The best of both worlds

At the monastery, a few months a year, a small quantity of much appreciated chocolate bars are made. A cottage industry using the best cocoa seeds from tropical countries, vanilla and honey provided by attentive producers of the area, the chocolate is made in strict accordance with an ancient recipe known only by the monks. The chocolate is well-known among aficionados, and its entire production is sold immediately, even with the limitation of individual purchases. The revenue helps pay for much of the expenses of the Order, not all of it.

On one occasion, the Old Man, as we affectionately call the dean of the Order, had to travel to attend to some engagements and left me in charge of assisting Lucca, a composed monk who, for decades, had been in charge of making the chocolate. Scrupulous, he did not allow anything to stray from the original recipe or change the flavor. Anecdotes told as legends from a period prior to my joining the Order report that on one occasion he forbade the sale when an assistant made minute changes to the exact quantities of the ingredients. He was unyielding, despite everyone in the monastery having commended the flavor, saying it was almost indistinguishable from the one of the original recipe. On another occasion, he refused to make the chocolate for understanding the quality of the cocoa seeds provided was below par. In those years the monastery faced financial hardships due to lack of revenue from the sales.

In this year, things seemed to run smoothly. The ingredients had already arrived and Lucca had approved them. The problem was of a different nature. The oven of the tiny facility was fueled with firewood collected from the forest that surrounded the monastery. For environmental reasons, for a long time now we picked only dry branches that had naturally fallen from the trees. Cutting the branches was forbidden. However, nature was not being collaborative. To follow the tradition and the recipe to the letter, Lucca decided to dramatically decrease the production, in line with the amount of firewood collected. Anticipating a new financial crisis, I contemplated changing the wood-fired ovens for gas-burning ones, or even, exceptionally in that year, using the kitchen of the monastery, whose oven was gas-burning. The monk did not allow. Then, I suggested we buy environment-friendly cultivated timber. Lucca did not agree. The recipe stated wood-fired oven and, for centuries, wild wood provided by nature had been used. Oak was the predominant tree in that forest, and the scent of the burning of its branches was essential. Each detail, however minute, according to the attentive monk, mattered for the flavor of the chocolate.

We argued. I told him he was being excessively romantic, and his actions were not based on reality. He rebuked by saying I was irresponsible and fickle, for easily giving in to any emerging hardship. Lucca said he wanted the best for the Order by sticking to the recipe; I reasoned that I too wanted the best for the Order when I sought solutions for the problem. I had my reasons, he had his. Soon, the facts spread around the monastery. Monks and disciples had different opinions, and the spirits were running high. There was dissent. Production was at a slow pace, according to the amount of firewood collected in the forest following the tradition; soon, the quality of the ingredients that had not been used would be lost because of the passing of time. A difficult year loomed ahead of us.

Then the Old Man arrived from his trip. Immediately, many went to report to him what was going on. He listened to everyone, including Lucca and I, with tremendous patience and sweetness. He made no comment to anyone. Without losing composure, he said he was tired and was going to sleep. We would speak in the morning.

The next day, when we got to the refectory, the Old Man was already there, waiting for us. He was in a good disposition and greeted us with his best smile. He was always in a good mood. He used to say that composed joy was typical of illuminated spirits. “There is no room for grumpy people in the High Lands,” he would say again and again. He waited until everyone finished breakfast and took the floor. His tone of voice was soft, as usual, and absolute silence was necessary for him to be heard: “I was told of the conflict that emerged. The financial crisis or the flavor of the chocolate is of little importance. I can face each of these problems with more or less ease. But I cannot live without peace.”

He paused briefly and then continued: “It does not matter who is right. What matters is finding reasons to restore harmony; they are plenty and well-known, suffice that one listens to the heart. The lesson we have from this situation is that, as you can see, evil seldom comes from the outside. Typically, it originates within ourselves. From apertures in the ego bloom the shadows that nourish darkness. We pose more danger to ourselves than the others to us.”

“However, as the Portuguese poet taught in verse, ‘worthwhile is all if the soul is not small’. Let’s learn the lesson with humility and joy.” He stopped for a moment and whispered as if speaking to himself: “This countryman of mine was a wise alchemist disguised as a writer.” Then he asked Lucca and I to go to the library, to continue the conversation privately with him.

Once we were seated in comfortable armchairs next to a large window that allowed a panoramic view of the mountains, the Old Man, after filling his cup of coffee, said: “I know each of you have reasons and motives to support your point of view. Who is right? Probably both of you, depending on the perspective with which one sees the world. However, I insist, it does not matter who is right, nor this is the reason I asked to meet you here. I understand Lucca’s reasons for following traditions and being very attentive to the quality of the product we sell; I also understand Yoskhaz for being keen on modernity and concerned with a possible financial hardship of the Order. However, both of you got so attached to your ideas that you took them to extremes. Being so radical, you forgot the good advice of Buddha, who advocated a Middle Path. You were so emotionally involved that you let your egos be inflated with pride, and did not look at things with a gaze free from the fog of vanity.”

Both Lucca and I insisted that he should think about the reasons each one had, and decide who was right, as the term for ending the chocolate production was coming to an end. The eyes of the Old Man were filled with compassion when he said: “I relinquish the sword you are handing me. To decide who is right would be easy and would nourish my ego by exercising power over life in the monastery. The monks are split, and any decision will cause huge dissatisfaction. I know in some cases there is no way out. However, in our case, isn’t there an alternative? A middle path that everyone can tread with joy? Bear in mind that unbearable moralism emerges when the good moral is taken to extremes; when noble virtues are seized by the shadows we face vicious intolerance.” He paused for a brief moment, and asked: “Can you realize that the terrible dissent that fell over the monastery stemmed for the good intentions of both of you? Do you understand that, at some point, in your attempts to do good you allowed that good itself be lost? This is common when, out of stubbornness, we impose our reasons on others.” He became silent once again. Thought for a moment and asked a simple question: “Can we do different and better?”

We lowered our eyes, Lucca and I. We were ashamed for letting the situation reach the point it had. Yes, we could do different and better. However, we had lost it, deceived by the tricks of vanity, stubbornness and pride. We remained silent. After a while, Lucca said that many years ago, when he was still an apprentice, a similar problem, lack of firewood, occurred. At that time, dry oak leaves were used to fuel the ovens. There was no change in the flavor of the chocolate. However, he warned that in the present it would be hard do the same, as it would not be possible for the monks to collect and carry the necessary amount of leaves. I said that I could help. I knew the owner of a small construction company located in the village at the foot of the mountain, and I could ask him to lend a small truck, to optimize the collection of the leaves. The Old Man responded with a smile.

While I went to pick up the truck, which was kindly lent, Lucca mobilized all the monks to roll up their sleeves and go deep into the forest. More importantly, they were all united for the same purpose. This made us stronger and, of course, the outcome was successful. The chocolate was made, and kept the flavor that for centuries had captivated palates. In the monastery, we regained the pleasure of living with joy.

After a few days, I met the Old Man tending the flowers of the monastery’s inner garden. I mentioned how happy everybody was. The monk stopped what he was doing, put the clippers in the pocket of his habit and asked me to sit with him on a bench under the shade. Then he said, quietly: “The perfect world is not a world without problems. The perfect world is the possible world.” He blinked an eye, as he did whenever he told a secret, and added: “The perfect world is the one in which you try hard to find the best solutions in harmony and peace.”

 

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

 

 

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