It was the last day of classes on the Tao Te Ching. The course was over for that group of students. They would soon leave the Chinese village at the foot of the Himalayas for the various countries where they lived. I was not part of the class, but I was invited to the farewell party offered by Li Tzu. The students were excited and joyful. They had shared the experience of learning an ancient wisdom, that people in general are increasingly forgetting about its enormous usefulness for a full existence because of the countless opportunities for escape offered by a hurried and superficial world. Rushed by the sensation that, to remain updated with the non-stop factories of novelties, it is necessary to be in many places almost simultaneously. So, time becomes fast and narrow. Superficial because no value will make me know the world while I refuse to meet myself. One does not know a place only by visiting its buildings, museums and monuments, just as one does not perceive the beauty of an individual only by looking at him. There is a hidden beauty in all places and people, only accessible after I search, understand and illuminate all the details hidden in me. I need to understand the part to comprehend the whole. Then I will be able to be enchanted by the world and pacify myself with time. A journey, in order not to be wasted, cannot only bring souvenirs and photographs in the luggage; it needs to transform the traveller. This was the feeling of those students after learning the Tao. That is why they were so excited.
When I arrived, I found them in the kitchen. As they could not all fit at the table, many were sitting on cushions spread on the floor. Midnight, the black cat that also lived in the house, lying on top of the cupboard, was watching the meeting with curiosity. Because of my age and the arthrosis that accompanies me, a young student, by his innate kindness, gave me his chair and joined the others sitting on the cushions. The students were talking about how that trip had been different from all the others they had made. Until someone asked the Taoist master to speak about it. He commented: “A journey, to demonstrate its usefulness, must make us smaller than we were; it must also make us greater than we are.”
Silence. Due the paradoxical sentence, we were waiting for a further explanation. However, Li Tzu added nothing more. The students looked at each other. I thought I saw an almost imperceptible smile from the Taoist master, as if he was waiting for that moment. Until someone asked him to explain further. Li Tzu opened the Tao Te Ching and read, in Mandarin, with his own translation, the twenty-eighth poem:
Recognize the masculine, protect the feminine;
Be the river that carries the waters of the world,
Without letting them escape from the margins of virtue;
Then, return to childhood.
Recognize the white, protect the black;
Being and living the virtue
Without being deluded by it;
Then return to infinity.
Recognize the big, protect the small;
Be the good tree
Share the sweet fruits;
Then, return to the seed.
The seed germinates, grows again, becomes a tree;
Wood is fit for innumerable instruments.
A cut without incision is needed. The symphony of heaven.
Again, silence. No one dared to give an opinion. Li Tzu urged them to speak up. He warned them: “This is the last and most important lesson of the course”. Faced with astonishment, one of the students, a young Mexican of Toltec origin, recalled that this poem, like the others of the Tao, had been studied during the course. The Taoist master made a reservation: “Not with the approach we are going to take now. Like me, the Tao is many and it is only one.” He then asked everyone to feel free to interpret the text from the bias of their own experiences and not just from what they had learned in class: “The Tao has the measure of the one who reads it. Like life, it expands or contracts according to the ruler of each consciousness.
The young Toltec man began the collective interpretation. He said that to take care of the masculine and feminine was to pay attention to the movements of expansion and contraction typical of Yin and Yang. The depth that one should have when immersing oneself in oneself is equivalent to the commitment with which one lives in the world, in constant sharing and mutation. Expanding one’s knowledge to the limit so that in the next moment it can contract into another. This is the movement that animates and gives meaning to life, he explained. Then he went on to say that we must, like a river, guide the indispensable worldly interests without allowing its waters to overflow us. They must remain contained by virtues. Then it will be possible to return to the essence of being; there dwells the plenitudes. Li Tzu nodded in agreement.
A very nice, beautiful and intelligent Irish woman, with evident Celtic ancestral traits, spoke about the next paragraph. She explained that to care for the white and the black was to pay attention to both the visible and the invisible world. They permeate each other and are in permanent interaction. Everything that happens on one side reflects on the other. Just as it happens in our interpersonal relationships; by changing myself I alter everything around me. On the other hand, everything around me is available to help me evolve. She added the need to live with virtues as tools, without ever deluding ourselves that we are virtue itself, as it would cause virtue to overflow over the frontier of light to become a shadow. He exemplified by saying that to live God through ourselves is the virtue of faith; to imagine ourselves as God, an absurd arrogance. To be humble is pure light; to be proud of one’s humbleness is a vulgar shadow. To offer love makes us divine; to demand love in return makes us selfish. She said that the text reminds us of how blurred are the boundaries between light and shadows. By managing to live the virtues with clarity and purity we achieve the plenitudes.
