The quiet Chinese village was unrecognisable. It seemed that all the residents were gathered in the only square of the place. Most of them were in an uproar; some were talking loudly; their faces were upset. Two men were arguing and were pushed aside so as not to physically assault each other. Later I learned that they were long-time friends. Another man climbed up on a stone bench to give a speech. Although I could not understand what he was talking about because of the language, I could understand the fiery tone. A growing group approached in support, clapping and with words of encouragement. As I followed the crooked streets of the village the noise diminished. When I entered the house of Li Tzu, the Taoist master, I had the sensation of being inside a bubble of peace. The quietness, the bonsai garden, the perfume of the incense sticks, transmitted a pleasant sensation of tranquillity. Not without reason, Li Tzu once told me that a house usually reflects the soul of its residents. He had finished his yoga exercises and was meditating as he did every day early in the morning before the classes begin. So as not to interrupt, I went into the kitchen. On the table were two cups and a steaming pot of tea. He was waiting for me as we agreed; I smiled to myself and sat down. While I was serving myself, the Taoist master arrived and settled in front of me. We drank in silence until I asked him if he knew about the commotion happening in the square. He explained that news had come that the government was planning to build a highway, the design of which required the total evacuation of the village. I asked if everyone would have to leave their homes. Li Tzu confirmed with a shake of his head. I was enraged at the absurdity of it all. How could they remove those people from their homes? Many had lived there for an entire existence. It was an unspeakable violence, I exclaimed. The Taoist master just shook his head as if perhaps I was right in my point of view; perhaps not, or perhaps I was exaggerating. Noticing Li Tzu’s serene features, I questioned whether he was not afraid of the removal, should it happen, as it would force a huge change in his life. With the usual calm tone of his voice, he said, “Fear is the thief of peace.”
I asked if he would not join the other villagers in protesting the construction of the road. After all, the village had been situated on that site for centuries. The Taoist master replied, “We are not sure about the veracity of the news, any move now may prove premature. Note that most of our past fears never happened; we have suffered unnecessarily. Furthermore, I need to keep in mind that everything changes all the time. People change, cities change, ways of relating, views on life, attitudes towards the world. I also change my way of being and living. My body and the baggage I carry changes; I transform myself. This is necessary in order to continue the evolutionary process. Changes are not always to my liking or will be comfortable for me; this usually happens when I remain averse to transformations for a long time; in this case life pushes me to go on. However, if I understand that everything that happens is for my improvement, I allow myself to leave the sludge of stagnation stimulated by victimization, typical of when things don’t happen as we wish them to, and I begin a new journey. I grow. In this harmony, in the renewal of the cycles of life, the Way presents itself to me once again. I follow. To accept change is to understand and be enchanted by the hidden beauty of life. No matter what happens. In this way I sow peace in myself.
I immediately disagreed. I said that we have to take a position in relation to the facts that affect us. He pondered: “No doubt, always with the concern of covering all sides and issues involved. Above all, without tearing up the personal code of ethics. Saying yes to what I think is right and no to what I think is wrong. In a clear and serene manner.” He then argued, “However, there are times in existence that the movements of the world hit us like a storm on the high seas. There is no avoiding it.” He paused before concluding, “That’s what I’m talking about. It is at such times that we need a mature spirit, so that even in the face of the conflicts natural to life, peace may remain firm in the soul. To that end, we cannot forget that conflicts are important drivers of existence and undeniable masters of the secrets of life.”
“No one wishes for the storm. However, the good sailor knows that it is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the sea and about his own boat. Despite the possible damage, if he knows how to take advantage of the torment, he will become a better navigator every day. He will go further.” I interrupted to say that there is always the risk of shipwreck. Li Tzu explained: “That’s true, but it´s also true that there will always be a new opportunity to go out to the sea in different conditions, sometimes in a simpler boat, sometimes in a solitary crossing. It will be the same sea, but with other waters; the same sailor, but now a sailor who knows how to survive the storms. This is how peace germinates.”
He looked at me deeply and asked: “What is your greatest fear?
I said that I had never thought about it, but just like everyone else, I feared becoming a victim of violence, betrayal, an unexpected accident, experiencing financial difficulties, having a serious illness, facing an unwanted separation or seeing a loved one suffer. Li Tzu nodded his head in agreement and said, “Yes, these are the most common fears. Situations that everyone may face one day. We can avoid some of these dangers, not all. However prudent one may be, one cannot hide from the risks inherent in a fully lived existence; likewise, one will not be allowed to escape disaster, whether material or emotional. As inevitable lessons, they lie outside the sphere of our choices. At least, conscious choices.” He paused briefly and added, “Remember that sometimes life needs to throw us off balance in order for us to move forward. Not infrequently, chaos is usually the stage before evolution.”
“We feel joy in winning. However, the fear of losing steals the peace of conquest. Whatever your mind is not ready and harmonized with the idea of losing will not bring you peace when you win it.”
“As long as I am afraid of losing the money I have earned, the house I have built, the job I have, the wife I have married, the health that keeps me going, the departure of a loved one to another sphere of existence or any other loss, I will not be able to enjoy these achievements in true peace. The victories will be apparent because they will prove to be fragile, inconsistent and shallow. Fragile because of the illusion of my desire that the ephemeral things of the world become eternal; inconsistent because I stubbornly try to dominate that which, being beyond me, is not mine to control; shallow like every conquest that does not lead me to peace.”
