Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Dharma Master Cheng Yen
The Founder of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation
Wisdom and Compassion….
In Tzu Chi, every day we walk the path of compassion. Motivated by love for others, we go to them to offer our aid and care. But, how can we help them in order to truly relieve them of suffering? Where do we begin and how should we proceed? All this requires wisdom. To help others, we need to bring forth not only compassion but also wisdom. Wisdom is like eyes that enable us to see. Wisdom, insight, and understanding enable us to determine whether we are going in the right direction. It is very easy to veer off the right path and with the slightest change in direction our route will change quite significantly so that we will end up far off course. We need the eyes of wisdom to keep us on track. Along the way, there are also likely to be pitfalls and obstacles. Only with the vision provided by wisdom, insight, and understanding can we successfully avoid these. While walking the path of compassion, we therefore need to be very alert.
To carry out the work of helping others, we need to balance wisdom and compassion. Both are important and they are like our feet—without one or the other, we would not be able to walk properly. Equipped with the ability to see clearly with the eyes of wisdom and to walk forward thanks to the legs of compassion and wisdom, we can surely reach our destination and accomplish what we set out to do. Previously, we spoke of repenting for our many unwholesome thoughts and afflictions. But repentance is not only about recognizing our errors and being sorry for them. It is also about beginning anew and doing things differently. This change begins with our heart, beginning with our five spiritual illnesses. So, after repenting, we should make new vows and aspirations:
Cultivating Compassion and the Bodhi Mind
Knowing that many people in this world are living in suffering, we vow to bring forth our compassion to help relieve people’s suffering, be their suffering from disasters, war, poverty, or illness, or from inner pain and unhappiness. We vow to cultivate wisdom and develop the bodhi mind (the awakened mind) so that we may be better able to help all living beings. Every day, we will hold these vows in our hearts. Practicing the Thirty-Seven Aids to Awakening** Aspiring to the Buddha’s awakening, we vow to diligently practice the Thirty-seven Aids to Awakening which are the foundation for Buddhist practice.
Practicing these thirty-seven methods of cultivation,
we can purify our heart and mind and remain untainted by unwholesome influences in the external world. We vow to mindfully practice the Thirty-seven Aids to Awakening, always keeping to the right path, with our hearts on the Dharma. **The Thirty-Seven Aids to Awakening comprise: the four subjects of reflection the four proper lines of exertion the four steps towards transcendent powers the five roots the five strengths the seven elements to awakening and the noble eightfold path
Realizing how impermanent life is, we vow not to get caught up in petty things such as jealousy and unhappiness with others. We vow to focus our precious time and energies on doing good for others and cultivating our heart and mind, seizing the opportunities before us to create something good for others.
Eschewing Wrong Views
Wrong views are like a net that traps us, making it difficult for us to pull away from unwholesome patterns of behavior. Having given rise to a correct thought, we vow to hold onto it firmly and keep our mind from falling once again into wrong views. We vow to practice by putting our good thoughts in action, keeping ourselves on the path of doing good, and developing a heart of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity so that misguided notions will have no opportunity to enter our mind and influence us.
In our hearts, there is doubt and it is deeply rooted. Because of this, we cannot believe in true principles and cannot awaken. We vow to believe in the correct Dharma, understand the law of karma, and develop a true, non-misguided faith so we can learn the Buddha’s teachings and awaken to truths of life.
Jealousy makes our hearts small. Seeing others’ success or talent, we are envious and cannot feel happy for people. Learning the bodhisattva way, we vow to open our hearts wide to embrace others with a pure heart, praising their success and good qualities. Instead of being envious, we vow to learn from them and emulate their good so we may become better people ourselves.
We have so much pride and arrogance in us. When we know more than others, we feel better and above them. With our inflated egos, we become so big and cumbersome that we are an eyesore. We vow to cultivate humility by practicing the precepts of right conduct, being tolerant towards others, and respecting others. We vow to be humble and “shrink” ourselves. Then, we can become so small that we can even enter others’ hearts and reside there. This is the way of a bodhisattva.
