Two Stories About Mountains

Here where I stand

After having won many archery competitions, the town champion sought out the Zen master.
“I am the best of all,” he said. “I did not learn religion, I did not look for help from the monks, and I have been considered the best archer in the whole region. I heard that some time ago you were the best archer in the area, so I ask you: did you have to become a monk to learn to shoot arrows?
“No,” answered the Zen master.
But the champion was not satisfied: he took out an arrow, placed it in his bow, fired, and hit a cherry at a considerable distance. He smiled, as if to say: “You could have saved your time and just dedicated yourself to technique.” And he said:
“I doubt if you can do the same.”
Without demonstrating the least concern, the master took his bow and began to walk towards a nearby mountain. On the way there was an abyss that could only be crossed by an old rotting rope bridge that was almost falling down: with the utmost calm, the Zen master went to the middle of the bridge, took his bow, placed an arrow, aimed at a tree on the other side of the gulch, and hit the target.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said gently to the young man as he walked back to safe ground.
In trepidation, looking at the abyss below him, the young man went to the indicated spot and fired an arrow, but it landed very far from the target.
“That’s what one gets from discipline and practicing meditation,” concluded the master when the young man re-appeared at his side. “You can be very skilled with the instrument you have chosen to earn a living, but it’s all useless if you can’t manage to master the mind that uses the instrument.”

Contemplating the desert

Three people who were passing in a small caravan saw a man contemplating the sunset in the Sahara desert from the top of a mountain.
“It must be a shepherd who has lost a sheep and is trying to find it,” said the first.
“No, I don’t think he is looking for something, especially not at sunset – that confuses your vision. I think he is waiting for a friend.”
“I bet he’s a holy man looking for enlightenment,” commented the third.
They began to discuss what the man was doing, and got so involved in the discussion that they nearly ended up fighting with one another. Finally, to find out who was right, they decided to climb the mountain and ask the man.
“Are you looking for your sheep?” asked the first.
“No, I don’t have a flock.”
“Then you must be waiting for someone,” claimed the second.
“I am a lonely man who lives in the desert,” was the answer.
“Since you live in the desert, and in solitude, then we have to believe that you are a holy man in search of God, and you are meditating!” asserted the third man, content with this conclusion.
“Does everything on Earth need to have an explanation? So let me explain: I am here just looking at the sunset: isn’t that enough to lend a meaning to our lives?”

The letter I can't answer

Justin FullerThe letter that I can’t answer is lying right here on my desk. It reached me through the efforts of a Dutch couple who sent me an e-mail in June 2006. I lent it no importance, and did not answer. At the end of that same month they wrote again, and again I paid no attention. And then came the warning phrased in more serious words:

“This is the last time we are asking you this favor. It is up to you to write to Justin or not. Or to put it better, it is up to your conscience. I got to know your books because he recommended them. Yours truly, Jacobus” (I shall omit his surname).

I read the text of the e-mail carefully: it says that Justin Fuller, prisoner #999266 at the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas, will be executed exactly on my birthday, the 24th August. His lawyer, Don Bailey, has already been to all the appeal courts, and it looks like the cause is lost. They are not asking me to denounce the fact publicly, or to take some position on the case: they just want me to send this reader some comforting words.

I type Justin’s name in a search tool. I see his photo, then I discover that there is a page with the names of all those who are (or have been) in death row in Texas. I see his criminal record at www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/fullerjustin.htm

I write the letter. The week following my birthday, Jacobus writes to me once more: Justin received it, and answered me before he was executed. The letter is waiting for me in a hotel I usually stay at in a certain town, and that I used as the sender’s address.

Finally, at the end of October 2006, I stop at the hotel. I know that a letter from a man condemned to death awaits me. I know that he has already been executed. I collect the letter, enter a bar, and read the words from someone whom I will never be able to answer. Whom I will never be able to ask permission to publish extracts, but since we are talking about a true aberration of justice – death as an instrument of the State – I shall copy some parts:

“Dear Mr. Coelho:

“Death row is the arena where the policies of Power, Retribution and Violence are applied to a man using materials such as concrete and steel, until this man turns into steel and his heart becomes as hard as concrete. However, though steel can be hard, it can still be flexible, and though the heart can be transformed into concrete, it still beats. Beyond the concrete and the steel stands the man, his love of life, and the great principles that rule human beings.

“Your letter surprised me. And it is very strange that my transcendence (Justin always uses this term instead of “execution”) is to take place just on your birthday. Of course, I hope it does not take place, but we both know that life is always accompanied by death. In the USA they execute prisoners in the name of what they call “justice” without taking into account whether they can be well represented in court, the circumstances of their birth and their family environment.

“While I wait out the last appeal to the Supreme Court, I feel full of life and strong, and my spirit is completely free.

“If I transcend, I will finally be able to float in the wind and enjoy freedom. I have realized that although my body is imprisoned, my life has changed and my soul can still love, because all freedom is mental. Many people in this world, although they are on the outside of prison, are far more in bondage than I am.

“Only when these people come to understand that freedom is a state of the mind will they be able to really enjoy it.”
The letter that I couldn’t answer is much longer. It describes the relationship that we built through my books, and it wishes me and my family all the best. And now it sits on my desk.

The letter that I couldn’t answer, from a man condemned to death, arrested when he was 19 years old and executed when he was 27, contains not a word of lamentation: it speaks of freedom and life.

As if it were the first time

I would like to believe that I am going to look on this new year as if it were the first time that 365 days have unfolded before my eyes. To see the people around me with surprise and amazement, happy to discover that they are by my side and sharing something so often mentioned and so seldom understood, called love.

I shall climb on the first bus that comes along without asking where it is going to and I shall get off as soon as I see something that catches my attention. I shall pass by a beggar who asks me for some spare change. Maybe I’ll give him something, maybe I’ll think that he will spend it on drink and just walk past – hearing his insults and understanding that that is the way he has to communicate with me. I shall pass by someone who is trying to wreck a telephone booth. Maybe I’ll try to stop them, maybe I’ll understand that they are doing that because there is nobody to talk to on the other side of the line and that is their way of chasing off loneliness.

On each of these 365 days I shall look at everything and everybody as if it were the first time – especially the small things that I am not used to and whose magic I have forgotten. The keys of my computer, for example, that move with an energy that I fail to understand. The paper that appears on the screen and for a long time has not been revealed in a physical manner, although I believe that I am writing on a white sheet where it is easy to make corrections by pressing a key. At the side of the computer monitor are some papers that I do not have the patience to put in order, but if I feel that they are hiding something new, than all these letters, memoranda, newspaper cuttings and receipts will gain a life of their own and will have odd stories of the past and the future to tell me. So many things in the world, so many paths trodden, so many entrances and exits in my life.

I am going to put on a shirt that I wear a lot and for the first time I shall pay attention to the label and the way it was sewn, and I am going to imagine the hands that designed it and the machines that changed this design into something material and visible.

And even the things that I am used to – such as my bow and arrows, the breakfast coffee mug, the boots that have become an extension of my feet after wearing them so much – will be coated in the mystery of discovery. Let everything that my hand touches, my eyes see and my mouth taste be different now, although they been the same for many a year. In that way they will no longer be still-lifes and start to convey the secret of having been with me for such a long time, and they will show me the miracle of coming into touch again with emotions already worn down by routine.

I want to look at the sun for the first time, if the sun comes out tomorrow, or at cloudy weather, if tomorrow is overcast. Above my head there is a sky for which all of humanity – over thousands of years of observation – has given a series of reasonable explanations. Well, I shall forget everything I have ever learned about the stars, and they will once more turn into angels, or children, or anything else that I feel like believing in at the moment.
Time and life have changed everything into something perfectly understandable – and I need mystery, the thunder that is the voice of an angry god rather than just a simple electric discharge that sets off vibrations in the atmosphere. I want to fill my life again with fantasy, because an angry god is far more curious, frightening and interesting than a phenomenon of physics.

