Zi Yuan was still there when Li Yundong strode into his apartment.
"I should probably start collecting rent from you," Li Yundong joked as he approached the living room.
Zi Yuan opened her eyes and gave him an elegant smile. That smile cemented his belief that Zi Yuan was the closest thing to a goddess he had ever seen.
"How's the research going these days?" Zi Yuan asked casually. "Learned anything new from the books you've been reading?"
Li Yundong returned her smile and took a seat on the couch. "Not bad, I suppose," he said. "The books are quite instructive." He glanced at Zi Yuan curiously. "Why did you ask?"
Zi Yuan stared at him for a long while, her expression stern and dour.
"What is it?" Li Yundong asked.
"What is Cultivation?"
Li Yundong froze at the question. His dear princess had once asked him the same question. Then again, he figured he could give a better answer this time around.
"There are two paradigms of Cultivation," Li Yundong said, pausing to smile at Zi Yuan. "Buddhists and Taoists hold slightly different views on what the term means."
Zi Yuan nodded sagely. "Go on."
"According to Gautama Buddha, the world is an ocean of bitterness and suffering." Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan. "Therefore, Cultivation, according to Buddha, is a process of finding the shore amidst the ocean of suffering. It is a process of seeking peace. And most importantly, it is the process of seeking spiritual enlightenment, which allows one to break free from the cycle of life and death. Once you climb onto the shore, suffering ends."
Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan and waited for her to say something.
"Well... According to the Taoists, Cultivation is the process of finding one's true self." Li Yundong stared up at the ceiling. "Cultivation brings us closer to the Ultimate Truth. The end result is, of course, unity with the Tao."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Very good." For some strange reason, Zi Yuan sounded relieved when she said that. Li Yundong shot her a questioning look.
Zi Yuan smiled, then raised one of her shoulders slightly. "You've been reading a lot of books about Taoism and Buddhism. I was worried you might get confused and end up doing more harm than good to your progress."
Li Yundong chuckled. "I think that's an over-exaggeration." He shrugged. "Why would reading both Buddhist and Taoist materials affect my training? From what I see, it's the opposite. After all, there are similarities between both paradigms."
Zi Yuan shifted on the floor and turned so that she was facing the couch and looking right him. It was then that Li Yundong noticed the round, donut-shaped cushion she was sitting on.
"Oh? How so?" Zi Yuan asked, apparently still ignorant of Li Yundong's fascination for the cushion.
"How did you get this in here?" He pointed at the cushion. "I don't think you'd carry this thing all the way from your apartment." He grimaced. "Awkward elevator rides and all that."
"Hmm... Since we're on the subject..." Zi Yuan smiled and patted the cushion. "Why do you think we need a mat, futon, or a cushion to sit on when we meditate?"
Li Yundong gave her a funny look. "Um… I don't know. Why?"
Zi Yuan gave him that cryptic smile again. "That is something for you to think about." Zi Yuan's smile disappeared. "Now. Returning to the similarities between the Buddhist view and the Taoist view on Cultivation. I want to hear your thoughts on that."
Zi Yuan sat there and waited for the Heir to start talking.
After a few seconds, he did.
"I think that both are just two different approaches towards the same goal."
Zi Yuan leaned forward slightly. Interesting...
The Heir shrugged. "It's kinda obvious if you compare the two definitions. The Buddhists spoke of reaching enlightenment. Or, in other words, the process of achieving some kind of realization. And then we have the Taoists who see Cultivation as the path towards the Ultimate truth." The Heir looked at her. "See? Aren't they the same? When you find the Ultimate Truth, you will have reached enlightenment, and vice versa."
Zi Yuan smiled and nodded. "Not bad. Keep going."
Zi Yuan's words of encouragement had definitely worked, because the Heir suddenly had a look of excitement on his face.
"I think it's unnecessary to put that much emphasis on the differences between both views" —The Heir glanced at Zi Yuan—"given how similar they were."
Zi Yuan frowned. "But for thousands of years, the Buddhists and Taoists have failed to co-exist in peace. They're like fire and water. They can never mix."
Silence spread between them.
Seconds later, the Heir shook his head. "Suppose I want to go to Beijing…"
The Heir shifted slightly on the couch. "Well, there are different ways to go to Beijing, right? Different routes to take. For example, I can use a plane? A bus? Or..." The Heir's eyes shone teasingly. "I can run all the way there."
Zi Yuan chuckled.
"My point is this… If the goal is just to get there, then does it really matter that much how I get there?" There was a pause. "No matter which method I use, I will still end up in Beijing. The only difference is the travelling speed."
Zi Yuan did an open-palm hand gesture. "There you have it," she said. "That's the biggest difference isn't it? Won't speed serve as an appropriate definition for a method's quality? One will get you there faster. Hence it is the better method."
The Heir laughed and waved his hand casually. "Well, I disagree."
Zi Yuan raised a brow.
The Heir smiled. "Speed has its merits, definitely. But it's got a few downsides as well." The Heir paused in thought. "It might be much slower if I walk all the way to Beijing, but then I'll also gain a lot of valuable experience throughout the journey. I'll be able to learn new things and take a closer look at the world. On the other hand, if I'm coasting thirty thousand feet above the ground, what can I really see? Sure, I can reach the destination faster, but I'll also be missing out on a lot of things, you see?" The Heir stared into Zi Yuan's eyes. "Now here's the thing. How can I seek the Ultimate Truth when I don't even take the time to learn everything I can about the complicated world?"
They stared at each other for moment.
