruit flies, etc., those born of transformation include cicadas, beetles, frogs, butterflies, etc.


This would exclude plants from the realm of sentient beings.

I'm not a scientist, but I wonder if the distinction between the plant and animal realm can be maintained in view of modern science. Fungi, especially slime molds, seem to be something in between animal and plant.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Avisitor on Tue Aug 04, 2015 8:41 pm

Separating oneself from ones environment is the first mistake
One did not arise in a vacuum but on this planet with an environment .. as part of the environment
So, if one thinks of plants as separate from oneself then questions like this one arises
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby another_being on Tue Aug 04, 2015 9:10 pm

Simple, short answer to the question in the subject line -- yes. :)
Mountains and rivers, too.

"But when we awaken, plants definitely awaken with us. Or, we notice for the first time that they've always been preaching the Dharma, while we'd just been sleeping and dreaming." -- Joe

Yes to this, too.

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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Seeker242 on Tue Aug 04, 2015 11:13 pm

Chan Master Sheng-Yen talks about this in one of his dharma talks. He calls them "insentient beings".

Kill a cat, with a dried shit stick, under a cypress tree in the courtyard, while eating three pounds of flax! Only a cow goes Moooo!
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby desert_woodworker on Thu Aug 06, 2015 12:29 am

Are planets sentient beings?

--Joe

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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby A Philosopher on Thu Aug 06, 2015 4:57 am

Stefano Mancuso has been doing this stuff for a long time and is very respected in his area of research.

I did not read this book (or review). But based on what I know about him, there are two questions that need to be distinguishes. The first is the question about plants INTELLIGENCE understood as a broadly understood ability to solve problems. It looks like there are many examples showing they can do it.

A separate question is about their SENTIENCE understood as ability to feel pain, pleasure, and other sensations and emotions. This is much more open question and it's not clear they have it.

Generally, intelligence is not the same thing as sentience. An ant colony is in intelligent in the above defined sense. This does not mean it (as a collective/ colony) is sentient.

The Intelligent Plant
Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.

BY MICHAEL POLLAN

An excellent New Yorker essay on the recent research of animal intelligence (and, a bit, "consciousness" / "sentience", too). Highly recommended: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/ ... gent-plant
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Linda Anderson on Thu Aug 06, 2015 7:03 am

rest assured, without question, plants have both intelligence and sentience. Why would we presume otherwise.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Linda Anderson on Thu Aug 06, 2015 7:06 am

Joe, I don't know... but I'd say planets could be in a diff gene pool... so how can we say? tho, I would lean towards calling them sentient.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Linda Anderson on Thu Aug 06, 2015 7:19 am

Seeker242 wrote:Chan Master Sheng-Yen talks about this in one of his dharma talks. He calls them "insentient beings".



With all due respect, I do not prescribe to this point of view... we must see this for ourselves, at best.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Thu Aug 06, 2015 10:14 am

A Philosopher wrote:The first is the question about plants INTELLIGENCE understood as a broadly understood ability to solve problems. It looks like there are many examples showing they can do it.

A separate question is about their SENTIENCE understood as ability to feel pain, pleasure, and other sensations and emotions. This is much more open question and it's not clear they have it.

I think what is clear is that plants interact with their environment: the tips of the feeder roots sense water and nutrients and move accordingly. Plants sense insect attacks, communicate the information to other plants and produce repellent chemicals in response to the attack.

Thus, they receive inputs from their environment and act in response thereto.

That corresponds to the function of the vijnana system of consciousness (prefix vij: to discriminate + root jna: to perceive) in humans. Plants also have the vijnana function of evolving (pravritti). Thus, plants have consciousness.

Do they feel pain like I do? That is anybody's guess. Even my wife doesn't feel pain like I do; she can hold a hot cup I couldn't.

I quote a passage from the Guardian review:
Humans have five basic senses. But scientists have discovered that plants have at least 20 different senses used to monitor complex conditions in their environment. According to Mancuso, they have senses that roughly correspond to our five, but also have additional ones that can do such things as measure humidity, detect gravity and sense electromagnetic fields.