And finally, let me look at myself on each of these 365 days as if it were the first time that I was in contact with my body and my soul. Let me look at this person who walks, feels and talks like any other, let me feel surprised at his most simple gestures, like chatting to the mailman, opening his correspondence, contemplating his wife sleeping at his side, wondering what she is dreaming about.

And so I shall remain what I am and what I like to be, a constant surprise to myself. This I who was not created by my father or by my mother, nor by my school, but by all that I have lived so far – suddenly I forgot and am discovering it all over again.

Seventh deadly sin : Sloth

Here we are, almost in the middle of the year. I’ve never believed in coincidences, but feel that having written the series about cardinal sins without thinking about the calendar, and noting that sloth ends up being published when many of our decisions on January 1 are already underway or abandoned, should be a sign for all of us.

Dictionary definition: feminine noun, from the Latin Prigritia. Aversion to work, negligence, indolence.

For the Catholic Church: all live beings that move should earn their daily bread with the sweat of their face, and not be always thinking about safe and immediate results. Sloth is lack of physical or spiritual effort, which degenerates the soul and leads to sadness and depression.

An old fable passed on orally: As soon as he died, Juan found himself in a very beautiful place, surrounded by the comfort and beauty that he had dreamt of. A person dressed in white came up: ‘you have the right to whatever you want: any food, pleasure, fun”, he said.
Delighted, Juan did everything he had dreamt of during life. After many years of pleasures, he looked for the person in white:
“I’ve already done everything I wanted to”, he said. “Now I need some work, to feel useful”.
“I’m very sorry”, said the person in white, “but this is the only thing that I cannot get for you. Here there is no work”.
“To spend eternity dying of tedium? I would prefer a thousand times to be in hell!”
The person in white came up, and said in a low voice:
“Where do you think you are?”

According to Winnie Albert: How can a society survive if it is increasingly more focused on frozen foods, instant photographs, mashed potatoes, speed reading and electronic calculators?

Sociology of sloth: Both he who overworks, and those that refuse to work, are reacting in the same way – trying to get away from the natural problems of any human being, avoiding thinking about the close reality and about the responsibilities inherent to a normal life (Source: The compulsive worker, Oxford, 2001)

According to Buddhism: Traditionally, sloth is one of the principal obstacles to awakening the soul. It is manifested in three ways: the sloth of comfort, which makes us stay always in the same place. Sloth of the heart, when we feel discouraged and unstimulated. Finally, the sloth of bitterness, when nothing matters more to us, and we are already not part of this world (Source: Pema Shodron in Shambala Sun, November 1998)

Comment from the Tao Te King: A man on the path adapts to the Path. An upright man adapts to Virtue. A man who loses something resigns himself to the Loss. He who adapts to the Path is happily accepted by it. He that is upright is accepted by Virtue. He that resigns himself to the loss is accepted by the Loss.

Therefore, already almost in mid-2007: We are accustomed to asking ourselves: Where does inspiration come from? Where is the joy of living? Is all this effort worth while, because during all the year gone by I tried to go beyond my limits, I sustained my family, I behaved as well as possible, and even so I did not arrive where I wanted to?
A warrior of the light understands that awakening is a long process, and that it is necessary to balance contemplation and work to get where one wants. It is not reflecting on what one did not get that he will change; quite the contrary, in these questions is the germ of inaction, of lack of incentive. Yes, perhaps we have done everything right and the results are not visible, but I am certain: there are results. They will surely be revealed as we go along- if we do not give up now.
Happy work to everyone.

Fourth Deadly Sin : Wrath

According to the dictionary: feminine noun, from the Latin Ira. Choler, anger, indignation, rage, desire for revenge.

For the Catholic Church: Wrath is not only against others, but can turn back against someone who lets hate sow seeds in his heart. In this case usually he is led to suicide. We need to understand that punishment and its imposition belong to God.

In “Verba Seniorum” (The Word of the Ancients): Two wise men who lived in the same chapel in the Sahara desert, chatted one day: “Let’s fight so that we don’t become disassociated from the human being, or we will end up not understanding properly the passions that torture him”, said one of them.
“I don’t know how to begin a fight”.
“Well, we will do the following: I am putting this brick here in the middle, and you say to me: it’s mine. I will answer: no, this brick is mine. Then we will begin arguing and we will end up fighting”.
And so they did. One said that the brick was his. The other argued, saying it was not. “Don’t let’s waste time over this, keep this brick,” said the first. “Your idea for a fight was not very good. When we perceive that we have an immortal soul, it is impossible to fight over things”.

In a laboratory study: Janice Williams followed up for six years 13,000 men and women aged between 45 and 64 years and, basing herself on their behavior, discovered that people who get intensely irritated, and frequently, have three times more chances of having a heart attack than those that face adversities more serenely (Williams, 2000).
That happens because, at each episode of Anger, the organism releases an extra load of adrenalin in the bloodstream. The high concentration of adrenalin raises the number of heartbeats and, at the same time, makes the blood vessels narrower, raising blood pressure. The repetition of such episodes may give rise to two problems usually associated to the heart attack: alteration of the heart rate and a sudden dilation of fatty deposits that might be in the arteries. (Source: Ballone G.J. – Anger and Hate, negative emotions)

In popular Brazilian music: While there is strength in my heart I don’t want anything else/ Just revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Crying out to the saints / You have to roll like the stones that roll on the road / without ever having a place of your own to be able to rest in. (Lupicí­nio Rodrigues)

In the words of William Blake: I was angry with my friend: I mentioned this to him, and the anger went. I was angry with my enemy: I didn’t mention it to him, and the anger increased.

On hate for foreigners (xenophobia): “All Western countries are infiltrated by Moslems. Some of them are even able to talk amiably, while they wait for the moment to kill us. They say that the events of September 11 (2001) happened because of a shock of civilizations. That is a lie: a shock of civilizations calls for two distinct civilizations and that is not the case. There is only one civilization: ours. ” (Statements made by the leaders of the Danish People’s Party – – DPP – sowing the seeds of hate and the new Fascism, which Europe and the entire world are watching grow without taking serious steps)

Comment from the Tao Te King: All weapons are instruments of evil and are absolutely not the instruments of the wise prince. He uses them only when urged by necessity. Calm and repose are what he appreciates; victory by the force of weapons is undesirable for him.
Considering it necessary is a sign that the man takes pleasure in killing other men, and he who takes pleasure in that killing may not run an empire.
When we want to weaken someone, we should first strengthen him. If we want to defeat him, we must first raise him. If we intend to deprive him, we must first give him presents. This is what is called subtle discernment.
Thus, the submissive and the weak will conquer the tough and strong.

(next: Gluttony)

Third deadly sin : Lust

Dictionary definition: Feminine noun, derived from the Latin Luxuria. Lechery, sensuality, lasciviousness. It can also be defined as luxuriance in plants, or exuberance of sap.

According to the Catholic Church: Inordinate desire for sexual pleasure. Desires and acts are inordinate when they do not conform to the divine purpose, which is to propitiate mutual love between spouses and to beget offspring. It goes against the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not sin against chastity).

According to Henry Kissinger: There is nothing more aphrodisiacal than power.

In a Buddhist story: Chu and Wu returned home after a week’s meditation in the monastery. They talked about how temptations appear before man.
They reached the banks of a river. There, a beautiful woman was waiting to cross the river. Chu picked her up in his arms, carried to the other side and continued his journey with his friend.
At a certain point, Wu said:
“We talked about temptation and you picked up that woman in your arms. It provided an opportunity for sin to enter your soul”.
Chu answered:
“My dear Wu, I behaved naturally. I took that woman across and left her on the other side of the river. But you continued carrying her in your thoughts – and for that reason you are closer to sin”.

