Saturday, April 17

Destination, journey and company


Every year Toastmasters International organises a speech competition that it grandiosely terms as ‘The World Championship of Public Speaking’. Toastmasters is a mutually supportive educational organisation, devoted to the development of individuals through its principal activity – public speaking. The competition starts at the club level. As there are over 16,000 clubs in the world, it starts with at least 60,000 hopefuls vying for the one coveted title of World Champion of Public Speaking. Does it mean there are only one winner and 59,999 losers? Losing is a bitter pill to swallow and sometimes leaves a scar. The 2021 contest season has just started, and one Contest Chair asked me if I can share some thoughts that might help to motivate the ‘non-winners’.

I know the pain of losing well, having won a few times but lost many times. So, I was hard-pressed to think of something positive to say until I got help from the Chinese mythical characters. I am sure many of you have heard of the Chinese legend ‘Journey to the West’; in Chinese, it is called ‘Xi Yu Chi’. This is the story of a monk by the name of Tang Cheng who went on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Buddha in India. He was accompanied by three immortals. One of them was the monkey god, Sun Wu Kong. The journey from China to India was an arduous one. They had to cross treacherous rivers, climb high mountains, and confront man-eating monsters. After years of enduring such hardship, Sun Wu Kong was fed up. So, he pleaded with his master, Tang Cheng, “Master, why don’t you just climb on my back and I will transport you to your destination in a blink of an eye.” The monkey god, Sun Wu Kong, was a super god. He could ride the clouds, cover 10,000 leagues in one step and reach the ends of heaven in 72 somersaults.

“Dear Monkey,” said the Master, “I am disappointed with you. After all these years with me, and after studying all the scriptures, you still do not grasp the point. The journey is the mission. The mission is the journey. It is the journey, not the reaching of the destination that will transform you into the enlightened one.”

That then is the crux of the matter – the real prize in any competition is not the championship trophy. In time, trophies will just gather dust on the shelf and the euphoric glow of the public acclaim will fade. But the brave souls who dare to take the arduous journey, to risk their hearts broken and their egos bruised will be transformed. They will have bested their greatest challengers, their old selves, and emerged as winners.

However, much that I love this story and the lesson of ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ as coined by Ralph Waldo Emersion (1803 -1882), an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, but after some deep thoughts I realise that (dare I say it) the Sage Tang Cheng and philosopher Emerson were only half right.

Snoopy of the Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoons said, “In life, it’s not where you go, It’s who you travel with.” I can certainly resonate with that. Some years ago, I went on a trip to Yunnan, China, having read about Shangri-La in the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, by British author James Hilton. The journey took us from the beautiful ancient city of Lijiang up the mountain to a high point, a place called Zongdian. The gentle rolling high mountain grassland was impressive but not quite the image of Shangri-La as painted by James Hilton. Of course not, Hilton’s Shangri-La is a fictional place. He described it as a mystical, harmonious valley, enclosed in the western end of China’s Kunlun Mountains, an enduringly happy land, isolated from the world.

Over the years, Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, particularly a mythical utopia in the high mountains of Himalaya. Perhaps the keyword here is ‘mythical’, but it did not prevent us from hopefully catch a glimpse of this utopia. The reality is it was a figment of the imagination of a writer. Our group comprised old friends who were students in Britain some forty years ago. We were idealistic then and I must add we still share the sense of idealism and optimism of our younger days.

We were disappointed when we came to realise that many places in the region, like Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet Autonomous Region, in the bid boost tourism, lay claim to being the site of the real Shangri-La. Such competing claims were confusing.

In our post-tour discussion, some of us were wondering if the wild goose chase was worth the money spent. Then someone wrote, “Indeed it could have been a fool’s chase, a chase for a fictitious place concocted by an imaginative and idealistic writer. Maybe the real, physical Shangri-La does not exist. The fact that we travelled in the convivial company of friends of yesteryears, friends who still share the same outlook in life, can be the Shangri-La. Perhaps for Hilton, Shangri-La represents a longing for an ideal world. In the fortnight we were together we had the warmth of friendship. That could be Shangri-La.”

Snoopy is so right.

It is more than just the destination, it is more than the journey, it is also the company that walk the steps together with us in our quest in life.