Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Wiping away tears of sadness, bringing warmth to those who suffer.

Courtesy of I-Jong Juan

Born in 1937, Dharma Master Cheng Yen renounced the lay life at the age of 25, to pursue the meaning and purpose of life after her father's sudden death due to a stroke. She took Venerable Master Yin Shun as her mentor, a prominent monk in contemporary Chinese Buddhism. Throughout her monastic life, Master Cheng Yen has been living out the words her Master gave her, “Work for Buddhism and for all living beings.” She has worked tirelessly to spread the Buddha's teachings and continues to carry out Tzu Chi's missions to benefit humanity and the world.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen was born in Qingshui, a small town in Taichung County, Taiwan. As her father's brother was childless, she was adopted by him and his wife at a young age to raise as their own; this was a common practice at that time. At the age of seven, she experienced the air raids the Second World War inflicted on Japanese-occupied Taiwan. What she witnessed left a deep imprint on her young mind of the cruelty of war. As she grew up, she had many questions about life and its meaning.

In her hometown, she was known for being very filial to her parents. Her mother needed surgery for acute gastric perforation, a very dangerous procedure at that time. At just 15 years old, she prayed earnestly to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) and offered 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 the need for surgery, out of gratitude, she chose to become a life-long vegetarian.

The Spiritual Calling

Courtesy of I-Jong Juan

When Master Cheng Yen was 21, an event happened which changed her life. One day her father suddenly took ill; he passed away the very next day. His death was a great shock to her and made her seek many answers about life and death. That life could be taken away so precipitously made her reflect: “Why is life so transient? Where lies its true meaning?”

At this time, she came into contact with Buddhism. Learning its teachings, she gradually came to realize that one's love for their own family should be extended to encompass all of society and humanity. She aspired to take care of the great family of humanity, instead of the small circle of one's immediate family.

With this outlook on life, she gave up a comfortable life and left her home to embark on the spiritual path. Not long after, her family found her and begged her to return home. She agreed, but, with her spiritual convictions, she could not truly be content in her old life. In 1960, she again left home to pursue spiritual cultivation. She was 23. From western Taiwan, she found her way to eastern Taiwan and eventually settled in Hualien, a small town on the underdeveloped east coast. Though life was very hard, it did not diminish her commitment to spiritual cultivation.

Then, in 1962, at the age of 25, she shaved her own head to formally renounce the lay life and start life as a Buddhist monastic. She was unaware that Buddhist rules required her to do so under a Buddhist master as a monastic teacher. Because of this, she could not qualify when several months later she sought to receive full monastic ordination at Taipei's Lin Chi Temple. These circumstances brought her to 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 close, there was little time for more than a simple instruction to the young novice. He said: “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 settled, was poor and underdeveloped. She and her monastic disciples supported themselves by sewing baby shoes, making concrete sacks into smaller animal feed bags, knitting sweaters, and growing 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. She was told that the blood was from an indigenous woman suffering from complications in labor. Her family had carried her from their mountain village. They walked for eight hours; but, when they arrived at the hospital, they could not afford the fee needed to enter -- NT$8,000 (then US$200). 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?

A short time later, three Catholic nuns visited Dharma Master Cheng Yen, and they discussed the teachings of their respective religions. When she explained that Buddhism teaches love and compassion for all living beings, the nuns commented: “Why have we not seen Buddhists doing good works for society, such as setting up nursing homes, orphanages, and hospitals?”

The nuns' message struck a deep chord within her. 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. She thought: What if her disciples sold one extra pair of baby shoes a day? What if the 30 housewives that listened to her teachings could donate 50 cents TWD  (approx. 0.02 USD) per day? In one year, she calculated, they would have enough money to save that indigenous woman. A modest and concerted effort over time, she realized, could make an enormous difference!

This was how she founded Tzu Chi. Fashioning coin banks out of bamboo, she asked her lay followers to drop a 50 cents TWD coin into the bamboo bank every day before going to the market. “Why not simply donate 15 TWD each month?” one follower asked. The amount was the same in dollars, Master Cheng Yen replied, but very different in spirit. She 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 responsible for collecting donations. They 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 her true mission.

Courtesy of I-Jong Juan

She deeply believes that all people are capable of the same great compassion as the Buddha. True compassion, however, is not just having sympathy for others' suffering—it is reaching out to relieve that suffering with concrete action. In founding Tzu Chi, she wished to give ordinary people the chance to realize this compassion. It will bring inner peace and happiness to the individual, and pave the way for world peace and harmony.

Awards and Recognitions

The beauty of an organization stems from each individual's efforts – this is what Dharma Master Cheng Yen firmly believes in. Thus, whenever the Master is accorded a recognition award or honorary degree for her humanitarian achievements, she unhesitatingly gives credit to all Tzu Chi volunteers “who made all the good works possible”.

Tzu Chi believes that the spirit of Buddhism can be best shown through social involvement. It is only through concrete philanthropic actions that Buddhist theories and social development can enforce each other. All these recognitions are very much appreciated and serve as a motivation for Tzu Chi to continue its efforts.