From a prostitute’s diary: I earn 350 Swiss Francs to spend an hour with a man. I am exaggerating. If we don’t count taking off clothes, pretending to be affectionate, chatting about something obvious and getting dressed, we will reduce this time to eleven minutes of actual sex.
Eleven minutes. The world revolves around something that takes only eleven minutes. It is because of these eleven minutes in a 24-hour day (considering that all make love with their wives, every day, which is truly absurd and a complete lie), that they marry, sustain a family, put up with the children crying, overdo themselves in explanations when they arrive home late, look at dozens or hundred of other women with whom they would like to stroll around Lake Geneva, buy expensive clothes for themselves, and even more expensive clothes for their wives, pay prostitutes to make up for what was missing without knowing what it is, sustain a gigantic industry of cosmetics, diets, gymnastics, pornography, power – and when they get together with other men, contrary to what the myth says, never talk about women. They talk about jobs, money and sport. There is something very wrong with civilization.

Lust and numbers (in 2002): William Lyon, of the Free Speech Coalition, estimates that just on the internet the pornography sector makes an annual profit of between 10 and 12 billion dollars (23 to 26 billion Reals), well over Microsoft’s profit. In 1999, the Video and Software Sellers Association found that the sale or rental of pornographic films was around 4.1 billion dollars (8.7 billion Reals), exceeding the majority of the very expensive films made in Hollywood (Source: Caslon Analytics Profiles)

The Tao Te King says: Keep the sensitive soul and the animal body in one compartment so that they cannot be separated.
Control the vital force, so that you will be transformed again into a newborn child.
When you banish mysterious visions from your imagination you may, then, become unblemished.
Purify yourself and don’t look for intellectual answers for the Mystery.
When discernment penetrates the four regions, perhaps you will not recognize what gives life and sustains it.
That which gives life does not claim any possession. It benefits, but does not demand gratitude. It commands, but does not exercise authority. That is what is called “mysterious quality”.

(next: Wrath)

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The seven deadly sins: Greed

Dictionary definition: from the Latin Avaritia, a feminine noun: Excessive fondness for money, stinginess, meanness.

Catholic Church definition: Goes against the Ninth and Tenth Commandments (You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house). Inordinate inclination or desire for pleasure or possessions.

For the philosopher Seneca: The poor always want something, the rich want a lot and the greedy want everything.

A story of Priests of the desert: “Holy man” – said a novice to the Father Abbot – My heart is full of love for the world and my soul is free of temptations from the Devil. What is my next step?

The abbot asked the disciple to accompany him on a visit to a sick person who needed extreme unction. After comforting the family, the abbot noticed that in one of the corners of the house there was a trunk.

“What is inside it?” he asked.

“Clothes that my uncle never used”, said the sick man’s nephew.” He bought everything, always thinking that the right occasion would arise to wear them, but they ended up rotting inside it”.

“Don’t forget that trunk”, said the Father Abbot to his disciple, when they left. “If you have spiritual treasures in your heart, put them into practice now. Or they will rot away.”

Text commenting on the 1997 Asiatic economic crisis: The brokers bought and sold, convinced that the world would not change, because all they needed to do was to invest more and more and watch their fortunes grow. They didn’t care about the harm they were causing to the currency (Malaysia). Suddenly, 500 billion dollars disappeared out of circulation. When the time came to explain to all those who had lost their savings built up over the years and with much sacrifice, they replied: “it’s the fault of the market.” Actually, they were the market.

Death and Greed: Death and Greed watched the men working feverishly to find diamonds in a river. “I came here to take away some souls,” said Death. “Deliver me a third of these people and I will go away.”

“They belong to me, they are my slaves”, replied Greed. “I have nothing to deliver to you.”

Death then touched the water with his magic rod and poisoned it. Little by little, all who were there began dying.

“Why did you steal all my slaves?” shouted Greed, angrily.

“Because you didn’t want to give me any”, was the answer.

In a speech: because of its inability to produce, the Jewish people are parasites, and their aim is to enslave other peoples. They use greed to manipulate the stupidity of the middle class (Adolf Hitler, preparing the ground for the Holocaust, which cost the lives of six million Jews).

Many centuries before, the Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon used to say: The Lord sent to Man his messengers, called diseases. Eternal Providence put me in charge of caring for their health. Let the love for what I do guide me at every moment. Never let greed, or the thirst for power, or the desire for recognition, blind me and make me forget that a man’s objective is to give the best of what he has to another man.

Advice from the Tao Te King: The five colors blind human eyes. The five notes deafen their ears. The five tastes harm the palate. Races and hunts set off furious and savage passions in the heart.

Goods hard to get cause wounds because of dangerous obstacles. For that reason (…) the wise man rejects the superficial and prefers to dive into the deep.

(next: Lust)

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The seven deadly sins : Pride

The seven cardinal sins were eight, organized at the beginning of Christianity by the Greek monk Evágrio do Ponto, and defining the principal negative inclinations of the human being (it is curious that on Evágrio’s list, the most serious sin is gluttony…). All of them were able to take us to hell. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory made the first changes in the list, including “envy” but merging pride and vanity. In the 17th century the list was rewritten again, and “melancholy” ceased to be a sin, being replaced by “sloth”. Now we have today’s list as a basis on which the next seven columns will be based.

According to the dictionary: Feminine noun, pride comes from the Latin Superbia. It means haughtiness, conceit, arrogance, presumption.

According to the Catholic Church: Self-esteem that goes beyond limits and places itself above love for God. It goes against the First Commandment (You shall have no other gods before Me), and it was this passion that caused the rebellion of the angels and the fall of Lucifer.

In a Zen fable: The grand master of Tofuku noted that the monastery was busy. Novices ran back and forth, employees stood in line to receive someone.

“What’s happening?” he wanted to know.

A soldier came up to the master and gave him a card which said: “Kitagaki, the governor of Kyoto, has just arrived and is asking for an interview.”

“I don’t have anything to discuss with this person”, said the master.

Minutes later, the governor came up, apologized, crossed out what was on the card and delivered it again to the master.

It said: “Kitagaki asks for an interview”.

“Welcome”, said the Zen master of Tofuku.

On an aircraft carrier: “MISSION FULFILLED” (banner on the USS Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when President Bush announced the end of the major military operations in Iraq. On that day, the number of American soldiers dead came to 217. On the day that I am writing this column, the figure has exceeded 2,700)

For Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “When someone tries to discover who you are, using secondary things as a way of comparison, he finds a series of empty shells – which depend on each other to make sense.

“It is not correct to define yourself as a friend of Tom, son of Dick, an executive in such a post, doing this or that task”. Because all we will discover through this method are aspects of ourselves – aspects that are usually gloomy and incomplete, of someone who is trying to become visible at the expense of others.

“The only relationship possible is with the Lord; from then on, everything begins to make sense, and we open our eyes to a greater meaning”.

According to St. Augustine: Pride is not grandeur, it is swollen-headedness. What swells seems big, but really it is a disease.

Advice from the Tao Te King: It is better not to fill a vase completely rather than try to carry it if it is full.

When we sharpen a knife too much, its cutting edge will not be preserved.

When gold and jade fill a room, their owners will be unable to keep them safe.

When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, for sure evil will come soon after.

When we do our work and our name begins to become famous, wisdom consists of withdrawing into obscurity as soon as the task ends.

(next: Greed)

At Saint George's Castle, September 2006

In my opinion, loneliness is the worst of all evils. Unlike hunger, thirst and illness, which force us to take an attitude when they affect us, loneliness is often masked under an aura of virtue and renunciation.

But today I am alone because I have chosen to be alone.

This is a special day for me; I stroll through the soft European autumn, walk down a wide avenue, pass by people who talk about souls or tobacco shops. I walk through Lisbon; climb up to Saint George’s Castle, look at the Tagus and the Atlantic, and try not to think about anything.

In a short while the sun will be rising in Brazil, the bookstores will be opening, and for the very first time my new book will be held in a reader’s hand. After so many titles published, perhaps you imagine that I am used to it all. But I am not, thank God. I still feel the same excitement and enthusiasm as I did when “The Pilgrimage” was brought out 20 years ago.

I take this notebook from my pocket and begin to write; besides being enthusiastic and excited, do I also feel afraid? I stop, listen to the wind in the trees, reflect for a while, then write: “no, I am not afraid”. At this very moment I am a mixture of the mother giving birth to a baby and a father who finally accepts that his daughter is leaving home to live with her boyfriend.

“Do I think about how the reader is going to react?” I jot down in the notebook. Again I listen to the wind, and back comes the answer: of course I do! After all, I have put the best of myself there, and like anyone else I want my love to be understood. A great Dominican mystic of the 14th century known as Master Eckhart once said: “I am a man, and it is part of human nature to share this with other men.” All that I have looked at, seen and felt on my stroll from the hotel to this castle are attempts to share a little of each of our views of life. The tiles on the facades of the houses, the designs in the Cathedral of Holy Mary Major, the silence of the people at prayer, the man playing his accordion on a hilly street, alien to everything going on around him. Artisans of the past and the present, all trying to say: here is what I think, this is how I am.

Five days ago, autumn began in Europe, although the weather is still warm. But winter will be coming, the cold will probably be implacable, and the trees that at the moment are laden with leaves will sigh in sadness when they fall. They will probably say: “we’ll never be the same again”.

Just as well. Or else, what would be the point of renewal? The next leaves will have their own personality, they will belong to a new summer that is coming and that will never be the same as the summer that has passed.

Living is changing – that is the lesson that the seasons teach us. I too am changed by the new leaves of each new book. Would it be a bit arrogant to say that I do not need to prove anything else to myself? It may not be arrogant, but it is certainly foolish. Although I already have a story to tell my grandchildren, if I have ever any, whoever lives off past successes has lost the meaning of life.

I look again at the Tagus and recall some lines by Fernando Pessoa:

The Tagus takes you out into the world. No-one ever thought about what lies beyond the river in my village. The river in my village does not make you think about anything; when you stand beside it, you’re just standing beside it.

These are the last hours in which the river in my village – my new book – belongs to me alone. And I shall try to stand beside it, without thinking of anything, just looking at Lisbon, listening to the bells, the dogs, the street cries, children laughing and tourists talking. I am like a child, and I am not ashamed to be so excited. I pray to God that He keeps me like that.

The reader has the floor

Anabel (Mérida, Spain)

I don’t know if it is all written down, I don’t know if people write their story when they are born, or before, or while they are alive. But I am convinced that everything that happens in our life has a meaning, and that is why each moment has to be lived intensely. Because it is today that enables us to move ahead, break the ties, let life flow in all its freedom, and understand that loving the moment is what makes us happy. Loving what we see, what we touch, what we don’t understand, loving the unknown, what makes us anxious, the deep and the shallow, but loving nevertheless.

Beba (Islamabad, Pakistan)

Life is absolutely temperamental, and it eventually leads us down paths that we were not absolutely certain or enthusiastic about following. But what would become of us without these surprises? I make a toast to all that is absurd and marvelous that we will continue to come across at each step that lies ahead.

Iris (upon arriving at Santiago de Compostela)

When I reached Obradoiro Square, I wondered: why did I have to face so many difficulties? I joined the endless line to kiss the statue of the saint and it all struck me as absurd, except for catching up with some pilgrims that I had met on the way. Yes, it was all absurd, except the joy of having surmounted my limits and feeling a better person. Just as well that I did not walk like the others. Just as well that I decided to stop whenever the sun set, avoiding thinking about whether I was near a shelter or whether there was food available. Just as well that I ate a plate of lentils that upset me and obliged me to sleep at the foot of a mountain, in a place that I would never have known had it not been for that problem.

Just as well that I overslept and ending up having to spend the night under a star-filled sky. Just as well that I began walking when I felt like it and stopped when I wanted to, without anyone telling me is that was right or wrong. Just as well that I was alone, and so the moon treated me in a very special way. Just as well that I took the wrong turn four hundred times and ended up knowing places that nobody knew. On one of these detours I spent the whole day sitting in front of the door of a convent thinking about my vocation

It was because of so many absurd things and so many “just as well’s” that the whole thing was fun. Because before this my life had a goal, and from now on I will go on walking just for the pleasure of walking.

Maximiliano (Veracruz, Mexico)

Before a storm everything is silent and calm, although we can feel the smell of raindrops. Some days ago I was with a friend and his sister in Porto de Tuxpam. It was Carnival, everyone was having a good time, and right at the climax of the party the sky became filled with clouds, then lightning fell closer and closer, and the rain started. Everyone ran for shelter.

All of a sudden, as if there had been some mysterious communication among the people, we all returned to the street and discovered that the storm only contributed to the world being more fertile and the climate milder. Joy returned, although nobody quite understood why they were so joyful.

One of the most sublime moments that anyone can experience is to live through a storm.

From friend to friend

I learned from my niece that my new book “The Witch of Portobello”, even before it was printed, was already circulating in its full version on the Internet. I was intrigued: how could that have happened?

My next step, naturally, was to look in all the search mechanisms where the manuscript could be found. The result was: nowhere. Even so, my niece showed me the original. I imagined that it had been sent by one of the five persons to whom I usually show my texts prior to publication. But that would mean casting suspicion on people whom I love; furthermore, I have been sending my unpublished manuscripts to them for years, and nothing has ever, let us say, “leaked out” to the public at large. Nor could it have leaked out via the editors, since they have not the least interest in releasing for free something that is their source of income.

I decided to leave the matter alone. After all, the Internet is a way of making culture truly democratic. But I insisted that my 24-year-old niece tell me where she had managed to obtain the manuscript. After much reluctance, she revealed to me a universe that I, who have been navigating on the Web for ten years, was utterly unaware of and that is absolutely impossible to control (as I shall explain at the end, although I feel that a lot of the people reading this newsletter know what I am talking about).

So, seeing that it was no use fighting against the impossible, I asked to visit this gigantic web. In other words, for four hours I became a “pirate” of myself. My niece insists that there is nothing wrong, that this is Internet culture, that this is what is changing the world, not the demonstrations against globalization in world forums.

What is the Internet culture? According to her, you have basic rights to information and pleasure. If you have money to buy a book, go ahead and buy it – it is much nicer to read in print. But if you don’t have money, your rights continue – and you have to find a way to exercise them.

How? There is a strange zone on the network called “Peer 2 Peer”. I looked for a translation (in a free dictionary on the Internet), and this means something like “from friend to friend”.

How did it start? My niece has the answer on the point of her tongue. At first it was just wanting to chat with others. Then came the need to chat with several people at the same time. But chatting isn’t enough – we have to share the music, the book or the film that we love. When there was no law against it, this information was exchanged freely. Finally, when the entertainment industry caught on and the repression began, the young people on the Internet always managed to keep one step ahead, and so the thing continues.

The concept has changed too: it used to be sharing something you admired with friends, now it is offering everyone something you feel should be shared.

The mechanism works more or less like this: I buy a book, and I like it, so I make a digital photocopy of its pages and put it in my computer, and at the same time I open a tunnel for anyone to come in here and take it. On my side, I enter this tunnel and go to the computers of others to take anything that interests me (usually music and films). Little by little this material is stocked all over the world, and nobody manages any more to prevent it being copied.

Then she showed me that in just one of the many “Peer 2 Peer” sites I have 325 works, in several languages, in hundreds or thousands of computers. I confess that I felt most honored by this proof that readers are truly the essential instrument for publicizing a work, even if this is not done by conventional means.

Of course, I am not going to show anyone how to get there – that involves a series of legal mechanisms that could complicate my life. Nor is it any use digitizing the expression in the search mechanisms: they won’t teach you the ropes. But if you have someone at home aged under 18, they are bound to have already a collection of songs that came from there. Ask your son, grandson or nephew.