“Without ceasing to enjoy, you must accept the transience of the things of the world; let yourself marvel at the immeasurable power you have in transforming your own life and be enchanted by the intangible. The only definitive conquests fit into the baggage you will take with you when you go on to infinity. Everything else, though solid, falls apart in the air. When you understand and accept this, peace will truly be yours. No one will be able to take it from your hands; it will be impregnable in your heart.”
“Just like the other Plenitudes, for example happiness, dignity, freedom and love, peace is not with you; peace is within you. Peace is not dependent on anything or anyone but yourself; peace is a way of seeing, being and living life. Peace is not available on a market shelf or inside a capsule; it has nothing to do with your bank account or your position in the company, nor is it protected behind the high walls of some mansion. Peace is hidden in the gardens of your soul. As long as you continue to fight with yourself, keeping the desires of the ego and the needs of the soul in a relentless internal battle, peace will remain distant.”
I wanted to know how to live without fear. Li Tzu explained with his characteristic simplicity: “Fear is a shadow. Like other shadows, fear is inherent to human nature. We all feel fear. Inside any person there are the best and the worst feelings; the important thing is to know what to do with each of them. This learning defines and transforms us. Just as we illuminate pride through humbleness, fear is illuminated by hope, is dismantled by courage and is transmuted by faith. For every shadow there is always the lantern of at least one virtue. Hope does not spring from naivety, courage should not spring from an act of unmeasured irrationality nor should faith make itself blind. On the contrary, they spring from perfect wisdom in understanding how the universe works and where life moves to.”
“Virtues guide us, conscience enlightens us and choices lead us on the road towards fullness.”
He again used the metaphor of the boat and the sea: “I only shipwreck in the face of a storm if the crew mutinies against the captain.” I said I didn’t understand. The Taoist master was didactic: “Imagine yourself as a boat. The command is with the soul, the ego is the crew formed by your shadows and virtues. During a storm, the conditions of how the boat will behave in the rough sea will depend a lot on whether I have pride, vanity, jealousy, envy, greed and selfishness, all driven by fear, at my side. Then the chances of disaster are great. However, if I have humbleness, compassion, sincerity, courage, faith and love as companions, I will have a very different journey. The storm will be the same; the navigation will not. This sets the course, the next destination and establishes peace during the crossing.”
“Peace is not subject to a calm sea or the heavy clouds on the horizon. The sea is simply the sea; calm days, storm days. Peace depends only on the crew the captain can count on to sail.”
We remained silent for a long time. Li Tzu enjoyed his tea while I tried to allocate those ideas. I said that peace was a very simple concept because of the ease with which it could be understood and sophisticated because of the depth of its ability to take us to the core of our being, where the essence does not allow itself to be affected by the events of the world; it knows that good and bad things will always be on the agenda. So, it rejoices in victories and learns from defeats. There will never be losses; there will always be gains. However, I pondered, it is not an easy process. The Taoist master arched his lips in a slight smile and added: “No doubt about it. Peace is a valuable internal conquest. I give it up when I feel afraid of something or someone. The first step is to understand why some situations and people inspire so much terror in me. Then, to recover that power that I unduly granted over my life. To reverse fear, I need to look inside myself for hope, courage and faith.
I interrupted again to ask about the need for faith. I understood well the function of hope and courage in the transmutation of fear. Hope was the certainty of an answer in the way I measure my choices, not my yearnings. Somehow, not always immediately understood, life would welcome me and offer another opportunity to continue the journey. It was to steer the boat in the right direction, to the measure of my conscience, in the conviction that the sea will never deny the exact collaboration. After all, to sail is necessary in its exactness, whether in terms of cause and effect, or the precision of the Lisbon alchemist’s poetry*. I understood courage because sailing is necessary also in the sense of its necessity. No crossing is complete while fear is at the helm; life demands courage. Courage consists of not stopping in the face of bad weather and to keep sailing having the star of life as a guide through the nights of existence. Only the sea completes the reason of existence of a boat; the port is only the transitory stage between two crossings. Therefore, it is an illusion to believe that only on the quay I will find peace; it is indispensable to learn to live it during the crossing. It is at sea that life happens and the sailor is transformed. However, I was confused about the need for faith. Li Tzu was didactic: “Faith is the virtue that links the part to the whole, without intermediaries, because it understands that the whole is contained in the part. After love, it is the most powerful virtue. It is faith that maintains the connection between the navigator and the star that guides him. This allows the latter to illuminate and protect the one with greater amplitude. Moreover, all the parts make up the whole that I carry within me and each one, in its own way, helps me to become different and better. By allowing myself this perception, faith becomes an indispensable navigational tool for me to keep my course and serenity in the face of the raging waves.”
He emptied his cup of tea and finished, “No storm comes to destroy me, but, in truth, it comes to perfect me. Peace is not the absence of storms, but the wisdom to navigate the waters of any storm with absolute serenity.
Li Tzu stood up. We could hear the students arriving for class. Before saying goodbye, he extended an invitation for me to return the next day for more tea.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic