The worldwide nonprofit spiritual organization Tzu Chi spreads a mission and a message.
In Southern California and beyond, the worldwide nonprofit organization Tzu Chi spreads the message that giving awakens kindness and love in our hearts. Master Cheng Yen is the founder and leader of the Tzu Chi Buddhist charity organization.
Over the past five decades, Tzu Chi has dedicated itself to the missions of disaster relief, charity, medicine, education, and humanistic culture. The focus of these is to offer material aid and psychological support to those in need, spiritual and moral guidance through education, in addition to protecting the environment and providing international disaster relief.
Wherever Tzu Chi goes, good health, peace and love follow closely. As part of their worldwide mission, they are hosting a series of inspiring evenings through the Charity Art Performance Tour. The tour will be coming to LA on October 1.
In Chinese, tzu means compassion, and chi relief. Tzu Chi’s mission includes eight categories called One step, eight footprints. Its mobile food pantry travels to impoverished communities in California weekly, benefiting 20,000 families annually.
Around 900 inmates have received spiritual support through books, magazines, and over 1,200 letters that were answered, offering guidance towards a meaningful life of helping others. A Tzu Chi principle is that illness, while creating pain, can become the root of poverty as well, which is why the organization makes it part of its mission to offer quality and free medical care.
The Compassionate History of Tzu Chi
The organization was founded when the devoted Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, was moved by the pain and misery she saw around her. She made a powerful commitment to help the poor and relieve suffering.
She collaborated with five other female disciples and thirty housewives. In order to fund their work, the disciples made and sold baby shoes while the housewives set aside some of the money that they had for food. Their mandate: to help the poor and ill with love, joy, compassion.
The footprint of Tzu Chi’s work at the forefront of disaster relief and poverty reduction has spread throughout the world, reaching 94 countries. They have over 10 million volunteers and supporters worldwide, the volunteers serving with steadfast dedication, grateful for the opportunity to provide relief that people can always count on.
Sharing Charity through Art
In advance of the Thousands of Helping Hands Charity Art Performance Tour, we sat down with the Tzu Chi’s CEO, Dr. Han Huang, to learn more about this inspiring organization, its vision, and initiatives.
LA YOGA: We understand that businessman Stephen Huang was inspired to bring the work of Tzu Chi to the United States in part by Taiwan-based Master Cheng Yen‘s emphasis on work and self-sufficiency as part of a spiritual organization. This is demonstrated in how the organization was founded and operates, the fact that she built six hospitals in Taiwan, and spreads the message of service.
Tzu Chi: Yes, yes. I think most people are pretty amazed by that.
LA YOGA: Was Master Cheng Yen’s commitment to medical care inspired in part by what drew her to the dharma, her mother’s surgery, personal challenges, and her father’s death?
TC: We have to go back 50 plus years ago, when she, well there are a few things, a few reasons that she really wanted to set up the foundation. One of them is that she went to a local hospital, it was a hospital, but the scale was in no way comparable to what we have here.
She saw some sort of blood on the floor and then she asked around, “What happened? Why is there blood on the floor?” And then, this lady told her “There is a lady, she had a difficult time to deliver the baby.” There are some residents in the mountains in Taiwan, and it’s difficult for them to travel so they are carried down the mountain.
But then this lady had a hard time delivering her baby and she didn’t have the money to pay the required deposit, so the hospital refused to take care of her. Then they had to hand carry her back, which means that she would just die with the baby.
Master Cheng Yen heard this story and she was so shocked, and she asked, “How could this happen?” But it was a policy of the hospital at the time, and pretty much in all of Taiwan. She was afflicted with grief and sensed the importance of financial support in times of critical need. This incident turned into the catalyst that prompted her to set up a charity.
Master Cheng Yen established the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. Her dedication and determination to change medical care and her commitment to medical care is what drew her to the dharma.
Some other experiences that strengthened her commitment include when she witnessed the suffering of sickness and pain while caring for her debilitated brother in the hospital for months. When her mother needed a risky operation, she prayed and offered to give up years of her own life in exchange for her mother’s health. Her mother recovered without surgery.
Master Cheng Yen’s spiritual calling intensified when her father died and she was left bereaved and full of questions about the meaning of life. The shock and trauma of her father’s death marked a turning point in her life. She began to search for the truths behind life and death, and often visited a Buddhist temple in her hometown to study the Buddhist sutras and to seek answers to her questions.
After her father’s death, she ran away from home to become a Buddhist nun, needing to expand the love for her family to all of humanity. The conditions there were harsh, but her commitment to the Dharma only grew stronger. Her auspicious first contact with Buddha Dharma at this crucial moment offered the wisdom and guidance she was seeking.
Tzu Chi Spreads the Dharma through Compassionate Action
LA YOGA: It sounds like these experiences strengthened her resolve to focus on healthcare as a means of reducing suffering and making a difference. It looks like healthcare is one of the missions of Tzu Chi in the US. What are some of the ways in which this commitment is implemented?
Tzu Chi: In 1993 we had the first clinic, a free clinic in Alhambra, not far from where we are speaking now in El Monte. If patients can prove that their monthly income is below the federal poverty line, they are qualified to receive free medical and dental care. We decided to do a health fair in San Bernardino.
From that we expanded and we developed a portable unit for dental care. We developed a dental bus with two dental chairs, X-rays, everything that a dentist would need. You could even do some light surgery in the van. This progressed from supporting a Dental Van to offering a Vision Van with same-day glasses.