But please don’t tell them that I have just discovered this now: they will think that I am too old, and I’ll lose a reader.

Dialogues with the Master – Organizing the quest

Here I continue to transcribe extracts of the notes I took between 1982 and 1986 on my conversations with J., my friend and master in the Regnus Agnus Mundi (RAM) tradition. I remember that I was always asking for advice on any decision I had to take. J. usually remained silent for a while before speaking:

“People who are part of our daily life can give us important hints on decisions we need to take. But for this purpose all that is needed is a sharp eye and an attentive ear, because those who have ready solutions are usually suspect.

“It’s very dangerous to ask for advice. It’s very risky to lend advice, if we have a minimum sense of responsibility towards the other person. If they need help, it’s best to see how others resolve – or don’t resolve – their problems. Our angel often uses someone’s lips to tell us something, but this answer comes casually, usually at a moment when we do not let our worries overshadow the miracle of life. Let our angel speak the way he is used to, which is at the moment he deems necessary. Advice is just theory; living is always very different.”

Then he told me an interesting story:

Master Kais was walking in the desert with his disciples when he came across a hermit who had lived there for years. The disciples began to shower him with questions on the universe – but they eventually discovered that the man did not have all the wisdom that he seemed to possess. When they mentioned this to Kais, he answered:

“Never consult a worried man, no matter how good an advisor he may be; don’t ask a pride man for help, however intelligent he may seem. Because worries and vanity obscure knowledge. Above all, distrust those who live in solitude; usually they are not there because they have renounced everything but rather because they have never known how to live with others. What wisdom can we expect from that type of person?”

J. left for the airport and I was left to reflect on our conversation. I was in need of help, because I always made the same mistakes over and over again. My life revolved around old problems, and every now and then I was confronted with situations that had crossed my path so many times before. That depressed me. It made me feel that I was incapable of making any progress. I decided to go into a café that I still frequent today, just to sit and observe everything around me. I saw nothing new, absolutely nothing, and began to feel abandoned.

I decided to look at a newspaper that someone had left on a nearby table, and began to leaf through it at random. I discovered a review of an old book by Gurdjieff that had just been republished; the critic used an extract from the book:

Conscious faith is freedom.
Instinctive faith is slavery.
Mechanical faith is madness.
Conscious hope is strength.
Emotional hope is cowardice.
Mechanical hope is sickness.
Conscious love arouses love.
Emotional love arouses the unexpected.
Mechanical love arouses hate.

There lay the answer: the same elements (faith, hope and love) with their nuances, always leading to different consequences. I began to be aware that repeated experiences serve a purpose: they teach you what you have not yet learned. From that day on, I have always sought for a different solution to each repeated struggle – and little by little I found my path.

When we met again, I asked what I should do to organize a little my spiritual quest, which seemed to be leading nowhere. Here is what he answered:

“Don’t try to be coherent all the time; discover the joy of being a surprise to yourself. Being coherent is having always to wear a tie that matches your socks. It means being obliged to keep tomorrow the same opinions you have today. What about the world, which is always in movement? As long as it doesn’t harm anyone, change your opinion now and again, and contradict yourself without feeling ashamed – you have a right to that! It doesn’t matter what the others may think – because they are going to think that way no matter what.”

“But we are talking about faith.”

“Exactly! Go on doing what you do, but try to put love in every gesture: that will be enough to organize your quest. Usually we do not lend value to the things we do every day, but those are the things that change the world around us. We think that faith is a task for giants, but just read a few pages of the biography of any holy man and you will discover an absolutely ordinary person – except for the fact that they were determined to share the very best of themselves with others.

“Many emotions move the human heart when it decides to dedicate itself to the spiritual path. This may be a “noble” reason – like faith, love of our neighbor, or charity. Or it may be just a whim, the fear of loneliness, curiosity, or the fear of death. None of that matters. The true spiritual path is stronger than the reasons that led us to it and little by little it imposes itself with love, discipline and dignity. A moment arrives when we look backwards, remember the beginning of our journey, and laugh at ourselves. We have managed to grow, although we traveled the path for reasons that were very futile.”

“How do I know at least that I am traveling this path with love and dignity?”

“God uses loneliness to teach us about living together. Sometimes he uses anger so that we can understand the infinite value of peace. At other times he uses tedium, when he wants to show us the importance of adventure and leaving things behind.

“God uses silence to teach us about the responsibility of what we say. At times he uses fatigue so that we can understand the value of waking up. At other times he uses sickness to show us the importance of health.

“God uses fire to teach us about water. Sometimes he uses earth so that we can understand the value of air. And at times he uses death when he wants to show us the importance of life.”

“And what do we do about the feeling of guilt that we all share?”

“At one of the most tragic moments of the Crucifixion, one of the thieves noticed that the man dying beside him was the Son of God. ‘Lord, remember me when You are in Heaven’, said the thief. ‘In truth, today you shall be with me in Heaven’, answered Jesus, turning a bandit into the first saint of the Catholic Church: Saint Dimas.

“We don’t know why Dimas was condemned to death. The Bible tells us that he confessed his guilt and that he was crucified for the crimes he had committed. Let us suppose that he did something cruel, awful enough to end his life in that fashion; yet, even so, in his final minutes of life, he was redeemed – and glorified – by an act of faith.

“Remember this example when for some reason you feel unable to continue on your path.”

Dialogues with the Master – Looking at the past

I was never one to dwell on the past; I think that the present is the result of all that we have lived, and seeing how we act at this very moment suffices for us to understand our blessings and correct our curses.

But now that my life is being turned upside down by journalist-biographer Fernando Morais, I have also decided to look at some notes on my apprenticeship with J., my friend and master in the Regnus Agnus Mundi (RAM) tradition. Most of these notes were written between 1982 and 1986. Many years ago I published some of these dialogues in this column, and although the reaction from the readers was excellent, I felt it was enough. Nevertheless, on re-reading some dust-covered notebooks (I no longer take notes or keep diaries), I discovered some very special things. In the next four columns I shall transcribe those that strike me as most interesting.

One afternoon, sitting in a café in Copacabana after a week of long spiritual exercises that resulted in nothing, I asked: “I often feel that I am ignored by God, although I know that He is here by my side. Why is it so hard to establish a dialogue with the Divine?”

“On one hand we know that it is important to seek God. On the other hand, life distances us from Him – because we feel ignored by the Divine, or else because we are busy with our daily life. This makes us feel very guilty: either we feel that we are renouncing life too much because of God, or else we feel that we are renouncing God too much because of life. This apparent double law is a fantasy: God is in life, and life is in God. If we manage to penetrate the sacred harmony of our daily existence, we shall always be on the right road, because our daily tasks are also our divine tasks.”

“But what kind of exercise can I practice that will make me really believe what you are telling me?”

“Relax. When we start our spiritual journey, we want so very hard to speak to God – and we end up not hearing what He has to tell us. That is why it is always advisable to relax a little. It is not easy: we have the natural tendency always to do the right thing, and we feel that we are going to improve our spirit is we work at it non-stop.”

“Are you saying that I ought to be passive and not try to improve myself?”

“That depends on how you see your work. We may feel that all that life can offer us tomorrow is to repeat what we did yesterday and today. But if we pay attention we can see that no day is like another. Each and every morning brings a hidden blessing, a blessing that is only good for that particular day, for it cannot be kept or re-used. If we don’t take advantage of this miracle today, it will be lost.”

“But isn’t there some sure way of establishing this dialogue with the Divine, like meditation, for instance? Or endeavoring to make myself better every day?”

“Your question reveals a man committed to an idea, and if that question can always be kept present, everything will fit together. The ideal conditions that you are looking for don’t exist. We shall never be able to get rid of certain defects. The trick lies in knowing that despite all your flaws you have a reason for being here, and you have to honor that reason.

