The conference would last ten days. It might be held under the pretense of a climate conference, but no one was actually going to talk about the weather. The politicians would take care of the strategic competition and cooperation in the meetings, while the cultivators were the ones making actual contact and physically fighting one another.
Hence, Gu Yu had been visiting Erhard every night for the next couple of days and got to know the others better.
Erhard was well over eighty, and was probably the most senior member of the European magic community. As the descendant of Paracelsus, he was an expert in magic and alchemy, which could be further categorized into aspects such as Homunculus, puppet stone figures, magic circles, pharmaceutics, etc.
Marianne was a Nordic witch and a master of auguries and curses. Her ancestors fled to the north during the witch hunts of the medieval times; there, they survived by sheer luck and had kept a low profile ever since.
Ernese was a sorcerer through and through. His expertise was in elemental magic and he was a very capable fighter himself.
Cohen, on the other hand, turned out to be a mild surprise for Gu Yu, for the old man was a Jew unattached to any individual country. It just so happened that he was a believer of Kabbalah, which was right up Gu Yu's alley. One of his purposes of coming to the western hemisphere was to study this so-called tree of life.
"We each follow a different school of thought, which leads to the difference in our view of the world. Taoism believes Qi to be the ultimate source of the world, whereas that role is played by elements in Ernese's opinion, spirit in Marianne's, and various materials usable by human beings in mine."
The five were having the conversation of the day by the warm fireplace. Erhard was saying, "Therefore, it does not matter what this ultimate source is called; what matters is that which school is able to put it to the best use and form a rigorous practicing system."
"That's right. I discovered after I arrived at the western hemisphere that the spiritual essence is still present and I can still absorb it. Despite the differences of all the cultivation methods out there in the world, we all end up heading for the same destination."
After a few days of getting to know these people, Gu Yu began to like their late night talks. "Actually, there is one question that I have been meaning to ask. Back in my country, places with the densest spiritual essence that are also radiating towards the surrounding areas are called nodes. Do you have similar things in your countries?"
Erhard squinted a little and chuckled. "Of course, only that we call them origins, as in the origins of a new world."
"Origins… hm, very good name."
Gu Yu nodded and did not press on. Information such as the number of nodes in each country was doubtlessly among the top secrets.
He then looked out of the window and saw the pale red of the eastern sky. "The sun's rising, it's time for me to leave. Oh, I have some gifts for you here. I hope you'll like them."
With that, he took out a stack of talismans and gave two to each of them: one was a blank talisman and the other a common healing talisman.
"Oh, thank you! This is a surprise!" Marianne was the most interested in talismans and accepted the gift happily. She then gave it a thought and handed Gu Yu a little pouch with a smile. "Just a little something in return. It's nothing much, just the seeds of a very beautiful plant."
"Haha, I have a tail feather of the descendant of a phoenix for you, for decoration purposes." Ernese was ready to return the gift as well. He took out a golden and red long feather that looked splendid.
The oriental phoenix was an ancient divine animal that came in pairs 1 , whereas the western counterpart was an immortal bird with an appearance resembling a vulture or giant eagle that could sing beautifully.
Gu Yu liked this gift very much. Since Ernese said it was from a descendant, it was obviously not from an actual phoenix, which explained the weak energy fluctuation in the feather.
Erhard chuckled at this. "I'm not prepared for this, but I do have a little puppet here that can tell you the correct time. It'll work for another three to five years."
With that, he handed Gu Yu a magical puppet in the form of an owl. It was so lifelike that even its feathers looked the real thing. Its round head turned this way and that, giving it a dorky charm.
"Um…" Cohen looked very embarrassed, for the other three all gave something back in return, but he had nothing suitable for the occasion.
"Don't worry about it! It's not like this is our last meeting on earth." Gu Yu waved at the old man to ease his awkwardness and said, "So, I'm off. See you all tomorrow."
"I have some errands to run. I'll be leaving as well." Cohen also rose to his feet.
Moments later, the two walked out of the cottage together.
Looking around, Gu Yu suddenly said, "Mr. Cohen, are you in a hurry? There is something I want to ask you."
"No problem, but I don't have a lot of time."
"Then let's talk on our way."
The two then left the village without hailing that carriage, walking towards downtown Bonn.
"You're a practitioner of Kabbalah and to be honest, that is something I am very interested in. I was wondering if you could explain to me a little more about it? Oh, feel free to omit anything that you deem private or secret," said Gu Yu.
"Kabbalah is a very complicated system. I don't really know where to begin to answer you question," said Cohen with a frown.
"In Taoist theories, the description of the universe is generally very abstract: the universe is born from Dao and Qi. I want to know how Kabbalah sees the universe."
"Well…" Apparently also interested in this topic, Cohen pondered for a moment, searching for the right words. "As a matter of fact, I think that, to some extent, the theories of Kabbalah and Taoism share similarities. We believe in God, but not as an entity, but the sum of all contradictory concepts such as good and evil, justice and partiality, mercy and indifference, knowledge and agnosticism, etc., which together constitute God. It sounds a lot like your Dao.
"In our practices, the ultimate goal is to achieve the unity of man and God."
"As in a man becoming an integral part of nature?" asked Gu Yu in amazement.
