Printing the SutrasTetsugen was a 17th century Japanese Zen Master. He is best known for attempting to print the Chinese Buddhist sutras in Japanese. This project required 60,000 hand carved woodcut blocks and the price tag was prohibitive. Nevertheless, Tetsugen set about raising the necessary money.
He traveled throughout the country collecting donations. After ten years he had enough funds to start the project, but when the Uji River overflowed and famine followed in its wake, he used all of his money to feed the starving villagers.
Tetsugen started over on the arduous task of raising funds for the printing. This time an epidemic swept over the country and he spent all of his money to care for the sick.
A third time Tetsugen set about raising funds for his dream. After twenty years his printing blocks were finished and the first edition of the sutras was published in 1681. The woodcuts can be seen to this day in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.
If you stand near a railroad track, a passing train will buffet you with wind and noise. Only a small part of the train can be seen at any given moment. At such close range, the passing train will dominate your attention and all else will be momentarily forgotten.
If you pull back to view the same scene from a sufficient distance you can see the entire train as part of a larger picture, making its way peacefully through a wide valley alongside a meandering river where several sheep have paused for a drink.
The closer you are to a problem, the more important and urgent it may seem. At the same time you become blinded temporarily to the larger patterns of your life. If you do not step back occasionally to view your life from a great distance you can easily lose your way, unable to see the forest for the trees.
Looking back at the earth from the surface of the moon, many formerly all-consuming issues like politics can appear trivial. Life itself seems miraculous and fragile. From such a distance it is easier to see our place in the fabric of the universe and to prioritize our lives accordingly. If traveling to the moon is not an option for you, a retreat can have a similar effect. If that is not in the cards at this time, meditation is a time-honored tradition to gain distance and perspective on your life.
The story of Tetsugen reminds us that we must learn to operate at both levels. On the one hand, we must be tenacious in pursing our goals, moment to moment. On the other hand we must occasionally step back from this pursuit to take in the larger view of our world, and ask our selves, is this goal truly the best use of our time?
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