“Try to go beyond the limits that you are used to. For ten minutes a day, be that person you have always wanted to be. If the problem is shyness, stimulate conversation. If the problem is guilt, feel approved. If you think that the world ignores you, try consciously to attract everyone’s looks. You will experience the occasional difficult situation, but it’s worth it. If for ten minutes a day you can manage to be what you dreamed, you are already making great progress.”

I decided to provoke him by quoting a Buddhist scripture on the six difficulties of living in a house: the work involved in building it, more work still to pay for it, the work of always having to repair it, the risk of having it confiscated by the government, the house constantly full of visitors and undesirable guests, and the house being used as a hiding place for condemnable activities.

According to the same Buddhist text, there are six advantages of living under a bridge: you can easily be found, the river shows us that life is a passage, we are rid of the feeling of covetousness, we need no fences, someone new is always passing by to have a chat, and we don’t have to pay rent.

I ended by saying that it was a beautiful philosophy, but that at least in my country, when we see people living under bridges and viaducts, we know for sure that this text is wrong.

J. answered: “The text is beautiful, but in our context it is certainly wrong. However, that should not serve to feed our sense of guilt. We feel guilty for all that is authentic in ourselves – our salary, our opinions, our experiences, our hidden desires, the way we speak – we even feel guilty for our parents and our brothers.

“And what is the result? Paralysis. We grow ashamed of doing anything different from what the others are expecting. We do not expose our ideas, we don’t ask for help. We justify this by saying: ‘Jesus suffered, and suffering is necessary’. Jesus experienced many situations of suffering, but he never advocated staying still in those circumstances. Cowardice cannot be concealed with this type of excuse, otherwise the entire world fails to move ahead. That is why, if you see someone under a viaduct, you go to help them, because they are part of your world.”

“And how can that be changed?”

“Have faith. Believe that it is possible, and all the reality around you will begin to change.”

“Nobody can perform that task all alone. What I see is that most people don’t have enough faith.”

“Sometimes we criticize lack of faith in others. We aren’t capable of understanding the circumstances in which this faith has been lost, nor do we try to alleviate our brother’s misery – and this causes revolt and incredulity in the divine power.

“Humanist Robert Owen traveled all over England talking of God. In the 19th century it was common to use child labor in heavy work, and one afternoon Owen stopped at a coal mine where an undernourished twelve-year-old boy was lugging a heavy sack of bricks. ‘I am here to help you talk to God’, said Owen. ‘Thanks very much, but I don’t know him. He must work in another mine’, answered the boy. How can you expect a boy in those conditions to be able to believe in God?”

“Let me return the question. How could that be made possible?”

“Besides faith, have patience. Understand that you are not alone when you want Divine Justice to make itself manifest on this Earth. In the Middle Ages the Gothic cathedrals were built by several generations. This prolonged effort helped the participants to organize their thoughts, to give thanks and to dream. Today that Romanticism is ended, and yet the desire to build remains in our hearts, it’s just a question of being open to meet the right people.”

(ends in the next edition)

They always know what's best for us

Preventing rheumatism

The centipede decided to ask the wise man of the forest, a monkey, what was the best remedy for the pain in his legs.
“That’s rheumatism”, said the monkey. “You’ve got too many legs. You ought to be like me; with just two, rheumatism hardly ever appears”.
“And what do I do to have just two legs?”
“Don’t bother me with details”, answered the monkey. “A wise man just gives the best advice; it’s up to you to solve the problem”.

Can I help?

As soon as he opened the church, the priest saw a woman come in, sit down on the front pew, and put her head between her hands. Two hours later, he noticed that the woman was still there in the same position.
Worried, he decided to approach her:
“Can I do anything to help?” he asked.,
“No, thanks”, she answered. “I was just getting all the help I need when you interrupted me”.
Jesuit Anthony Mello comments: “in a monastery no-one wrote Don’t talk on the notice-board. What was written was: Talk only if you can make the silence better.”

I know what’s right

A peasant was returning home when he saw a donkey in the field.
“I’m not a donkey”, said the animal. “I saw the Messiah being born. I have lived for two thousand years, and am still alive to give this testimony.”
Frightened, the peasant ran to the church to tell the parish priest. “Impossible!”, he said. The peasant took him by the hands and led him to where the donkey was. The animal repeated everything he had said before.
I repeat: animals cannot talk” said the priest.
But you just heard it talk!” insisted the peasant.
How stupid can you be! You’d rather believe a donkey than a priest! ”

This will work for us too

A fable of the Lebanese writer Mikail Naaimé is a good illustration of the danger of following the methods of others, no matter how noble they may seem to be:
“We need to free ourselves from being slaves to men”, said an ox to his companions. “For years we have listened to human beings saying that the door to freedom is stained with the blood of martyrs. Let’s discover that door and knock it down with the strength of our horns”.
For days and nights they walked down the road until they saw a door all stained with blood.
“Here is the door to freedom”, they said. “We know that our brothers were sacrificed on this spot”.
One by one the oxen went through the door. And it was only inside, when it was too late, that they realized that it was the door to the slaughterhouse.

Deciding the fate of others

Malba Tahan tells the story of a man who came across an angel in the desert and gave him water. “I am the angel of death and have come to find you”, said the angel. “But since you have been good, I will lend you the Book of Destiny for five minutes; you can change whatever you want”.
The angel handed him the book. Leafing through the pages, the man read the lives of his neighbors. He was discontented: “Those people don’t deserve such good things”, he thought. Pen in hand, he began to make each of their lives worse.
Finally he reached the page of his own destiny. He saw his tragic ending, but just as he was about to change it, the book vanished. Five minutes had passed.
And right there and then the angel took the man’s soul.

My unforgettable character

We are commemorating four years of the Warrior of Light Online, which currently has almost 100,000 subscribers. Many thanks for your constant support! We celebrate this number with a person who left a deep mark on my life. I suggest that each one of you look into your childhood to find the character who helped to forge the sword of the Warrior of Light.

My unforgettable character

When I was a child I used to read a magazine that my parents subscribed to, which had a section called “My unforgettable character” for common people to talk about other common people who had influenced their lives. Of course, at that age (nine or ten), I also had already created my influential personality. On the other hand, I was certain that over the years this model would change, so I decided not to write to the magazine and submit my opinion (today I wonder how in those days they would have received the collaboration of someone my age).

Time has passed by. I have met many interesting people who have helped me at difficult moments and inspired me and shown me paths that had to be traveled. However, the great myths of childhood have always proved more powerful; they go through periods of devaluation, contestation and oblivion, but they remain, appearing on necessary occasions with their values, examples and attitudes.

My unforgettable character was called José, my grandfather’s youngest brother. He never married, worked as an engineer for may years, and when he retired he decided to live in Araruama, a city near Rio de Janeiro. That is where the whole family went to spend the summer holidays with the children. Uncle José was a bachelor, so he probably did not have much patience with that invasion, but that was the only moment when he could share a little of his loneliness with his grandnephews and nieces. He was also an inventor, and to accommodate us he decided to build a house where the rooms only appeared during the summer! He pressed a button and the walls descended from the roof, the beds and cupboards emerged from the outer walls, and there we had four bedrooms to lodge the newly-arrived! When Carnival was over, the walls were raised, the furniture went back inside the outer walls and the house was once more a big empty shed where he kept material for his workshop.

He built cars. Not just that, but he made a special vehicle to take the family to Araruama Lake – a mixture of jeep and train on tires. We went swimming, lived close to nature, spent the whole day playing, and I always wondered: “But why does he live here all alone? He has money, he could live in Rio!” He told stories of his trips to the United States, where he had worked in coal mines and ventured to places never visited before. The family used to say: “It’s all lies”. He was always dressed as a mechanic, and all the relatives commented: “He should get himself some decent clothes”. As soon as television came to Brazil, he bought a set and put it on the sidewalk so that the whole street could see the programs.

