Upon entering the Tzu Chi Foundation, it was unclear to us just how special a place we were entering. Little did we know that this one tiny street corner of Flushing was just one in a string of pearls just like itself throughout the world, devoting time to helping the needy.The Tzu Chi Foundation began with one brave woman, the Venerable Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
In 1944, as a young child, Cheng Yen moved to Taichung County, where she experienced her first taste of hatred and war: Japan had occupied Taiwan, who was enduring air raids frequently. This would effect her later in life, as she became more conscious of efforts to combat this kind of outright hatred with love for others. At 23, Cheng Yen was attracted to Buddhism when her father died suddenly. With just a small family to turn to, she reached the conclusion that “one should expand the love for one’s own family to the entire society and all humanity” according to the international Tzu Chi Foundation’s website. Click here to view the section. From that point, she gave up her life of comfort to live remotely for some time in order to grow spiritually. With the shaving of her head, she embarked on the journey to becoming a Buddhist monastic.
Dharma Master Cheng Yen acquired monastic disciples and was living a quiet life in the destitute east, supporting herself by sewing shoes for babies, knitting and raising vegetables. While visiting a hospital, Cheng Yen learned of a woman whose family had traveled for eight hours by foot from deep in the mountains to help her. Because she could not afford the fee of the hospital, the family had to turn around and head home with the woman still suffering, untreated. Cheng Yen was so saddened to hear that such a thing was happening. A short time later, Cheng Yen realized that with such values in Buddhism as the “love and compassion for all living beings,” (according to her biography, part of the official Tzu Chi Foundation website) action needed to be organized and taken in such a way that it would affect other people. From this point, she decided that with the help of her thirty followers, who were housewives, putting aside $.50 a day from the earnings of the baby shoes could add up to enough money to save the native woman. By depositing money in a bamboo bank everyday, Dharma Master Cheng Yen was encouraging her followers “to think of helping others every day” according to Dharma Master’s biography on the international Tzu Chi website. The volunteer population grew and grew from this point on and is still growing today.
The woman we interviewed, Jennifer Yin, is a newly instituted volunteer at the Flushing branch which was opened in 1991. She was describing her knowledge of the beginnings of the Tzu Chi Foundation. “Basically, she started with 30 followers who were housewives and they saved 56 Taiwanese dollars (a little under $2) a day for charity work…and to help the people around them and slowly it basically just grew and now…we’re in 47 different countries. We do international relief work. We’re looking at Japan right now…we’re not the front line, We’re the second in line because we don’t have the capabilities to go in the first line of help. We were in Haiti, and we’re opening another headquarters down in Chili.”
The global interconnectedness of the Tzu Chi Foundation is what keeps the organization thriving and the help they offer so far-reaching. When Ms. Yin emphasized the way that so many offices worked collaboratively internationally, it did not surprise us because of the nature of the society. The words “Tzu Chi” mean “compassion and relief” (according to the site of U.S. Headquarters of Tzu Chi ) and we really believe that Buddhists take this duty to heart: to constantly help those in need. And why, then, is it not just in the community surrounding? From what we’ve gathered as a group, the Taiwanese Buddhists of this foundation appear to think as the people of the world as a whole, beginning with their roots back in the poor region of Taiwan where this organization was started. One must also remember that the people that are drawn to the Flushing branch are all newly migrating and are therefore drawn to the ethnic enclave where they feel they belong. There, they are probably able to find some level of comfort and continue to celebrate their Buddhist tradition, which entails volunteering and looking outward. In the next section, values of Buddhism, it will be even clearer as to what holds the glue to this colossal society together.