Ignorance is like a thick cloud that darkens the sky, blocking the bright light of our inner wisdom. We vow to clear away our ignorance and delusion to recover our Buddha nature, by learning the Buddha’s teachings and carrying them out in our daily lives. Listening often to the teachings and immersing ourselves in the Dharma, we are reminded to watch out for wrongs and become more aware of ourselves. We vow to furthermore apply the teachings by helping people in suffering, so we can learn about suffering personally and connect the Dharma to our experience. Realizing how blessed we are, and with deep compassion for people in suffering, we vow not only to listen to the Dharma, but to live it out in all our actions.
Desire is like a sea that can drown us. We vow to tame our desire and greed, being mindful when they arise in our heart and mind and taking care not to let them grow. We vow to overcome our stinginess by nurturing a heart of love for others and helping people in need.
The anger and hatred in us fill our hearts with tinder. With the slightest spark, a fire will burn wildly in our hearts. When something displeases us, we unleash our anger on people. Blinded by our anger, we are full of ignorance and wrong thinking, and we burn down all our merits and all the good that we have done. We vow to work on our temper so there is no tinder left in our hearts.
Practicing Goodness to Accumulate Virtue….
Throughout my life, I have always had three daily prayers. First, I pray not for a healthy body, but for a clear mind. As the years pass, our bodies undergo aging and finally death, but our wisdom-life is everlasting. If we do not quickly develop our wisdom-life and strengthen our aspirations, then our wisdom will not grow. Thus, I do not ask for good health, but for a mind of clarity and wisdom, without discursive thoughts. This is my first prayer. Second, I pray not for everything to go my way, but for perseverance and courage. In life, nine things out of ten do not happen according to our wishes, so why do we try to force things to go our way? As ordinary beings, it is our expectations and desires that cause us suffering and afflictions. So, I do not ask for everything to go my way, but for perseverance and courage. When things do not go as we wish, we must persevere; this is a skill we must master. We must also keep up our courage. We should not easily become disappointed or discouraged when we do not get what we want. If we constantly let ourselves be defeated, won’t we remain powerless our whole lives? Therefore, we should not ask for everything to go according to our wishes. Instead, we should always reflect on ourselves to see if we have perseverance and courage.
It is precious to be born as a human being. The Buddha tells us that over millions of kalpas, it is difficult to attain human form even once. We may wonder whether, in the past, we were born in the three evil realms. Have we suffered in hell? Have we been born in the animal realm, suffering from ignorance and being killed by humans? Or have we been tormented in the realm of hungry ghosts? The Buddha-Dharma tells us that these three evil realms are filled with unbearable suffering. This is truly frightening! Therefore, we must work hard to cultivate ourselves. Being born as humans, we have the opportunity to witness all kinds of wholesome and unwholesome lives. When we see someone doing good, we have to ask ourselves, do we rejoice at this? When we see other people do good deeds, we are filled with respect and joy. However, we should not only rejoice in their good deeds, but should also get involved ourselves. If we are able to do this, we will feel very fortunate to have been born human. When we see other people do good deeds, we joyfully praise them and gladly join them in the work to help suffering sentient beings. When we help those, who suffer fulfill their needs, we realize that we have more than enough. Since we have more than we need, we have the power to help others meet their needs and overcome their obstacles. Then the happiness we feel is due not only to taking joy in other people’s merits, but to being filled with Dharma-joy ourselves. This is something that is possible only in the human realm.
