A root cause comes from increasing youth poverty and polarization of wealth distribution around the world. The monopolies in wealth and political power are becoming more pronounced, leading to a dangerous situation that could escalate into conflicts if not addressed. The term “monopoly” here equates to “inequality.” On November 11 and 12, the 8th Tzu Chi Forum took place at the Jing Si Hall in Xindian, Taipei, with the theme “Fostering a New Era of Equality.” Over the course of two days, the forum attracted over 600 attendees who gathered to listen to keynote speeches and panel discussions.
The two-day forum featured 50 participants, including scholars, experts, and practitioners from various fields in Taiwan and internationally. The event included five keynote speeches, six panel discussions, four Tzu Chi Studies sub-forums, and five youth forums. Topics ranged from labor and income distribution to youth poverty, food, sustainable agriculture, green energy, just transition, humanistic altruism and organizational governance.
Equality is Key to Sustainable Development
During the opening ceremony, Master De Man, representing Dharma Master Cheng Yen, delivered a speech emphasizing the principle of equality. Dharma Master Cheng Yen said that all beings are equal, and all things possess spiritual essence. It is essential for us to understand deeply the equality of all beings and treat every sentient being with kindness. According to Venerable Master Cheng Yen, this is the guidance given by the Buddha and the path we should diligently walk on.
Eugene Chien, Chairman of the Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy (TAISE) and one of the co-organizers of the forum, highlighted the pursuit of equality as outlined in two of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Chien stressed the importance of the principle of equality even during societal transformations because, without equality, there can be no peace. In his address, Po-Wen Yen, CEO of the Tzu Chi Foundation, emphasized that today’s crises are tomorrow’s disasters. Ignoring current crises could lead to significant calamities in the future. The tenth sustainable development goal of the United Nations, “Reduced Inequality,” served as the central theme of this Tzu Chi Forum. CEO Yen asked attendees to contemplate a scenario where 10 people live in a 100-square-meter house, with one person occupying 76 square meters and the other nine sharing only 24 square meters -- the area of a parking space. Such inequality shows the current uneven distribution of wealth in society. The forum aimed to explore the root causes of such disparities and promote equality in various aspects, including ethnicity, wealth, and employment.
Corporate Innovation and Profit Generation through Open Knowledge Circulation
In the inaugural keynote speech on November 11, Solomon Darwin, Executive Director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, shed light on a critical aspect of contemporary business practices. He emphasized that the majority of goods produced by enterprises are designed with affluent consumers in mind and often overlook the global population of 6 billion poor people. Darwin further emphasized that, for business to achieve sustainable development, knowledge must be shared, and systems and widespread knowledge exchange must be established. Only through such measures can enterprises sustainably develop, share their achievements with a broader audience, and create possibilities for equality.
Professor Darwin illustrated his point through the example of transistor technology. Following its development post-World War II, it was further developed by companies like SONY. This technological innovation found applications in radio production and enabled the transmission of information worldwide through radios — an exemplary case of effective sharing that simultaneously increased the company’s profits.
Drawing on his experience of creating Smart Villages for impoverished communities in India, Professor Darwin highlighted the transformative power of introducing technology resources to villages. By providing villagers with opportunities for technological engagement and product creation, the initiative successfully alleviated poverty.
Professor Darwin's empirical observations led him to assert that, to eradicate inequality, it is imperative not only to foster an environment for sharing and circulating knowledge but also to invert the pyramid of wealth. This entails redistributing wealth and resources to the majority at the base. Moreover, he advocated the establishment of a more harmonious “Cube Model,” to reflect convergence, diversity, equity, equality, unity, and peace.
The Most Painful Inequality: Children Lost in the Flames of War
Inequality is an unfortunate reality globally, but few things are as heart-wrenching as the plight of innocent civilians, especially children, who bear the brunt of armed conflicts. Yotam Polizer, the Global CEO of the Israel-based humanitarian organization IsraAID, joined the forum via a challenging live connection to share the profound pain felt by aid teams amid the Israel-Palestine conflict. Polizer has been involved in rescuing Syrian refugees, successfully aiding persecuted Afghan human rights activists in safe departures, and collaborating with Tzu Chi Foundation to assist Ukrainian refugees. However, the events of October 7 and the eruption of the Israel-Palestine conflict, have left him in shock.
Polizer recounted the efforts of a friend who tirelessly worked for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict and tragically lost his life when kidnapped during the recent clashes. He shared images drawn by surviving children in conflict zones—depicting black flames, red bloodstains, ominous figures wielding knives, and slain villagers. Polizer emphasized that, despite their assistance in 60 countries, the occurrence of such a horrifying war within their own country was unimaginable.