Thus, instead of our five senses, or the six senses of the vijnana system, plants may have additional senses that have degenerated in humans, just like animals can sense things we can't

The real question that poses itself to me is: do plants believe in the illusion of an objective world or are they just as they are (tathagata)? I guess the romantic in me like to believe the latter ;-)

Here is another quote from the Mancuso:

“In the last several decades science has been showing that plants are endowed with feeling, weave complex social relations and can communicate with themselves and with animals,” write Mancuso and Viola, who also argue that plants show behaviours similar to sleeping and playing.


Humans have evolved together with plants in a complex ecosystem. We cannot exist without plants.

A Philosopher wrote:An excellent New Yorker essay on the recent research of animal intelligence (and, a bit, "consciousness" / "sentience", too). Highly recommended: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/ ... gent-plant


Thanks!

PS: I think the major difficulty we have in recognizing plants as beings is that we can't locate a seat of their mind like the brain or the heart in humans. In fact, Mancuso draws an analogy with the Internet saying that plant intelligence is like a network connecting innumerable sensors and computing systems in the whole plant, especially in the feeder roots and leaves:

So, instead of a single powerful brain, Mancuso argues that plants have a million tiny computing structures that work together in a complex network, which he compares to the Internet. The strength of this evolutionary choice is that it allows a plant to survive even after losing 90% or more of its biomass.


But the vijnana consciousness too is not located in a single organ; it is made up of the 8 vijnanas including the five senses.

But do plants have an alaya-vijnana (store house of seeds), manas vijnana (the will) or mano-vijnana (organ of thought)?

I think they are part of the alaya; after all they grow from seeds. Their "computing centers" for organizing responses to external inputs could correspond to the mano-vijnana. But what about the manas, the center of the will that clings to its thought-products?
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Seeker242 on Thu Aug 06, 2015 11:58 am

The traditional Buddhist stance on the issue is that they aren't sentient. Of course, not everyone holds that traditional view. The original monks rule prohibiting monks from cutting down trees was not for the sake of the tree but for the sake of the devas or spirits that dwell within the tree.

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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby A Philosopher on Thu Aug 06, 2015 12:55 pm

Linda Anderson wrote:rest assured, without question, plants have both intelligence and sentience. Why would we presume otherwise.


Without a question? And yet people spent years and books deliberation the issue.

I do not think we need to presume something one way or another. What we need to do is to study the world with an open mind and heart and form beliefs consistent with the best available evidence.

I strongly recommend Pollian's essay; a very good popularization of science.

:Namaste:
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby A Philosopher on Thu Aug 06, 2015 1:24 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful note and many insights. I have only a few very general comments.

Humbaba wrote:
A Philosopher wrote:The first is the question about plants INTELLIGENCE understood as a broadly understood ability to solve problems. It looks like there are many examples showing they can do it.

A separate question is about their SENTIENCE understood as ability to feel pain, pleasure, and other sensations and emotions. This is much more open question and it's not clear they have it.


I think what is clear is that plants interact with their environment: the tips of the feeder roots sense water and nutrients and move accordingly. Plants sense insect attacks, communicate the information to other plants and produce repellent chemicals in response to the attack.

Thus, they receive inputs from their environment and act in response thereto.

That corresponds to the function of the vijnana system of consciousness (prefix vij: to discriminate + root jna: to perceive) in humans. Plants also have the vijnana function of evolving (pravritti). Thus, plants have consciousness.

Do they feel pain like I do? That is anybody's guess. Even my wife doesn't feel pain like I do; she can hold a hot cup I couldn't.


There is no doubt they interact with environment. But so do, e.g., a Geiger–Müller counter, a computer, and an ant colony. So, I think, there is lots of doubts about the step from "x functions in a certain way" to "X is conscious".

Re the example of the hot cup and you and your wife reacting differently to it. I'd argue that there is an overwhelming evidence she and you feel pain similarly. What your example seems to show is that the same stimulus may cause pain to one person but not to another (as opposed to, they both feel pain but they feel it differently).

Re plants having any beliefs, false or true (which you mention later in your note), that's even more speculative. I would be highly doubtful about it.

The analogy I like to use when I think and talk about these issue is a person in the state of very deep anesthesia. When I was in that state (when I had a surgery), I felt and believed nothing. My consciousness was turned off. Yet I have no doubt that my body sensed environment and reacted to it.

")
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby A Philosopher on Thu Aug 06, 2015 1:39 pm

Seeker242 wrote:The traditional Buddhist stance on the issue is that they aren't sentient. Of course, not everyone holds that traditional view. The original monks rule prohibiting monks from cutting down trees was not for the sake of the tree but for the sake of the devas or spirits that dwell within the tree.

