Words are like capsules filled with ideas. Some to a greater degree than others. I remember reading a book by the German philosopher and monk Anselm Grun on mysticism. An exquisite and profound text; at the end there is the feeling that there is always something more to add. So it is with the virtues. Much can be said about humbleness, faith and compassion, just to name a few, without ever exhausting the subject. Even more so with the plenitudes, because they are concepts of extreme subjective amplitude. I wonder how many existences will be needed for me to talk about love; virtue and plenitude at the same time. Some words have the power to bring a whole universe when we consider the enormous possibility of worlds and lives they offer. This was the mood that made me return to Li Tzu’s house early the next day for another conversation on the sophisticated, although at the same time simple, plenitudes. We had talked about happiness. The other four were still to be discussed: dignity, peace, freedom and love. United in them, the light. However, when I arrived, I had a surprise. The house was closed, something I had never witnessed before. Li Tzu had had to leave the village for an unknown reason. The information was that he would soon return. I went to a nearby warehouse that provided supplies for climbers on their way to the Himalayan summit. I knew I would find a mug of hot coffee and someone to chat with. It was enjoyable to listen to the adventures narrated by the mountaineers, as well as to admire their disposition and courage. I wondered about why a person would face the enormous dangers of a climb to reach the top of a mountain. There was in me a sincere curiosity to know if the feat had the power of spiritual transformation in those who accomplished it. As expected, when I arrived at the warehouse there was a small group waiting to be driven to the camp that served as the starting point to the climbing. Armed with a mug of coffee, I started to talk to them.
Very friendly, they did not refuse to explain their motivations. Although it is common difficulty to translate feelings into words – an art granted to poets – I could grasp that the climb was like a magical ceremony, considering the alterations in consciousness that they swore that happen. They invited me to go with them, so that I could see what they were talking about. I declined the invitation under the sincere allegation that I was there for a period of study on the Tao Te Ching, without, however, doubting what they told me. I joked that other routes also lead to the top of the mountain. They laughed and agreed. They added that the greatest difficulties of the climb were not imposed by the inhospitable climate or steep terrain, but by the shadows of the climber himself, such as fear, selfishness, vanity and pride. I said that I had not the slightest doubt about that statement.
Then they told me a recent story, which had happened a few days before, about two friends who were climbing when one of the support pins broke loose, leaving one of them hanging on the abyss only by the rope that passed around his waist. Unable to bring his friend suspended in the air back to the rock, the weight imposed by gravity put at risk the pin that still kept them attached to the mountain. However, it would not hold for long; soon it too would come loose and they would both fall. The only possibility was for the climber who was still on the rock to cut the rope that held his colleague and prevented him from falling into the abyss too. He refused. However, the other insisted that he should do it, otherwise they would both die. They argued for a few seconds. The one who was hanging was willing to save his friend at the price of his own life; the one clinging to the mountain refused to participate in any way in the death of his companion. Both refused to do what the other asked arguing that they would be being selfish. A loud pop announced that the support pin that had remained attached to the rock was about to come loose as well. If something was not done, both would fall. The climber who was hanging in the air, in a last effort, with contortionist movements, managed to reach a knife that he had attached to his boot; he cut the rope and let his own body plummet into the abyss. Despite the desperate cries of the one who was saved that the other should not do that.
Impressed by this story, I spent the rest of the day thinking about how I would feel and, even more, how I would act if I were one climber or the other. Although a noble gesture, it is not easy to give up your own life to save someone else. Nor is it easy to accept that someone will do it to save us. A situation that should completely change the perceptions of those who experience it.
When I decided to lunch at the inn, I heard a group of students complaining about the absence of the Taoist master. They considered it an enormous lack of consideration that he had left, as they had come a long way to learn about the Tao. I interfered in the conversation, reminding them that, although I did not know the reason, Li Tzu’s trip should be relevant, since it was not his habit to be absent during the courses. That we should wait for his stance. One of members of the group claimed that he should have communicated in advance. I thought it was better not to prolong the subject in order to avoid making things more heated.
In the late afternoon, I saw Li Tzu get off a bus. He also saw me and motioned for me to accompany him. We walked in silence to his house. I sat at the kitchen table while he put some herbs in infusion for a tea. Only after filling our cups the Taoist master sat down. Midnight, the black cat who also lived in the house, must have noticed some emotional change in Li Tzu and went to curl up in his lap. I commented on the dissatisfaction of some students at the suspension of that day’s class without previous warning. I told him to be prepared to hear many complaints. The Taoist master arched his lips in a slight smile, as if he had expected this, and said: “I was notified at the last minute that I was needed to perform the ceremony of passage of the son of a dear friend who travelled to another sphere of life. He had an accident while climbing the Himalayas. The rescue team took a few days to locate the body.” I immediately recalled the story narrated earlier by the climbers. Then he added: “He was a soul who departed with great dignity”.
I questioned whether there was dignity in death; perhaps there was only death and nothing else mattered. Li Tzu corrected me: “Dignity belongs neither to life nor to death. Dignity is an achievement of the spirit by the way which it has gone through existence. It is an unshakeable inheritance; a precious and indelible baggage”.
