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Friday, 16 September 2016 00:00

50 Years of Tzu Chi: Looking Back and Striding Forward

Written by  Tzu Chi Documenting Team, KL & Selangor / Translated by Nai Sheah Qin

Master De Rang walked everyone through the history and development of Tzu Chi. [Photograph by Leong Chian Yee]

Master De Rang is one of the many early disciples of Master Cheng Yen when Tzu Chi was still budding. In a riveting session, Master De Rang walked everyone through the history and development of Tzu Chi while also sharing a handful of little-known anecdotes about Master Cheng Yen.

“A man should know his roots”, so they say. Despite experiencing multiple setbacks throughout the years, the Jing Si Abode and its community in Hualien County, Taiwan has, as what Master Cheng Yen described in her morning sermon today (September 16), stood strong as the backbone of Tzu Chi. It still stands as the spiritual bedrock for every Tzu Chi volunteer, and it will always remain as everyone’s spiritual home.

Just like the Buddha who manifested as Prince Siddhartha to show us that Enlightenment is possible for every human being, the Master also based Tzu Chi on the core teachings of the Lotus Sutra, hoping for the same. The vision of Tzu Chi has always been to encourage everyone to serve amongst the multitude and to eventually gain a deeper and wiser sense of being a human being.

Religious revelation in the small wooden hut

More than 50 years ago, after the Master arrived at the little wooden hut in Hualien having received her ordination in Taipei, she started resting for just two hours daily and spending the rest of her time reading, copying and chanting Buddhist scriptures. It was then that the Lotus Sutra struck her as an extremely practical Buddhist scripture and one that she could abide by as she thought about the undertakings of Tzu Chi, an organization that aspires to spread “compassion” (Tzu) and offer “relief” (Chi).

The Master used to mention that she felt tremendous joy when she came across the line, “Those who revere and have faith in the Dharma, recite and copy the sutra, and make offerings to the Buddha, are determined to attain Buddhahood in a future lifetime”, in one of the chapters of Lotus Sutra, and was confident at that time that she could do the same. Hence, despite just scraping by with one meal per day, she was insistent on burning incense against her arms as a symbol of devoting her life to the Buddha and His teachings.

In October 1963, the Master was invited to give a sermon on the Earth Treasury Sutra at Ci Shan Temple in Hualien. Quite a few senior Dharma Masters we see in the Abode today took refuge with the Master around that time. The Master did not have a place of her own then, so she had to bring her disciples to another temple, Pu Ming Temple, for temporary lodging. Those were the times when the Master established the monastic principle of “no work, no meal” for herself and her disciples. To-date, we have developed 21 different kinds of handicrafts, of which the multi-grain instant mix, candles, instant rice, ceramic art and organic soaps remain the main sources of revenue for the Abode today – all through the marketing effort of Jing Si Culture Publications.

Throughout the past 50 years, commencing from that small wooden hut to having a Dharma hall in the Jing Si Abode itself, the Abode community remains as devoted as ever to what the Master wished it would, which is, to remain all the more united and steadfast in supporting the endeavour of Tzu Chi.

A metamorphosis

Many people have mistaken “Jing Si” for “Tzu Chi”, not knowing the real connection between the two.

This could be traced back to when the Master was leaving home in search of the answer to life following her foster father’s sudden death. She was at a train station in Kaohsiung and was reading a magazine she had taken from the rack. An article about how the Buddha attained Enlightenment through going into a state of “靜思” (read as “jing si” and literally translates as “still thoughts”) caught her eyes and made her think to herself, “Since I have made up my mind to renounce mundane life, I ought to transform myself and start focusing on the larger causes of the world. I shall first have a new name for myself, and ‘Jing Si’ shall be it.”

When I read about this anecdote, I had a revelation that the name “Jing Si” truly denotes the transformation the Master underwent. It is also something that each of us could experience too if we let it. By being determined in perfecting ourselves through doing good, by continuously taking in the Master’s teaching and influencing others to do the same and strive for common good, we are already tilting ourselves towards the realm of “Jing Si”.

Jing Si Abode – eternal backbone of Tzu Chi

The name “Tzu Chi” was first mentioned on May 14, 1966, when the Master founded the Buddhist Merits Tzu Chi Society that same day hoping to relieve the suffering of the poor and sick in impoverished Hualien. The Master was determined to “do what is needed”, even though both money and manpower were scarce.

