by Hooi Yoon Chun
This article is written by Hooi Yoon Chun in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
Taiwan – Dharma Master Cheng Yen, (1937- ): Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism – Compassion in Action
Contact with Buddhism
Master Cheng Yen, who leads the world renowned Disaster Relief organistion Tzu Chi, was born in 1937 in Taiwan. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. She had first hand experience of suffering, witnessing the devastating effects of war, which taught her the truth behind the concept of impermanence and suffering. She also looked after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months.
At the age of 23, her father died suddenly from brain hemorrhage. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Master Cheng Yen first came into contact with Buddhist philosophy and made her to aspire to be a nun.
She traveled around eastern Taiwan with a nun but without being ordained. After 2 years, she registered for ordination in Lin Chi Temple but was turned down as a nun must be the disciple of a master for two years before ordination.
Fortunately, she encountered Venerable Master Yin-shun, who accepted her request, just an hour before registration closed! She then went to Hualien County to continue her spiritual practice, which was mainly reciting and copying Sutra. It was during her six months there that she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the “Path of the Bodhisattvas.” It was also the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness, dealing with human problems, weather, psychiatric, psychological and spiritual issues, that influenced her outlook.
Founding of Tzu Chi
There were two watershed events that inspired Master Cheng Yen to take the power of Buddhism to help people in the world. The first was at a discussion in 1966 with three Catholic nuns who pointed out that Buddhists had not helped society, unlike the Church, in building schools and hospitals. Those words made Master realise that Buddhism had to do more than simply encouraging private cultivation.
The other event occurred in the same year while visiting a hospital in Fenglin. She saw blood on the hospital floor and learned that an aboriginal woman suffered a miscarriage but was not attended to without paying a deposit. These events led Master to establish the Tzu Chi Foundation in April 1966 and its first Hospital in Hualien in 1986.
Initially, she encouraged her 5 disciples to make baby shoes and thirty followers to save fifty cents from their grocery money every day into little savings banks made from bamboo. Master encouraged the daily “giving” practice which would help develop the virtue of generosity. Just as the Buddha was guided by a noble desire to help others, she inspired her followers to listen to those who were sad or help those in pain.
Tzu Chi’s beginnings were humble. In the first year, 15 families were helped by 30 followers. Unlike most Buddhist orders, Tzu Chi nuns do not take donations for themselves. They worked for their food by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers, shoes and electrical circuit breakers.
By 1970, Master realized the link between poverty and illness after spending six years among the poor of eastern Taiwan and resolved to tackle the problem. Tzu Chi’s first medical outreach free clinic in 1972 opened in Hualien, with more than 140,000 consultations done so far.
Plans to build a 600-bed general hospital were developed in 1979 to provide service to the undeserved eastern Taiwan. Despite initial setbacks both in funding for the hospital and finding an acceptable site, construction was completed and the hospital opened on 17 August 1986. Tzu Chi has since built 6 hospitals in different parts of the island.
In order to address the shortage of nurses, and expand the medical mission, the Tzu Chi College of Nursing was built in September 1989 in Hualien. It was the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses. Students not only learn the technical skills of nursing, they were also imbued with the spirit of compassion and humanitarian outlook.
In 1992, a bone marrow registry was started and Is now a division of the new Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center. By August 2005, Tzu Chi had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and matched almost 1000 recipients with compatible donors around the world.
Master established the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in 1994, which became a University in 2000. She also appealed to Taiwanese people to donate their bodies for medical training which resulted in one body for every four students to study. The Athletic Drug Testing Center was established in 1996 when gold medal winners were tested for banned drugs.
International Relief Work
Relief work in China, the first major work, began in 1991 when devastating floods hit central and eastern China. Despite the political situation, Tzu Chi was able to open up avenues to assist Chinese people in desperate need. It was difficult to convince Taiwanese to help the Chinese in China, whose government officials were wary of accepting Tzu Chi.
Tzu Chi volunteers are not to discuss business, politics, or religion while giving aid. Master’s philosophy is that both parties, those receiving assistance and those delivering the aid, are rewarded, one materially and the other spiritually.
Master Cheng Yen has directed Tzu Chi to conduct relief work in various disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami, Pakistan earthquake in 2005, in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and numerous other countries including Taiwan.
Help was rendered in the form of immediate relief assistance like prepared meals, drinking water, financial assistance, and rebuilding homes and schools. This relief work has earned the reputation of being the first to arrive and the last to leave.
Da Ai Television
Master Cheng Yen launched ‘Da Ai Satellite Television’ which is a 24-hour, commercial-free status television station on 1 January 1998. It is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort She encourages vegetarianism to improve the carbon footprint further.
Da Ai features non-political news, generally free of negativity and violence, teaching lectures and serial programs designed to extol the virtues of living a good life, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better. She broadcasts inspirational teachings every week-day in the programme “Morning at Dawn”, a 25-minute address and a twelve-minute address in the evening.
Master rises early in the morning and often receives visitors and actively oversees the many projects throughout Taiwan by making monthly trips around the country. She also monitors the action of the various centres in 47 countries throughout the world. Master is really a person who practices what she preaches.
Master was recognised internationally with some of these awards:
1986: Received the ‘Huashia Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1991: ‘Ramon Magsaysay Award,’ Philippines for Community Leadership
1994: ‘Eisenhower Medallion’ by the People to People International.(PTPI Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
1995: ‘Executive Yuan (Cabinet) Cultural Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Interior Ministry’s First Class Honorary Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Huaguang Award of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1998: ‘International Human Rights Award,’ the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
2000: ‘Noel Foundation Life Award’
2001: ‘Presidential Culture Award,’ Taiwan
2001: ‘National Medal of the Second Order’ from the President of El Salvador
2001: Conferred ‘Honorary Doctorate in Social Science,’ Hong Kong University
2001: One of 26 ‘Heroes from Around the World’ and featured on the ‘Wall of Honor’ in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum
2002: ‘Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award,’ World Buddhist University, Thailand
2002: ‘Honorary Doctorate Degree in Socio-Cultural Studies,’ National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan
2003: ‘Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award,’ Taiwan
2004: ‘2004 Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service,’ Asian American Federation of California (AAFC)
2007: ‘24th Niwano Peace Prize for Humanitarian Service,’ Niwano Peace Foundation, Japan
2008: ‘WFB Merit Medal,’ from World Fellowship of Buddhists
2011: ‘Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities,’ University of the East, Manila, Philippines
2011: named by the Times, New York as ‘One of World’s 100 Most Influential People’
2014: nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Harald zur Hausen, director of the German Cancer Research Center who was one of the former prize winners
Hooi Yoon Chun
Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia