Back to the top of the world

I told the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, that I would spend my birthday at the Takshang Monastery, close to the city of Paro, in Bhutan. I longed for the silence and energy of this hard-to-reach Buddhist monastery, wedged in the Himalayas, to meditate and reflect about my life at that moment, more particularly about the company where I was a partner. We had received a proposal for a merger from another firm, much larger and with international range, which would entail a major financial gain and a substantial change in my lifestyle. From having to wear a suit to moving to a different city, not to mention having to attend numerous meetings and to comply with the routine procedures of big companies. My partners, there were three of us, were very excited with the prospect. My heart did not allow me to share such excitement. Our firm sailed on calm waters; we were not rich, but we did have a comfortable life and, particularly, I had time to devote myself to other activities that are important to me, such as the Order, the studies, writing, meeting friends, spending time with my family among other intangible assets. However, not often does an opportunity arise when you can climb financial ladder, and I was being pressured to make a prompt decision. Changes in my lifestyle were what was distressing me. Doubt corroded me.

The Old Man advised me: “I like transformations, they are good signs of evolution. However, not every fruit is sweet; not every rule is absolute; not every change is transformational. When you leave Bhutan, take the road that comes down the Himalayas on the Chinese side. You will pass a nice village. Stop there and look for Li Tzu, the Taoist master. Let yourself be enchanted with all that happens.” I thanked him and left, without understanding exactly what the monk meant.

When I was about to leave Paro, I thought about not stopping at the village to look for the Old Man’s friend; however, I let the flow of events lead me and, bottom line, I decided to stop for a visit. The first pleasant surprise was the small Chinese village itself. Pretty and pleasant, it oozed with an odd sense of comfort, despite its extreme simplicity. People were kind and seemed unhurried. In addition to the tremendous amount of flowers everywhere, there were many westerners on the streets and, much to my surprise, I had a hard time getting a room in the only inn of the city. In fact, I had a lucky break because a Dane had to return to his country earlier than scheduled due to unforeseen circumstances. They were all there to visit the Taoist master. Then I learned that Li Tzu had a degree in Botany from a prestigious English university and practiced the traditional Chinese medicine, with treatments based on acupuncture, herbal teas and the Tao, the age-old Oriental wisdom written by Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, the Book of the Path of Virtue. He used needles, herbs and words to heal the body and the soul.

Li Tzu’s house was one of the most charming places I have ever been. Plants everywhere, that was to be expected; the entire house was made of wood, with a lovely pond in the front and a beautiful bonsai garden in the backyard. An elegant cat acted as if it owned the place. The music that sprang from all around was the sound of harmonious silence. The botanist moved around quite serenely, his tone of voice was smooth, and his gestures were composed. When I introduced myself, he cracked a sincere smile and said he had been waiting for me. He added that he had tremendous admiration for the Old Man, whom he met many years ago at the university, even though they attended different schools. “The law of affinity is relentless,” he said, sure that he had given an obvious explanation. I imagined they were about the same age. Next, he offered me tea, and lead me to sit in a comfortable armchair. I told him the reason why I had come see him. He just nodded, as if saying he had understood. I told him I was impressed with the quietness that reigned in that place. Li Tzu explained: “Each home reflects the owner’s soul. I made peace with time and with my emotions, so that happiness could have a final dwelling place.” Next, he gave me a small piece of paper with Tao’s chapter forty-four:

“Fame or person, which is more important?

Person or money, which is more precious?

Winning or losing, which is worse?

He who is too attached will suffer much.

He who saves much will lose much.

He who is satisfied with little has nothing to fear,

He who knows when to stop runs no risk.

This is how we perfume our life.”

And he asked me: “Please, read carefully, again and again; then come back tomorrow.” I thanked him and did as he said. On the following days, he would either offer me some tea or give me an acupuncture session, while keeping on asking me to continue to read that excerpt and return on the following day. This happened for a week. Typically, I would have lost my patience and would have left, for sure, regretting the time I had wasted. But that did not happen that time. The words of the Old Man kept reverberating in my mind, and I let myself be enthralled by the pleasant energy that surrounded me, and that required no major effort. Even though, by then I knew the words by heart, I refused to be hasty and consciously dominated my anxiety. Why would I lose patience, if peace was all I needed in that place? I had an odd feeling that, contrary to what I would expect, time can also wait. The immediate consequence was clarity in my reasoning, which gradually strengthened the choices I would have to make. Little by little I replaced the drums of the world for the sweet flute of the heart. I tried to amuse myself guessing whether on the following day I would be received with herbs or needles. On the seventh day, it was the turn of words.