The Jing Si Abode was still non-existent at that time, and the Master and her few disciples were still staying at Pu Ming Temple. When the Master officially registered Tzu Chi as a religious organization in 1973, she was already envisioning what we would be undertaking now and stated in the form that Tzu Chi would focus on the works of Charity, Medicine, Education and Humanistic Culture. Thus, even though we, in the Abode, have renounced lay life to focus on spiritual cultivation, we were expected to walk into the multitude to partake in Tzu Chi’s humanistic Buddhism work like the Tzu Chi volunteers. This is the mission bestowed upon us, the monastic disciples, by the Master.

As you all may have known, before the official registration, Tzu Chi was already caring for a few needy people. Our first long-term aid beneficiary was Madam Lin Tseng, an 86-year-old mainland Chinese widow who was bedridden. We were pinching pennies then but the Master was determined to care for her continually. And so we did, up until she passed away at the age of 90 in February 1970. We also took care of her funeral.

Our first aid recipient with a medical condition was vegetable vendor, Lu Dan Kui, whom we helped pay NT$5,000 for her glaucoma surgery. The Master had visited her and decided that the surgery was much needed to restore her vision, as well as family life and financial situation. She had four children and her husband earned a meagre income. Unfortunately, a few months after the surgery, she committed suicide due to an argument with her husband over three cabbages she had used to make porridge for the family. The incident prompted the Master to initiate regular follow-up visits for all aid recipients for the reason that regular concern and counselling would help ascertain the well-being of the people we care for and prevent mishaps like Lu’s.

The following year on November 1, 1967, we built a house for a blind man. We did not even have a place of our own yet, but the Master simply did what she believes in – always put others before herself. On February 9, 1969, we held our first ever winter relief distribution at Pu Ming Temple. A lady had brought several woollen blankets to Pu Ming Temple to give to the Master and her disciples hoping to keep them warm through the winter. The Master, however, could not help thinking about the lonely folks who had no one to depend on. Thus, she decided to purchase a few more blankets and organize the distribution to give them all to the needy, including the ones gifted by the kind lady. A vegetarian feast was also served during the occasion as an early Chinese New Year reunion meal for all. The winter relief distribution became a yearly event since.

Life back then was hard and every time during the relief distributions, we would end up in a dilemma as people kept coming in when we served salty hot porridge. We often did not have enough rice to cook more, so the Master would keep ordering the kitchen to “add water” to the pot to make the portion bigger. When the porridge was done, we could see the water was so transparent that it could clearly reflect the surroundings outside the pot. That was how the Master came up with her famous saying, “In the rice grain lie many suns and moons.”

Throughout the years, the Master has urged us monastic disciples to stand strong as the support of Tzu Chi. We started committing in charitable work even when we did not have a place to call our own, and we slowly developed handicrafts as our source of income. In fact, the Master has urged us to “strive to not only earn enough to support ourselves, but also to gather sufficient money to host Tzu Chi volunteers when they visit Jing Si Abode” because “the Abode is their spiritual home and will forever remain the backbone of Tzu Chi”.

The Jing Si Abode was officially ready and opened on March 24, 1969 (on the Lunar Calendar). The Master decided to hold Dharma service to commemorate the establishment of Tzu Chi (which falls on the same day in 1966). However, she did not have the money to purchase Buddhist scripture for the service, so she laid a piece of wax paper on the stencil steel board and used an iron pen to copy the Sutra of Infinite Meanings and the Lotus Sutra – stroke by stroke.

While recalling this past event, the Master told us, “Even though my wrist still hurts now, the sutra copying was truly worthwhile. I am so glad I did it.”

Due to the lack of modern medical facilities in Eastern Taiwan, the Master announced in 1979 that Tzu Chi would set out to build a hospital in Hualien so that the sick and needy do not need to take long and uncertain trips to other parts of Taiwan to seek medical attention. Everyone toiled to garner public donations, but a month after the groundbreaking in 1983*, a big blow came when the military unexpectedly intervened and declared the site a security zone. No amount of intervention by the government officials could persuade them to permit the construction to proceed, and a worried Master Cheng Yen did not sleep or eat for days. Every day, the Master would use the time when the Dharma service assembly performed walking meditation to head out to survey alternative sites. But, she made sure she returned on time to give her daily sermon. She recalled fighting the deep torment she felt during that uncertain period, but knew she had to “stick to doing what is right”.

In 1991, 21 youths from Tsinghua University came to volunteer at the Tzu Chi hospital during their summer holidays. They stayed at the Abode, and every day before they depart for the hospital, they would gather and share their volunteering experience with the Master. This was how the reporting after the volunteers’ morning assembly began. The Master says the daily session has since become a form of recharging for her as listening to the thoughts of volunteers helps strengthen her conviction for Buddhist work.