Since we have been born as humans, how can we not make good use of our life? We need to seize our time in this life and take good care of our thoughts. I often say, “Seize the moment and sustain your aspirations forever.” At every moment, we have to be mindful of our thoughts; when a good thought arises, no matter how brief it is, we must take hold of it and sustain it forever. Recently, I have been encouraging everyone to uphold the Four Practices: extended practice, uninterrupted practice, practice with nothing further, and practice with reverence. This means we need to endlessly sustain and uphold our initial aspiration. Moment by moment, time passes us by and thoughts keep arising. Therefore, we must have perseverance; we must always sustain our good and virtuous thoughts and put our love into action by helping others. This is spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, we must not be afraid of taking responsibility. We are all fortunate enough to have been born into this world, so aren’t the matters of this world everyone’s responsibility? How much more so for us spiritual practitioners! We who are learning the Buddha’s spirit must learn the persistence of the Buddha, who keeps coming back for the single great cause of helping sentient beings in this world. One person’s strength alone is not enough for this, which is why the Buddha wants to teach many people. When every person makes the aspiration to be a Bodhisattva, everyone must put the teachings into practice. Then, this collective strength will be tremendous.
Therefore, my third prayer is not for lighter responsibilities, but for greater strength. I hope that we can purify people’s hearts and inspire people’s love. The world is vast and there are countless sentient beings. If everyone can join together in the same aspiration, our love can reach every corner of the world. Then, there is no limit to the good that can be accomplished. The Jing Si Dharma Lineage is a path of diligent practice. We carry on the Dharma’s essence and make great vows. The Tzu Chi School of Buddhism is a path through the world. With compassion and wisdom, we exercise the Four Infinite Minds. With sincerity, we vow to deliver all sentient beings. With integrity, we vow to eliminate all afflictions. With faith, we vow to learn all teachings. With steadfastness, we vow to attain Buddhahood. Great loving-kindness without regrets brings infinite love. Great compassion without resentment brings infinite vows. Great joy without worries brings infinite happiness. Great equanimity without expectations brings infinite grace. We work together while remaining clear and pure like a crystal sphere. This forest of Bodhi trees flourishes from the same root. We are all united in cultivating fields of blessings. We deeply plant the roots of wisdom on the Bodhisattva-path. I hope we can all practice diligently along the path of the Jing Si Dharma Lineage and the road of the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism. If we can do this, we will cultivate the good karma that accumulates to perfect our virtue.
Cultivating Our Mind….
Have we taken good care of our heart? Have we looked after our mind? Where is our mind now? Has our mind wandered outside? Or is our mind focused on our body? Or on our mind itself?” To take care of our heart and mind, the best focus for our mind is our mind itself—that is, for us to be looking within, looking at our inner mind. The Buddha’s innumerable teachings ultimately all take us back to our mind. It is in cultivating the mind that we can access the Dharma and awaken, gaining insight into the truths all around us. The Dharma is like water that can cleanse away the layers of impurities in our heart and mind. We have afflictions and inner impurities which create turmoil within us, like a restrictive heat that causes us to be restless and bothered, never at peace. But the Dharma has a cooling and refreshing effect. When we take the Dharma into our hearts, it can dispel or dissolve the afflictions, restoring inner peace and tranquility. The Dharma is also like water that can nourish the wholesome seeds within us. As I often say, the Buddha’s mission is to guide living beings to sow wholesome seeds of virtue within their heart and mind. When these seeds have been sown, the Buddha provides the water of Dharma so that they can slowly mature.
We need this water of Dharma just as the land needs water. When the land is afflicted by drought, crops cannot grow. When we are in a spiritual drought and lack the Dharma, our wholesome seeds cannot grow. As learners of the Buddha’s way, we need to water the wholesome seeds within, so that they can begin to grow roots and at the same time, sprout. We need to take good care of these seeds. We therefore need to mindfully take in the Dharma. The Dharma is deep and profound, but at the same time, it is in fact part of our everyday life. So, we need to be mindful in keeping our hearts always on the Dharma. Then, naturally our actions will always be correct and in line with the Dharma. This is the way of Buddhist practice—to take the Dharma into our hearts, to understand its meaning, to touch the truth of the teaching not with our intellect but with our own heart and experience, and to live out the teaching in practice. Practicing in this way, we can gradually attain liberation from afflictions and achieve inner freedom and peace. When people think about practicing Buddhism, some would associate it with chanting the Buddha’s name. Buddhists feel that there is a lot of suffering in the six realms. To be liberated from suffering, some would chant Amitabha Buddha’s name because they believe he would take them to the Pure Land. This is also a method for them to reach a peaceful state of mind.