:Namaste:


I would be very respectful of the tradition. But, to me, the tradition does not settle the factual issues.

More generally, the sutras and other religious books are essentially about the spiritual matters. Sometimes they also make claims about factual matters regarding cosmology, astronomy, geography, biology, or physiology. Sometimes those claims are more reflective of the cultural tradition where these books growth rather than the truth.

The Dalai Lama and co has a series of books where he and fellow monk deliberate various factual (scientific) and philosophical issues with the the scientists and philosophers. The books are very illuminating. One I remember of the top of my head (and maybe my favorite) is called "The Gentle Bridges".

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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Fri Aug 07, 2015 12:43 am

A Philosopher wrote:There is no doubt they interact with environment. But so do, e.g., a Geiger–Müller counter, a computer, and an ant colony. So, I think, there is lots of doubts about the step from "x functions in a certain way" to "X is conscious".

Michael Pollan's text suggests that it may be more problematic to attribute "intelligence" to a computer than to other life-forms such as plants, even if the adjective "artificial" is added. And even Slayman, who is critical of the concept of plant intelligence, ends up admitting that “Yes, I would argue that intelligent behavior is a property of life.”

I don’t understand why you are against attributing intelligence to an ant colony. I have a hunch that the idea of “collective intelligence” fits in nicely with the development of Mahayana Buddhism. For example, the Bodhisattva vows, so central to Mahayana, suggests that there is no individual, but only collective salvation. Thus, I have no problem with the idea of collective intelligence, be that in the ant colony, the ecosystem or the universe.

According to what Michael Pollan writes in the text you linked, there is evidence to suggest that plants

- do feel pain
- do have consciousness
- are intelligent
- do have memory
- do have will or intention

The bone of contention is primarily linguistic and whether these terms can be applied in the same way to animals/humans and plants.

Another idea expressed by Pollan I find even more intriguing; which is that even with animals/humans, the seat of the will, consciousness, intelligence or memory is not ultimately understood by science and that enlarging these terms to encompass plants may actually give us new insight in how these functions work in humans.

Re the example of the hot cup and you and your wife reacting differently to it. I'd argue that there is an overwhelming evidence she and you feel pain similarly.

I assume she feels similar pain as I do because we are similar in that we are both humans, while plants are too different for us to make such an association. But that doesn't prove that plants don't feel pain.

Re plants having any beliefs, false or true (which you mention later in your note), that's even more speculative. I would be highly doubtful about it.

That was a question. I was wondering whether plants could even be considered higher beings (or enlightened) according to Buddhism if they don't have the illusion of a self.

The analogy I like to use when I think and talk about these issue is a person in the state of very deep anesthesia. When I was in that state (when I had a surgery), I felt and believed nothing. My consciousness was turned off. Yet I have no doubt that my body sensed environment and reacted to it.

Did you really "feel and believe nothing" or is it just that you can't remember it? With partial anesthesia or in dreams there is vivid mental activity often exceeding anything we experience in our waking moments.
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Re: Are plants sentient beings?

Postby Humbaba on Fri Aug 07, 2015 1:08 am

Avisitor wrote:Separating oneself from ones environment is the first mistake

Plants are probably more integrated with the environment than we are.

another_being wrote:"But when we awaken, plants definitely awaken with us. Or, we notice for the first time that they've always been preaching the Dharma, while we'd just been sleeping and dreaming." -- Joe

Sounds good.

Seeker242 wrote:Chan Master Sheng-Yen talks about this in one of his dharma talks. He calls them "insentient beings". ... The traditional Buddhist stance on the issue is that they aren't sentient.

In view of today's reality, I fear that Buddhism may be fighting a loosing battle if it tries to uphold the difference between the animal and plant realms (or "hierarchy of life") for the sake of karma and the precept of not killing. Modern farming involves the wholesale destruction of innumerable small animals and extermination of species even for producing vegetables and grains, which is far more devastating than the traditional slaughter of farm animals for human consumption.

desert_woodworker wrote:Are planets sentient beings?

We don't yet have the means for "killing" planets. As to "killing" rocks or other inorganic matter, I really don't know. Even if we crash a rock to make gravel, does it matter to the rock? Would it rather be one large rock than gravel?
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