That explains why the Master makes it a point to attend and host the morning assembly every day. Even when she once had an eye surgery and a stand-in had been arranged, she insisted on making it to the session. It was after she returned to her study that her attendants learnt that she was actually in great discomfort and could not see where she was going. This shows how great the Master cherishes the opportunities to delve into each volunteer’s mind, after each one has witnessed human suffering first-hand and gained wisdom from it.

Local to global

As you all know, the spirit of Tzu Chi (compassion and relief) began with 30 housewives setting aside NT$0.50 from their grocery money each day to help the poor. It has now grown into an international charitable organization (with its presence in 54 countries). In 2010, a group of scientists even named an asteroid they discovered between Mars and Jupiter after Tzu Chi in recognition of its contribution to charity, medicine, education and culture around the world. That same year, we were awarded “Special Consultative Status” by the UN and were since able to participate in all of its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meetings, and offer suggestions, as well as share our relief experience with the UN and other NGOs.

People remember Tzu Chi volunteers as “blue angels” who are the first to arrive at disaster scenes and the last to leave. Volunteers living outside Taiwan – many of them immigrants – always ensure they give back to their country of residence by caring for the needy. No matter where calamity strikes, we always do our best to conduct cash-for-work programmes to help victims restore their community and life, while not forgetting to build pre-fabricated classrooms and housing villages for them. Everywhere we go, we strive to inspire love and humanity in both the givers and receivers.

People say love can move mountains. This is evident when in 2008, Tzu Chi was given the official nod to set up a nationwide charitable foundation in China, a country which has been in decades of political contention with Taiwan. Our affinity with China actually goes back to 1991 when the Master insisted on reaching out to the tens of thousands of victims whose lives were disrupted by serious flooding in the country’s central and eastern regions that summer. Amidst cross-strait political tensions and strong societal criticisms, the Master and Tzu Chi volunteers continued to call on the public to pour their love and donations to help the flood victims. It was an arduous feat for the Master and Tzu Chi, but we all held onto the firm belief that love and compassion should know no boundaries.

It is the same spirit that led Tzu Chi to conduct relief missions to Outer Mongolia and Nepal in 1992 and 1993; and later, to North Korea, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The Master used to say, “I am a religionist and I see relieving worldly suffering as my duty. The most important thing in my work is to inspire conscience and compassion amongst people, and to show them the way to be better human beings.” This is the one and only goal that has stuck with the Master her whole life.

There was an incident that occurred in 2010 that stuck me too. It was at Guandu, Taipei, before news broke out about Haiti being hit by a catastrophic earthquake on January 12, local time. The Master was unable to join us for breakfast that morning as she was feeling unwell. But when it was time for the scheduled Year-end Blessing Ceremony, she forced herself to go to the hall and, as she was making a turn during her grand entrance, her body suddenly tilted to the side. Another Dharma Master and I felt inclined to go forward to support her, but we held back knowing that the Master values etiquette very much, and tacitly decided to keep a closer distance having noticed her abnormal gait. When the Master returned to her seat, we were surprised to find her limbs trembling. A volunteer at the side asked if she wished to take a rest in the room, to which the Master gave a surprising “yes”.

Shortly after, the Master came out again to host the light illuminating event and to give her sermons. She had insisted on doing this despite her discomfort, so all of us stayed close in case anything happens. When the subsequent session took place, the Master was already too weak to lead us to the entrance. Since then, it has become our practice to stay close to the Master whenever she is out.

I was, however, stirred by that incident deeply. I am not sure if any of you have ever assumed that the Master would be with us for the longest time and never thought that she would one day leave us. Dr. Chen Ing Ho, former Honorary Superintendent of Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital, used to ask us, “Don’t you know the Master will fall sick too?” Indeed, we have assumed that the Master would never fall sick and she would always be the shore we could return to. I still remember the emptiness I felt when the Master was not around for the second Year-end Blessing session, which was why I promised myself to cherish whatever precious time I have with her.

The most holistic form of aid

The Master used to say that the most precious thing for humans is life, and the most painful suffering is the pain from sicknesses. In the early years when she was conducting charitable work in Hualien, the Master had come to realize that poverty causes sickness and sickness leads to poverty, which was why she decided to build a hospital for the people in Eastern Taiwan. The decision came under severe questioning and doubts – mostly doubting the practicality seeing this coming from a Buddhist nun – but the thought that “If I do not do this, who will?” drove the Master forward. She had based her judgement solely on “the value of human life”, and that “despite how arduous it could be, I believe I am doing this for the common good, and I have faith in the innate compassion in everyone”.

