Plants in Early Buddhism (Schmithausen 2009)

Do plants live? And, do philosophers know about that?

If you have followed the debate about the sentience of plants through Lambert Schmitausen’s two short monographies (1991a and 1991b) and in E.B. Findly’s book (2008), you will be pleased to know that Schmithausen also authored a longer monography on the topic, where he discusses, among others, Findly’s arguments. He sympathises with her basic claim (plants are alive and plant lives matter) but disagrees with her insofas as she is sure to find this claim substantiated in several early Buddhist philosophical texts. Schmithausen’s philological acumen shows that in the Buddhist Canon we can find evidences of popular belief in the sentience of plants, not of the monks’ belief in it. The expression ekindriya jīva “living beings with one sense-faculty”, which would show that plants are alive and (though in a limited way) sentient is in fact invariably attributed to lay people, not to Buddhist monks:

Hence, the references to plants as living beings with one sense-faculty, intepreted in their context, rather suggests that the authors of these Vinaya passages did not share this view. This is explicitly stated in the Mahāsāṅghika version: “Although [in reality] they (i.e., trees) have no life, one should not cause people to become upset.” (pp. 38–39).


In other words (and now it is me speaking and no longer L. Schmithausen), Buddhist thought was part of a rationalising tendency which regarded beliefs in the sentience of plants as some sort of folk belief. The marginal evidence available for the inclusion of plants within living and sentient beings, such as when herbs and trees figure at the beginning of a long enumeration of living beings, should be considered as the residual inclusion of a pre- or non-philosophical worldview.

This does not say anything, however, about the beliefs shared by the majority of Buddhist practitioners, who might have been much more inclined towards acccepting the sentience of plants than their rationalising “theologians”.

You can read my review of Findly, referring to Schmithausen, here. Another article of mind on plants and “nature” in Indian philosophy can be read here.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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