So as not to say that I didn’t talked about the cannons

Back in the charming little town at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery, after another cycle of studies, I stopped by Loureiro’s workshop, the shoemaker who loved philosophy books and red wines. It was closed. I went to the railway station, from where I would be travelling to a metropolis not far away, where I would then be travelling home. When I disembarked in this large, pleasant and modern city, as the flight time was far away, I decided to go for a walk to see its many centuries-old buildings of undeniable historical value. Wandering randomly through the streets, I came across a huge square. Two groups, with many people on both sides, separated by a thin line of police officers, were taking offence at each other in every way that words could allow. They were just over the last limit imposed by civilisation, on the verge of hysteria, before they began to physically assault each other. I walked away quickly. I went down a narrow side street, where I found an unlikely café with a bicycle parked outside, decorated with flowers of all colours. I was enveloped by a feeling of cosiness. In a succession of surprises, I saw Li Tzu, the Taoist master, quietly savouring a cup of tea, as if the noises and roars of the world were incapable of shaking his peace. When he saw me, he smiled at me and invited me to sit at the table with him. Faced with my astonishment at finding him there, he explained that he was there to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the graduation of his class from the Botany major. He kindly asked if I would join him for tea. I thanked him, but preferred a cup of coffee. Without delay, I told him about the commotion in the square not far from there. I asked him if he knew what was going on. The Taoist master nodded. I asked him what he thought about the causes of the confusion. With a serene face and a gentle tone in his voice, he said: “The Way is infinite for those who walk it with love. Otherwise, they won’t be able to continue. There will be exhaustion and no conquest. There is no victory through weapons”. He paused to add: “Weapons mean any kind of aggression, be it verbal or physical”. I said that this way of thinking, despite its beauty, didn’t seem practical to me. It would be like using flowers to inoculate the cannons aimed at us. Li Tzu frowned and said: “The Way is a very personal journey. No one can do it for anyone else, just as we must not follow the flow of the crowd that uses hatred to achieve its victory. It will be vain and illusory. There will be no Way left, which is only possible when experienced every moment of every day through the lens of love. Although delicate, love cannot be subdued. For there is no way of imprisoning that which has neither form nor body’.

The waiter placed the cup of coffee on the table. The Taoist master continued to build his philosophical arc: “Cannons show their usefulness and power in the absence of love. Love never generates conflict. Vile desires and interests do give rise to discord”. I interrupted to remind him that couples who love each other also fight. Li Tzu showed me my mistake: “They never fight over love. The disagreement stems from jealousy or some other shadow. In these moments it is not love that is in dispute, but a struggle for domination and control in the relationship. They don’t understand that when love guides choices there will never be deceit, betrayal or subjugation, attitudes that are only possible at times when love is no longer an existential priority.”

He raised his cup to toast the meeting and said: “This idea applies to all relationships, from the most intimate to those that encompass a large community. Where virtues are active, there is no solution made of hatred or greed. At the slightest stumble, the virtues, as derivatives of love, lead us back to the Way. Pride and vanity disappear in the presence of humbleness and simplicity. Intolerance, impatience and frivolous condemnations are illuminated by the flame of compassion. We understand the imperfections and difficulties of others when we are aware of our own imperfections and difficulties. Greed disappears when faced with a behaviour driven by sincerity, honesty and a balanced sense of justice, when we can understand the difference between the price of wealth and the value of prosperity; immaterial conquests never depend on material circumstances. Thus, we begin to know genuine freedom when we free ourselves from the bonds of ancestral conditioning that imprison us in ideas of economic wealth and political power as models of success and victory.”

He waited for me to take a sip of coffee and continued: “If the lords of the world followed this path, there would be no dissatisfaction among the people. People wouldn’t need laws. Everyone would know the right thing to do.” I interrupted again to ask a few questions. Firstly, I wanted to understand who these lords of the world were that he was referring to. Li Tzu explained: “They are all kinds of influencers and manipulators who control opinion and, consequently, the will of the crowds. Whether politicians, journalists, artists, teachers or religious people. People have a strong impulse to join these conceptual flow movements for various reasons. Many have not been brought up to think freely; others are still unable to deconstruct ideas in order to formulate concepts of their own. So they head for a destination they didn’t choose. When we lack acceptance, the desire for tribal belonging screams louder than our conscience and heart.  Only when we free ourselves from these social bonds do we learn to think independently. That’s how freedom is born; that’s the embryo of our wings.”