The prolonged Israel-Palestine conflict has led to the loss of tens of thousands of innocent lives and displaced countless people. Polizer noted that they have set up safe spaces for children regardless of their religious background, only for the children to say: “There’s no safe place.” Polizer solemnly called on the world to acknowledge the challenging times we are collectively facing. With ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone, he stressed the importance of not forgetting those enduring war and disasters. He urged proactive efforts to build bridges that foster equal coexistence, open communication, and eliminate hatred from racial and religious differences. Without such measures, conflicts and disasters will persist indefinitely.
Polizer’s heartfelt sharing deeply moved the audience and emphasized the urgency and gravity of addressing the devastating impact of war on the most vulnerable members of society—children.
Understand and Work to Eliminate Inequality
Taking Taiwan as an example, the current state of Taiwanese society, like many around the world, reflects an increasingly profound level of inequality -- evident in labor conditions, wealth distribution, youth poverty, and housing disparity. Mei-Chun Liu, professor at National Chengchi University’s Institute of Labor Research, examined Taiwan’s societal inequality by scrutinizing the vast disparity in income between CEOs and bottom-tier workers in income tax payment and labor environments. According to her analysis based on Direct Labor Foundation statistics, over 51% of the population in Taiwan earns a monthly income of NT$36,000 (approx. USD 1,100) or more, while the average wage for individuals aged 20 to 24 is less than NT$30,000 (approx. USD 930). Professor Liu also addressed pressing social issues, such as whether Taiwan is genuinely facing a labor shortage or a shortage of workers who are properly treated.
On the prevalent issue of youth poverty, Professor Po-Fen Tai pointed to underlying systemic problems. She attributed youth poverty to educational inflation and non-standard employment structures. The dilemma of high mortgage payments, according to Professor Tai, stems from the government’s failure to deal with the issue of over two million vacant houses; it opts instead to encourage urban renewal through public policies, thereby allowing housing prices to remain unreasonably high. These institutional flaws, she emphasized, deepen and exacerbate youth poverty.
In the face of the climate crisis and the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions, not only must policies and industries align, but attitudes and habits of daily living must also change. Chi-Ming Peng, Secretary-General of Taiwan Climate Partnership, pointed out that despite the potential of a plant-based diet to significantly reduce carbon emissions, meat consumption in Taiwan has been increasing annually, ranking among the top 33 in the world. Moreover, wealthier individuals tend to consume more meat, contributing to the issue of climate change inequality.
Practicing Equality and Justice: Tzu Chi’s Model
How can we build an equal society? Beyond relying on leaders committed to serving the people and avoiding excessive dependence on capitalism, what other forces can assist in this endeavor? Cheng-Pang Lee from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University reflected on the efforts of the Tzu Chi Foundation, stating that Tzu Chi does not engage in radical social revolution but embodies traditional Chinese values. When one becomes prosperous, there is an obligation to assist those struggling in society -- this is Tzu Chi’s practice of “guiding the rich to aid the poor.” Tzu Chi acts when there is a need in society, such as environmental protection and establishing a bone marrow stem cell center, demonstrating the practical application of the values of justice.
During the forum, Tzu Chi shared insights on themes such as humanitarianism, humanistic altruism, international research, and feminine leadership. Fang-Tsuang Lu, Director of the Department of Charity Development, explained Tzu Chi’s care and assistance for the homeless, while Lori Lai, Director of the Department of Literature and History, discussed how Tzu Chi operated charitable activities in 128 countries and analyzed the key factors contributing to its success.
Dr. Rey-sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Tzu Chi Foundation, delivered a keynote speech on “Governance Based on Goodness Toward Equality and Innovation in an Organization.” He introduced the concept of the Round Organization, a model based on the operation of Tzu Chi volunteers. Dr. Her explained that the success of Tzu Chi volunteers in swiftly engaging in disaster relief actions reflected a round organizational model centered around the core belief of love, shared responsibilities, and everyone being a focal point. He further explored how the round organization could be expanded into the operation of political and social organizations, emphasizing governance based on goodness rather than preventing evil as a starting point. The governance of a round organization could be an effective way for humanity to practice equality and achieve peaceful development.
During the closing ceremony on November 12, Dr. Solomon Darwin, representing the Berkeley Haas School of Business, signed a memorandum of cooperation with Tzu Chi University of Science and Technology and Tzu Chi Foundation. The collaboration aims to conduct joint programs, with the hope that knowledge innovation and sharing can begin at the educational level.
(Source: Department of Literature and History, Tzu Chi Foundation, 2023/11/12)