A Russian, born and raised in the frozen lands of Siberia, tackled the third paragraph. He said that to be big and small, according to the text, was to live the things of the world, to enjoy its comforts without, however, allowing ourselves to be enslaved by them. Understanding that what is necessary is enough allows us to fly over the abysses of existence. Enjoying money without being contaminated by greed; celebrating success without falling in love with fame; exercising power only over ourselves without interfering in the choices of others are manifestations of applied knowledge that transforms the reality of being and blurs the illusions of the world. He explained that it is indispensable to be small in order to have room to grow. To perceive ourselves as small is a sign of strength; to believe ourselves big is unmeasured fragility.
A young New Yorker woman, also in the same paragraph, added that the meaning of life is to evolve. Evolving means growing like a tree, having deep roots, pointing to the sky and offering good fruit. Then, to become a seed again. Expansion and contraction; Yin and Yang. He explained that the text spoke of the infinite cycles of learning, transmutation and sharing, and the indispensability of effectively finishing a cycle that has ended; only then will we be able to start a new evolutionary journey. No longer as a leafy tree that has already produced flowers and fruit, but as a simple seed; a seed that will germinate as a different tree and offer even better fruit. Satisfied, Li Tzu arched his lips in a slight smile.
A woman with eyes like those of an owl, an expression of extreme intelligence, raised in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, recalled the importance of the wood of a tree. She explained that just as wood is used for many instruments, from the truncheon, which represses and harasses, to the guitar which makes us sing and dance, the Tao shows us that each person defines which tool he or she will use. For this, nobody depends on anything or anybody, except on one’s own conscience. At any moment we can behave as the door that prevents entry or as the bridge that helps to cross; as the table and chair for all to sit around or as the wood in the fire that burns those who dare to be different. I can use jealousy to motivate an aggression or to compose a song; envy can lead me to destroy the other or be transmuted into a breath of inspiration for better steps forward. At the distance of a simple choice, I can stop being a truncheon to become a guitar. Light and shadows are available at every moment. I am one and I am many. What I will be now I establish in this very moment; what I will find around the corner ahead is pure consequence.
We looked at the Taoist master as if asking for an opinion. He returned our gaze as if telling us to continue. No one knew what else to say. A very shy young woman from Madrid reminded us that the last sentence had not been addressed. A cut without incision is needed. The symphony of heaven. The students looked at each other and nobody dared to say anything. The young woman limited herself to saying that it was difficult to understand the image of a cut without incision. How can one cut without separating? she questioned. Li Tzu took a sip of tea and explained, “With love.”
“Love is the bond that binds everything and everyone. You can leave, no matter when or where to; love will hold us together in memories and longing until the time of reunion. Time and space are fictitious dimensions incapable of separating those who love each other. I am me, you are you; each person with their own personality and individuation, with our own journey and trajectory, with their own looks and choices, with their own pains and delights, together and apart, sweet and sour, expansion and contraction, smiles and tears. When I get disoriented in the world, love shows me the direction; when I get lost from myself, I find myself in love.”
“Without love all is but illusion. There is no good, none of the virtues are sustained. All knowledge proves useless. The absence of love is the antithesis of universal laws because it teaches nothing, because no transformation can be brought about, because it denies evolution. Without love the other plenitudes fall apart in thin air”.
“Love helps without dominating; it teaches without enslaving; it nourishes without causing dependence. Love forges the foundations of life, strengthens the spirit and develops its wings. No flight to the stars is possible without love.”
“In the beginning, there is love; at the end, only love. Without love there is no path and no destination.”
“Love soothes and excites me. Love enlightens and protects me.” He arched his eyebrows to add, “Love protects me from myself.”
“Love allows me to be the walker, the road and a safe place; at the same time. I live by the love I feel; through my love I allow others to live in me as well. Thus, I can be the whole world by welcoming the whole world into my heart. I will lack nothing.”
“Love is communion. A common-union.”
“The love I have is only the love I feel; the love I feel is only the love I offer. The love I give you allows you to be with me. In the same diapason, the love I receive from you, though it is yours, enables me to be with you. In this way we are bigger and stronger. We find new meaning; each being is unique, but you can let everyone walk through you on the road of love.”
“Like musicians in the same orchestra, together and apart, each with their own instrument, with the same score, in harmonious stellar symphony. The symphony of heaven.”
Absolute silence. I could see tears bathing smiles; it was pure enchantment. No words could translate the feeling that enveloped everyone. The whole world seemed to fit in that kitchen. Love grants this power in relation to life; it reveals the universe in me. One by one, the students said goodbye to the Taoist master. Alone, Li Tzu, without saying anything, made a sign for me to leave as well. I had to move on to begin a new cycle of learning, transmutation and sharing. Contraction and expansion; Yin and Yang. This was the Tao; the Tao explains life. Life is love. Love, so intimate and so unknown.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic