In my last talk, On Chanting, I expressed some discomfort with the traditional last line in the Verse of the Kesa, “Saving all sentient beings.”
That discomfort no doubt arises, to a great extent, because I grew up in a religious tradition and a country that both have missionary projects. That tradition and country offer much that is good; and both also have done harm and been insufficiently attuned to and respectful of different perspectives.
This said, I hasten to add that the intention behind the phrase carries an intention that I wholeheartedly affirm. I’m quibbling with words like “saving,” “sentient” and “beings” in the traditional translation, when expressed in this cultural context. “Working for the wellbeing of the whole”—the alternative I proposed—should, in fairness, be considered just another way to express that intention.
“Saving” in this context means awakening. It doesn’t mean people are damned without our efforts to save them. For humans, it means Buddhism invites us to, and supports us in, an inner turning, or transformation, that can and should be impetus for efforts toward outer (social and ecological) transformations in this day and age.
“Sentient” literally means breathing, though the idea in traditional Buddhist philosophy is more along the lines of conscious, or having subjective experience. Contemporary scientists who study consciousness debate its boundaries. At one end of the spectrum, some materialists see it as an attribute of humans only, arising only when material conditions are right, while others would grant that animals are sentient. At the other end, there are those who increasingly believe it is a property of the universe. Between these ends of the spectrum, we find people like Kristof Koch, who definitely considers all animals to have sentience, and who grants that it’s possible some measure of consciousness is an attribute of other life forms, and possibly even other forms of matter.
How big is the set to be labeled “beings”? I prefer to morph the question, using that ambiguous verb-noun “being” instead. This is being. All of it.
Saving all sentient beings. Working for the wellbeing of the whole.