Volunteering is one of the defining factors of the Tzu Chi Foundation in Flushing. It is action being taken to not only sympathize with those in need, but to empathize. While other groups come together solely because they are religious Buddhist, Tzu Chi members come to the Foundation hoping to fulfill their religious obligations via volunteering.
The service that we went to was conducted principally via video and narrated in Taiwanese, with English subtitles. Dharma Master Cheng Yen spoke and told stories of global Tzu Chi efforts; it soon became clear that this week’s message was helping the mission in Japan. Dharma Master Cheng Yen spoke about the obligations Buddhists have to serve the current crises around the world: at this moment in time, it was Japan because of the devastating earthquakes that recently occurred there.
Another interesting thing we observed while speaking to a couple of members of the foundation was that each referred to themselves firstly as “volunteers.” Jennifer Yin, our English speaking source, confirmed that this was their most important role in the community, which makes sense because of it’s marriage with the values of Buddhism. Acting as Buddhist Taiwanese volunteers in the Flushing area has clearly enriched the community in many ways than one.
After the service was conducted, the volunteers joined together for the delicious vegetarian meal that two kindhearted-looking, elderly volunteers cooked each Sunday. These luncheons are free and open to any who would like to attend. Ms. Yin told us that the members of the Tzu Chi planned to do a street-cleaning on the sunny Sunday, which is a regular activity along with the cleaning of the parks. In addition, Ms. Yin described other local ways of contributing to the community at no cost. She said, “Locally, we have hardship cases…and have street cleanings when the weather’s nice enough. We also visit nursing homes and we have a soup kitchen in Chinatown. It helps feed the elderly. Recently, I think there was a fire in Chinatown and there was that bus that overturned going to the casino and we were there as well.” The foundation also participates in blood drives and the Tzu Chi Foundation has the largest Chinese bone marrow registry in the world. They cover many areas for for the sake of others and also, to achieve the boddhisatva, becoming an enlightened being, that Dharma Master Cheng Yen emphasizes.
Jing Si Books and Café is an effort of the foundation in Flushing to raise money. It allowed us to again have another small peek into the multitude of projects the foundation is involved in. It is a store on the bottom floor of the Tzu Chi Foundation that is made up of hand made, recycled items and non-perishables. All of the workers are volunteers and all of the proceeds go to charity works. We were even offered to try some of the rice that has been packed carefully and lasts for a very long time; Ms. Yin informed us that this was sent when people were in need of food abroad. All of the packaging and non-foods items were made out of recycled materials, since, according to members, the Tzu Chi Foundation almost, single-handed, brought recycling to Taiwan. Some of the shirts that members wear, the green-gray colored ones, are made completely out of recycled soda bottles.
In addition to these things, a Queens College member, Anita, even told us that the Tzu Chi Foundation helps out with scholarships. She also told us that the Flushing Tzu Chi branch has support groups for it’s members and also send help to needy households, judging each case individually. They also offer free tax return filings.