"You can put it that way. We believe that when the universe was first created, man and God were a unified one—we call that state the primordial man. The purpose of our practice is to return to that state through the tree of life."
Gu Yu was genuinely intrigued. He knew very little of Kabbalah before this, but now, with Cohen's explanation, he realized the old man was describing the recovery of one's original nature of Taoism.
What did Taoism mean by this "nature"? It was one's initial and true state, which was what the Perfected Man of the ancient period was! The similarity between that and the primordial man was obvious.
His head was buzzing for a moment there. He had studied many western religious doctrines before this and most of them talked about God creating the world and men, and that God was omnipotent and men could only win God's grace by going through suffering, redemption, being loving, blah, blah, blah.
Kabbalah theory was the first that mentioned none of that but proposed to unify with God.
"We have an excellent metaphor for God, describing it as a streak of light in a mirror, which is reflected in a second mirror, then a third, a fourth… the process continues. In this series of infinite reflections, part of the light is gradually lost and new part is also gradually added in.
"God is that initial streak of light. It sets out from the origin and forms another nine streaks. The ten light together is known as Sephirot."
Cohen mentioned a very obscure term "Sephirot" and it took Gu Yu quite a while to comprehend the concept, which corresponded to the Taoist theory of "once objects are formed, the constituents forming them can form countless other objects".
Cohen then produced a card. On it was a strange pattern consisting of three columns, ten Sephirot, Four Worlds, and twenty-two lines arranged vertically, which was none other than the tree of life itself.
"This tree is the path of our practice, leading man back to God. We mainly use meditation for that purpose, which I will not go into details here," Cohen explained briefly as he pointed at different parts of the card. "The top of the tree is the crown—or God—and the other nine Sephirot are wisdom, understanding, kindness, misericord, beauty, glory, eternity, foundation, and kingdom. The three columns are the columns of kindness, mildness, and stringency…"
Gu Yu listened to the old man carefully, but the explanation sounded so much like a finesse for propaganda purposes that it was no different from the eight virtues Wicca promoted.
Maybe there was quite a lot of undisclosed secrets involved that Cohen was unwilling to reveal. He only carried on explaining, "The Four Worlds are: World of Emanation, meaning fire and energy; World of Creation, meaning wind and time; World of Formation, meaning water and space; World of Action, meaning earth and material."
"Wind, water, earth, and fire? Energy, time, space, material…" Gu Yu muttered to himself, apparently onto something. He then asked, "What's your own understanding of these concepts?"
"My own understanding… the Primordial World came first, which was the original source of the universe and where all the other worlds were created.
"Then came World of Creation. Light evolved here, developing into various remarkable elements.
"World of Formation was the third one. This is the realm of souls, where thoughts and concepts form, as well as the differentiation of male and female.
"The fourth one was World of Action. Light disintegrates here, then crystalizes and transforms into nature and human beings. Abstract consciousness also becomes concrete things here. This is men's wor— hm?"
Before he could finish that sentence, Gu Yu suddenly halted and froze on the spot. Cohen was taken by surprise and asked in a hurry, "What's wrong?"
There was no answer. Gu Yu's face was blank and he could be either deep in thought or having his mind wandering off somewhere else.
Cohen was unfamiliar with the oriental concept of "realization", but he knew better than to disturb Gu Yu at this moment. Looking around, he was kind enough to keep guard for Gu Yu.
So, what was Gu Yu thinking?
He was thinking about the Taoist view of the world.
Taoism had never offered a clear and systematic description of the universe or the world. All it had were generalized, abstruse words that could be applied to any dispute at any time.
For example: "Dao begets all things and Dao is in everything; all things existing are part of the great cycle of the universe and everything is constantly transforming into everything else."
After that, there was no systematic analysis.
Many people thought Taoism had a distinct categorization of different worlds because of expressions such as "jumping out of the confinement of the three divisions of the universe", or "thirty-six heavens".
Let's talk about the thirty-six heavens, which was a concoction of the Maoshan Sect by borrowing from Buddhist theories, first. Similar expressions included twenty-eight heaves, four brahmas, four heavens of the sacred landscape… please, using brahma for a Taoist concept?
Then there was the three divisions of the universe, which had several versions.
Some categorized it as heaven (the heavenly court where immortals and sacred figures dwelled), netherworld (a place as spooky as hell), and earth (the human world); some believed it to be the three realms of heaven, earth, and water; some even went as far as to borrow the Buddhist concept directly and named the three divisions as Kamaloka, Rupaloka, and Arupaloka!
That last one was simply ridiculous—at least make it sound like Taoist words!
That was why the Taoist categorization was in such chaos—the mythological system was always changing throughout the history. With each change came a new concept, and in the end, there were many contradictory things and each sect believed in a different system. Even the Taoist priests could not tell which one to believe.
In comparison, the Kabbalah theory was very interesting. At least it offered a graphic and clear picture of the constituent of the universe.
It felt like a split second or several hundred years when Gu Yu's eyes snapped open. His head had never been this clear; an urge was rising inside him, on the verge of escaping his control.
He had finally figured out what "push" he needed to break into the Human Immortal state!TL/N: like "dragon", "phoenix" also refers to completely different animals in Chinese and English contexts. Chinese phoenix, or 凤凰 (Feng Huang), is sometimes said to be a pair of birds, where Feng is the male and Huang the female.