Master Cheng Yen a Buddhist nun and founder of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

« The hope of people comes from mutual help, » said Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun and founder of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan. « Tzu Chi gives help not only to relieve the destitution of the poor and the disaster-stricken, but more importantly to spread the seeds of love. »
Tzu Chi is one of the largest charity organizations in Taiwan, with offices now in over thirty countries around the world. Yet few people know that when Master Cheng Yen established the foundation over three decades ago, in 1966, she had nothing.
Leading an ascetic life, the slim, petite Buddhist nun wholeheartedly carried out her spiritual cultivation in a tiny wooden hut behind Pu Ming Temple in Hualien County, eastern Taiwan. Despite her austere situation, the Master resolved not to accept offerings from followers or to perform Buddhist ceremonies, which are common ways for monks and nuns to earn money. Instead of recoiling from hardship and withdrawing from her principles, the Master and her disciples unrelentingly searched for alternative ways to sustain themselves.
First she grew vegetables, a skill she had acquired before becoming a nun. In 1965, the Master and three other nuns plowed the barren fields behind Pu Ming Temple to grow peanuts and other vegetables to feed themselves. Since farming alone could not provide enough food, Master Cheng Yen explored other methods to make a living, including knitting sweaters and sewing baby shoes. Besides reciting and studying sutras, days were spent working in the fields and in the workshop.
However, such hard work still did not guarantee them food on the dinner table. The money they earned from their crops was often not enough to pay for the fertilizer. Sometimes after a day’s hard work, dinner for the Master and the other three nuns consisted of nothing more than some white rice and a small piece of tofu cut into four pieces and soaked in salty water. Their bed was so tiny that the four of them had to lie on their sides and huddle together like shrimp.
Even today, the nuns at the Abode of Still Thoughts, the headquarters of the Tzu Chi Foundation, still uphold the motto of « No work, no meal. » They grow vegetables, make candles, and produce bean powder, a sort of dietary supplement. Royalties earned on Master Cheng Yen’s books are also an important source of income.
A visitor once asked the Master what prompted her, a 28-year-old nun at that time, to leave the little wooden hut and engage in the charitable activities.
The Master answered that it was all because of the power of trust. « I trusted my selflessness and I trusted my belief that all people had love. » The nun, now aged sixty-eight, elaborated that before she left the hut, she solemnly asked herself whether she wanted to gain either profit or prestige by entering society. The answer was of course negative. She then told herself that she firmly trusted there was love and compassion hidden in people’s hearts. They only needed to be activated and revealed by someone, and the Master decided to be that person. « If I did the most difficult part of taking the lead, I was pretty sure even without looking back that numerous people would follow me to do charitable work, » the Master explained.
If someone asks her how many members she had when she first started thirty-nine years ago, she can answer that there were only thirty. But when asked how many members she has today, I am afraid she cannot give you an accurate number. Today, Tzu Chi members can be found in every corner of the world. Each of them has given unceasingly over the last thirty-nine years, since they understand that the more they give, the more they gain spiritually.
For over thirty-nine years, the organization has been working in the fields of charity, medical service, education, culture, international relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection and community volunteerism. All of the work is done by 2,500 full-time staff members and 45,000 volunteers, who labor with an attitude of love and gratitude towards all people. They hope that by purifying people’s minds and activating the love and compassion in their hearts, they can bring harmony and peace to the world.
In the field of international relief, Master Cheng Yen has sent relief teams to Ethiopia, Cambodia, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, North Korea, Turkey, Papua New Guinea, Kosovo, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, to name just a few.
The foundation gained international prominence because of its quick response to the September 21, 1999, earthquake in Taiwan that killed over two thousand people. The quake struck at 1:47 in the morning, and within an hour Tzu Chi volunteers had arrived at disaster sites to function as first-rate rescue teams by sheltering, feeding and counseling tens of thousands of quake victims.
Just a few hours after the temblor, the Master decided to build prefabricated houses for survivors of the disaster, since the weather would soon get colder. Two months later, about two thousand houses of this kind had been built by Tzu Chi volunteers who worked day and night in the disaster areas of Taichung, Nantou and Puli. The Master stated that the government had done a good job of taking care of earthquake victims, but local people could not rely on the government to do everything. Since the Master felt that education for young students should not be delayed for any reason, she then decided to rebuild fifty-five schools destroyed by the quake-and this time make them earthquake-proof. This project, known to all Tzu Chi members as Project Hope, was completed by the end of 2001.
The foundation runs a number of civic projects in Taiwan, ranging from providing monthly welfare checks to four thousand needy families to pushing an environmental agenda, which has recycled enough paper to save over three million trees.
The foundation has worked in mainland China for the past 15 years, with activities in nineteen of its thirty-five provinces. « There is no reason to love some people less than others, and mainland Chinese are people, too, » she said. « Buddhism teaches us to take care of all people, to take care of all society. »
Nature again shocked the whole world with its enormous power on December 26 of last year, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook South Asia and spawned huge tsunamis. The colossal waves pounded coastal regions in 12 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand being the worst affected. At least 250,000 people were killed. All Tzu Chi people immediately pitched in. So far, The foundation have helped thousands of survivors by giving them food, tents, free clinics, etc., and will also build 1,000 houses in Sri Lanka, and another 3,000 houses and other infrastructure in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
The Master’s philosophy is that when suffering people are touched by the unprejudiced, genuine concern shown by fellow human beings, they will open up their own hearts and find love within. Thus, they may eventually move from being helped to helping others. Come that day, the cycle of goodness will have come full circle.
The altruistic spirit of Master Cheng Yen and her humanitarian care for all human beings are well worthy of our respect. It is believed that if the ideals of Master Cheng Yen and the Tzu Chi Foundation were practiced in earnest by people in every part of the globe, our world would be free of violence, ill will, and hatred. Instead, it would become a place full of compassion, selfless giving and love.