Li Tzu sat next to me and asked me to interpret the poem. I said I noticed the rhythm and resonance of the verses, but I found them confusing, as they addressed different things at the same time, without clarifying much. The Taoist said with his smooth voice: “This chapter addresses an essential aspect: an important choice defines the next destination.” He paused briefly and continued: “It speaks of the sense the person will give to their own life. A fork in which one way points to fortune and fame, the achievement of success and power through material assets; the other indicates personal evolution in the quest for plenitude and wholeness of being, with peace being the natural outcome of evolution.” I interrupted to ask if money and spirituality either confront or nullify one another. Li Tzu looked at me as if I were a child and explained: “Neither of these. It is possible to do many good things with money. It is a wonderful tool that may elicit smiles from everyone. However, it can also nourish the shadows of humankind. It is like a knife that can help the cook prepare a flavorful stew or be used by a murderer and disseminate pain.” He furrowed his brow and said with didactic seriousness: “Check how the internet and its social networks, just to make the example more current, are capable of making people closer and build bridges or sow dissent and build walls. Knives, Internet, money, you name it, are just tools. Each person defines the work they will build with them. We can either embellish a pretty square where everyone will be invited to a happy dance party or build a fortified castle to hide fear.” He became silent for a moment, and then added: “Each person decides the function and the power of money in their lives. This shapes destiny itself and reveals their current level of awareness and love.”

“Next the poem speaks about winning of losing. We are conditioned to believe that winning makes us victorious, right? Is victory in the shine of appearance or in the light of essence? What is the worth of a luxurious jail without bars and the loss of the simplicity of wings for unimaginable flights? One must understand the limits and the meaning of money within ourselves at each choice we make. Or we will lose in the proportion to what we have gained. At all times it can either offer a banquet to the ego or a feast to the soul. Each person chooses the one they will attend.”

“Then, the writer explains the importance of detachment.” He closed his eyes as if looking for the best words and continued: “The person whose ego is still not aligned with the soul carries in them a frailty that must be compensated by the admiration of those that surround them. Money, not to mention countless ideas and notions developed from cultural conditionings, ends up being the shallow goal to be achieved, according to the illusion that happiness is to have, rather than to be. In the end, we become dependent on countless things; at first, material things, but since they are not satisfying, they lead to emotional crises. Any dependence, whether material or emotional, reflects one’s lack of self- knowledge. These are the root of all pains. So, we mistake the medicine and take poison instead, deluding ourselves that it is the cure: we mutilate the spirit to keep the assets intact; we allow peace to starve to death so that our bank account fatten; we inflate selfishness in order to bend the other to our will; we run over everything so that our reason prevails. How often, out of fear of the future, we deviate from our course to catch more and more fruits, of which we will only eat some, many will rot, and the remainder will be kept in a basket, making it so heavy we will be unable to move on? You must realize that all that we have or all that we are, but are unable to share, does not translate into Light.”

“Therefore, this ancient text provides many signposts to the walker, by saying that ‘he who is satisfied with little has nothing to fear’, because the universe, in its Infinite love and wisdom, will always provide, in the precise measure of your learning needs. The universe has no commitment with your wishes”. He sipped some tea and continued to explain: “Of course no one should abuse themselves, impose deprivations on their bodies, become an ascetic, live as a beggar or give up the honey of life. This only reflects lack of knowledge of the cosmic laws and it is offensive to the spirit, to the core of each person and to the universe as a whole, of which we are part of, which expands second by second, and which works towards evolution and well-being. Harmony and balance are necessary. To know the limits of oneself means to understand the virtue of lightness: the less you need, the freer you are.”

“Dependence, because it is a creation of the ego still in its early stage, engaged with its own shadows, ends up being a jail. Every wish that is disproportionate is an oppressive jailor.” He looked me in the eyes and asked: “Do you understand better the challenges you must overcome? Do you know where your battlefield is? To be great in the eyes of the world we cannot or do not need to lose the greatness that stems from the heart”.

He looked deep into my eyes before speaking: “Only those who are small want to conquer the world. Great people know that fortune is to get the better of themselves.” And added, to conclude: “This is how we perfume life.”

When I went down the mountain, it seemed that my feet didn’t even touch the ground. Never was a decision so easy to make.


Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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