That explains why Tzu Chi’s first two missions are charity and medical aid, for the Master thinks extending the two makes the most holistic humanitarian aid. Presently, we have six hospitals across Taiwan, with several situated in the most needed areas. From 2001 onwards, some of the hospitals started receiving case referrals from overseas, such as, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, thanks to the network of our medical arm, TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association). Many of them were difficult cases, but all were treated successfully by our professional, loving medical teams.

The Mission of Education and Project Hope

Our mission of education was an extension from our medical cause. In order to address the shortage of nurses on Taiwan’s east coast and expand the ongoing medical mission, Tzu Chi College of Nursing was established in 1989. The effort also helped keep many aboriginal girls in schools. A medical college later came into being in 1994 and it was upgraded into Tzu Chi University in 2000.

From the kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools, till the university level, we now see a complete educational curriculum packed with Tzu Chi’s humanistic values in place in our education mission, both in Taiwan and abroad. We also see how our respectful Silent Mentor body donation programme impacted the medical field, adding humanistic warmth to cold medical know-how and inspiring humility among medical students and educators.

Following the catastrophic September 21, 1999, earthquake, a school rebuilding project called Project Hope was initiated by Tzu Chi Taiwan. Many schools were destroyed and Tzu Chi undertook the effort to rebuild 50 elementary and secondary schools. The earliest Project Hope we undertook was however across the strait in China after the 1991 massive flooding. We built 12 schools for the affected communities. As at May 2011, Tzu Chi had built 174 schools for children in 14 countries.

Documenting and spreading human kindness

It is interesting that while she was busy running charitable work in the early years, the Master did not forget about documenting the public donations and disseminating it through circulars. The circular, first published on July 2, 1967, gradually established credibility for Tzu Chi as a charitable foundation and helped communicate its spirit to the public through documented stories. Our Tzu Chi Monthly publication, now many times thicker than it first went into print, has proven to be an influential tool in inspiring people to join our ranks.

The Master’s farsightedness, however, did not stop there. On November 16, 1985, we aired our first radio programme, “The Tzu Chi World”, with a local radio station. In May 2011, our own Internet radio station was already transmitting through 28 channels, airing an average of 13 hours per day. In December 1995, we produced our TV programme, also named “The Tzu Chi World”, and aired it through the cable network. We also made it available to the entire Asia continent through satellite network. On New Year’s Day in 1998, we established our own TV station, the Da Ai TV, and at its seventh anniversary, opened the Tzu Chi Culture & Communication Centre in Guandu, Taipei, housing Da Ai TV, Da Ai e-Radio and Tzu Chi Publication all under one roof. Two years later in 2007, Tzu Chi Indonesia established our first two overseas TV stations in Jakarta and Medan, spreading the truth, goodness and beauty that Tzu Chi propagates even farther.

The Master said, “So long as I am still breathing, or even when I am long gone, I have no regrets as to the commitment I made to you all.” If our Master had not upheld the resolution she made over 50 years ago, there would not be the Tzu Chi we see today, and we would not be sitting here at all.

“Don’t forget that I am a mortal being as well,” the Master used to say. “I face struggles and dilemmas over issues, I suffer illnesses, and I get tired like every ordinary being. But I know clearly what my convictions are, and I have never once wavered.”

As age catches up with the Master, there is only one thing that worries her other than the welfare of humanity – the spiritual growth of her monastic and lay disciples. As we stride forward into our 51st year, let us all be all the more united in our philanthropic work and not forget to constantly be in touch with Buddha’s teachings, and spread the teachings far and wide. After all, Buddha’s Dharma is our ultimate source of guidance and a beacon of light as we navigate this fleeting life.

* The second groundbreaking took place on April 24, 1984, and the first Tzu Chi hospital with 250 beds was completed and opened two years later.

Master De Rang shared how the monastics at Jing Si Abode have abided by the principle of self-reliance. [Photograph by Leong Chian Yee]   Wong Yoke Mei was full of emotions listening to the sharing by Master De Rang. [Photograph by Lee Kok Keong]

Master De Rang shared how the monastics at Jing Si Abode have abided by the principle of self-reliance. [Photograph by Leong Chian Yee]
Wong Yoke Mei was full of emotions listening to the sharing by Master De Rang. [Photograph by Lee Kok Keong]
Tan Bee Wan thanked the early volunteers for paving a smooth path for the later volunteers. [Photograph by Ivan Ooi Yoong Seong]  

Tan Bee Wan thanked the early volunteers for paving a smooth path for the later volunteers. [Photograph by Ivan Ooi Yoong Seong]