We have a program called See 2 Succeed which is a collaboration of community partners such as, Kaiser Permanente, CalViva Health, Health Net, Eye-Q Center, and many more. Tzu Chi’s Vision Mobile Clinic is serving 10 school districts in Fresno County with the support of community grants and in-kind support.
LA YOGA: What are some of the reasons why people volunteer for Tzu Chi and do you have any stories about the impact of this work on the volunteers themselves?
Tzu Chi: I think they volunteer for the Foundation because we are a faith-based foundation. There is a philosophy behind volunteering. Our volunteers came here to Tzu Chi not just to help; they also want to learn and improve their lives. Some of our volunteers, volunteer with their kids from when they are in primary school until they are teenagers.
The work they do has an impact on their own lives. For example, a group traveled across the border to Tijuana to volunteer for our health fair, and when they came back their attitude completely changed. Now they appreciate everything they have.
LA YOGA: Oh they’re in gratitude.
Tzu Chi: Yes, and the parents are very happy about it because somehow through this opportunity of volunteering the kids learn that the most important thing is to really appreciate everything that you have. The kids especially learn this through volunteer work.
LA YOGA: We understand that Tzu Chi USA began by mobilizing volunteers, then hosting tea parties where they could share their thoughts, experiences, and joy of volunteering. The events quickly inspired the creation of additional chapters gaining supporters.
Today, Tzu Chi USA has more than 60 service centers, with over 100,000 volunteers working to make a difference in their communities. It sounds like the movement has gained traction with the Chinese and Taiwanese communities in the US. How is Tzu Chi reaching beyond their roots to connect with a wide variety of people?
Tzu Chi: Yes, that’s a very good question. That’s the thing that I am trying to work on now. I think every foundation has its history, its story to being with. But I think it’s time that we should think about how we invite more people to participate.
We want to reach out to people who are looking for a philosophy, message, and work that involves the mind, body, and spirit. We are spreading our vision and message through publications such as LA Yoga and other media and talk radio, sharing the spirit of Tzu Chi, which inspires the heart, encourages putting compassion into action, and advocates giving as a way of life.
LA YOGA: In addition to the initiatives such as the Back To School Kick- Off, what are some other Southern California-based programs run by Tzu Chi?
Tzu Chi: Some of the other Southern California-based programs run by Tzu Chi include individual aid cases, disaster relief, Happy Campus Program, mobile food pantries, free medical services, job referrals, charity distributions, character education, and scholarships. There is a lot of variety in the work that we do.
LA YOGA: You mentioned being a faith-based organization and one focused on body, mind, and spirit. What are some of the teachings that are integral to the organization and the mission?
Tzu Chi: Gratitude, Respect and Love. Especially Love.
We are a foundation based on love, and encourage people to take care of others, and to give without asking for anything in return.
LA YOGA: Does Master Cheng Yen share dharma teachings with her students and members of the organization?
Tzu Chi: Yes. Every day in the morning, she offers a sutra teaching. You can listen online here.
You can watch Tzu Chi Teachings related to the spirit of gratitude here.
LA YOGA: Is there any emphasis placed on a daily or personal practice? How is the charity work influenced by the dharma teachings?
Tzu Chi: It is a daily practice. Here is a typical example how our charity work is influenced by dharma, say when we do disaster relief. We will give those impacted some blankets typically because the weather is cold, and then we give them some kind of emergency financial aid, ($300 or $500 depending on the size of the family), and perhaps a hot meal, or some kind of easy to eat nutritious food.
But the manner in which we offer this aid is integral to our practice. The typical way our volunteers deliver items to people is to hand things to them with a 90 degree bow. Through this gesture, we want demonstrate our respect.
We want to show that people care, we care. We want to send the message to people not to give up because a lot of people care, we don’t even know who you are but we’re here! We want to give the message, “Don’t give up, just keep going, we know that you are suffering and we do what we can do to help. The point is you, don’t give up, because we don’t give up, so you don’t give up, just keep going, you’ll be fine.” Hopefully by doing that we encourage and inspire people.
Tzu Chi’s Thousands of Helping Hands Charity Art Performance
LA YOGA: Los Angeles hosts the Charity Arts Performance on October 1. What is the connection of the upcoming Charity Art Performance series with the mission of the organization?
Tzu Chi: The Thousands of Helping Hands Charity Art Performance features the astonishing artistry of the world-renowned China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe ( CDPPAT )
Tzu Chi: They may be visually, hearing, or physically impaired, but they’re able to move, dance, keep a rhythm, and do so much more because of how they inspire others. The message here is that “Everybody can contribute.” Hopefully this can serve as an inspiration to everyone.
The world can use more helping hands to join together and do good deeds on behalf of those in need in their communities and beyond.
Right now, Tzu Chi has truly taken the suffering resulting from Hurricane Harvey to heart. We mobilized an extensive disaster relief mission for this catastrophe, which has begun, and will continue for some time.
But then Hurricane Irma appeared on the horizon. Our mission will simply embrace this disaster as well.
When it comes to love, there are no boundaries, no limits, and no obstacles that can’t be overcome. That’s what every Tzu Chi volunteer believes and practices daily. In a way, we’re planting seeds of compassion in each aid recipient too – because we have seen how those who receive unconditional love, are then motivated to give and to pass it on to others. It’s a beautiful thing, it really is.
Let’s come together and do more for society! May these two hands that we each possess, and our activities, help others. It feels great, and what greater meaning is there to life, than that – being of benefit to others.
LA YOGA: We are inspired by the mission and work of Tzu Chi. Please support this work by attending the Charity Art Performance to celebrate and support.
To learn more about the Tzu Chi Foundation click here.