McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India

There was a Tibetan monk sitting outside my guest house this afternoon. He was sleeping when I looked out of my window but he was awake when I got outside and sat down. He talked in a very quiet voice about emptiness and compassion and how you should spend time studying and meditation rather than of partying. Impermanence – we waste too much time. If you’re forty you may only have another twenty years. I could barely hear what he was saying. An Israeli with a loud voice was talking to an Irish woman about Buddhism. When I got the chance I asked him one of the questions that has been bothering me about Tibetan Buddhism: What do they mean by sentient beings? They say may all sentient beings be happy. Animals are sentient beings? Yes, of course. But are plants sentient beings? No. Why not? Because they don’t have a mind. How do you know? He said that plants can react to sunlight, to the four elements: wind, fire, water and earth, but they can’t think. But isn’t the border between plants and animals quite blurred? Corals and sea anemones are animals. No all animals have a head, a body and legs, particularly the ones that live in the sea. There it’s not so easy to tell the difference between plants and animals. Things that cling to rocks and may never move throughout their lives may be animals. Plants are just things that photo-synthesize. And aren’t these distinctions we make between things, dividing life into animals and plants, sentient and non-sentient beings, illusory? They’re categories we impose on the world, which is what the Buddhists mean by reality being illusory. And emptiness is about the emptiness of reality once you strip away our arbitrary discriminations. Basing your concept of rebirth on concepts that you argue are illusory undermines your concept of rebirth.

I didn’t quite say all that to him. He started talking about the elements. Fire, wind, water and earth. He asked if these elements exist within the smallest atom, or within an electron, the smallest particle in an atom. I said that an electron doesn’t have wind, and it doesn’t have fire, unless by fire you mean energy. I don’t know where he was going with that question.

The yoga teacher this morning said that all energy travels is waves, which I think is true. I can’t remember why he said that, what it had to do with whatever pose we were in at the time.

I went to the Tushita institute this afternoon for the final video discussion in the series. Today it was on Tantra, which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with sex. Tantra is the quickest method for Tibetan Buddhists to become enlightened. The slow way, via the sutras, the Lam Rim (the step by step path to enlightenment) takes 3000 long aeons, whereas enlightenment through Tantra can be achieved within 16 lifetimes. I was struggling to stay awake, it was pretty boring. A Lama dubbed by an American woman was going on and on about things which I can’t remember, but then there was a westerner who said he’d gone on a retreat thinking he was quite happy and things were going well but when he came out of the retreat he realized his happiness was an illusion and that really he was suffering.

If you feel happy then you are happy. Happiness is no more than the feeling of happiness. You can’t feel you’re happy when actually you’re sad. Similarly, if you’re suffering you’ll know you’re suffering. But if you’re happy in your ignorance someone could convince you that you really have no reason to be happy because you’re going to die and be reborn as something not very nice. Not as a plant, but maybe as a worm. The monk was talking about dead people going around looking for women’s’ wombs that they could insert themselves in. Would that be at the moment of conception? So they go round looking for people or animals having sex (and not using contraceptives). So even when they’re dead men spend their time trying to get inside a woman. And so do women.

Do worms reproduce sexually or do they just split in two? Worms are hermaphrodites, aren’t they? That must be a problem for rebirth. And if a worm has a mind what happens to that mind when the worm splits in two? If you were reincarnated as a worm and the worm split in two would you then be in two minds?

A lot of what the Buddhists say very closely matches what relativity and quantum physics are now saying: time and space are inter-penetrating, everything is connected, the nature of reality is determined by how we look at it, there are no fundamentals, everything is one. But there are other things they talk about which just sound like poorly thought out primitive ideas. The trouble with getting your information about the world from supposedly enlightened beings is you can’t be sure which ones are genuinely enlightened, or even if there is such a thing as enlightenment or whether enlightenment itself is just another illusory concept.

I walked out of the Tushita thing but forget to leave a donation. You’re meant to donate 20 Rupees (about 30p) in the jar sitting on the TV after each lecture, but once I got out of there and realized I’d forgotten it was too late to go back because they were showing another video, one on how to meditate (introduced by Richard Gere) which I’d seen before, so if I went in there I’d disturb them, so instead I went to the chai shop and got a masala tea and a cocoanut doughnut and smoked a cigarette. Back at my guest house, whilst speaking to the monk, I was going through my bag looking for my cigarettes and lighter but couldn’t find them. I realized I must have left them in the chai shop. I wondered if that had something to do with karma. I’d bought the cigarettes for 20 Rupees. I think it just had to do with me being tired, but maybe there are connections. Everything is connected. When the Irish woman asked for someone to help her carry her luggage up the hill to the road I said I would, though I didn’t realize how much she had. Three cardboard boxes and a large suitcase. The monk and the Israeli guy also helped. Though I don’t really believe in karma I was thinking that maybe doing this would restore the karma I lost from not giving the Tushita Institute its donation, but then if I’m doing something good in order to earn myself karma that’s a selfish motive. To earn karma they say your motivation must be one of compassion.

The monk doing the video lectures at Tushita kept saying that giving to beggars, giving in a truly compassionate way, looking them in the eye and relating to them when you give, not giving with a grudge, was a good way of earning karmic merit. If you’re a religious person who believes in karma or heaven then whenever (ifever) you do something good you can always be accused (by skeptical atheists) of acting selfishly, just trying to earn yourself karmic merit or a place in heaven. The only genuinely good selfless acts come from atheists who don’t believe they’ll be getting any reward (or any punishment for not doing good).