He sipped his coffee and added: “Those who give up free thinking give up their choices. Those who don’t know how to decide in accordance with their conscience are no longer their own masters. What’s the point of owning anything else when you’re no longer in charge of your own life?”. It was a question that didn’t need an answer. I just nodded my head as if to say that his reasoning was clear and coherent. I asked him if it wasn’t naïve to think that the simple fact of having more love would be enough to end conflicts. He pondered: “All conflicts have a cause when interests and desires are shallow in love and virtues, in perception and sensitivity. That’s when cannons come into play. Laws, with their inevitable coercive and punitive powers, are real cannons of ink and paper pointed in our direction. Laws exist because we lack understanding and respect. If there is a law that needs to say that we are all equal, it’s because many in the crowd still don’t consider themselves so. Laws function as weapons, fences and chains to impose limits on us. The boundary between civilisation and barbarism is the rigour needed in the laws to contain the impulses of aggression and the primal instincts of the crowds.”

He took a sip of tea and said: “However, although laws can point to signs of change, they are not capable of promoting any evolutionary movement. Cages don’t educate beasts, they only repress their instincts. That’s how laws work; it’s sad to realise that we’ll need them for a long time to come. Only the intrinsic transformations promoted by new knowledge and perspectives are authentic and effective. I’m talking about awareness and love. Only virtuous practices will be able to deepen the roots of a new truth, keeping the individual firm and balanced in Light when facing the storms caused by individual and collective shadows.”

He frowned and said: “Everything else is just make-up. Although behind sophisticated disguises, there will be a greater number of cannons. It’s a practice that will continue for as long as we don’t realise that decrees and manipulations of our will won’t ever have the power to change a society beyond its appearance. We will continue to fall short of the truth. Only individual transformations have the power to change the world. Anything else is vile self-interest and absolute blindness. They will conquer the world, but lose themselves. For them, the Way will remain closed. The Gatekeepers will not let them go forward. All victories will be in vain; even the concrete ones will crumble in the face of another Guardian, Time.”

I wanted to know how he positioned himself in this situation. Li Tzu explained: “My conservative colleagues say I’m liberal; my liberal friends say I’m conservative”. I asked him what he thought he was. The Taoist master shrugged his shoulders and whispered like someone saying something inevitable and simple: “I’m just myself. I use my truth as a map and love as a compass. Where there are words of hate, speeches of lament and hymns of confrontation, I don’t keep myself in; I move on.”

His gaze became distant, as if searching for a memory or a word, and he spoke as if reciting a poem: “It was like when Heaven and Earth were united, under the sweetness of dew”. Noticing a question mark on my face, he hastened to clarify: “In all cultures and religious doctrines, despite the different narratives, there is the image of Paradise and the scene of the Fall. The story of Adam and Eve narrated in the Ancient Scriptures is just one of the mythological patterns that inhabit the collective unconscious, a knowledge common to all humanity, although not codified in our conscious mind. Paradise is the archetype of a place where love guides life; Adam and Eve represent the archetype of purity as an essential virtue for the Plenitudes. The serpent, as the archetype of our personal shadows, convinces the couple to try the Fruit of Interest, with which they will have access to worldly pleasures and conquests. So we have the image of the Fall, a recurring scene when we give up love as the guiding light of our way of being and living. We end up knowing suffering.” He paused for a moment before concluding: “The cure lies in making the journey back Home; to return Home is to illuminate one’s own shadows. Ego and soul aligned in the light”.

He then commented: “The people in that square, all tormented, although they are unaware of this fact, offend each other because they haven’t learnt how to listen to their own hearts. They still believe in the voices of the various Serpents.” 