Zi Yuan would be lying if she said that she wasn't impressed by the depth of the Heir's understanding. At first, Zi Yuan had intended to pick his brain a little, and then maybe take the opportunity to remind him of the differences between Buddhist Cultivation and Taoist Cultivation. She had never expected to once again have her views thoroughly challenged.
Had he really just started reading those texts a few days ago? Had it really only been months since he was first exposed to Cultivation?
How could anyone gain so much insight in such a short amount of time?
Was this why Senior Wushuang was going out of her way to help the Heir survive his divine punishment? Because she knew just how talented this man was? Could the Heir really by a genius Cultivator who would only appear once every few centuries?
The Zhengyi School had seen innumerable talented Cultivators over the millennia that it had existed. Zi Yuan herself was acquainted with a lot of genius Cultivators. Even so, she had honestly yet to meet one like Li Yundong, who could gain so much insight within a short period of time.
"Um... Zi Yuan?"
Zi Yuan looked up and saw the Heir staring back at her.
"Are you okay?" he said. "You kinda spaced out just now..."
Zi Yuan shook her head. "It's fine. Just... Just keep talking."
"Sure..." The Heir smiled. "Where was I... Oh, right. I was just about to bring in the Yin-Yang Principle."
Zi Yuan smiled. Ah. I see where he's going with this.
"Well, according to the Yin-Yang Principle, there are two sides to everything," he said. "Let's go back to that example about the Beijing trip. Going there on foot might confer a lot of benefits, sure. But, as dictated by the Yin-Yang principle, it has its disadvantages as well." He paused for a second or two. "The journey might be too harsh and grueling for someone to complete. Some people just aren't physically built for such a journey, and it isn't their fault. They just need to find another way. Even for those who are physically capable, they might encounter a lot of dangers during the journey. They will either quit the journey halfway, or die before they reach the destination."
Zi Yuan nodded. "What about the first method then? Other than speed, what do you think are its other advantages?"
A pensive look spread across the Heir's face. He seemed to be thinking hard about something.
"Breadth," he said about a minute later.
The Heir turned to face her. "Breadth," he said. "Breadth of vision. You can see just how big the world truly is from up high. You can see further, and truly appreciate the vastness of the world." The Heir smiled as though he was remembering a fond memory. "It... It also allows you to experience something that you won't normally experience. You'll get a view of the earth that you won't get to see from the ground."
Zi Yuan smiled. "And in conclusion?"
"Well..." Suddenly, the Heir laughed. "I think something that our former president, Deng Xiaoping, said sums it up pretty well."
Zi Yuan arched her brow. "How so?"
"Have you heard of the cat theory?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. She hadn't spent enough time in the mortal world to be familiar with these things.
"The idea is based on something that Deng Xiaoping once said, which goes like this. It's a black cat, or it's a white cat... Whatever. It is a good cat as long as it catches mice."
Zi Yuan stared at him for a moment, then laughed.
The Heir's lips pulled into a smile.
After her laughter subsided, Zi Yuan shook her head gently. "When I asked you all those questions, I was trying to help you differentiate between the Buddhist style of Cultivation and the Taoist style of Cultivation." She raised her gaze to look at him. "I really didn't expect the conversation to turn out this way."
Li Yundong smiled. "Why focus so much on their differences? Why not learn from both worlds? They can both get us to our destination, just through different pathways. I also don't see the point of comparing both with one another and then claiming that one way is better than the other." He shrugged. "Nothing in this world is perfect anyway. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. It's how we adapt them to our needs that matters." The Heir shot Zi Yuan a playful look. "If my goal is to acquire interesting life experiences, then I would run all the way to Tibet."
Zi Yuan chuckled. "You're never ever gonna let that go, are you?"
"Nope." The Heir smiled. "On the other hand, if I'm rushed for time, I might choose to fly to Tibet. See? It all depends on my needs."
"Hmm..." Zi Yuan said.
The Heir did make a sound point. There was only one problem, which Zi Yuan found awfully vexing. What the Heir said went against a principle that her master had drilled into her ever since she was capable of conscious thought: Buddhism and Taoism are different; the two can never be unified.
Admittedly, a lot of what she currently knew was acquired through indoctrination. She hadn't been able to see it before, but she was starting to see it now.
Not once had she tried to question the things that her master had told her.
All she knew was that Buddhism and Taoism could never be merged, but she hadn't bothered to ask why.
Why couldn't they be merged?
Why do Cultivators sit the way they do when they meditate?
Too often, Cultivators had accepted whatever they were told as the truth without stopping to think about why they were true. As much as she hated it, Zi Yuan had to admit that she had been one of those Cultivators.
Zi Yuan glanced at Li Yundong, the Jindan's Heir, the man who had changed the way she saw things twice since they first met each other.
His rapid progress in Cultivation didn't impress Zi Yuan much at first—she had assumed that it was made possible by the Jindan. Nor was she impressed by the strength of this willpower—a lot of Cultivators were strong-willed, so it wasn't all that surprising.
Now she couldn't help but be in absolute awe with the man.
It wasn't his strength or his combat prowess that made her feel this way; it was his aptitude, his ability to grasp and comprehend Cultivation principles with seemingly effortless ease.
It had only been days since he started reading all those books, yet he was already able to come up with arguments that eluded even Zi Yuan, someone who had been studying scrolls and texts (on both Buddhism and Taoism!) since she was little.
"Why are you asking me these questions, by the way?"
The Heir's voice ended Zi Yuan thoughts. When she looked at him, she found that he was smiling at her.
Zi Yuan shook her head a little.
"I think it's time I teach you how to pass the first dan of the Shentong phase."