Karmic Information Theory

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Sara Ramirez and the group of sundry tourists and yoga enthusiasts arrived at the mountaintop Buddhist monastery after dark. They were exhausted, as they had parked their vehicles at the base of the mountain and hiked for eight hours under the sweltering sun. Most of them went to sleep unceremoniously, forgoing dinner and crawling up the stone steps to collapse on their cots. They slept in a converted temple, open to the air. There was a gold-leafed recess where the shrine had been. Mosquito netting hung from the rafters, gently filling in the breeze.

The head monk roused them at dawn. His name was Lu Tuanjie and he was a slender old man, bald like the rest of the monks. He wore a pair of coke-bottle thick spectacles, the lenses scratched and yellowed from decades of use. Lu Tuanjie was flanked by two young monks who carried trays with tea and rice. The hikers rose cheerfully, exclaiming at the jagged mountain range they now found themselves in, revealed in daylight to be splendorous with jungle and snowcaps.

Sara groaned, feeling the aches in her body before she even moved. She stayed wrapped in her sleeping bag until a pair of dusty, slippered feet appeared before her. They led up to a beaming Lu Tuanjie. “Ms. Sara, what will you do today? I know all of the other guests’ activities, but I am not sure what would be best for you…”

“Just rest,” Sara grumbled, wondering what had compelled her to come on this trip. A few days ago, Sara had been in Singapore for a quantum physics conference, giving a talk about the conservation of information. She had found a flyer beside a wastebasket in the conference hall, advertising a week of meditation, yoga and hiking at a Buddhist monastery, with the little quip at the bottom “Enlightenment NOT included.” Sara was not a yoga enthusiast, nor did she enjoy meditation or even hiking, but she also couldn’t bear to return to the lab and to her research fellow position, or to her apartment, which had sat half-empty for the last two months since her ex-boyfriend had moved out. The idea of a yoga retreat was somewhat laughable to Sara, but it was entirely opposite from her daily life, spent immersed in eigenvalues and differential equations, and the novelty had compelled her to go.


After the morning yoga session, in which Sara was sure she had sweated and gasped with greater intensity than little Lu Tuanjie had ever seen, the rest of the group went off on various planned activities. The German couple was sent on a hike, the two American college girls traveling Asia were sent to a hot springs—the local tour guide volunteered to accompany them—and the yoga enthusiasts were sent to a spiritually awakening vantage point. That left the 85-year-old widow, Gertrude Eidelmann, and Sara. The widow opted to stay at the monastery, enjoying the mountain-view and reading.

Sara pulled up a chair beside the widow, and gazed out at the dense jungle and craggy mountains. The cacophonous screeching of apes and birds carried on the breeze. In that moment it was hard for Sara to imagine how her world of hyper-cooled gasses and laser-imprisoned leptons could exist alongside, even explain and define, this natural world.

Sara heard a whistled tune, and turned to see the old monk Lu Tuanjie approaching, carrying a small tray with three cups of tea. He served the widow and Sara and sipped from his own cup, gazing up at the sky with a smile. “Ms. Sara, you seem troubled,” he said. He spoke English with a British accent. Sara assured him she was happy, although maybe not as serene as himself.

He laughed good-naturedly. “What do you do for a living, Ms. Sara?”

Sara hesitated. She didn’t feel like talking. She hadn’t felt like talking for the last two months; she had retreated from the world, burying her sorrow in constant work. But this monk radiated goodness, and Sarah’s isolation was beginning to get maddeningly lonely. “I’m an academic…” She mumbled.

Lu Tuanjie took a sip of his tea and smiled slyly, “You are not doing yourself justice. You are a quantum physicist.”

Sara met his eyes in surprise, and protested, “Well, not exactly—”

Lu Tuanjie continued, “Before the guests arrive, I ask one of the young monks to bike into town and look up your names on the Internet.” Sara cocked an eyebrow. The monk looked embarrassed, “It is good to suggest activities that I know the guests will enjoy…” Sarah shrugged and glanced at the widow, but she seemed oblivious to their conversation.

Lu Tuanjie squatted beside Sara, “Did you know Buddhism and quantum physics have long been allies? One looks inward, one looks outward, but both reach the same conclusion. The famous Niels Bohr saw this connection when he studied our religion.”

Sarah hmmed noncommittally. Lu Tuanjie continued, “You don’t believe me? Do you know how one reaches enlightenment? One uses intellect to unravel the divisions and boundaries that one erects to understand the world. Eventually, the divisions fade and one can see, without intellect, the fundamental unity of the universe.”

Sara was impressed, “Did you study physics when you lived in England?”

“No, no. Well, very little. But it is beautiful that both you and I spend our lives exploring the one-ness of everything, don’t you think? You through equations and laboratories, and I through meditation and prayer.” The old monk stood up and gathered his robe. “And sometimes your studies provide confirmation of our religious knowledge. I read the blurb for your talk. About how information must be conserved in the universe… We call that conserved information karma.” Lu Tuanjie grinned down at Sara with tea-stained teeth and paced away from her with slow, even steps. Sara sipped at her now cold tea, and laughed at the strangely insightful monk.

About the Author: 
S.C. Anderson is a novelist and screenwriter based in NYC.