Zither, chess, book, painting, sword.
These symbolize classical skill.

There was once a wanderer who cared nothing for fame. Although he had many chances for position, he continued to search for teachers who could help him master five things: zither, chess, book, painting, and sword.

The zither gave him music, which expressed the soul. Chess cultivated strategy and a response to the actions of another. Books gave him academic education. Painting was the exercise of beauty and sensitivity. Sword was a means for health and defense.

One day a little boy asked the wanderer what he would do if he lost his five things. At first the wanderer was frightened, but he soon realized that his zither could not play itself, the chess board was nothing without players, a book needed a reader, brush and ink could not move on their own accord, and a sword could not be unsheathed without a hand. He realized that his cultivation was not merely for the acquisition of skills. It was a path to the innermost part of his being.

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

Too often people seem to stop learning once their official education is over. But like the wanderer, the reality is we need to be constantly seeking new teachers and learning in order to really be ourselves. Acquiring things is not the purpose of life; it is to become more ourselves, and one way of doing that is by constantly working to better our skills and abilities.

Life is about growth. If you’re not busy growing, you’re busy dying. To become set in your ways, never changing or learning anything new, is to start dying. From the Ko Yuen Translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

A Warning Against Rigidity
1. At the birth of man, he is elastic and weak; at his death, rigid and unyielding. This is the common law; trees also, in their youth, are tender and supple; in their decay, hard and dry.
2. So then rigidity and hardness are the stigmata of death; elasticity and adaptability, of life.
3. He then who putteth forth strength is not victorious; even as a strong tree filleth the embrace.
4. Thus the hard and rigid have the inferior place, the soft and elastic the superior.

So we need to stay flexible and adaptable, not become hard and rigid. By practicing our skills, and learning from those who can teach us, we stay alive. If we refuse to learn and grow, we become dead inside. Even the oldest of trees still have new, tender, soft growth.

Soul, strategy, education, sensitivity, and health. Things that keep you alive…