The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation
Tzu Chi Foundation was established in 1966 by Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Dharma Master Cheng Yen on the poor east coast of Taiwan. Over the years, the foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan and around the world. From the first 30 members, housewives who saved two cents from their grocery money each day to help the poor, the foundation has volunteers in 50 countries, with 502 offices worldwide. Master Cheng Yen firmly believes that suffering in this world is caused not only by material deprivation but, more importantly, also by spiritual poverty. She feels that the lack of altruistic love for others has been the root of many problems in this world. Thus, the foundation’s guiding principle on charity is to “help the poor and educate the rich.” Tzu Chi’s missions focus on giving material aid to the needy and inspiring love and humanity to both givers and receivers. In addition to charity, the foundation dedicates itself in the fields of medicine, education, environmental protection, international relief work and the establishment a marrow donor registry. It also promotes humanistic values and community volunteerism. Through helping those in need, Tzu Chi volunteers take on the path of bodhisattva practices, the way to Buddhahood.
Tzu Chi Missions – In 1966, Dharma Master Cheng Yen established the Tzu Chi Foundation in Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan. With the spirit of self-discipline, diligence, frugality, and perseverance, Tzu Chi set out to help the poor and relieve suffering. Over time, the foundation’s mission started with Charity and extended into Medicine, Education, and Humanistic Culture. Tzu Chi originated in the remote Hualien area and expanded to all five major continents of the world with chapters and offices in 47 countries. Tzu Chi provides aid to over 69 nations. Its volunteers selflessly contribute through a mindset of gratitude, expressing their sincerest care and support to each and every individual in need.
The shared goal of Tzu Chi volunteers is to cultivate sincerity, integrity, faith, and honesty within while exercising kindness, compassion, joy, and selflessness to humanity through concrete actions. Transcending the bounds of race, nationality, language, and religion, they serve the world under the notion that “when others are hurting, we feel their pain; when others suffer, we feel their sorrow”. Not only do the volunteers endeavor to promote the universal value of “Great Love,” they also fully employ the humanitarian spirit of Chinese culture to its utmost. Tzu Chi Foundation’s “Four Major Missions” consist of Charity, Medicine, Education, and Humanity. Furthermore, considering ongoing efforts in Bone Marrow Donation, Environmental Protection, Community Volunteerism, and International Relief, these eight concurrent campaigns are collectively known as “Tzu Chi’s Eight footprints”
Mission of Charity – “Educating the rich to help the poor; inspiring the poor to realize their riches”. Tzu Chi pays attention not only to the effectiveness of its aid and assistance; it also focuses on bringing out the good in everyone. By helping the poor, the rich get to feel the happiness of giving and find the true meaning of life. Likewise, the poor are motivated to harbor love abundantly and help out those less fortunate than themselves, so that they break away from perceived helplessness and despair. Consequently, more people become willing to help out others while enriching themselves through contribution.
Mission of Medicine – “Patient-centered medical care that respects patients as teachers”. Among the four sufferings of life, illness is the most painful. During her charity visits, Dharma Master Cheng Yen realized that many families became poor after following some major illness. Therefore, she founded the Tzu Chi Free Clinic for the Poor in 1972, which began Tzu Chi’s mission of medicine. In 1986, the Hualien Tzu Chi General Hospital opened, and its guiding principles were “respect life” and “Patient-centered”. Tzu Chi Taiwan’s medical network was completed by the openings of additional hospitals in Yuli, Guanshan, Dalin, Taipei, and Taichung. The medical staff, supported by large teams of volunteers, aim to perfect the “Four Entireties” of patient care: the entire treatment process, the patient’s entire body, the patient’s entire family, and the entire medical team. The goal is to ensure proper care of the body, mind, and soul of the patient. From city to countryside, from the mountain to the sea, Tzu Chi’s comprehensive medical network provides the people of Taiwan with top quality medical service that consists of the latest technology and the warm human touch.
Mission of Education – “Educating children to be moral and upright”. To foster outstanding and compassionate future medical professionals, Dharma Master Cheng Yen established the Tzu Chi Nursing College in 1989. The Master also wanted to address the lack of education and employment opportunities confronting aboriginal girls of Eastern Taiwan. In July 2000, Tzu Chi completed the establishment of its education program offering a well-rounded curriculum and runs the full curriculum from kindergarten, elementary school and middle school to high school, college, and graduate studies. The shared objective of Tzu Chi schools and universities is the delivery of superior education where “kindness, compassion, joy, and selfless giving” is the school motto, ”Respect for Life and Faith in Human Nature” is the guideline, and “Education of Virtue, education of life, and education of the entire person” is the goal.
Mission of Culture – “Recording the examples of goodness and integrity for future generations”. What is “Culture?” It consists of shining examples for the human character that becomes revered legacy in recorded history. Every one of Tzu Chi’s missions takes the individual human being as foundation. Each person is expected to behave in a moral way with proper manners and to have respect for Mother Nature. Each person is also expected to cultivate his inherent integrity and to maintain appropriate demeanor in interacting with others. When Tzu Chi first started its mission of charity, the seeds of humanity were planted deep. Later, the Mission of Medicine and the Mission of Education also carried integral connections with humanity. The calling of the Mission of Humanistic Culture is to purify the human mind, to pacify our society, to help those who suffer, and to rectify frenzied and chaotic acts. The Mission of Humanistic Culture bears witness to historical eras, creates new history for mankind, and establishes cycles of love and goodness.
International Relief – “Caring for people in suffering in the global village”. “Bodhisattvas exist to relieve the suffering of mankind”. With providing help to flood victims of Bangladesh in 1991, Tzu Chi marked the start of its international relief efforts. International Relief not only provides emergency materials like food, clothing, grain seeds, and medical materials, it goes further to rebuild houses and schools, set up water supply systems, and offer free clinics. Though the aid projects vary, the ideal of “respecting life” is adhered to all the same. From its beginnings as a local charity in Taiwan, Tzu Chi has become a broad-based international humanitarian organization. In recognition of its global aid programs across five continents, Tzu Chi became the first Non-Government-Organized charity group in Taiwan to attain association status with the United Nations Department of Information in 2003.
Environmental Protection – “Practicising environmental protection to live in harmony with Mother Earth”. In a 1990 speech, Dharma Master Cheng Yen called on the public “to carry out environmental conservation with applauding hands”. Since then, Tzu Chi volunteers have been earnestly practicing environmental protection. To promote waste reduction and motivate recycling regardless of age or social stature and without fear of filth, conservation volunteers humbly and selflessly give all of their care to the earth. From protecting our earthly environment to protecting our mental environment, Tzu Chi advocates a healthy diet of more fruits and vegetables and discourages meat consumption. If we live a simple lifestyle and reduce our carbon footprint while constantly cherishing the earth, we shall slow down the global warming crisis.
Dharma Master Cheng Yen was born in 1937 in Qingshui, a small town in Taichung County, Taiwan. As her father’s brother was childless, at a young age, she was adopted by him and his wife to raise as their own, a common practice in that era. When Dharma Master Cheng Yen was around seven, she experienced the air raids that the Second World War brought upon Japanese-occupied Taiwan. What she witnessed deeply imprinted upon her young mind the cruelty of war. Throughout her growing years, she had many questions about life and its meaning. In her town, the young Dharma Master Cheng Yen was known as a very filial daughter to her parents. When her mother needed surgery for acute gastric perforation, a very risky procedure in those times, the 15-year-old Dharma Master Cheng Yen prayed earnestly to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), offering to give up 12 years of her life in exchange for her mother’s health. To express her piety, she undertook a vegetarian fast. When her mother later recovered without need for surgery, the young Dharma Master Cheng Yen, out of gratitude, chose to become a life-long vegetarian.
The Spiritual Calling – When Dharma Master Cheng Yen was 21, an event happened that would change her life. One day, her father suddenly took ill, and he passed away the very next day. His death was a great shock to Dharma Master Cheng Yen and propelled her to seek many answers about life and death. That life could be taken away so precipitously made her reflect, “Why is life so transient? Where then lies its true meaning?” At this time, Dharma Master Cheng Yen came into contact with Buddhism. Learning of the teachings, she gradually came to feel that one should expand the love for one’s own family to the entire society and all humanity. She aspired to take care of the great family of humanity, instead of one small family. With this outlook on life, Dharma Master Cheng Yen left her family home to embark on the spiritual path, giving up a relatively comfortable life. Not long after, however, her family found her and begged her to return home. She acquiesced, but with her spiritual convictions, she could not truly be content living her old life; in late1960, she again left her family to pursue spiritual cultivation. That year, she was 23. From western Taiwan, she traveled to eastern Taiwan and eventually settled down in Hualien, a small town in Taiwan’s relatively undeveloped east coast. Though life was very hard, it did not diminish her commitment to spiritual cultivation.
In late 1962, at the age of 25, Dharma Master Cheng Yen shaved her own head to formally renounce the lay life and start life as a Buddhist monastic. She was unaware that Buddhist rules required one to do so under a Buddhist master (a monastic teacher). Because of this, she could not qualify when she sought to receive full monastic ordination at Taipei’s Lin Chi Temple several months later. These circumstances brought her into a chance encounter with Venerable Master Yin Shun at a Buddhist lecture hall in Taipei. Having great respect for him, she asked if he would accept her as his disciple. He accepted, but as registration for ordination at the Lin Chi Temple would soon come to a close, there was little time for more than a simple instruction to the young novice, “Now that you are a Buddhist monastic, remember always to work for Buddhism and for all living beings.” He gave her the Dharma name, Cheng Yen.
The Founding of Tzu Chi – In 1966, at the age of 29, Dharma Master Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi. At the time, the east coast of Taiwan, where Dharma Master Cheng Yen first settled, was undeveloped and impoverished. Dharma Master Cheng Yen and her monastic disciples supported themselves by sewing baby shoes, making concrete sacks into smaller animal feed bags, knitting sweaters, and raising their own vegetables. In the spring of 1966, while Dharma Master Cheng Yen was visiting a patient at a small local clinic, she saw a pool of blood on the floor. Dharma Master Cheng Yen was told that the blood was from an indigenous woman suffering from labor complications. Her family had carried her from their mountain village. They had been walking for eight hours, but when they arrived at the hospital, they did not have the NT$8,000 (then US$200) required fee. They could only carry her back untreated. Hearing this, Dharma Master Cheng Yen was overwhelmed with sorrow. She thought to herself: as an impoverished monastic barely supporting herself, what could she do to help these poor people?
short time later, three Catholic nuns visited Dharma Master Cheng Yen, and they had a discussion on the teachings of their respective religions. When Dharma Master Cheng Yen explained that Buddhism teaches love and compassion for all living beings, the nuns commented: Why have we not seen Buddhists doing good works for the society, such as setting up nursing homes, orphanages, and hospitals? The nuns’ message struck a deep chord with Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Buddhism, she responded, teaches people to do good deeds without seeking recognition. However, she knew in her heart that without organization, what could be accomplished was very limited. Dharma Master Cheng Yen considered: What if her disciples sold one extra pair of baby shoes per day? What if the thirty housewives that listened to her teachings could donate NT 50 cents (approximately US 1 cent) per day? In one year’s time, she calculated, they would have enough money to have saved that indigenous woman. A small concerted effort, she realized, over time could make an enormous difference!
Thus, Dharma Master Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi. Fashioning coin banks out of bamboo, she asked her lay followers to drop a NT 50 cent coin into the bamboo bank every day before going to the market. “Why not simply donate NT$15 each month?” one follower asked. The amount was the same in dollars, Dharma Master Cheng Yen replied, but very different in spirit. Dharma Master Cheng Yen wanted each person to think of helping others every day, not just one day each month. As word spread and more people participated, there came to be Tzu Chi commissioners who were responsible for collecting donations. Commissioners traveled to villages to collect the savings in each of the bamboo banks. On one occasion, a commissioner complained that a particular donor lived so far away that the cost of the trip was more than the amount donated. Dharma Master Cheng Yen, however, replied that giving people an opportunity to participate was as important as the donation itself. By collecting donations from people, the commissioners were in fact nurturing seeds of kindness in each donor. This kindness, not the donation, was Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s true mission. Dharma Master Cheng Yen deeply believes that all people are capable of the same great compassion as the Buddha. True compassion, however, is not just having sympathy for another’s suffering—it is to reach out to relieve that suffering with concrete actions. In founding Tzu Chi, Dharma Master Cheng Yen wished to give ordinary citizens the chance to actualize this compassion, which will bring inner peace and happiness to the individual and pave the way for world peace and harmony.