He taught me to love things done with the heart. He showed me the importance of doing what you wanted to do, regardless of what the others said. He sheltered me when as a rebellious adolescent I had problems with my parents. One day he told me: “I invented the hydramatic (the automatic gear shift in a car). I went to Detroit, got in touch with General Motors; they offered me US$ 10,000 on the spot or one dollar for every car sold with this new system. I took the ten thousand and lived the most fantastic years of my life.”

The family used to say: “Uncle José is always inventing things, don’t believe him.” And although I felt deep admiration for his adventures, for his style of life, for his generosity, I did not believe that story. I told journalist Fernando Morais about it only because Uncle José was my unforgettable character.

Fernando decided to do some checking and here is what he came up with (the text has been edited, because it is part of a long article):

“The first automatic gear shift was invented by the Sturtevant brothers from Boston in 1904. The system did not work satisfactorily because of a problem with weight. But it was the invention of Brazilians Fernando Iehly de Lemos and José Braz Araripe, sold to GM in 1932, that contributed to the development of the hydramatic system launched by GM in 1939.”

With millions of hydramatic cars being turned out every year, the family who never believed in anything and thought that Uncle José dressed badly could have inherited an incalculable fortune. How good it is to know that he enjoyed some happy years spending his ten thousand dollars!

Stories about arrogance

The arrogance of power

The master and his disciple were talking at a street corner when an old woman came up to them:

“Get away from my window!” shouted the old lady. “You are disturbing the customers”. The master apologized and crossed over to the other sidewalk.

They went on talking until an officer came up to them and said:

“We need you to move away from this sidewalk. The count will be passing by here in a few moments”.

“Let him use the other side of the street”, answered the master, without moving.

Then he turned to his disciple and told him: “Don’t forget: never be arrogant to the humble. And never be humble to the arrogant.”

The arrogance of sanctity

The Zen monk spent ten years meditating in his cave, trying to find out the path to the Truth. While he was praying one afternoon, a monkey came up to him. The monk tried to concentrate, but the monkey drew closer and seized the monk’s sandal.

“Damned monkey!” said the hermit. “Why have you come to disturb my prayers?”

 “I’m hungry,” said the monkey.

“Go away! You are disturbing my communicating with God!”

“How can you talk to God if you cannot manage to communicate with humble creatures like me?” said the monkey.

And the monk apologized, feeling ashamed.

The arrogance of force

The village was threatened by a tribe of barbarians. The inhabitants were abandoning their houses and fleeing to a safer place. At the end of a year they had all left – except a group of Jesuits.

The army of barbarians entered the city without any resistance and held a great feast to commemorate the victory. In the middle of the dinner a priest appeared.

“You came in here and drove out peace. I beg you to leave at once.”

“Why haven’t you fled yet?” shouted the chief of the barbarians. “Don’t you see that I can run you through with my sword without blinking an eye?”

The priest answered calmly:

“Don’t you see that I can be run through by a sword without blinking an eye?”

Surprised by such serenity before death, the chief of the barbarians and his tribe abandoned the place the next day.

The arrogance of envy

In the Syrian desert, Satan told his disciples: “Human beings are always more concerned about wishing evil on others than doing good to themselves”.

And to demonstrate what he was saying, he decided to test two men who were resting nearby.

“I have come to make your wishes come true”, he said to one of them. “Whatever you want will be given to you. Your friend will receive the same thing – except double”.

The man remained in silence for a long while, and then he finally said:

“My friend is content because he will have double, no matter what my wish is. But I have prepared a trap for him: my wish is that you make me blind in one eye”.

On immortality

On immortality

How do human beings respond to changes?

Badly. Always very badly. One of the most widespread myths in the whole world – the myth of the vampire – reflects this idea.

What is a vampire? It is someone who at a certain moment in their existence becomes immortal. In other words, after that moment their body will no longer follow the normal course of nature; they will become forever young, and they can live as long as they like without having to deal with problems caused by growing old.

The vampire’s only diet is a little blood every day, and their only care with their skin is to avoid sunlight – but after all, this is a very small price to pay to enjoy all the possibilities of eternal life.

Except for one thing: vampires stop in time, while the world carries on changing. Everything that they were always used to begins to change, and even though they have all the time in the world to adapt to these changes, they desire immortality precisely because they were happy with the world in which they lived. They are not interested in accompanying these changes.

Let us imagine a human being who becomes a vampire right at the finals of the 1986 World Cup. He could smoke on airplanes, did not need to puzzle over picking what channel to watch on the television – the choice was so limited. He had an actress for a sex symbol, understood all about carburetors and fought for his socialist ideal, convinced that the Soviet Union would soon have more capable governors, and the yearnings of the people (called the proletariat) would at last be respected.

One fine day he falls in love with a 22-year-old sociology student. He admires her beauty, her enthusiasm, her idealism. He suggests transforming her into a vampire, but she refuses – she has seen too many horror films. She is in love too and does not want to lose him, but she sets one single condition for going ahead with their relationship: he must never suck her blood. The vampire has no choice but to keep his word. They get married in the registry office to avoid mortal crucifixes.

Twenty years roll by – in fact fly by, because another four World Cups have taken place. The former university student is now 42 years old, working in a bank (unemployment problems) or else writing useless Master’s and Ph.D. theses and dissertations merely to justify her life as a professional student. Carburetors have disappeared from the face of the earth. In horror he leafs through a magazine and sees his old sex-symbol actress transformed into a hybrid product made of plastic, Botox and silicone, her face coated with tons of makeup. He feels guilty for having 200 TV channels and only watches the same ones as long ago.

The Soviet Union has collapsed. He was obliged to abandon his beloved cigarettes (although it did not affect his health, don’t forget that vampires are immortal), because smoking became impossible, either because of laws or because of the way people looked at him in restaurants. And worst of all: everyone is talking about chat, Internet, iPod, rave and so on. The vampire tries to keep up to date, but everything seems absolutely complicated, irritating and senseless. He looks at the computer as if he were looking at a clove of garlic – with a mixture of horror and impotence. He will never be able to manage one of those, although he has tried several times.

His friends are retired, spend their days playing cards – they also do not know how to deal with computers, but they do not mind, the group has grown old together, they all have the same interests and can share experiences.

The vampire stays young. Immortal. Now he is faced with eternal depression. He attempts suicide, going out in the sunlight or looking at crucifixes, only to discover that these were myths created by the Church and cause him no harm at all.

He is left with one consolation: there is still one political figure that he knows all about (because all the other governors across the world have changed).

But Fidel Castro will also pass. And then nothing, absolutely nothing, will remain of the world that the vampire once loved so much.

The Warrior of Light and Strategy

The Warrior of Light and strategy

A sword can last a short time, but the warrior has to last a long time. That is why he must not let himself be fooled by his own capacity and so be taken by surprise. To each thing he gives the true value that it deserves.

Often, when he is faced with serious matters, the devil whispers in his ear: “Do not bother about that, that’s not serious.”

Other times, when he is faced with trivial matters, the devil whispers: “You need to spend all your energy on solving this situation.”

The warrior does not listen to what the devil is saying. He is the master of his sword.

Pay attention to your allies

A warrior does not associate with anyone who wishes him harm. Nor is he seen in the company of those who want to “console” him.

He avoids whoever is only at his side in moments of defeat. These false friends want to prove that weakness has its rewards. They always bear bad news. They always try to destroy the warrior’s trust, under the disguise of “solidarity”.

When they see him injured they break into tears, but deep in their hearts they are happy because the warrior has lost a battle. They fail to understand that this is a part of combat.

A warrior’s true companions are at his side at each and every moment, in times both difficult and easy.

Negotiating with the enemy

When the moment of combat draws near, the Warrior of Light is prepared for any circumstance. He analyzes each possibility and asks himself: “What would I do if I had to fight against myself?”

This is how he discovers his weak points.

