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11 chapter one Are Bacteria Sentient? At first I thought cells were just rudimentary pieces, like bricks; now I realize each cell is a universe. Without cells there would be nothing. konchok acteria of all sorts, some appearing as big as grapes, dance and spin on the pale cinderblock walls of the Dharamsala classroom. The monks and nuns stop and point and exclaim. Something has changed; the room shifts. We forget about the afternoon heat pressing down on us and stare excitedly at the bacteria projected in real time from the microscope slide onto the wall before us. Was this what it was like for the original microbe hunters​ —Leeuwenhoek , Spallanzani, Hooke, and their ilk​—when they first uncovered this astonishing world centuries ago? Imagine the thrill and the fear of discovering that so many zillions of creatures existed everywhere, all around us, all the time. It must have been almost beyond belief. These particular Dharamsala bacteria, these single-celled “beasties” as Leeuwenhoek called them, were grown by the monks and nuns in the class (some of the drawings of the bacteria Konchok made that day are in figure 1.1). They swabbed the beasties from doorknobs or finger­ nails and nurtured them on bacterial food plates whipped up from cornstarch we found in the campus kitchen. One of those microbe hunters, Robert Hooke, coined the word “cell” in 1665; when he saw those tiny walled spaces in the tissue of cork that he was the first to ever see, they reminded him of the cells monks live in. B 12 the enlightened gene In our group discussing whether bacteria are sentient beings, we had two opinions; we were split. Before the experiment, I myself was thinking, “Bacteria are not sentient.” But when we saw the images and the bacteria moving toward food on the wall, then I thought this was real. I thought they could be sentient. Before this, I thought just because they move and find food, this doesn’t mean they have to be sentient. But in the microscope, it looked like the cells had a purpose. After our experiments, we monks talked a lot. I thought: Maybe these bacteria have senses, maybe even emotions. They “feel” where food is. Maybe they are sentient. This was the first lab experiment we ever did; we saw the bacteria on the wall. Most of us got it then​ —what scientists do. In actually doing it, not just saying it, many monks changed their minds. Back in my monastery, the monks always ask, “How do you do experiments ? How do you use the equipment?” In our own philosophy, we debate on what Buddha taught, we explore the logic of texts and rationality. When you say scientists hypothesize, experiment, analyze, monks say “how?” When we did this experiment, things made sense. This became strong evidence. We had some negative ideas taught to us about science, but that experiment clarified some doubts about science. Some monks didn’t believe in science. But when we did this experiment, we saw this with our own eyes, a kind of truth. Not only that, the evidence really inspired us a lot. That experiment motivated us to learn more science and explore more. Our goal is to create a lens, literally and metaphorically, through which information is experienced in a rich context. The monks and nuns figure 1.1 Konchok’s sketches of the first bacteria he ever saw, projected from the microscope onto the classroom wall in Dharamsala. are bacteria sentient? 13 learn about cells and the cell theory​ —that cells are the fundamental unit of all life​ —and they learn this in the larger context of the themes of biology and of how scientists ask questions and approach problems. Why should Tibetan monastics care about cells? How is it related to their lives and experience? This is where the question of bacterial sentience comes in; it engages a core Buddhist concept. Buddhism teaches that sentient beings are aware creatures, such as humans and other animals. Compassion should be shown to all sentient beings, and any such being can be reincarnated as any other. So, if bacteria are indeed sentient beings: (a) any person might be reincarnated as one, (b) any bacterium might be reincarnated as a human, and (c) we should show compassion to all bacteria. At first, many of us Western scientists might dismiss out of hand as trivial, silly, or irrelevant, the question of whether bacteria are sentient. But as we’ll...


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