At that moment the house was invaded by the group that earlier had been at the inn; there were four of them. They were outraged that there had been no class, and worse, that they had not been warned beforehand. Without losing his characteristic serenity, Li Tzu explained the facts. He added that he had been woken up during the early hours of the morning and warned about the ritual departure of the boy, who could not wait, as the body had been dead for days. He then pondered: “It wouldn’t make any difference if I woke you up at three o’clock to inform you that we wouldn’t have class today or, as it happened, if you found out when you got home at seven o’clock, except that your sleep would be interrupted”. One of the students disagreed. He recalled that he had come a long way, with a fixed date to return; any change would cost him dearly. They had lost a day of class that was impossible to replace. Li Tzu did not change his mind. He invited them to sit and offered them tea. After they had settled down and their cups were full, the Taoist master suggested: “I propose that we extend the remaining days by two hours so that our learning does not suffer. Another student interrupted to say that it wouldn’t be the same, because at the end of a day of studies, tiredness prevented a better assimilation. The Taoist master explained: “Yes and no. It depends on the level of involvement we have in the lessons. The Tao teaches us that he who walks for pleasure never tires. However, I think your argument is valid. I understand the complaint as much as I will accept the refusal of my proposal. He paused a little before continuing: “To those who are dissatisfied I will return the amount spent. The student pointed out that there were other expenses besides the Tao Te Ching course fee. Airfare, transfer and accommodation also cost money, he recalled. Li Tzu said with the same calm tone of voice: “No doubt about that. When I referred to reimbursement, I was talking about covering all the expenses of each student who no longer wants to continue with the classes because he feels harmed. No problem at all; that’s fair.”
The students were disconcerted; they had not expected this reaction. But when we are under the storm of uncontrolled emotions, we don’t always calm down so easily. One of the students remarked about the lost time even after compensation for the travel costs. Li Tzu frowned and said seriously: “We can collect a financial debt, but never an emotional debt or, even more so, a debt of time. Each one is responsible for the emotions that dance in one’s heart; good feelings do not create creditors; bad feelings do not create debtors”. He paused to add: “As for the time lived, making good use of it is part of the art of existence. Another non-transferable responsibility; this speaks volumes about dignity.”
“I experienced an unforeseen situation common to anyone. There are both those who understand it and those who don’t. However, time is a personal asset. Each one is responsible for the management of this asset. To realize that we waste it when we complain about others, events and fate, for many, will only be understood when there is not a single second left for us. A better use of time is always possible, especially when it is applied to the lessons inherent to the moment being lived. I only have at my disposal the time that fits today”. He took a sip of tea and said: “From the past, all we get are lessons, never imprisonment”.
“Most people lose their lives because they do not realize that yesterday has already been deposited in the bank account of death; it no longer belongs to us, since the transfer of ownership has already happened. Yet they insist on leaving their hearts in the days gone by, wrapped up in deaf laments for both life and death. We should use time as payment for something valuable; for a gesture or choice that has added value to the spirit. Something you can take with you when death warns that it is time for the train to depart. The dignity with which I treated time will define the destination of my journey.” He winked and spoke as if to whisper: “May it be towards the stars!
A young woman accompanying the group said that such talk was bad luck; she did not like to talk about death. The Taoist master smiled and explained, “Yes, an unpleasant conversation, but only as long as we refuse to understand the exact dimension of death. Time is death’s tool. However, death is not the enemy of life, nor is it contrary to it; but a loyal and efficient employee. It comes to close one cycle of existence so that another, under renewed conditions, may be initiated in continuation of life. This, even if it is difficult to understand, have no doubt, is a gesture of love”. He paused and concluded: “Make the price of the passage worthwhile; use your time wisely to arrive at the station in a complete form. For this there is no dependence on external facts or permission from others. The beauty of life is in a single place and time: here and now. The now, regardless of the conditions presented, will always have the adequate instrumentation for the accomplishments that are up to the individual. This is the only way to treat time, and consequently ourselves, with dignity”.
The girl argued that dignity seemed to her a concept that goes beyond the personal relationship one has with time. Li Tzu agreed: “Yes, although time functions as the conductor of existence, dignity is present in the relationship I have with myself and, above all, in the way I relate to the world. The primordial equation of dignity is well known:
Treat others in the exact way you would like them to treat you.”
“Simple and sophisticated, simultaneously. Simple for we know the manner in which we desire the treatment of others towards us; sophisticated for it is difficult to reciprocate to the world our own desire.”
One of the students claimed that this theory was very beautiful but difficult to apply to reality. In response Li Tzu offered him a sweet look. Without saying a word, he got up and returned with an old toolbox. Not by chance, there was money inside of it. He asked how much the total expense of each person had been. He paid, without haggling, the amount said by everyone. When the time came to reimburse the girl, she refused. She said she preferred to continue the course. She argued that the absence of class that day had allowed a greater lesson: that conversation. The taoist master arched his lips in a slight smile and asked about the other students. It was a class of twenty people. The young woman explained that the others saw no problem in the absence and would also continue the classes. They had taken the day off to see some of the many beautiful places in the area.
When we were alone again, I commented that he had suffered a huge loss. Li Tzu smiled again and said, “The loss was only financial. Nothing more”. I argued that the students who had been compensated had been very intransigent and that he had fair and undeniable reasons for not being there for the class. The Taoist master, making an allusion to mountaineers, explained: “I don’t want to stay stuck to the rock at any cost. I prefer the dignity of the one who plunges into the abyss alone instead of taking with me someone who is undeserving or unwilling to go. I had my reasons; they had theirs, one cannot deny it. Each with their own understanding of themselves and the world. Today I understand differently, but one day I used to think like they do; so, I understand them. I have done my part.”
“For a long time, by not understanding time itself, I wasted it. I attached myself to the stone at a high cost. In the illusion of supposed security, I did not realise that the fear of the abyss kept me from flying. Life is not worth the price of holding on to the stone, but finds true fortune in the subtle flights of everyday life. Economic losses are insignificant when compared to existential gains. I took care of the students with the patience and love with which I would like to be taken care of. By being fair to them I was worthy of myself”. He emptied his cup of tea and concluded, “Dignity has allowed me one more flight; this makes my soul delighted.
Before I could ask to learn about the other plenitudes, he said, “If you want, come back tomorrow for another cup of tea”.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic