Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Dharma Master Cheng Yen was born in 1937 in Qingshui Town, Taichung County, Taiwan. She was adopted by her uncle at an early age and moved to Fengyuan City, Taichung County with the family. Being bright and diligent, and as the oldest daughter in the family, she began helping her father’s family business and helped with her mother’s housework before she was 20 years old.
Predestined Road to Buddhism
Master Cheng Yen was kind by nature and devoted to her parents. When she was 15, her mother got an Acute Gastric perforation and needed surgery. At that time, surgery was considered to be a risky process. She prayed for her mother by chanting “Compassion, Buddha”, and promised: “I will become a vegetarian, and I am willing to give up 12 years of my life if you can help my mother”. Obviously her prayer reached Buddha, as her mother recovered without surgery, and Master Cheng Yen became a vegetarian soon after.
In June 1960, her father died suddenly, only 24 hours after he became ill. This was a great shock to Master Cheng Yen. She wondered about where life comes from, and where death goes. She often went to the Tzu Yun Temple to ask Master Shiou Dao these questions, and subsequently learned Buddhism there.
During that time, Master Cheng Yen realized that happiness is not for women who carry a grocery basket and have money to spend. “Taking care of your own family is not sufficient…women should take up responsibility in our society like men do. Expand “family love” to society and to all of mankind. The result will be true happiness.”
Several times she left home and tried to become a nun, but was not successful. She looked everywhere, but could not find a proper place for meditation and study. Finally, she found a small Puming Temple of Sioulin Township in Hualien. In spite of numerous hardships she encountered there, her eagerness to study Buddhism did not diminish. In the autumn of 1962 at the age of 25, without a master’s help, she shaved her own hair and started life as a nun.
In February 1963, a dharma’s ordainment to initiate into Buddhism was held at Lin Chi Temple in Taipei. Before the ordainment, at the Light of Wisdom Dharma Hall, Master Cheng Yen took refuge under Venerable Master Yin Shun. He told her: “Fate brought us together. Since you chose to become a nun, you have to commit to Buddhism and to all sentient being in your life”. He gave her a Buddhist name “Cheng Yen” and a secondary name “Hui Chang”. After a simple ceremony of Refuge Vows, she hurried to the Lin Chi Temple and received a formal ordainment to become a Buddhist.
Returning to Puming Temple in Hualien, Master Cheng Yen started bowing and chanting the preface of Lotus Sutra in that small bungalow. Since she did not accept offerings, living was extremely difficult. In October 1963, she moved to Tzu Shan Temple and taught “Earth Treasure Sutra” to disciples. After 8 months, her teaching became very popular. Many current distinguished disciples of Jing Si Abode were among the followers at that time. Then Master Cheng Yen moved back to Puming Temple with those disciples and practiced Buddhism together with them in the back of the Temple. Master led them to practice monastic rules and self-reliance. Even today, all living expenses at the Abode come from making candles and bean flour, and from the sale of publications by live-in disciples. They have never used charity funds collected by the Tzu Chi Foundation.
In 1965, Venerable Master Yin Shun accepted a teaching position at the Chinese Cultural University in Taipei and left for Miao-Yun Lan-Ruo in Chiayi. He hoped that Master Cheng Yen would lead her disciples and go to Chiayi to continue Lan-Ruo. However, Master Cheng Yen had already spent several years in Hualien, and thirty-two followers signed a petition and asked her to stay. Master was torn between the two choices but finally decided to stay in Hualien and started her dream of organizing the Tzu Chi Foundation.
Origin of Tzu Chi Foundation
In 1966, after witnessing a “cruel blood” incident, Master Cheng Yen vowed to form a charity organization to help the poor and sick. At that time three nuns from Stella Mars Ursuline High School in Hualien came to Master Cheng Yen to preach Christianity. They discussed godfather, religious doctrine and creed. Before they left, they said “We understand that Buddha’s mercy covers all beings, but the Catholic Church has helped people around the world by building churches, hospitals, and nursing homes. What have Buddhists done for our society?” The Master’s heart sank with this realization. Buddhists often helped people individually behind the scene, but there was no organized charity. Master decided that it was time to create this immense force of Love to help society.
On May 14, 1966, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association was formally founded.
Master Cheng Yen gradually formed the foundation of Tzu Chi
The charity work of Tzu Chi was started by 6 disciples. Each of them made one pair of baby shoes a day. Master made 30 piggy banks from bamboo trees in the back yard and gave one to each of the 30 followers. She told them to save 50 cents a day. The followers asked: why not 15 dollars every month? Master said: “When you go to the market for groceries every day, remember to put 50 cents in the piggy bank. This is your heart for saving people. Saving 50 cents every day will train you in the habit of saving and cultivating love to give to others.” The 30 followers went to the market and told people: “We save 50 cents a day. We have a charity association. We are going to help people.”
The word to “Save people with 50 cents” went out quickly, and more and more people wanted to participate. Soon the use of a thousand hands and a thousand eyes to help the poor and sick became real. Two months after the Foundation was created, it helped an elderly, lone lady from Mainland China by providing meals for her every day and cleaned her house till she passed away. A difficult but great project with the goal of helping to save the world had thus started.
At that time, many followers wanted to take refuge vows under Master Cheng Yen. In order to expand the membership for the Foundation, Master had two requests: First, you have to be a Foundation member. Second, you have to participate in charity work.
In the early days of the Foundation, Master Cheng Yen and her disciples lived in less than 120 square feet in Puming Temple. They made handicrafts for their living and managed the Foundation business there. In need of larger space, they moved to the new Abode of Still Thoughts with the financial help of the Master’s mother, but never give up on self-reliance. This quiet, clean, simple, plain and dignified Abode of Still Thoughts became the eternal symbol of the Tzu Chi Foundation, as well as a spiritual home for Tzu Chi members all over the world.
Seeing with one eye, a thousand eyes see simultaneously;
With one hand in action, a thousand hands work together.
The goal of Tzu Chi is to help the poor and sick with “love, compassion, joy, and giving”. The spirit of Tzu Chi is “sincerity, integrity, trust and honesty” and all members invite everyone to come and cultivate Tzu Chi’s field of blessings and together create a world where ten thousand lotus hearts of compassion create the world of Tzu Chi.
As Buddha said, all sentient beings are kind by nature. Like Buddha, they all have love, mercy, intelligence and integrity. Buddha has wisdom…so does every sentient being. Most people think wealth is happiness, because the poor tend to suffer from illness and hardship. Wealthy people should know that giving is more blessed than receiving. Physical illness is not to be feared, but mental illness is something to be avoided. The human body is like a banana tree, after peeling one layer after another, there is nothing left. Only sustained kindness, mercy and giving can achieve eternal harmony in the world.
Master also said: “Buddhism is principle…Tzu Chi is implementation. Only through implementation, principle can be revealed and understood.” Thus, the mission of Tzu Chi includes eight categories: Charity, Medicine, Education, Culture, International Disaster Relief, Bone Marrow Donation, Community Volunteerism and Environmental Protection…the so called “One step, eight footprints.” Tzu Chi members get together with wisdom and help each other with love. When there is need for help, they respond quickly and solve problems in no time, and carry out the function of “Seeing by one eye, a thousand eyes see simultaneously, and with one hand in action, a thousand hands work together.” Wherever Tzu Chi goes, good health, peace and love follow close behind.