I was back to the Himalayas. I had promised myself to return once a year to the Chinese village close to Tibet to study the Tao with Li Tzu. The only hostel in the village was always fully booked by students from all parts of the world eager to learn more about the ancient Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue. Reservations, in practice, were of little use and did not ensure room availability. Complaints were almost never effective, because the old lady in charge of the hostel would respond, always with a smile, in English or Mandarin, depending on her willingness to be understood. In the small area where the reception was located, I was disputing with a huge man, over 6 feet tall, strong as a bodybuilder, who would get the last available room. We both had reservations; mine had been made before his, but he arrived at the hostel some minutes before I did. We were discussing, each one with our reasons and arguments, before the old lady, who seemed to be amused, as she did not stop smiling, even though the tone of our discussion escalated at each word we said. Until the moment he grabbed the room key from the old lady’s hand and said that the matter was settled: he would keep the room unless I could retrieve the key from him. Filled with rage, I did not react. The difference in physical strength declared I was going to be beaten senseless, if I accepted to play by the rules of my opponent. I asked the old lady to do something against that arbitrary act. She just shrugged her shoulders and said something in her language which I interpreted as “there is nothing I can do”. Always with a smile on her face, of course. As if it weren’t enough, and with a devastating effect on me, I still had to listen to some provocations and unpleasant jokes by my adversary while I was leaving the hostel.
I went to meet Li Tzu and told him all that happened. In response, the Taoist master asked me to have some tea with him. I closed my eyes to control my rage and only nodded with the head. We went to the kitchen and he, unhurriedly, put a mix of dehydrated leaves in a strainer, to subsequently infuse them in hot water for a few minutes. He did it without uttering a word. Very annoyed, I asked him if he was not going to comment about what I had just told him. Li Tzu answered: “Right now, I will remain silent. Silence allows you to listen to your heart. It will always be the best master.” When the tea was ready, he filled two cups and placed them on the rustic wood table. Then, he said: “You lost the battle.” I asked him if he was saying that I should have reacted violently and fought for the key. He shook his head in denial and said: “Of course not. Your defeat was established when you allowed yourself to be angry. The shadow was stronger than the light.”
I argued that there was no way I could feel differently; after all, I had been humiliated. The Taoist master frowned his thick and grey eyebrows and explained: “It seems your defeat was even worse. Cursing is an invitation to a dance in darkness. Only those who do not know compassion attend this kind of ball.” He sipped some tea and continued: “Only those who do not have in them the virtue of humility feel humiliated. Humiliation only hits those with a lame spirit, who are still moved by pride and vanity. Compassion is the antidote against the venom of offense and sarcasm. A shield in the form of a cloak of love that we pour over the aggressor. It is love in the form of wisdom, from the understanding that each one acts to the precise measure of their level of awareness and emotional capacity. Compassion knows that roses do not blossom in the desert. The way we react in face of unpleasant situations reflects the distance we were already able to travel on the Path and which flowers have blossomed in our Garden of Virtues. Only those who carry in themselves the shadows of pride and vanity can feel humiliated. Humility is cure. It transmutes darkness and dissolves humiliation into petals of light. No one becomes a walker or a gardener without the amphora of humility.”
I turned my nose up. I said that an amphora was a type of ancient jar, and humility was for the weak. I argued that the issue was not the cursing, but the fact that I had come from far away to study the Tao and had no place to sleep. Indeed, I added, I had reasons to be angry. Undisturbed, Li Tzu said: “You can sleep in the back shed, where the bonsais are kept. But you will be in charge of watering them twice a day and putting them under the sun very early every morning. If you agree, I advise you to go to the corner store at the village. They have some climbing gear. Get yourself a sleeping bag.” I thanked him and accepted his offer. I asked when we would begin our classes. He immediately replied: “The classes have already begun. At the hostel.”
Days passed by, but I did not have a chance to talk to Li Tzu again; he was always attentive to the many travelers who came seeking knowledge about the Tao. I entertained myself with the bonsais, until one day I received a message to read chapter 11 of the book:
“We mold clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.
We fashion wood for a house,
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes it livable.
We work with the substantial,
but the emptiness is what we use.”
I was still thinking about those words when the Taoist master approached me. I said I had read the poem and did not agree with the reasoning. I added that a person, different from a jar or an amphora, could not have an empty core. Their value was in what they had inside. I mentioned that I had graduated from a famous university and had a masters and a doctoral degree. It did not make sense to put all that knowledge to waste. Li Tzu listened to my speech with tremendous patience. At the end, he looked at me with sweetness and said: “You are an educated man, and I bow to your knowledge. However, all that you have learned was of no use in the quarrel you had at the hostel.” I interrupted him to say the other guest was aggressive and authoritarian. I had been the victim. The Taoist master remained composed: “Yes, that is true. However, you allowed yourself to be enraged. Anger and all related feelings, such as sorrow or resentment, imbalance tremendously the soul, to such a degree it is like all molecules of your soul were hammered. If that wasn’t enough, it still binds you to the aggressor out of affinity of feelings. You must put your knowledge to use, to protect yourself from the former and to free yourself from the latter”, he explained.
I disagreed. I said no knowledge can place a gag in the mouth of inelegant people. Li Tzu nodded and explained: “I agree once again. However, it is not about silencing the other, but preventing verbal arrows from hitting you.” Ironically, I asked if I should put the pot on my head, so that perhaps I would not listen to the offenses. The Taoist master laughed heartily and looked at me with kindness. I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, what compassion and mercy were. Instead of being upset, he had fun with the poison I delivered. I felt I had been rude, rough, and became ashamed of my own sarcasm. Li Tzu kept his composure: “The bread only becomes food in the mouth; while it is in the window, it will not fulfill its destiny. Knowledge is only valuable when put into practice. It must be useful or will lose its purpose. No one needs anyone to be happy, but we all need one another to evolve. The lessons are present in relationships. A hermit, as knowledgeable as he may be, if he does not leave his cave he will remain stagnated. Knowledge only turns into wisdom when in motion.” He paused briefly and added: “But that is not all. The true wise person acknowledges the need to evolve. To that end, they must accept, sincerely and humbly, their status as an eternal apprentice.”
I said that I had doubts if humility was, indeed, a virtue. I have always considered it a minor feature, typical of people who did not have great dreams. Li Tzu looked at me as someone who is amused with a stubborn child and explained: “Humility is the virtue of saints and of truly wise people. You are only great if you understand the greatness of being small. Or there is no room to grow. The small will not change their size if they delusionally see themselves as great.
“Pride and vanity are shadows that nourish the illusion that we are bigger and better, and imprison the true self in darkness. Every intellectual, while bragging about their knowledge, is far from becoming wise. Everyone who thinks they are the bees knees, while they are proud of their strength or conceited with the power they have is but a frail person, being an easy target. They will remain a fool, a social character of themselves. They will live off weak applauses that nourish the ego and weaken the soul; a decorated appearance, a debilitated essence. This is because the amphora of humility, filled with pride, moldy due to vanity, does not have room for the new, this means, for transformation. It is filled with ideas that are of no use because they halt the person. Luckily, oftentimes, life presents itself as tragedy and chaos, so that the jar, filled with precious uselessness, breaks. The universe is committed to the evolution of each one. No one will be left out, not even those who are petty and stubborn. We are inseparable parts of the whole. Renewal is indispensable and relentless. Either we renew and move on or we will stagnate and suffer until our amphora is broken, there is no other option. You must be empty or you won’t be able to add anything to yourself. This amphora is called humility.”
“When the person fills it up with virtues, the jar remains empty so that there is always room for other, new virtues. Endlessly. Only the virtues allow the walker to move forward on the Path. The true virtue does not have weight, it gives wings; it fills without taking up room; it has power but no will of domination; it has value but does not wish to show off. Humility is the first portal and the necessary requirement to achieve all other virtues the Tao talks about.”
I claimed I never looked at humility with favorable eyes. I had always related it to poverty, weakness and ignorance. Li Tzu shook his head in denial and said: “It is just the opposite. Humility is a virtue filled with lucidity because, by knowing exactly who we are, we acknowledge what we are yet to be; this is the entrance ticket. We are talking about the person who sees themself simple in spirit, but who is willing to achieve and let settle in them each one of the virtues that make up the Light. They already understand that this is the true richness. And it does not have to be kept in a safe, because it can’t be stolen.” He made a brief pause before continuing: “It becomes the virtue of the strong, of those who cannot be humiliated or mistreated because they are unattainable. Because they are banal, the stones of offense, despise, neglect, mockery and constraints thrown by everyone are seen as hissy fits of unhappy, spoiled, disoriented children, unable to reach it.”
I said that I had a feeling that humble people did not love themselves. Li Tzu explained: “The humble love themselves without abandoning the truth. This is the greatness of humility. Only by doing so they are able to detach from delusions that bring suffering and darkness that drain their strength and set them away from happiness and peace. They are not ashamed of their imperfections; on the contrary, they serve as inspiration for the moral and spiritual enrichment they seek. Achieving humility marks a new chapter in the life of the person, as it designs a new code of understanding and behaviour, guiding other virtues to be settled in by the soul.”
We drank tea without uttering a word. At the end, Li Tzu went back to his affairs. On the days that followed, while I looked after the bonsais, I thought about the poem of the Tao and the conversation we had had. Little by little, the discussion at the hostel lost magnitude and importance, until I found myself laughing of the ridiculousness of the situation. I felt light. Would that be the wings the Taoist master talked about?
In that afternoon, I had to go to the village for some shopping. By chance – if, in fact, there is such thing as chance –, I bumped into that huge man I had quarreled with. He was leaving, and I noticed that, despite his size, he was having trouble to carry his suitcase. He explained that he had a muscle contraction in the back, and it was hard for him to perform even the most simple movements. I moved forward, he moved back, thinking, perhaps, that I would take the chance to assault him and revenge myself. I confess the thought occurred to me, but at the time my will to do so was none. I grabbed the suitcase and we walked for some time, side by side, in silence, until I put it on the rack of the bus he was going to take. The countenance of the man was different than when I first met him, upon my arrival at the hostel. He was sincere in his thanks and said that “without the former, there would not be the latter.” He thanked me once again. I just closed my eyes and smiled, appreciatively, in response. We hugged. We had both been blessed with precious learnings.
When I went back, I told Li Tzu it was time for me to leave and told him what had happened. I said I understood the need to keep the amphora of humility empty so that new ideas and virtues could find a place within me. The Taoist master nodded his head in agreement, gave me a beautiful smile as a gift and completed the lesson: “But this is not enough. The amphora should not be filled with the ‘self’. In addition to ideas and virtues, there should also be room for the other. Or nothing will make sense and humility will be lost in itself.”
On that day, while I walked on the streets of the village, I had an odd feeling I could fly.