It was still very early when I entered the house of Li Tzu, the Taoist master, in the small Chinese village where he lived at the foot of the Himalayas. Because of the many students who came from all over the world to study the Tao Te Ching, the entrance gate was never closed. I always had the habit of waking up very early. As I knew that Li Tzu was also fond of starting the day before sunrise, I had no doubt I would find him awake. Once entering the kitchen, I found the table set with a teapot and two cups. The vapour was scaping from the spout of the teapot. However, there was no one there. I sat down at the table and filled one of the cups with the tea. The aroma of the herbal mixture spread through the air, perfuming the room. Midnight, the black cat that also lived in the house, curled up on my leg. I stroked his head and he jumped up to nestle in my lap. Silence and stillness. As I sipped my tea, I was filled with the enormous sense of well-being that moment gave me. I was trying to understand the reason for so much despite of so little.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the Taoist master. I immediately apologized for invading his house and serving myself tea without due authorization. Li Tzu, not surprised to see me, offered me a sincere smile and corrected: “There was no invasion. There were two cups on the table and one of them was really for you. In places like this it is almost impossible not to know everything that happens. I heard that you were on the bus that dropped the students off at the inn last night. I was expecting you here very early this morning. He then sat down on the other side of the table. I commented on the wonderful feeling I had just experienced. The calm, a cup of tea, the affection of the kitty and it seemed that all the happiness of the universe dwelled in me. I added that I would like to feel like this all the time. The Taoist master shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s up to you. However, what you felt may have been the well-being provided by a moment of tranquillity; not necessarily happiness.” I took a sip of tea and pondered that those words did not seem so simple. I confessed that I had often doubted whether happiness really existed. Life seemed to be made of happy moments; just moments, so and only moments. For me, happiness was an absolute abstraction and, as such, an impossible goal to reach.
I argued that happiness was a utopia, a fantasy of poets and religious people as an anaesthetic or an escape from a hard reality of constant suffering. Li Tzu warned me: “To find something it is indispensable that we know what we are looking for, otherwise we may never find it. Because we do not know, often the treasure is before our eyes, but we do not see it. Then it escapes”.
I said that I didn’t know anyone who had had an existence without suffering. The Taoist master reminded me of concepts that I seemed to have forgotten: “Remember that conflicts are inevitable. However, suffering is a choice. Conflicts can be murky fountains of pain or clear fountains of learning. Each one of us decides from which fountain we will drink every time a difficulty presents itself to us”.
I argued that the theory was much easier than the practice. Although I had gone into great depth about the plenitudes in my esoteric studies, I admitted that I found them impossible to experience. Li Tzu corrected me: “Difficult, yes, but not impossible”.
“Seeing the door does not mean being able to cross it. The distance between seeing and overcoming usually takes long periods; it is the time it takes between knowing and being. Between seeing and overcoming there is an intermediate stage, the formation of consciousness. The formation of consciousness, in turn, is divided into two stages: knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge refers to how much of the theory has been learned. However, this is still not enough; it is necessary that knowledge becomes an inherent part of the being, present in our choices. For example, everyone knows that lying is a fraud against oneself; but how many have managed to overcome this difficulty?”
“When we succeed, we have our consciousness expanded by that knowledge added to our being and living. Wisdom is knowledge applied to life, that is, the exercise of knowledge. All knowledge not used in relationships is like bread that moulds in a shop window without fulfilling its primary function of nourishing. Consciousness, in harmony with everything else in the universe, is in infinite expansion as the individual gets to know himself and finds beauty around him. Thus, as consciousness expands, everything is transformed.”
“As you said earlier, several were the happy moments enjoyed in your life. However, they had a limited period of time, always shorter than desired. Then, your existence returned to the routine of sufferings.” He then joked: “Let’s try to understand the wild tiger little by little. Who knows… perhaps he is, in truth, once decoded, nothing more than a misunderstood Midnight,” he pointed to the kitten that purred meekly in my lap. “The first premise is perhaps the most important in order to not keep us away from the good fight. If you have felt happiness, even for a single second, the reason is evident: happiness exists. Do not forget that reality resides in the abstract, the concrete is only the wall that hides the truth. While all that is solid crumbles in the march of time, virtues, and consequently the plenitudes, are consistent and accompany us to eternity. They are added to the spirit as elements of strength and power”.
He paused purposefully and continued, “You can stop me from carrying a backpack, never the love I possess.” He took a sip of coffee and added, “They can take away all my money, yet my dignity is only taken from me if I allow it. Vandals can set fire to my house, however, as for my peace, only I have the power to throw it into the fire. They can throw my body to the bottom of a cell, however, they will not be able to chain my soul when it is truly free. In a state of deep consciousness, in absolute plenitude, they may even abbreviate my existence, but they will not succeed in taking an atom of life from me.”
“Do you understand the immeasurable power of the plenitudes?”.
“Freedom, peace, happiness, love and dignity are the five basic plenitudes which, when united into one, lead to enlightenment. It is the state of grace known in Western traditions or nirvana as termed in Eastern traditions. To reach the light we have to cross the Path. An inner journey that is travelled by sedimenting new virtues to the being, expanding consciousness and perfecting choices.”
“It is the greatest of battles; it is the so-called good fight. You must know that it is not easy; they will try to make you give up. Humility, simplicity, compassion, generosity, delicacy, sincerity, honesty, meekness, firmness, justice, pacification, faith, among others, besides love, are the virtues that lead us to the plenitudes. Love is a virtue that not only makes itself present in all the other virtues, but also completes itself as one of the basic plenitudes. Thus, love shows its importance by being both the road and the destination”.