In Tzu Chi, we say that “when our heart is pure, we are in the pure land” and that “in chanting the Buddha’s name, we hope to emulate the Buddha’s heart”. If we can do this, we will practice the Dharma in everything we do. By understanding this, we will know to share the Dharma with people and help make practicing it easier for everyone.
Tzu Chi Temple – Taiwan….
Tzu Chi Foundation was established in 1966 by Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Dharma Master Cheng Yen on the poor east coast of Taiwan. Over the years, the foundation has been contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education and humanism in Taiwan and around the world. From the first 30 members, housewives who saved two cents from their grocery money each day to help the poor, the foundation has volunteers in 50 countries, with 502 offices worldwide. Master Cheng Yen firmly believes that suffering in this world is caused not only by material deprivation but, more importantly, also by spiritual poverty. She feels that the lack of altruistic love for others has been the root of many problems in this world. Thus, the foundation’s guiding principle on charity is to “help the poor and educate the rich.” Tzu Chi’s missions focus on giving material aid to the needy and inspiring love and humanity to both givers and receivers. In addition to charity, the foundation dedicates itself in the fields of medicine, education, environmental protection, international relief work and the establishment a marrow donor registry. It also promotes humanistic values and community volunteerism. Through helping those in need, Tzu Chi volunteers take on the path of bodhisattva practices, the way to Buddhahood.
Tzu Chi Missions – In 1966, Dharma Master Cheng Yen established the Tzu Chi Foundation in Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan. With the spirit of self-discipline, diligence, frugality, and perseverance, Tzu Chi set out to help the poor and relieve suffering. Over time, the foundation’s mission started with Charity and extended into Medicine, Education, and Humanistic Culture. Tzu Chi originated in the remote Hualien area and expanded to all five major continents of the world with chapters and offices in 47 countries. Tzu Chi provides aid to over 69 nations. Its volunteers selflessly contribute through a mindset of gratitude, expressing their sincerest care and support to each and every individual in need.
The shared goal of Tzu Chi volunteers is to cultivate sincerity, integrity, faith, and honesty within while exercising kindness, compassion, joy, and selflessness to humanity through concrete actions. Transcending the bounds of race, nationality, language, and religion, they serve the world under the notion that “when others are hurting, we feel their pain; when others suffer, we feel their sorrow”. Not only do the volunteers endeavor to promote the universal value of “Great Love,” they also fully employ the humanitarian spirit of Chinese culture to its utmost. Tzu Chi Foundation’s “Four Major Missions” consist of Charity, Medicine, Education, and Humanity. Furthermore, considering ongoing efforts in Bone Marrow Donation, Environmental Protection, Community Volunteerism, and International Relief, these eight concurrent campaigns are collectively known as “Tzu Chi’s Eight footprints”
Mission of Charity – “Educating the rich to help the poor; inspiring the poor to realize their riches”. Tzu Chi pays attention not only to the effectiveness of its aid and assistance; it also focuses on bringing out the good in everyone. By helping the poor, the rich get to feel the happiness of giving and find the true meaning of life. Likewise, the poor are motivated to harbor love abundantly and help out those less fortunate than themselves, so that they break away from perceived helplessness and despair. Consequently, more people become willing to help out others while enriching themselves through contribution.