At this moment the adversary approaches, carrying a bag filled with promises, agreements and negotiations. He has tempting proposals and easy alternatives to offer.

The warrior analyzes each of these proposals; he also seeks an agreement, but without losing his dignity. If he avoids combat, it is not because he was seduced – but rather because he decided that this was the best strategy.

A Warrior of Light does not accept presents from the enemy.

On the defense and on the attack

The warrior is careful with people who think they can control the world, determine their own steps, and are certain that they know the right path. They are always so confident in their own capacity of decision that they do not realize the irony with which fate writes everyone’s life.

The Warrior of Light has dreams. His dreams carry him forward. But he never commits the mistake of thinking that the road is easy and the door wide.

He knows that the Universe works like alchemy: solve et coagula, say the masters. “Concentrate and disperse your energy according to the situation.”

There are moments to act and moments to accept.

In the face of defeat

The Warrior of Light knows how to lose. He does not hold defeat as something indifferent, using phrases like “well, it wasn’t all that important”, or “to tell the truth, I did not really want that”.

He accepts defeat as a defeat; he does not try to change it into a victory or an experience. He suffers the pain of his wounds, the indifference of his friends and the loneliness of loss. At such moments he says to himself: “I fought for something, and I failed to get it. I lost the first battle.”

This phrase will give him strength. He is aware that nobody wins all the time – but the courageous always win in the end.

The blind man and Everest

Little by little we seem to grow used to the same metaphors for life. Some time ago I wrote in this column the “Manual for climbing mountains”, and out of the blue I meet a reader in Hamburg who decides to share his experience with me about climbing in life. He discovered what hotel I am in, and has some criticism to make of my page in the Internet. After making some harsh comments, he asks:

“Do you mind if I take a photo with my girlfriend?”

Of course I don’t. He picks up his cellular, presses a button, says nothing, and his girlfriend turns up a minute later.

After the photo is taken comes the next question, this one more intriguing:

“Can a blind man climb Mount Everest?”

“I don’t think so,” I answer.

“Why don’t you answer ‘perhaps’?”

I am almost certain that I am in the company of a “compulsive optimist.” One thing is the whole universe conspiring for our dreams to become true, quite another is to place yourself in front of absolutely unnecessary challenges, which can lead to death or unpredictable failure.

I explain that I have to leave for an appointment, but the reader does not give up.

“The blind can climb Everest, the highest mountain in the world (8,848 meters). Not only can they do it, but I happen to know of at least one blind person who did it. His name is Erik Weihenmayer. Can your appointment wait?”

Since he gave me a name, there could an interesting story here. My appointment can wait, of course.

“In 2001, Weihenmayer managed the feat. Meanwhile, people complain that they cannot afford a better car, more elegant clothes, and a salary that matches their abilities.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look it up in the Internet. But what fascinates me is that Weihenmayer knew exactly what he wanted: he changed his life into what he thought it should be. He had the courage to risk everything to have the universe conspire in his favor.”

I agree. The reader goes on, as if my attitude is no longer of any interest to him:

“If you know what you want in life, then you have all you need to manage to make your dream come true. Didn’t you yourself say that?”

Of course. But there are limits, such as blind people climbing the highest mountain on earth.

“And if people have no dreams, what are they supposed to do?”

“Think about something that they would like to be doing, and then take the first step,” I answer. “Without being afraid of making a mistake. Without fear of offending those who ‘worry’ about their behavior.”

“That’s it!” said the reader, for the first time identifying my ideas clearly. “So we realize that to reach what we want we have to run risks. Don’t you say that in your books?”

Not only do I say it, but I also try to keep my word. But we are interrupted in our conversation; it is time for the appointment that has brought me to Hamburg. I thank him for his attention, ask him to send me suggestions for my page on the Internet, we take another picture and then say goodbye.

At three o’clock in the morning, returning from that event, I reach into my pocket for the key to my room and discover the piece of paper where he had jotted down the blind man’s name. Even knowing that I have to travel to Cairo in a couple of hours, I turn on the computer, and there it is:

“On 25 May 2001, at the age of 32, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the top of the highest mountain in the world. A former high-school teacher, he received the ESPN and IDEA prize for his courage in overcoming the limits that his physical condition permitted. Besides Everest, Erik Weihenmayer has climbed the other seven highest mountains in the world, including Aconcagua in Argentina and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania”.

If you don’t believe it, look it up.

On the road to Santiago, 1986

“This cloud has to come to an end”, I thought while struggling to discover the yellow marks on the stones and trees along the Road. For nearly half an hour the visibility had been close to zero, and I went on singing to chase away the fear while waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Shrouded in the fog, all alone in that unreal atmosphere, once again I began to see the Road to Santiago as if it were a film, right at the moment when you see the hero doing what nobody would do, while in the audience you think that these things only happen in the cinema. But there I was, living this situation in real life. The forest was growing quieter and quieter and the fog was beginning to clear up. Maybe it was coming to an end, but that light confused my eyes and painted everything around me in mysterious and terrifying colors.

All of a sudden, like in a magic trick, the fog lifted completely. And there in front of me, driven into the top of the mountain, was the Cross.

I looked around, saw the sea of clouds from which I had emerged, and another sea of clouds way above my head. Between these two oceans, the peaks of the highest mountains and Cebreiro peak with the Cross. I felt a great urge to pray.

Despite the desire, I did not manage to say anything. A hundred meters beneath me, a village with fifteen houses and a small church began to turn on its lights. At least I had somewhere to spend the night. A stray lamb climbed the hill and placed itself between me and the cross. It looked at me, somewhat afraid. For a long time I stared at the nearly black sky, the cross and the white lamb at the foot of the cross.

“Lord”, I finally said. “I am not nailed to that cross, nor do I see You there. This cross is empty and so it shall remain for ever, because the time of Death has passed. This cross was the symbol of the infinite power that we all have, nailed and killed by man. Now this Power is born again to life, because I have walked the path of common people and in them I have found Your own secret. You too walked the path of common people. You came to teach all that we were capable of, and we did not want to accept this. You showed us that Power and Glory were in everyone’s reach, and this sudden vision of our capacity was too much for us. We crucified You not because we are ungrateful to the son of God but because we were very afraid to accept our own capacity. With time and tradition, You again became just a distant divinity, and we returned to our destiny as men.

“There is no sin in being happy. Half a dozen exercises and an attentive ear are enough to make a man realize his most impossible dreams”.

The lamb rose and I followed it. I already knew where it was leading me, and despite the clouds the world had grown transparent for me. Even though I was not seeing the Milky Way in the sky, I was certain that it existed and showed everyone the Road to Santiago.I followed the lamb, which was heading in the direction of the small village – also called Cebreiro, like the mountain. A miracle had taken place there once – the miracle of changing what you do into what you believe. The secret of my sword and the strange Road to Santiago.

As I climbed down the mountain I recalled the story. A peasant from a nearby village came up to hear Mass in Cebreiro one day amid a heavy storm. That Mass was celebrated by a monk of little faith who within himself disdained the peasant’s sacrifice. But at the moment of the Consecration, the host transformed into the body of Christ and the wine became his blood. The relics are still there, kept in that small chapel, a greater treasure than all the wealth of the Vatican.

I went to the small chapel built by the peasant and the monk who had begun to believe in what he did. No-one knew who they were. Two nameless headstones in the cemetery nearby mark the place where their bones are buried. But it is impossible to know which is the monk’s grave and which is the peasant’s. Because, in order to for there to be a miracle, the two forces had to fight the Good Fight.

Since then, whenever I am faced with an important challenge, I remember the story of the miracle of Cebreiro. Faith sometimes has to be provoked before it can manifest itself.

And this year I am celebrating the twentieth anniversary of my pilgrimage – which changed my life. Next week, on the 25th of July, we commemorate Santiago de Compostela Day. If you can, offer up a prayer in homage to the saint.