“The Tao teaches us that the All is hidden in the Nothing.”
I interrupted to say that his words made sense to me. I had learned that the sacred was hidden behind and through mundane situations. However, there was a lot of hermeticism. I added that that was the problem with religious and philosophical theses: they don’t seem very clear. Li Tzu arched his lips in a slight smile, as if he expected that comment, and asked me the elementary question: “Where is happiness?” Without hesitation, I answered that it is within each person.
He agreed and continued: “Then, why do we suffer when someone disagrees with our point of view or opposes our will? Why do we insist on finding happiness in the events of the world? Why do we persist in believing that we depend on having a car, a pay rise, a romance with a certain person, the applause or approval of others to be happy?” I said that the situations he mentioned made existence more comfortable and life less conflictive. Li Tzu elaborated further, “Comfort is in realizing the unnecessities of existence; conflict only exists when we impose our desire over the will of others.”
“There is no correlation between facilities, whether material or existential, with happiness. This is the primordial premise.”
“Cinema and literature teach us a lot about this”. I asked which book or film he was referring to. Li Tzu frowned and surprised me again: “All of them”. I immediately said that I had not understood. The Taoist master explained: “Pay attention to any story. What moves any story is the conflict. The deeper the conflict, the better the movie or book. The stronger the villain the more the hero has to excel in his skills. Without conflict we will have a story that is boring because it goes nowhere; a protagonist that is boring because he doesn’t go beyond himself.” He paused briefly to warn me: “In the best stories the villain hides at the core of the hero. He paused to conclude: “Each one is the villain of himself. This villain is the only one who can rob my happiness”.
“Problems will always exist. However, if you face the conflict like an enemy your chances of losing the battle are enormous. However, if you revere the problem as one who is facing a master, for the immeasurable possibilities of learning and overcoming offered, you will only know victory.”
“Happiness is the plenitude of vision; it has the distance of a simple glance”.
“It is enough not to wear the dark glasses of the shadows; it is enough not to turn away or close your eyes; it is enough to look through the bias of the light. Then nothing and no one can prevent your happiness.
I said that, listening to him, it seemed that happiness was a simple achievement. Li Tzu laughed and warned me: “Simple, yes, but not easy”. He then explained, “Since time immemorial we have conditioned ourselves to connect the desire for possession and domination, whether of things or people, with happiness; to depend on the permission and applause of the world to sediment an achievement that, in essence, is only internal. Thus, we give up the power we have over our own lives because of the dependencies we create. Happiness is a construction of the being in the alignment of three elements, indispensable to the spiritual balance: “virtues, consciousness and choices”.
I remembered that there were people in very complicated situations of illness and misery. Li Tzu agreed: “No doubt basic conditions of subsistence and health are indispensable to the body. However, no matter outside the intrinsic elaboration of the being bears any relation to happiness.” He paused, took a sip of tea and continued, “Otherwise happiness would be inaccessible to sick or poor people; an absurd idea. Sickness and misery are not desired situations, but they bring with them the appropriate battles for the warriors who face them. The hardest struggles usually bring the most profound lessons. Where many see doom, some find true grace.”
“No one chooses the events subject to existence itself, but one can choose how to deal with them. The gall and honey of life are as separate as the distance of different perspectives.”
“I know individuals who began the journey to happiness when they lost their physical health, money or even suffered an unexpected emotional breakdown such as a divorce or the departure of a loved one to another sphere of life. This has allowed them to modify their perspective. I am not saying, of course, that we need to be ill, poor or feeling abandoned to find happiness. That would be to repeat an incoherent and absurd concept in which one only learns through pain. A crass error. Pain only teaches when involved in love so that it can be transformed into wisdom; otherwise, it will perpetuate itself in cycles of suffering. It would be the same to believe that happiness is in the conquest of material goods, physical beauty or, very common, in the affection of the still immature ego, addicted to the applause and approval of the social group in which it is inserted.
“Any subordination becomes an existential prison. Happiness is exclusive to the being in the construction of himself”.
“Just do not forget that without the mortar of virtues no construction can be sustained for long, because it is founded on the hollow pillars of selfishness”.
I wanted to know if it was necessary to attain perfection to maintain happiness in a permanent state. The Taoist master denied such a mistake: “It would be too cruel, considering the impossibility or distance of this undertaking. It would be the denial of love by the mistreatment of oneself. Forget the idea that you will be happy tomorrow. Happiness would become a fiction and an evil waiting in an unreachable place. In truth, happiness becomes available when we understand that it is a reality here and now.”
He emptied his teacup and concluded his reasoning with simplicity: “The wise individual looks at himself every day with humility, compassion, sincerity, delicacy, firmness and love to see if he acted better than before, if he knew how to take advantage, at least a little, of the infinite learning and overcoming opportunities offered by life. If he had succeeded, he will be happy for it. If he did not succeed, he will make a true commitment to himself to try to do things differently from that very moment on. Then he will also feel happy for that”.
“Happiness is the enchantment of the individual with his small daily transformations and with the tireless opportunities for evolution offered by life. Then he realizes the beauty that is in himself, in everything and in everyone.”
We heard a movement. It was the students arriving and sitting down in the meditation room. Soon the activities in the Taoist master’s house would begin. He excused himself because he needed to work. I asked him to teach me about the other basic plenitudes. He smiled and said politely: “Come back early tomorrow for another cup of tea”.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.