Mission of Medicine – “Patient-centered medical care that respects patients as teachers”. Among the four sufferings of life, illness is the most painful. During her charity visits, Dharma Master Cheng Yen realized that many families became poor after following some major illness. Therefore, she founded the Tzu Chi Free Clinic for the Poor in 1972, which began Tzu Chi’s mission of medicine. In 1986, the Hualien Tzu Chi General Hospital opened, and its guiding principles were “respect life” and “Patient-centered”. Tzu Chi Taiwan’s medical network was completed by the openings of additional hospitals in Yuli, Guanshan, Dalin, Taipei, and Taichung. The medical staff, supported by large teams of volunteers, aim to perfect the “Four Entireties” of patient care: the entire treatment process, the patient’s entire body, the patient’s entire family, and the entire medical team. The goal is to ensure proper care of the body, mind, and soul of the patient. From city to countryside, from the mountain to the sea, Tzu Chi’s comprehensive medical network provides the people of Taiwan with top quality medical service that consists of the latest technology and the warm human touch.
Mission of Education – “Educating children to be moral and upright”. To foster outstanding and compassionate future medical professionals, Dharma Master Cheng Yen established the Tzu Chi Nursing College in 1989. The Master also wanted to address the lack of education and employment opportunities confronting aboriginal girls of Eastern Taiwan. In July 2000, Tzu Chi completed the establishment of its education program offering a well-rounded curriculum and runs the full curriculum from kindergarten, elementary school and middle school to high school, college, and graduate studies. The shared objective of Tzu Chi schools and universities is the delivery of superior education where “kindness, compassion, joy, and selfless giving” is the school motto, ”Respect for Life and Faith in Human Nature” is the guideline, and “Education of Virtue, education of life, and education of the entire person” is the goal.
Mission of Culture – “Recording the examples of goodness and integrity for future generations”. What is “Culture?” It consists of shining examples for the human character that becomes revered legacy in recorded history. Every one of Tzu Chi’s missions takes the individual human being as foundation. Each person is expected to behave in a moral way with proper manners and to have respect for Mother Nature. Each person is also expected to cultivate his inherent integrity and to maintain appropriate demeanor in interacting with others. When Tzu Chi first started its mission of charity, the seeds of humanity were planted deep. Later, the Mission of Medicine and the Mission of Education also carried integral connections with humanity. The calling of the Mission of Humanistic Culture is to purify the human mind, to pacify our society, to help those who suffer, and to rectify frenzied and chaotic acts. The Mission of Humanistic Culture bears witness to historical eras, creates new history for mankind, and establishes cycles of love and goodness.
International Relief – “Caring for people in suffering in the global village”. “Bodhisattvas exist to relieve the suffering of mankind”. With providing help to flood victims of Bangladesh in 1991, Tzu Chi marked the start of its international relief efforts. International Relief not only provides emergency materials like food, clothing, grain seeds, and medical materials, it goes further to rebuild houses and schools, set up water supply systems, and offer free clinics. Though the aid projects vary, the ideal of “respecting life” is adhered to all the same. From its beginnings as a local charity in Taiwan, Tzu Chi has become a broad-based international humanitarian organization. In recognition of its global aid programs across five continents, Tzu Chi became the first Non-Government-Organized charity group in Taiwan to attain association status with the United Nations Department of Information in 2003.
Environmental Protection – “Practicising environmental protection to live in harmony with Mother Earth”. In a 1990 speech, Dharma Master Cheng Yen called on the public “to carry out environmental conservation with applauding hands”. Since then, Tzu Chi volunteers have been earnestly practicing environmental protection. To promote waste reduction and motivate recycling regardless of age or social stature and without fear of filth, conservation volunteers humbly and selflessly give all of their care to the earth. From protecting our earthly environment to protecting our mental environment, Tzu Chi advocates a healthy diet of more fruits and vegetables and discourages meat consumption. If we live a simple lifestyle and reduce our carbon footprint while constantly cherishing the earth, we shall slow down the global warming crisis.
