Service Over Private Agenda

A friend of mine recently sent me the text of Sr. Joan Chittister’s address at Stanford University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Program. The address was titled A Call To Leadership.

Her talk included a story about a Buddhist monk who was determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese. I’ve actually read an adaptation of this story before, in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic, which tells the story of a gifted woman who dedicates “her life to the task of translating the Word of God throughout her country.” The story teaches a wonderful lesson, whoever you put in the role of protagonist.

Here is the story as Joan Chittiester told it:

He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he’d raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.

Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.

Chittister framed the lesson of the story as a lesson of leadership, but it is a lesson for all of us: “no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.”