He added: “Far from the essence, in order not to suffer so much, the people had to learn about limits. When I say limits, I don’t mean the indispensable respect. It’s about something sad, separateness, which arises when love is put aside in favour of worldly interests, desires and conquests. Each individual closes in on themselves, like a fish that fears the river, even though it will perish if it strays far from its waters. People feel threatened by each other, without realising that they are authentic sources of affection, understanding, cooperation and learning. We are rivers of love, indispensable to each other, so that our hearts don’t run dry with thirst.”

Referring to the crowd in the square, he said: “They are like a clump of oysters that, although close in body, their souls are unable to dialogue because they remain locked in rigid concepts and ideas that were never theirs. They hurt each other for petty reasons, believe in lies and cry out for illusions, like blind people who let themselves be led to the precipice by dishonest guides. They don’t realise that they are at the service of the masters of the world, who have no legitimate feelings for them. They are used as cannons to destroy other lords of the world, who also use artillery similar in image, intentions and values. They are nothing but inglorious struggles, as are all movements without love and far from the truth.” He took another sip and said: “They’ve forgotten how good it is to feed on love. They are encouraged to distil their own poison as an indispensable mechanism for defending themselves against the hatred of others.” He drained his cup of tea and reminded us: “However, no one can complain of thirst once they moved away from sources of fresh water. As long as they don’t realise it, there will be an endless sequence of falling and suffering. None of those in the square, no matter who defeats whom, will achieve any real conquest. Outside the light there is no victory.”

I wanted to know if this situation discouraged him about the future of humanity. Li Tzu shook his head and said: “Discouragement and giving up are inappropriate words on the Way. In the world, the Way is like a river to the sea”. He went on to explain the expression: “It is the sweetness of the river waters that allows life to exist in the sea. Otherwise, the level of salinity would be so high that it would be impossible for sea life to exist. Take the example of the Dead Sea, where there is no life because it is too salty. Although the importance of the oceans for the planet is undeniable, the water we drink, bathe in, cook with and use for cleaning comes from rivers. Life would be unsustainable without fresh water.  The foundations of the Way are like the fresh water that sustains life in the sea. This is why rivers flow into the ocean. There will always be individuals willing to sweeten the crowds. Love is essential to sustain life in the world. Otherwise, harshness, acidity and bitterness would completely poison all hearts. The heart of the world would also stop beating. Even though people breathe, walk, produce and reproduce like sophisticated automatons, life without love is the real meaning of death. No matter how much we belittle, despise and even use sarcasm on it, this source of sweetness will continue to be available to everyone. Love is a simple choice, available every day. For anyone”.

I didn’t say a word. I didn’t need to. Then Li Tzu finished: “Even if a thousand barriers are built, even if countless dams are erected, as long as there is a single river flowing towards the sea, there will be a source of sweetness for the multitudes. The essence of life is love. The reason for the Way and the harbour of Destiny too.”

We spent some time without saying a word. I needed to allocate those ideas. As it was already time for my flight, we said goodbye. I walked along a few streets when, at the entrance to the metro station from where I was travelling to the airport, I spotted a small second-hand book stall. As I looked through the simple collection, a book of the Tao Te Ching caught my eye. Without hesitation, I decided to buy it, as it was an edition whose translation I didn’t have. I paid for it, put it in my backpack and carried on. Once I was sitting in the aeroplane, as I picked it up to read, I noticed that a page had been torn out. It was folded inside the book. It was poem thirty-two. I was impressed.

The Tao is infinite

Though delicate, it cannot be subdued,

For it has no form.

If the masters of the world followed this path,

There would be no dissatisfaction among the ten thousand beings.

The people wouldn’t need laws,

Everyone would know the right thing to do.

It was like when Heaven and Earth were united,

Under the sweetness of dew.

Far from the essence,

So as not to suffer so much,

The people had to learn about limits.

In the world, the Tao is like a river to the sea.

I had a lesson in the ancient Eastern sacred text while chatting informally about a mundane issue. The true sages are gentle and almost imperceptible. Li Tzu was one of them.

(This text was adapted from an extract from the book we wrote on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, with a translation by Li Tzu himself, which will be published in 2022. Occasional events of incredible synchronicity led us to anticipate this small part of the work).

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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