Dharma Master Cheng Yen was born in 1937 in Qingshui, a small town in Taichung County, Taiwan. As her father’s brother was childless, at a young age, she was adopted by him and his wife to raise as their own, a common practice in that era. When Dharma Master Cheng Yen was around seven, she experienced the air raids that the Second World War brought upon Japanese-occupied Taiwan. What she witnessed deeply imprinted upon her young mind the cruelty of war. Throughout her growing years, she had many questions about life and its meaning. In her town, the young Dharma Master Cheng Yen was known as a very filial daughter to her parents. When her mother needed surgery for acute gastric perforation, a very risky procedure in those times, the 15-year-old Dharma Master Cheng Yen prayed earnestly to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), offering 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 need for surgery, the young Dharma Master Cheng Yen, out of gratitude, chose to become a life-long vegetarian.
The Spiritual Calling – When Dharma Master Cheng Yen was 21, an event happened that would change her life. One day, her father suddenly took ill, and he passed away the very next day. His death was a great shock to Dharma Master Cheng Yen and propelled her to seek many answers about life and death. That life could be taken away so precipitously made her reflect, “Why is life so transient? Where then lies its true meaning?” At this time, Dharma Master Cheng Yen came into contact with Buddhism. Learning of the teachings, she gradually came to feel that one should expand the love for one’s own family to the entire society and all humanity. She aspired to take care of the great family of humanity, instead of one small family. With this outlook on life, Dharma Master Cheng Yen left her family home to embark on the spiritual path, giving up a relatively comfortable life. Not long after, however, her family found her and begged her to return home. She acquiesced, but with her spiritual convictions, she could not truly be content living her old life; in late1960, she again left her family to pursue spiritual cultivation. That year, she was 23. From western Taiwan, she traveled to eastern Taiwan and eventually settled down in Hualien, a small town in Taiwan’s relatively undeveloped east coast. Though life was very hard, it did not diminish her commitment to spiritual cultivation.
In late 1962, at the age of 25, Dharma Master Cheng Yen shaved her own head to formally renounce the lay life and start life as a Buddhist monastic. She was unaware that Buddhist rules required one to do so under a Buddhist master (a monastic teacher). Because of this, she could not qualify when she sought to receive full monastic ordination at Taipei’s Lin Chi Temple several months later. These circumstances brought her into 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 come to a close, there was little time for more than a simple instruction to the young novice, “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 first settled, was undeveloped and impoverished. Dharma Master Cheng Yen and her monastic disciples supported themselves by sewing baby shoes, making concrete sacks into smaller animal feed bags, knitting sweaters, and raising 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. Dharma Master Cheng Yen was told that the blood was from an indigenous woman suffering from labor complications. Her family had carried her from their mountain village. They had been walking for eight hours, but when they arrived at the hospital, they did not have the NT$8,000 (then US$200) required fee. 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 had a discussion on the teachings of their respective religions. When Dharma Master Cheng Yen explained that Buddhism teaches love and compassion for all living beings, the nuns commented: Why have we not seen Buddhists doing good works for the society, such as setting up nursing homes, orphanages, and hospitals? The nuns’ message struck a deep chord with Dharma Master Cheng Yen. 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. Dharma Master Cheng Yen considered: What if her disciples sold one extra pair of baby shoes per day? What if the thirty housewives that listened to her teachings could donate NT 50 cents (approximately US 1 cent) per day? In one year’s time, she calculated, they would have enough money to have saved that indigenous woman. A small concerted effort, she realized, over time could make an enormous difference!
Thus, Dharma Master Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi. Fashioning coin banks out of bamboo, she asked her lay followers to drop a NT 50 cent coin into the bamboo bank every day before going to the market. “Why not simply donate NT$15 each month?” one follower asked. The amount was the same in dollars, Dharma Master Cheng Yen replied, but very different in spirit. Dharma Master Cheng Yen 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 who were responsible for collecting donations. Commissioners 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 Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s true mission. Dharma Master Cheng Yen deeply believes that all people are capable of the same great compassion as the Buddha. True compassion, however, is not just having sympathy for another’s suffering—it is to reach out to relieve that suffering with concrete actions. In founding Tzu Chi, Dharma Master Cheng Yen wished to give ordinary citizens the chance to actualize this compassion, which will bring inner peace and happiness to the individual and pave the way for world peace and harmony. 3,019 views